Squandering A Bumper Crop Of Farmland

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by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

The last few weeks have brought the fresh taste of high quality, locally grown fruits and vegetables to many New Jerseyans. The Garden State still produces some of the best tomatoes and corn in the world! We should all take note, however, of a new inventory of our disappearing farmland nationwide.

Since 1982, the National Resources Inventory (NRI) has become the most comprehensive natural resource database in the nation. It is conducted each year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in cooperation with Iowa State University. The inventory documents natural resource conditions and trends for America’s lands. The 2007 inventory includes a quarter-century of data, and the trend lines are stark.

NATIONAL FINDINGS

In the last 25 years, America lost over 41 million acres of rural land to development. That’s an area about the size of Illinois and New Jersey combined. The inventory defines “rural land” as active agricultural land, plus forest and other rural land. Of the land lost to development, 56% (23,163,500 acres) were active agricultural lands.

Active agricultural lands include those used for crops, pasture and range. Over 4,080,000 acres of active farmland were developed in just the last five years of the study. That’s an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.

Much of this lost farmland is some of the nation’s best. “Best” is defined as prime farmland –having soils suited to produce food and other agricultural crops with the fewest inputs and least soil erosion.

Every state in the nation lost prime farmland. The biggest losers in total acres were Texas (1.5 million acres), Ohio (796,000 acres), North Carolina (766,000 acres), California (616,000 acres) and Georgia (566,000 acres).

So what about New Jersey? When you factor in the size of our state, farmland losses are alarming. New Jersey ranks 4th among the 50 states in the percentage of prime farmland lost. The Garden State has lost a whopping 30% of our best farmland, behind Arizona (which lost 36%), Nevada (34%) and New Mexico (33%).

Overall, the Inventory data shows a loss of 695,000 acres of rural lands in New Jersey. That’s more than the land area of Atlantic and Sussex Counties combined.

These trends must be stopped if we want to preserve our food security and quality, and our agricultural economy and rural heritage.

To help stop this trend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has farmland preservation matching grant funds. Fortunately, New Jerseyans understand the value of our prime farmlands and natural areas, and voted to spend $400 million to replenish the Garden State Preservation Trust. The Christie Administration has honored that vote by continuing these critical preservation programs, which are currently the only viable means we have of stopping the loss of our vital farmlands.

You can view the 2007 Natural Resources Inventory Summary Report at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/NRI/, and check back there for more detailed land use data coming soon. And I hope you will consult NJCF’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources.


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