War Between Bulldozer and Plow-losing American Farm Land

It has been called the war between the bulldozer and the plow. The plow is losing. Every year, about 1 million acres of prime farmland and 2 million acres of lesser quality agricultural land are being converted to such non-farm uses as urban development, shopping centers and highways. The Tellico Dam in Tennessee, criticized as uneconomic and unnecessary by government and private economists, will take out more than 17,000 acres of prime farmland.

Three million acres a year–an area almost the size of Connecticut–adds up to a fast approaching crisis. Food production is the most important basis of our economy; in addition, millions of hungry people in the world rely on the United States being able to produce more food than it consumes. The stakes, both domestically and internationally, are enormous.

Yet the bulldozer moves forward relentlessly into our farmlands without meeting the restraining force of a land ethic. Years ago, Hugh H. Bennett, first administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Soil Conservation Service, made the primordial point: “Acres are aces. A richer prize, by far, than the oil lands of the Caucasus, the iron deposits of the Urals and the gold veins of South Africa, they are the most important of man’s earthly possessions.”

Far from having a land ethic to protect the farmlands, our country’s laws induce or force farmers to sell to developers. Tax laws, for example, have long been recognized as advancing this trend.

Fortunately, a new effort to increase public concern over the loss of farmland and its many benefits is under way. The National Agricultural Lands Study, established in June 1979, will be holding public hearings in more than a dozen cities throughout the country in the next few months to receive evidence and suggestions about what should be done. Eleven government agencies are participating in this study; so should concerned citizens, consumer groups, farmers and others interested in avoiding what Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland calls a “collision course with disaster.” (Write to the National Agricultural Lands Study, 722 Jackson Place N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006 for the hearing schedule in the city nearest you, and for further information.)

One challenge is to avoid the collision by directing urban development to less productive acres and protecting the irreplaceable prime farmlands from being overwhelmed or paved over.

Actually, there is considerable action already under way at the state level. State agencies authorized to buy development rights for farms to prevent these lands from being converted are increasing in number and scope. A major farmland inventory by the USDA will supply key data to state and local officials about acres which are irreplaceable for food and fiber.

Farmers have long and rightly contended that city folk take agriculture for granted without understanding just how critical it is for our prosperity, employment, recreation, housing, flood control, water use, and many aesthetic and cultural values. But even were these values to be recognized, affirmed and advocated widely, the power struggle between private property rights and public property rights will not be averted.

To be sure, some dimensions of this struggle can be avoided simply by putting better knowledge to work. Alternative land use techniques and architecture are illustrative. Removing tax and other reverse incentive systems which take farmlands out of production and into real estate or other developments is another approach. But when people need food and industry needs fiber; when the economy cannot tolerate rocketing food prices and a less productive use of land, the pressures to make a public trust part of the private farmlands will mount.

How best to accomplish this objective is the reason for the national discussion about to be launched by the National Agricultural Lands Study. It is important that citizens from all walks of life participate in these hearings, workshops and other activities. (You can be sure the special economic interests, which are consuming the farmlands, will be present.) For, as Woody Guthrie put it so memorably: “This land is your land, this land is my land…this land was made for you and me.”

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