Edelman Berland, an analyst firm, conducted studies to see what people in the United States thought about food production. I shared several of their findings in a previous article. I would like to continue the conversation.
One of the areas I haven’t shared yet was what surveyed consumers felt about the environment and agriculture. In their summary, Edelman Berland stated, “There are very mixed and uncertain views about the environmental impact of increased food production. There is a belief that more water and land should be used but a limited understanding of the consequences of doing so.” Let’s talk about land. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service is the organization that has tracked major land use since 1946. Every five years, the number of acres is reported in the following categories: planted crops; pasture and grazing land; forestland; special use (airports, parks, wildlife areas, national defense areas, industrial lands); urban areas and miscellaneous. The U.S. land area covers nearly 2.3 billion acres. There should be enough land for farmers to produce the food we need to feed our country and help out other countries. All land is not created equal, though. Wikipedia defines prime farmland as having “an adequate and dependable water supply from precipitation or irrigation, a favorable temperature and growing season, acceptable acidity or alkalinity, acceptable salt and sodium content, and few or no rocks. They are permeable to water and air. They are not excessively erodible or saturated with water for a long period of time. And they either do not flood frequently or are protected from flooding.” It does sound like ideal conditions to grow crops. Most of these features are what builders and new homeowners are looking for as well.
Most of today’s major cities were founded in agriculturally rich areas. As the U.S. population grows, so do the cities. But not everyone wants to live in the city, so they move out into the suburbs or even further out into “the country” while they commute back to the city for work. This is called urban sprawl, and it contributes to the loss of prime farmland. ERS statistics show that farmland decreased by 7 million acres in the five-year period from 2007 to 2012. No one held a gun to the owner of that farmland and made them sell. So why did they? Well, maybe the farmer died or just wanted to retire. Most times, there is someone in the next family generation that chooses to continue farming, but there are plenty of times that is not the case. So, why doesn’t another farmer buy it? Prim farmland is valuable. Brief research told me that $7,000 per acre is probably a realistic starting value. In current market conditions, farmers can expect a maximum of 3 percent rate of return on their investment.
There are fewer farmers every year. Are the remaining farmers or those trying to start farming willing to take the risk and are they able to get the financing? Then, factor in pressure from urban sprawl. A developer sees an opportunity and is willing to pay $14,000 or more per acre because he can get a much higher return on his investment. the farmer is outbid and the land grows houses and not crops. Farming is not a business you jump into or jump out of. Once the land has been diverted from agriculture to another use, it seldom ever becomes productive farmland again. Farming more land to produce more food is not an easy thing to do.
Why am I telling you all of this? You have enough to eat and you don’t care about feeding the world. Hopefully, through this farm column we can give you an idea of what it takes to produce the food you eat. What many fail to consider is how important agriculture is to the U.S. beyond food production. What would happen to the U.S. economy if agriculture is reduced or removed? What would food availability look like or what would it cost? Whether you believe is or not, agriculture is important to you!
Mary Smallsreed is a member of the Trumbull County Farm Bureau and writes these articles for On the Farm for the Warren Tribune Chronicle.