A study report to the Citizens Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality – The Loss Of Agricultural Land | 1974


By Roger Blobaum, 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C.   20006


Article excerpt: “The terms “urban,” “suburban,” and “rural” seemed to denote separate worlds where dependence upon each other was obviously acknowledged but not consciously inter­twined.” R. Blobaum


The Citizens1 Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality was estab­lished by Executive Order 11472 of May 29, 1969, which reconstituted the earlier Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty originally created in 1966.  Under the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, President Ford renewed the Committee’s charter by Executive Order 11827 of January 4, 1975.

Under the terms of the Executive Orders, the Committee is to advise the President on matters pertaining to environmental quality.  In addition, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (Public Law 91-190) provides that the Council on Environmental Quality, which was established by the Act, shall consult with the Citizens’ Advisory Committee.  Thus, the Committee is advisory to both the President and the Council.

Land use problems have been a major concern of this Committee. We established a Task Force on Land Use and Urban Growth, and its report, THE USE OF LAND, was published in 1973.  One of the major issues which emerged from our work was the loss of agricultural land and its effects upon the environmental quality of the Nation.

In the summer of 1974, therefore, the Committee retained Roger Blobaum as a consultant to make a special study of the problem.  The findings of that study confirm the seriousness of the situation and the need to do something about it.  The study report prepared by Mr. Blobaum served as a major source of infor­mation for a chapter on “The Loss of Agricultural Land” in the Committee’s 1974 REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT AND THE COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY.

Because of its potential interest to citizens and public officials who may wish to pursue the subject further, the Committee is publishing in this volume the complete study report prepared by Mr. Blobaum.  The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Committee.


Where We Stand Today
Changing Views About Agricultural Land
Agricultural Land Capacity
Agricultural Land Use
Severe Erosion Problems and Land Abandonment
State Studies of Land Loss
Urban Growth Momentum
Recreation Home Land Boom
Land Consumed by Highways and Other Public Services
Strip Mining
Western Energy Development
Fertilizer Use
Farm Exports
Marginal Land
Water Availability
Technological Inputs
Specialty Crops
Impact on Farm Economy
Impact on Public Service Costs
Purchase of Development Rights
Agricultural Districts
Coastal Zone Management
Development Controls
Future Needs Projections


Where We Stand Today

American agriculture is one of this Nation’s strongest assets.  We enjoy an envied role as a leader in world food production, and the benefits this abundance brings to most of our citizens contribute in great measure to our high standard of living and well-being.

It is unfortunately true that until recently, agriculture’s significant contribution to our society has for the most part been taken for granted.  The terms “urban,” “suburban,” and “rural” seemed to denote separate worlds where dependence upon each other was obviously acknowledged but not consciously inter­twined.  This perception of the separateness of American agriculture has been held not only by its practitioners, who traditionally have guarded their inde­pendence, but also by most people in cities and suburbs, who were not overly interested in the details of food production beyond the availability of items appearing on supermarket shelves.

These perceptions are neither realistic nor sufficient for us any longer. We cannot afford to sustain them.  The reason why we all must begin to share our views and work out our life styles together is that we face an increasing problem that threatens us all.  The United States is continuing to lose its agricultural land to development.  The net loss of this agricultural land, which has been going up in recent years, now runs around 1.4 million acres a year.

The issues involved here are multi-faceted.  They include the avail­ability and price of food to consumers, the role of the United States as a major exporter of agricultural products, the building of new homes to accommodate our growing population, the use by agriculture of increasing amounts of our current energy supply, and the effect on agricultural lands of the search for new energy sources.  In sum, agricultural concerns are really broader concerns, many of which have environmental overtones.  Thus, they must be absolutely essential ingredients in any local, State, or Federal land-use policy.

This report presents the results of a special study requested by the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality to examine the insidious loss of our agricultural land.

Basically, the study indicates that the problem is underestimated by Federal officials and by most State governments, although there is evidence of rapidly increasing attention by additional States and by some local governments.

Good agricultural land, like other natural resources, is finite.  We do not have a limitless amount available, and thus we cannot afford its loss. Urban development, for one, is increasing at a rapid rate, leading to predictions that it will consume the equivalent of the total areas of New Hampshire, Vermont. Massachusetts, and Rhode Island over the next 25 years.  Additional agricultural land is being consumed by strip mining, reservoirs, highways, and other develop­ment.

Because we in the United States have not formulated policies, agricultural land decisions are being left to speculators, developers, some local groups, and others who view land as a commodity.  Little thought is given to finding ways to alleviate factors that force agricultural land conversion or to placing a high priority on preserving land for agricultural production.

This situation cannot continue.  Recent events have shown us that to do nothing is in fact to do something — to increase the loss of an irre­trievably precious resource upon which this country and the world strongly depend.

Changing Views About Agricultural Land

The United States began the 1970’s with an apparent abundance of good agricultural land, controls on crop production, a declining birth rate, and a desire to sell more of its farm output in world markets.

Surpluses of major commodities had piled up during the 1960’s, and as many as 60 million acres were held out of production in a single year. This led to an assumption that the Nation’s supply of crop land and capacity to produce were virtually unlimited and that there was no pressing need to prevent conversion of agricultural land to other uses.

Although warnings about possible world food shortages had been sounded in the mid-1960’s, they were dismissed for the most part.  The resulting com­placency was reinforced by reports concluding that increasing production effi­ciency, declining population growth, and plenty of water and good land ensured the Nation’s food needs over the next 25 years with enough left over for exports and other purposes.

A series of dramatic and unexpected events that began unfolding in 1972, however, raised questions about the validity of these conclusions. Large foreign grain sales, representing a sizeable boost over 1971 and a 37 percent increase over the 1968-1971 average, were made, including massive sales over a period of several weeks in late summer that virtually depleted the Nation’s reserves.

Strong foreign demand continued in 1973, making it clear the situation was changing. Acreage controls were eased in an attempt to increase production, and nearly all the land idled under Federal programs was brought back into production.  These changing conditions were reflected in the 1973 Agricultural Act, which gave the Secretary of Agriculture greater flexibility in determining whether the land-withholding program was needed and established target price guarantees designed to stimulate all-out wheat and feed grain production.

As these events took shape, the Nation was jolted by an energy crisis that convinced the public that petroleum had critical uses extending far beyond the corner service station. One was a food production system with a growing appetite for energy — an appetite that included gasoline and other petroleum products needed to power and lubricate tractors, harvesters, and other farm machinery; natural gas used to manufacture fertilizer; propane used to dry grain; and electricity to operate milking machines and other equipment.

Competing for public attention was a deteriorating international situation.  The balance of payments problem was still critical after two devaluations of the dollar, and an even higher level of farm exports was call« for to help pay for imported oil that had quadrupled in price.

The Nation also continued to receive grim news regarding hundreds oi millions of hungry people in poor and drought-stricken areas of a world that is expected to double in population over the next 25 years.  The Agriculture Committee of the House of Representatives reported that the world demand for cereals was expanding by 30 million tons per year by 1970 — the equivalent of the annual wheat crops of Canada, Australia, and Argentina.  The hope of reach ing a world food production growth rate of 4 percent a year, a United Nations target, will be difficult to attain in view of rising oil prices, bad weather, fertilizer shortages, and other unexpected problems.

The World Hunger Action Coalition, organized in 1974 by a number of nongovernment organizations working in the relief and development fields, reported that the Sahara Desert is moving south at the rate of 30 miles a year that global grain reserves are nearly depleted, and that the world is entering a period of food scarcity of immense proportions and indefinite duration.

A rapid rise in food prices at home during this period has probably done the most to help stimulate public awareness of how important agriculture is in a nation that has taken food abundance for granted.  The most serious question to be raised is whether enough land and other resources are available to meet all these requirements that events have thrust upon us.


Although the United States has more than 2.2 billion acres of land, only about 1.4 billion is non-Federal land available for agricultural use. Nearly half of this non-Federal land is considered marginal or worse because it is too steep, has soil that is too wet or shallow, has a short growing season, is too susceptible to erosion, or has other serious cropping limitation

Because of individual landowner decisions, most but not all of the good agricultural land is utilized for crop production; and most but not all of the crop production is on the good agricultural land that is available.

To understand the status of our Nation’s agricultural land base, we must look at two factors:  the capability of the land itself and the use to which the land is put.  For this information we have turned primarily to the National Inventory of Soil and Water Conservation Needs, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and issued in 1967 by its Soil Conservation Service (SCS).1

Agricultural Land Capability

The land capability classification is a reliable indicator because it is based on the type of soil involved, its hazards and limitations when put to various uses, and its response to treatment.  The capability groupings range from Class I, which has few limitations and a low risk of erosion or other damage, to Class VIII, which is suitable only for recreation and wildlife.

On the basis of capability, the Inventory shows only 631 million acres in Classes I-III, which are those suitable for regular cultivation. Another 180 million acres of land are in Class IV, which is considered un­suitable for regular cultivation, although it could be used to produce certain crops if absolutely necessary.  Even with extensive land treatment and careful management, it would not return high yields.  Several acres of this land class would be required to produce the crops that can be grown on one acre of Class I land.

The remaining 627 million acres are in Classes V-VIII and are con­sidered extremely marginal for crop production. This land is suitable for range pasture, forest, and wildlife areas.

Of the 631 million acres suitable for regular cultivation, only 47 mil lion acres are left in the Class I category — land with nearly level fields and soils that are deep, well-drained, resistant to erosion, and easily worked. This “prime” agricultural land is highly productive, suitable for intensive cropping, and irreplaceable.  It also is the type sought out for urban expansion because it offers few, if any, constraints on developers.

Agricultural Land Use

The use patterns category is nothing more than a report of what owners were doing with their land in 1967 when the SCS Inventory was completed.  It shows that 438 million acres were in cropland, 482 million acres in pasture, and 462 million acres in forest.  The 438 million acres in cropland included 365 million acres suitable for regular cultivation, 50 million acres suitable for limited cultivation, and 23 million acres considered extremely marginal cultivation but utilized to some degree.

What this Inventory points out is that it is not possible to make a direct correlation in all cases between land in a certain class and its use. Primarily because of landowner preferences, some land highly suitable for cropping is not being farmed, while some land unsuitable for cultivation is being cropped.  Some good land not being farmed is in small parcels cut off by a river or other barrier or in hilly areas where it is part of a larger pasture or forest unit.  Some of the 23 million acres of unsuitable land is worked by individuals who have only a small amount of land and till what they have.  Other land considered unsuitable for cultivation is used for fruit and nut crop pro­duction, which in many instances is within its capability.

A more recent report on crop land use, prepared in 1973 from USDA and Bureau of the Census information, shows that 318 million acres produced crops that were actually harvested.2 Another five million acres were in crops that failed because of drought or other hazards, 31 million acres were in cul­tivated summer fallow, and 28 million acres were idled or in soil improvement crops.  The balance of land in the cropland category that year was used for pasture.

Severe Erosion Problems and Land Abandonment

Less than half the Nation’s 631 million acres of good land in Classes I-III is well cared for.  The balance has serious production limitations due to lack of treatment needed to protect it from erosion and other damage. Badly needed are terracing, establishment of grassed waterways, contouring, and other soil-conserving practices.

The Soil Conservation Service estimates that more than 3.5 billion tons of soil is lost each year through erosion on privately owned land. However, it reports that the amount of land in the adequately treated category has risen from 35 percent in 1965 to nearly 50 percent now.

The Department of Agriculture also is attempting to shift several million acres of badly eroded cultivated land in the Great Plains into permanent grassland.  So far, about 2 million acres have been converted, and data gathered in 1967 showed another 6 million should be put back to grass.

Continued irrigation of farm land in areas without adequate drainage to flush irrigation water below the root systems of crops also is producing serious salinity buildups that can make soil sterile.3 Deep tile systems help keep the salinity problem under control in areas where there is sufficient water to flush the salts.

These situations warrant additional Federal action in two areas: increased public support for the improvement of conservation practices and increased data collection on soils. USDA for many years has shared with land­owners the cost of terracing and other permanent soil conservation practices. These were justified on the grounds that the public benefits of soil and water management on farms often outweigh those received by the landowner.  Recent surveys, however, show that a substantial portion of the Nation’s best cropland still needs extensive treatment to control soil loss.

Implementation of an agricultural land preservation effort requires basic natural resources data from the National Cooperative Soil Survey, which the Soil Conservation Service is carrying out in all the States.  The funding level for fiscal year 1975 is $25 million.  At this rate, however, it will be sometime in the 1980’s before the Survey is completed.  Concern about the need to accelerate completion of this Survey was also expressed by USDA’s Public Advisory Committee on Soil and Water Conservation in its annual meeting in November 1974.

Finally, a substantial amount of agricultural land, much of it used in the past for cotton, has been abandoned or converted to grass or trees in the southeastern part of the Nation. Most of this land is no longer farmed be­cause it is low in fertility, is too hilly, or is in fields too small for modern machinery.

Helping to offset these losses are about a million acres a year of new land being brought into production. Most of it is the result of drainage/ irrigation projects in Florida; drainage and clearing in the Delta; expanded irrigation in California, Washington, and the Texas High Plains; and clearing, leveling, and drainage in the Corn Belt.


If the current estimates prove correct, we are going to build in the United States as much in the next 25 years of this century as we have in the Nation’s entire history. Before the year 2000, according to material developed by the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, urban development will consume additional lands equal to the total areas of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.4 Each decade, it is estimated, this growth will take an area greater than the State of New Jersey.

The Urban Land Institute has reported similar findings, estimating that the land area of designated urban regions will increase from 196,958 square miles in 1960 to 486,902 square miles by the year 2000, or from 6.6 per­cent of the total land area of the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) to 16.4 percent.5

These figures have tremendous significance for crop production if we continue to rely heavily upon agricultural land as one of the bases for this growth.  As previously mentioned, the net loss of agricultural land, which has been going up in recent years, now runs around 1.4 million acres a year.  One study of this problem concluded that land in urbanized areas alone increased from 27.2 million acres in 1960 to 34.2 million in 1970, with about half of this representing conversion of crop land.6 During the first four years of the 1970’s, the loss rate has been even higher.

State Studies of Land Loss

The most illustrative of the trends toward increasing agricultural land loss are to be found in studies made in States, mainly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where major concern over the loss of such land has led to attempts to preserve what is left.

A study prepared in 1972 for the California Legislature showed that the State was losing agricultural land at the rate of 134,000 acres a year in 1972, up from an average annual conversion of less than 100,000 acres 10 years earlier.7 The State Environmental Council estimated in 1972 that if agricul­tural land conversion continues to increase at this rate, over three fourths of California’s agricultural land will be gone within 30 years.

A 1973 Vermont study shows that active farms now occupy less than one third of the State’s land area, down from two thirds in 1945.8 Harvested cropland dropped from 15 percent of the State’s land area in 1949 to 9 percent by 1969.  A study of dairy farm purchases in Vermont in 1970-1971 shows that only 76 of the buyers in 350 farm sales continued these farms as operating unit

Other New England States have experienced the same trends.  Between 1959 and 1972 Connecticut lost half of its farms, and the actual farm acreage is continuing to decline yearly.  A recent report on the Connecticut situation commented that, “When a farm goes out of business, the land goes out of production. Much of that which goes out of production goes under concrete.” In announcing the establishment in

1973 of an Emergency Commission on Food, the Governor of Massachusetts said the State must reverse a 30-year trend which had resulted in virtual disappearance of its food production capability.*

The Blueprint Commission on the Future of New Jersey Agriculture in 1973 proposed a plan to retain 70 percent of the 1.5 million acres of cropland still remaining for agricultural use.10  At the time the plan was announced, it was reported that urban development was consuming another farm every other day.

Finally, a report from the State of Michigan in 1973 shows that the State had lost more than one third of its original base of 18 million acres of agricultural land over the last 30 years.11  Each year roughly 35,000 acres of prime farm land and another 50,000 acres of open and rural land are converted to a more intensive and usually urban-associated use. If this trend continues, the report concluded, Michigan will have only 2.5 million acres of agricultural land left by the year 2000.

Urban Growth Momentum

A significant amount of agricultural land is a prime target for urbanization.  It is estimated that about 17.2 percent of all U.S. farms are within the 242 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSA’s), putting them directly in the path of this urban expansion.

These units produce about 21 percent of the value of all agricultural products sold and about one fifth of the Nation’s food.12

As land values rise because of growing development potential, the burden of higher property taxes increases the pressure on owners to convert this good agricultural land to urban uses.  It should come as no surprise that this land is in demand.  The land consumed by urban development in most areas normally is level, well-drained soil that becomes available on a square mile grid pattern. An examination of air-photo index sheets used by the Soil Con­servation Service shows clearly how residential subdivisions utilize roads and highways in existence and spread over well-defined land areas that formerly were fields or entire farming units.

One study of urbanization of land in eight Western States specifically showed that a high proportion of the land urbanized was previously used for crop production — usually high-value, irrigated crops.13 It showed 464,000 acres consumed in 48 selected counties in an average span of 11 years, with crop land making up 361,980 acres of the total.  It also showed that the land was consumed for these purposes:  328,845 acres for dense residential; 62,115 for open residential; 26,190 for industrial; 17,160 for institutional; 16,235 for commercial; 10,770 for recreation; and 3,565 for airports.

Most land converted to urban uses is in huge metropolitan corridors where most of the Nation’s population growth has taken place the last 20 years. The outlook is for increasing pressure on available land there because these areas have strong, built-in growth momentum.

A major urban conversion indicator is the number of counties added to the Nation’s SMSA’s. A county is added to this category when a city within its boundaries grows to 50,000 or more. It is estimated that these urbanized counties added another 7 million acres to SMSA’s in the 10-year period ending in 1970. It is also estimated that about one third of an acre is urbanized per capita population increase in these areas, with about half of this area classified as crop land.

These trends are significant because more than two thirds of the Nation’s people are concentrated in these areas now, and an even greater pro­portion of the 80 million population increase expected by 2000 will live there. The result is increasing urban pressure on agricultural land that, as pointed out, produces about one fifth of the Nation’s food.

Recreation Home Land Boom

A tremendous amount of agricultural land also is involved in the activities of land developers who have been subdividing and selling staggering amounts of raw, rural acreage.  In New Mexico, for example, the Environmental Improvement Agency estimated in 1971 that well over 1 million acres had been staked out for “home sites.” This would be enough to house up to 8 million people, the agency said, several times more than the projected 1,336,000 ex­pected to live in the State 30 years from now.14 Movement of topsoil for roads and other development involved has destroyed thousands of acres of prime New Mexico land.

It is estimated that subdivided lots in California, located both on urban fringes and far out in the country, would support housing for growth anticipated in that State for as long as 300 years. This uncontrolled sub­dividing wastes vast amounts of land and stimulates urban conversion.

Nationally, the number of lots in registered recreation home land projects alone was estimated at more than 15 million in 1974 by the Office of Interstate Land Sales Registration of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.15  With unregistered subdivisions added, real estate brokers and government officials say the total may exceed 25 million.  It is significant that the demand for recreation homeland has declined since the energy crisis dramatized fuel shortages, and it is likely that sales peaked late in 1973, at least for the present time.

Although USDA has a report showing that about 2 million second homes had been constructed by 1965, the Department has no good figures on the impact on this trend on agricultural land.16  However, it is clear that recreation home land sales have been up sharply in rural areas adjacent to most large population centers, creating “exurbs” that often are converted from weekend to permanent retirement residences.

A report by the American Society of Planning Officials concludes that recreation land development invariably stimulates urbanization of the countryside, raises property taxes, leads to demands for new public services, and undermines the agricultural economy in areas where farming exists.17

Land Consumed by Highways and Other Public Services

What about the highway network needed to tie all these urban areas together? Streets and alleys at one time took about one third of the area in towns and cities.  It is likely that they take an even greater percentage now, with service roads and wide streets that handle traffic from the expressways that encircle and criss-cross most metropolitan areas.

The Economic Research Service of USDA reports that rural highways and roads cover about 21 million acres of land, including about 1 million con­sumed so far in building the interstate highway system, which is virtually completed. The construction of freeways, expressways, and highway relocations continue to take about 100,000 acres of agricultural land each year.18

The figures probably underestimate the total impact of the interstate highway system on agricultural land. Diagonal stretches of interstate across farm areas have unnecessarily ruined thousands of acres of prime farmland. These diagonal routings, all too common in rural areas, cut across farms and leave hundreds of small, odd-shaped fields too small or irregular to work efficiently.  One way to deal with this is Federal legislation to deny construc­tion funds for State road construction projects that use diagonal routings for highways across agricultural land when other less damaging routing is a reason­able alternative. Highway planners should avoid unnecessary routings over land that is needed for agricultural purposes.

The beltline systems that ring most of the Nation’s metropolitan areas expand boundaries of metropolitan growth, attracting strip development and helping commuters reach subdivisions even further out in the country. Areas between these highways and built-up city areas immediately become attractive for urban development.

In spite of the energy situation, demands for land to accommodate the automobile unfortunately may continue to increase. The Department of Trans­portation has projected a 50 percent increase in motor vehicle registrations in the 1970-1990 period and a 100 percent increase in miles traveled in urban areas.19  The agency also has estimated a need for approximately 18,000 miles of additional freeways and expressways within the boundaries of urbanized areas, compared with about 8,000 in 1968.

It is estimated that about 35,000 acres of agricultural land are taken annually by airport construction in rural areas. These large complexes, usually built out in the open country to take advantage of lower priced land and avoid city congestion, are almost always overtaken by urbanization.  It is estimated that airports serving the Nation’s cities now cover about 1.8 million acres of land.

Another use of land is about 14,000 disposal areas spread across the Nation to handle about three fourths of the residential, industrial, and insti­tutional waste. These areas average 34 acres in size and occupy about 476,000 acres, about half in areas of active agriculture. At the present rate of filling, it is estimated about 500 new disposal sites a year are required.

Substantial land also is flooded permanently each year by man-made impoundments. The total estimated by USDA at about 300,000 acres a year does not include deterioration of other crop land in nearby areas caused by recreation traffic connected with multiple-use projects.

It is estimated that large reservoirs now take up an area of well over 10 million acres, including much river bottomland that was excellent for crop production. There also are about 2 million farm ponds that occupy several million acres of land formerly used for crops or pasture.


Strip Mining

Coal has now become the resource that many people look to for a way out of our energy difficulties. However, coal often lies underneath agricultural land, and the effects of strip mining can be devastating.

The Economic Research Service, in a report issued in May 1974, said that about 4 million acres of rural land has been stripped so far, mainly in Illinois and Appalachia.20 In another 25 years, it reported, the total may add up to an area the size of Maryland.

Involved is land taken for excavations or pits, for waste or spoil disposal, and for mine access roads and exploration activities. In addition to ruining the land for agriculture in most instances, strip mining rips up ground aquifers and releases acids that pollute streams over a much wider area.

A big increase in strip mining would have a devastating land use impact. According to the Preliminary Report of the Ford Foundation Energy Policy Project, EXPLORING ENERGY CHOICES, “there is much more coal ultimately available by deep mining than by stripping, about 12 times as much.”21   Deep mining is decreasing, however, because of lower costs associated with stripping operations.

In 1950, only about one fifth of the Nation’s coal came from stripping operations.  Since then, this kind of mining has climbed steadily, according to a report prepared for the Council on Environmental Quality in 1972, and is now approaching 50 percent.22 This type of mining also is moving west, with the Illinois Basin now the leading area for stripped coal.

About three fourths of the Nation’s economically strippable coal re­serves lie in 13 States west of the Mississippi, including a substantial amount under agricultural States like Iowa and North Dakota. Much of this is low-sulfur coal, which is in great demand by utilities pressed by Federal pollution standards.

Western Energy Development

Much of the land involved in energy projects in the West is public domain, administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and has limited value for crops. But much of it provides grazing for an important cattle and sheep industry that also utilizes privately owned grasslands and irrigated hayfields, all of which would be damaged by strip mining.  Stripping also threatens to destroy agriculture in many rich river valleys in the West that are covered with highly productive irrigated farms.

It is clear that greatly accelerated energy-related activity will consume large amounts of agricultural land over the next 30 years and create unprecedented demands for scarce water resources in States west of the Mississippi.

This is sure to slow irrigation development and may even produce shortages of water for land already being irrigated, putting more pressure on land in the Midwest and elsewhere that has regular rainfall. These energy-related land losses must be considered as a major factor in dealing with the growing problem of agricultural land losses.

One blueprint for Western coal development is the North Central Power Study, issued by a group representing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and 35 major private and public electric power suppliers.23 It calls for development of coal and water resources in Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas for generation of vast amounts of electric power.

An analysis of the plan prepared for the Environmental Defense Fund showed that the 210 million tons of coal needed per year for the 50,000-megawatt level proposed for 1980 would require the companies to strip 10 to 30 square miles a year. At the 200,000-megawatt level, planned for the year 2000, land subjected to strip mining would be several times greater.  This has serious implications for food production because reclamation of stripped areas in semi-arid regions of the West appears economically infeasible with present technology.

These staggering land losses do not include areas needed for sites proposed in the North Central plan for coal gasification plants, for 42 huge generating plants throughout the region, or for the housing and other facilities for hundreds of thousands of new residents that mining and power development will attract. Nor do they include land needed for about 40 new hydroelectric installations of 100 megawatts or more and about 50 new pumped storage hydro­electric installations that the Federal Power Commission reports may be needed.

They also do not include requirements for the development of two new energy sources proposed for the West — geothermal and oil shale. This develop­ment, however, will be mainly on public land unsuitable for most agricultural purposes.  Nor do they include land requirements for large numbers of breeder-type nuclear power plants the Atomic Energy Commission estimates may be operating by 2000.

The figures also fail to consider the impact on irrigation of the transfer of tremendous amounts of scarce water now used by or committed to agriculture from this purpose to mining, power plant cooling, coal gasification, slurrying of coal for movement through pipelines, shale oil development, and other power-related uses.

The problem of generating plants, it should be pointed out, is not limited to the West.  In 1970 the Office of Science and Technology projected a need for 1,000 new electric generating plants across the Nation by 1990, with cooling ponds of an acre or more per megawatt or banks of cooling towers needed for each one.24 One example of such a plant is a 2,800-megawatt coal-burning plant being built by the Kansas Power & Light Company on 13,500 acres of agricultural land in northeast Kansas.  Included in the plan is a 3,000-acre reservoir and a 560-acre ash storage land fill.


If the Nation continues to allow urban and other development to consume its agricultural land over a long period, it appears inevitable that food and fiber shortages will develop.

Too many agricultural authorities, however, seem unconcerned about the possibility of major land losses. Recent studies indicate they are convinced that the Nation’s requirements can be met by continuing technological advances and productivity increases and that the number of acres of land available is not that important.

OUR LAND AND WATER RESOURCES, a major report issued in May 1974 by USDA’s Economic Research Service, is probably the most important of these studies. It was issued in response to a March 1974 memorandum from the Sec­retary of Agriculture and includes a number of basic assumptions regarding popu­lation, exports, water, and other variables.  Its projections go as high as 309 million acres of land needed for crops in the year 2000, well within the present inventory of good cropland available now to produce crops on a regular basis.

The report concludes that increasingly efficient production methods, a declining population growth rate, and abundant water and land with agricultural potential should ensure domestic food and fiber needs to the year 2000 and leave enough left over for exports and non-agricultural purposes.

An examination of these assumptions suggests they are subject to serious challenge in view of emerging energy, land use, and world developments. These emerging developments could upset the conclusions of that report in terms of pressure likely to build over the next 25 years on available agricultural land.

The following are some examples of important assumptions made by USDA and others in projecting future production requirements, along with an overview of important developments that may dictate a much different set of conditions regarding land use and allocation in the 1970’s and beyond.

Fertilizer Use

USDA puts heavy emphasis on increased use of inorganic fertilizers, even though prices increased 81 percent during the year ending September 15, 1974, and critical shortages are predicted for natural gas, a home-heating fuel that is also used in making nitrogen fertilizer.  Scientists have concluded that increased fertilizer use over the past 40 years has raised yields enough to allow an actual decrease in cultivated crops of about 50 million acres.

A National Academy of Sciences report issued in 1974 said that fertilizer applications predicted for 1980 range from a low of 23.1 million tons to a high of 30.9 million tons of nitrogen, phosphates, and potash, com­pared with about 16 million tons applied in 1970.26 The report said these projections assumed fertilizer prices would continue to decline and production capacity would be more than adequate to satisfy demand.

The sharp rise in fertilizer prices already has invalidated one of these assumptions, and predictions that domestic natural gas reserves may not last beyond the 1980’s threatens the other. Low natural gas supplies have forced production cutbacks already.

This has had a disproportionate impact on the price of anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen source derived from natural gas.  In another report, the Department of Agriculture reported this source had gone up in price to $229 a ton on September 15, 1974, compared to $92.50 a ton a year earlier. Nitrogen fertilizer production depends on ammonia, and ammonia production is dependent in the United States on natural gas as a feed stock to supply hydrogen.  It normally takes from 36,000 to 40,000 cubic feet of gas to produce a ton of ammonia.

Demands for more cutbacks in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of all fertilizer used, may occur when reserves begin running low.  This already has brought some problems for natural gas customers with low-priority ratings and “interruptible” service.  Increas­ing public awareness of the competition between such uses as home heating and fertilizer manufacturing might result in future fertilizer constraints and demands that manure and other types of natural fertilizer be substituted.

Studies at the University of Illinois concluded that the amount of corn that could be grown on 100 acres using 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre would require up to 300 acres with less or no fertilizer. The implications of a drastic cutback in the use of nitrogen fertilizer on cropland acreage, under present agricultural practices at least, would appear to be enormous.

Farm Exports

The USDA study projects only moderately increasing exports over the next 30 years despite the fact that farm exports jumped from a $12.9 billion level to $21.3 billion in the year that ended June 30, 1974. Yet, foreign sales are being pushed even higher in response to a deteriorating balance of payments situation caused by quadrupled crude oil import prices, and world food shortages caused by drought and unprecedented population growth are growing worse.

Huge foreign sales of grain in 1972 wiped out the Nation’s reserves and required production from 85 million acres, compared to acreage equivalents of 54 million in 1968, 61 million in 1969, 72 million in 1970, and 62 million in 1971.  Demand since has brought 44 million additional acres of crop land back into production and resulted in termination of production controls.

There is every reason to believe that foreign demand for U.S. grain will continue.  A recent House Agriculture Committee report concludes that most of the world’s good crop land is already under cultivation and that the estimated cost of reclaiming substantial new land would be phenomenal.

The highest export levels projected by the USDA study are up only 25 percent in 1980 and 75 percent in 2000 when another 3.5 billion people are expected to double the world’s population.27  The study estimates that 6 to 7 million acres of cropland are required for each $1 billion increase in farm exports.  Thus, even if these projections are understated by only $5 billion, certainly not a big difference in today’s world market, another 30 to 35 million acres of crop land would be required.

It is likely that this additional land would have to come from acreage outside the present inventory of crop land acres.  The amount needed would be considerably higher than the estimate of 30 million acres or more if water, fertilizer, and other technological inputs are limited and this additional production has to come from marginal land with limited productivity.

Continued conversion of agricultural land to other uses would appear to be most unwise in view of these possibilities. As a report prepared by the Western Agricultural Research Council points out, the comparative advantage that American agriculture enjoys in world trade is due in large part to the large areas of high-quality soils in the Midwest and to intensive irrigated agriculture in the West. It would seem to be in the public interest, the report suggests, to preserve the best of these agricultural lands for crop production.

Marginal Land

Most of the studies that suggest the United States has plenty of land for future needs put considerable emphasis on a reserve of 266 million acres of trees and grass that presumably are available for cultivation. This land, however, has severe cropping limitations and would require costly clearing, draining, or other treatment if it were converted to cropland.

The SCS Inventory, referred to earlier, reports that part of this marginal land is in areas where the growing season is too short to produce the high-value crops needed to render an adequate economic return for developing it.  It also points out that some of this land would require extremely expen­sive treatment.  That cost would have to be covered either through government cost-sharing with the producers involved or higher commodity prices that would create the incentive necessary. Even with treatment and good management, most of it would still have serious cropping limitations due to erosion hazards and rocky or shallow soils.

It also is strongly suggested that these fragile lands should be kept in forest and grass because they are highly vulnerable to erosion and the topsoil could be lost with present farming methods.  In addition, the SCS Inventory suggests some marginal land now used for crops should be converted back to trees and grass.

It seems obvious that the continuing loss of good cropland to develop­ment will eventually force the Nation to use more of this type of fragile land for crop production.  It also seems clear that it will take two acres and probably more of this marginal land to produce the equivalent of one acre of good land and that this production will involve increased management and energy requirements, costs that will undoubtedly be reflected in food prices.  In addition, there would be some effects from taking this marginal land away from such competing uses as pasture for livestock, wildlife habitat, and recreation.

Water Availability

USDA places increasing reliance on irrigation, even though large amounts of water in the West that normally would go to agriculture may, under various plans proposed, be committed to strip mining, oil shale, and other energy-related development.

Furthermore, dropping water levels in parts of Texas and several other States signal substantial cutbacks in deep-well irrigation. A paper presented at a 1968 symposium sponsored by USDA reported that 5 million of the 8 million acres cropped in the Texas High Plains are irrigated from ground water.   It also suggested that depletion of this water could force the area to go to dry land farming in the early 1980’s, resulting in drastic yield reductions. The area now produces about one sixth of the Nation’s cotton and one third of its grain sorghum.

Agricultural pumping accounts for about 60 percent of all ground water pumped in the United States. Agriculture also accounts for at least half, and in many cases nearly all, of the water consumed in 13 of the 18 water resource regions of the lower 48 States.

The U.S. Water Resources Council has predicted that water use for irrigation will increase by 40 percent to 90 billion gallons a day over the next 35 years.29 It is not clear, in view of recent energy and other develop­ments, where all this water will be obtained.

A National Academy of Sciences study of Western coal development concluded that water in the Colorado Basin has been appropriated many times over and that energy companies eventually will drain off Missouri Basin water faster than it can be replaced.30  A Northern Plains Resource Council study of the Yellowstone Basin in 1973 concluded that energy-related diversions threaten present irrigation needs and will eliminate further development of irrigable lands in that area.31

In view of this rapidly developing situation, it is difficult to see how the net increase in irrigated acreage of 5 million acres by 1980 and 7 million by 2000 projected by the USDA can be reached.  If irrigation expansion is slowed or stopped, as appears likely now, it becomes even more important to preserve agricultural land in areas where rainfall is dependable and adequate. As a clear indication of this concern, the State of Montana has imposed a three-year halt to use of its water from the Yellowstone River Basin for energy projects pending further study.

Technological Inputs

The USDA report puts heavy emphasis on sustained productivity increases over the next 30 years, even though an energy shortage is raising prices and threatening supplies of gasoline, propane, farm chemicals, and other petroleum-based inputs.

American agriculture has increasingly substituted technology for both land and labor, relying on relatively cheap petroleum and electricity in mechanizing most farm operations.  It also has ended up with a type of agricul­ture that permits maximum use of machinery but requires increasing amounts of farm chemicals to deal with insect and weed infestations. This technology has been a major factor in a 50 percent increase in output per crop acre over the last 20 years. The study’s assumption that technology will continue to increase yields so that more can be produced on less acreage appears to be questionable in light of the energy shortage, growing environmental concerns, and indications of difficulty in sustaining steady increases in crop yields.

A more realistic position may be the one taken by the State of Michigan Department of Agriculture in a 1973 report projecting that State’s agricultural land needs over the next 25 years.32 it concluded that society will continue to impose restrictions, such as bans on certain farm chemicals, that will limit per acre yields to what are essentially today’s levels. It is unreasonable to project big productivity increases, the report said, not because the technology will not be discovered, but rather because society will show an increasing dis­position to assert constraints.  In addition to farm chemicals, these constraints may also include restrictions on use of drug and other additives to animal feed.

The implications of continued loss of agricultural land are suggested in a Western Agricultural Research Council report which notes that current projections to the mid-1980’s are based on continued yield increases due largely to improved technology.33 Any reversal in technology expectations, it states, could raise the question of whether measures should be taken not only to conserve but even to develop additional crop land.

Some observers suggest that many indicators of increasing yields are no longer rising as rapidly as they once were, even with ideal conditions of the last few years. Corn yields no longer are rising rapidly in response to increased use of fertilizer. Yields of wheat, rice, peanuts, cotton, and sugar beets seem to be leveling off. There also has been little increase in soybean yields.


The Department of Agriculture projections assume normal weather condi­tions for the next 25 years — even though serious droughts and other violent weather can occur in most areas of the country, and crop failures in the last 20 years have wiped out the production of as much as 22 million acres in a single season.

Crop failure averaged a modest 5.3 million acres in the first four years of the 1970’s. But figures compiled by the Statistical Research Service in USDA show the average was 13.5 million acres in the 1950’s and much higher than that in the early 1930’s, when a large area of the Nation was turned into a dust bowl.  Severe drought hit many areas of the country again in 1974. Projections made October 1, 1974, by the Department of Agriculture showed that corn production was expected to be down 16 percent compared to a year earlier despite many more acres planted in 1974 and soybean production to be down 24 percent.

A factor to consider regarding weather is the tendency of adverse climatic cycles to appear with some regularity. An article by Lester Brown of the Overseas Development Council notes there is considerable evidence that North America has been subject to recurrent clusters of drought years roughly every 20 years.34  He stated that the cyclical drought phenomenon has now been established as far back as the Civil War, when data were first collected on rainfall.

The director of the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Environ­mental Studies told a Congressional committee recently that the outlook is for poorer growing years in the next couple of decades because the earth is cooling as it did in the 16th and 17th centuries.35 The American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that the cooling trend in the Northern Hemisphere amounts to a drop of approximately three degrees Fahrenheit since 1945.36   It said that climatologists now fear the good crop years since World War II may have been deceptive ones and that the world now faces the strong possibility of less hospitable climate, posing a serious threat to a food supply that is already strained.

Specialty Crops

Another implication of agricultural land conversion is loss of areas producing specialty crops that do well only in certain areas and have a low tolerance for different soils and climates.  These crops usually are produced where weather is tempered by large bodies of water.  It is often these same area that are sought after for subdivisions, recreation, and second-home development.

A USDA official, quoted in 1971 in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, conceded that specialty crops grown only in limited areas could disappear under the pressures of urbanization. One of the most striking examples is the increasing impact of second-home development on red tart cherries, an important crop that thrives on soil and weather conditions in several counties along Lake Michigan in northwest Michigan.

Elsewhere, it is reported that avocados, Brussels sprouts, and arti­chokes are in danger of disappearing in California.  These areas, like those producing Michigan’s cherries, have come under heavy development pressure that could eventually crowd them out of areas suited to their soil or climatic re­quirements unless protective action is taken.

The pattern of agricultural land conversion makes it increasingly difficult to produce fresh vegetables and fruits near metropolitan areas, where truck farms and orchards traditionally have operated.  The Economic Research Service reports that 60 percent of all vegetables sold in 1969 came from urban areas (SMSA’s), as did 43 percent of the fruits and nuts.


As pointed out earlier, 17 percent of all U.S. farms are within designated metropolitan areas and thus generally are in the path of urban ex­pansion. The economic impact of these units is even greater, since they produce about 21 percent of the value of all agricultural products sold.

In addition to the impact of a steady decline in farm income on the economy, a major implication of continuing conversion of agricultural land is its effect on the viability of agriculture as an economic venture. A certain amount of productive land is needed to provide an economic base for cooperatives, implement dealers, veterinarians, and the many other small businesses that serve farmers.

Involved is an agricultural complex that includes both suppliers of feed, seed, and other purchased farm inputs, and the processors and other buyers who handle the production when it leaves the farm.

A study prepared for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture calcu­lated the estimated requirements for certain agriculture-based enterprises.38 It found, for example, that the minimum requirement necessary to support dairying was at least 90,000 acres of crop land and pasture and 26,000 cows within a radius of 30 to 50 miles. These requirements ranged down to 10,000 acres in a 10-mile radius for vegetable and potato operations.

Related to this is the tendency of farmers near large cities to avoid long-term investments, deferring costly improvements because they have little value when land is subdivided. Only when farmers are secure for a long period of time are they free to make long-term investments that can be economically justified. This includes houses, barns, fences, and other improvements as well as soil conservation investments such as terraces and grass waterways. Young people often hesitate to start farming in these areas because they do not want to make heavy investments in machinery and livestock when they know they face rising taxes, increased regulation, and other pressures associated with urbani­zation and may eventually be forced to sell out.

Part of this problem stems from the capital gains provisions of Federal tax policies. Huge profits can be made buying and selling land, with specula­tors using tax provisions that make this activity an unusually attractive in­vestment opportunity. Land held by speculators is estimated to be about 6 mil­lion acres at any one time.

Impact on Farm Economy

The economic impact of continued conversion of agricultural land can be seen in a State like California, which has nearly 20 million acres of land suitable for cultivation and sells more than $4 billion worth of agricultural products annually.  It also is a State that was losing agricultural land at the rate of 134,000 acres a year in 1972, up from an earlier anual conversion of less than 100,000 acres 10 years earlier.

As noted earlier, the State Environmental Quality Council estimated in 1972 that if agricultural land conversion continues to increase at this rate, over three fourths of California’s agricultural land will be gone within 30 years. The Soil Conservation Service reports that roughly one fourth of the land now being converted in the State is prime agricultural land.

This is a serious matter for California, which has a climate edge over most areas of the country and is able to double-crop most of its lands. The $4 billion-plus figure does not include economic activity generated by businesses that supply materials to farm operators, processing and shipping of fresh produce, or economic activity from moving cotton and grain through the State’s ocean ports.

Another economic consequence of cropland conversion is the higher prices that result when a region has to bring large quantities of food in from other parts of the country or to import it from abroad. These higher prices include costs of transportation and handling by several middlemen. The best example is New England, where agriculture as an industry has almost disappeared. As a region, New England was 100 percent self-sufficient during the late 1800’s, and 50 percent self-sufficient during World War II. Now, a recent report shows, it has to import almost 98 percent of its food from outside the region.

Another economic implication of agricultural land losses is the grow­ing likelihood of temporary shortages of basic farm commodities that are in demand for both export and domestic uses. An example is soybeans, the source of oil for margarine and other shortening products and of protein meal for live­stock.

When soybean prices soar to more than $12 a bushel, as they did before export controls were imposed in 1972, prices of soybean oil products and meal shoot up.  Corn and other competitive vegetable oil products do likewise.  Since export commitments are difficult to cut back or cancel, even under political pressure, the possibility of shortages and skyrocketing consumer prices becomes much more likely as land is consumed by urbanization.

Impact on Public Service Costs

In addition to consuming good land unnecessarily, the type of sprawl that results from leapfrogging or development spreading out from built-up areas along major highway routes is usually accompanied by costly development in­efficiencies.  Providing public facilities is much more costly when roads, sewer and water lines, and other facilities have to be extended over longer distances and in uneconomical patterns.

Unnecessary branches or stubs of main trunk lines for sewer and water may have to be provided, for example, and inability to anticipate demand may require replacement later of those that were too small. Mass transportation systems have difficulty serving these areas, and accessibility to schools and shopping is often hampered. The public pays for all this, of course, both in higher taxes and inconvenience.

Most governmental units make charges or assessments against farmland for the costs of construction or installation of certain public facilities such as sanitary sewer lines extended into a rural area. These charges are often made on the basis of amount of acreage owned or on foot frontage of the property. In most instances, these facilities speed the process of urbanization and are of little or no direct benefit to the farm operator.


Most of the effort to preserve agricultural land or to protect it from premature or haphazard urban conversion now occurs at the State and local level. The amount of interest in a given State appears to be roughly proportionate to the rate and extent of the loss of good agricultural land and the impact of this loss on the State’s economy.

In the past, most States have attempted to deal with urban growth by empowering local units of government to control it through zoning, subdivision regulations, sanitary codes, and official mapping.  These procedures are generally viewed as inadequate, however, in areas where urban expansion has strong momentum and the need to control land conversion is greatest.

Although several innovative approaches are being tried throughout the country, there is neither clear-cut evidence nor consensus as to which works best.  Either careful studies have not been conducted, or the approaches have not been applied broadly enough for a long period of time to permit valid conclu­sions.

The most widely applied approach is preferential taxation of agricul­tural land, which permits assessment of land on the basis of its actual use rather than its development potential.  In highly urbanized areas — such as Long Island, New York, for example — the development potential portion of total value is as much as 80 percent.

More than 30 States have adopted preferential taxation of agricultural land, and the trend is likely to continue as urban expansion continues.  This does not mean that these States have the solution to halting agricultural land conversion, but it does mean they consider it a serious problem and are trying to control it.  Indeed, preferential tax treatment provisions are viewed by many as weak holding actions at best.  Rather than assuring that land will be preserved for agricultural use, they often encourage speculation buying by “pseudo-farmers” who hold land for 15 years or more at low taxes and then sell to a developer at a big profit.

Some that have tried preferential taxation of agricultural land have found it does little more than slow land losses near cities and are striking out in new directions.  They appear to be headed toward the use of some kind of purchase agreement, such as buying development rights to provide permanent pro­tection for agricultural land.

Attempts also are being made to control urbanization from another angle — using local control of the lifeline of roads, water and sewer lines, and other facilities to make development less wasteful in terms of agricultural land consumed and of public investment in services.

Here are selected examples of innovative programs around the Nation that offer possible solutions for others as well:

Purchase of Development Rights

The cost of purchasing endangered agricultural land in an attempt to preserve it would be staggering.  It also is unnecessary because the same ob­jective can be accomplished by purchasing the development rights — paying owners for the portion of the land value that represents developmental potential. This reduces both uncertainty and the tax burden for farmers and makes it pos­sible for them to retain all other ownership rights, to make long-term invest­ments in their farming operations, and to pass the land intact on to the next generation.

The Legislature of Suffolk County, at the eastern end of Long Island, has committed $60 million to be used over the next four years in buying develop­ment rights on agricultural land.39

Suffolk’s population was 600,000 in 1960, had grown to 1.26 million by 1973, and is expected to reach 2 million by 1985.  During this same period, its land in farms dropped from 89,700 to 57,000 acres, and its ability to support an agricultural economy that included such specialties as cauliflower and ducks, was threatened.  Farmers selling rights to develop their land get a substantial property tax cut because they are assessed only on that portion of the land that represents its value for agricultural use. In Suffolk County, it is estimated that agricultural use represents about 20 percent of the value and development rights the other 80 percent.

Once purchased by the county, the rights become capital assets and cannot be sold or transferred without voter approval in a referendum. This first-in-the-Nation plan was shaped by County Executive John V. Klein, who hopes it will rescue at least 12,000 acres of prime agricultural land from developers.

Under the Suffolk County law, farmers may negotiate the sale to the county of development rights on their land. The county may not force the farmer to sell his rights as long as the land remains in agricultural use.  If, how­ever, the farmer decides to convert the land from agriculture, the county has the right to acquire the land through eminent domain.

One of the arguments raised against this proposal is that it too would be prohibitively expensive and funds for it difficult to raise.  In Connecticut, a governor’s task force on agricultural preservation recently recommended that this type of purchase plan be adopted, with financing of acquisition to come from a $500 million State bond issue.  The bonds would be repaid by a 19 percent conveyance tax on the sale of all real estate. Projections indicate that about $30 million would be available annually for such acquisition.

Another suggestion for financing the development rights purchase proposal is through a Federal/State matching grants program. Matching grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund are available for the purchase of land for recreation and open space purposes. Other than this, there are presently no significant grants available for other categories of open space, such as scenic easements in highway corridors, less-than-fee rights in agricultural lands, or acquisition of flood plains.

Agricultural Districts

More than 1.75 million acres of land have been put in agricultural districts under a 1971 State law aimed at keeping New York’s agriculture viable in the face of growing urban pressure and speculation.40  Land put in districts includes such unique and irreplaceable areas as the entire grape belt in western New York, the mucklands in Orange County and southeastern New York, and tree fruit areas along Lake Ontario.

The statewide program, proposed by the State Commission on Preservation of Agricultural land, provides these special features:  (1) Local ordinances cannot restrict structures and activities normal to farmers; (2) public agencies cannot take farm land by eminent domain without special justification; (3) sewer and water taxes cannot be levied on farm land, beyond a house and lot, once a district has been formed; and (4) property tax assessments may be based on agricultural instead of market value.

The tax assessment feature includes a rollback requiring an owner selling for development land that has been assessed at its agricultural value to pay the difference between taxes paid on the agricultural assessment and the tax he would have paid without the lower assessment for the previous five years.

Coastal Zone Management

California’s Coastal Zone Conservation Commission is coming out strongly for preservation of agricultural land under its power to regulate all construction within 1,000 yards of the State’s 1,170-mile coastline.41   The Commission was set up under provisions of a coastline protection proposal approved in a 1972 statewide referendum.

In preparing a Coastal Zone plan to be submitted to the Legislature in 1976, the Commission appears determined to keep all agricultural lands and all land suitable for coastal-related crops out of the hands of developers.  It has determined that much of this area is prime land and that other land with lower quality soil also is valuable for producing avocados, broccoli, artichokes, and other crops with special climate requirements.  Included are extensive coastal farm lands in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Mendocino counties.

Development Controls

The Town of Ramapo, New York, is controlling development with a regulation tying it to the availability of existing public services or to their planned expansion.42 This is significant because it provides a way to deal with the prevailing pattern in most urban areas of sprawl:  leap-frog development and waste of land and resources.

A State court has approved the Town’s ordinance keying development permission to availability of public services.  It has the effect of deferring housing development in some instances for as long as 18 years.  The ordinance,tied to an 18-year plan and a capital budget, also provides property tax relief to owners of land where development is delayed.

Future Needs Projections

In February 1973 the Michigan Department of Agriculture estimated that 8 million acres of productive agricultural land would be needed to serve the population projected for the State in the year 2000.

The estimate was included in a future needs policy statement that reported 6 million acres had been lost since 1945 from an agricultural land base of about 18 million.43   If nothing is done, it concluded, the only agricultural land left by 2000 will be small islands surrounded by vast urban areas in the southern half of the State.

Included in the statement was a proposal to preserve the 8 million acres by creating agricultural districts, acquiring development rights to agricultural land, and taxing agricultural land at its current use value.  It proposed using bonds backed by tax revenues to provide funds for purchasing the rights.

Most significant, however, is the fact that the State took an inventory to see where it stood and to try to determine whether it could meet its responsi­bilities to the number of people expected in the year 2000.  This inventory helped focus public attention on the issue of loss of agricultural land and the possible ways this loss could be slowed or avoided.


From the foregoing, it is clear that action taken thus far to control urbanization of agricultural land and to prevent mining companies and others from consuming it is far short of what is needed.  Too much of the Nation’s agricultural land is being wasted, and the time has come to permanently dedicate what is left to food production.

Zoning, subdivision regulations, and other local controls clearly are inadequate to withstand the growing pressures of urbanization.  Interim controls such as moratoria on development, have only a temporary impact, and preferential tax treatment provisions adopted by many States are weak holding actions at best

The cost of purchasing endangered agricultural land in an attempt to preserve it would be staggering.  It is also unnecessary because the same objec­tive can be accomplished by purchasing the development rights and paying owners for the land value that represents development potential.  That reduces both uncertainty and the tax burden for farmers and makes it possible for them to retain all other ownership rights, to make long-term investments in their farming operations, and to pass the land on to the next generation.

Rapid loss of agricultural land in States like California and New Jersey, the expected consumption of millions of acres of land by strip mining and other energy-related development, the strong momentum of urban growth in huge metropolitan corridors and elsewhere, and the lack of land capability information all point to the critical need for a nationwide land use planning effort.  The fact that land is both a finite resource and the basic resource for the Nation’s food production capability make the need even more pressing.


  1. NATIONAL INVENTORY OF SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION NEEDS, 1967. Soil Conservation Service.  Statistical Bulletin No. 461.
  2. OUR LAND AND WATER RESOURCES, CURRENT AND PROSPECTIVE SUPPLIES AND USES.  Economi Research Service.  Publication No. 1290.  May, 1974.
  3. AGRICULTURE IN THE ENVIRONMENT.  Economic Research Service.  Bulletin No. 481. July, 1971.
  4. NATIONAL LAND USE POLICY.  Background papers on past and pending legislation. Senate Interior Committee.  April, 1972.
  5. A STATE RESEARCH REPORT:  AGRICULTURAL LAND IN THE RICHMOND REGION.  Richmond Regional Planning District Commission. July 1974.
  6. NATIONAL LAND USE POLICY.  Proceedings of a special conference sponsored by the Soil Conservation Society of America. Ankeny, Iowa.  1973.
  7. STATE OPEN SPACE AND RESOURCE CONSERVATION PROGRAM FOR CALIFORNIA.  Prepared for California Legislature Joint Committee on Open Space Lands.  April, 1972.
  8. THE VERMONT FARM AND A LAND REFORM PROGRAM.  State Planning Office. Montpelier. June, 1973.
  9. “Some Eastern States Focus on Protecting Farmlands.” CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR. November 2, 1973.
  11. AGRICULTURAL LAND REQUIREMENTS:  A PROJECTION TO 2000 A.D.  Prepared by Michigan Department of Agriculture.  February, 1973.
  12. FARMING IN THE CITY’S SHADOW.  U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Agricultural Economics Report No. 250.  February, 1974.
  13. URBANIZATION OF LAND IN THE WESTERN STATES.  Economic Research Service.  Report No. 428. January, 1970.
  14. “What Should Be Done to Improve Consumer Protection in Land Sales?” URBAN LAND. July-August, 1974.
  15. Ibid.
  16. OUR LAND AND WATER RESOURCES, op.cit., p. 47.
  17. Ibid., p. 11.
  18. Ibid.
  19. THE USE OF LAND.  Report of the Task Force on Land Use and Urban Growth.  New York.  1973.
  21. EXPLORING ENERGY CHOICES.  Energy Policy Project.  Ford Foundation.  1974.
  22. THIRD ANNUAL REPORT.  Council on Environmental Quality. Washington, D.C.  197:
  23. Josephy, Alvin M., Jr.  “Agony of the Northern Plains.” AUDUBON.  July, 1973.
  24. ELECTRIC POWER AND THE ENVIRONMENT.  Energy Policy Staff, Office of Science an< Technology. Washington, D.C.  1970.
  26. PRODUCTIVE AGRICULTURE AND A QUALITY ENVIRONMENT.  National Academy of Sciences Washington, D.C.  1974
  27. OUR LAND AND WATER RESOURCES, op.cit., p. vi.
  28. SECONDARY IMPACTS OF PUBLIC INVESTMENT IN NATURAL RESOURCES.  Proceedings of a symposium. Economic Research Service. Publication No. 1177.
  29. THE NATION’S WATER RESOURCES.  U.S. Water Resources Council.  Summary Report. Washington, D.C. 1968.
  30. Ibid.
  31. McCaull, Julian.  “Wringing Out the Environment,” ENVIRONMENT.  Vol. 16, No. 7 p. 16.
  33. LAND USE PLANNING AND CONTROL REQUIREMENTS.  Statement prepared by a committee of the Western Agricultural Research Council for the Western Governors Conferen March, 1974.
  34. Brown, Lester R. “Global Food Insecurity.” THE FUTURIST. April, 1974. p. 63
  35. Bryson, Dr. Reid A. “Testimony presented to Senate Agriculture and Forestry Subcommittee.” October 17, 1973.
  36. “Climate vs. Food:  Some Ominous Signs.” OMAHA WORLD-HERALD. July 14, 1974.
  38. ISSUES IN AGRICULTURAL LAND USE MANAGEMENT IN NEW JERSEY.  Special Report No. i; Rutgers University.  February, 1973.
  39. ENVIRONMENT. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany. December, 1974.
  40. TOWARD AN EFFECTIVE LAND USE POLICY FOR MICHIGAN.  Conference Proceedings. Michigan State University. Lansing, pp. 46-52.
  41. “Public Hearing Notice.” California Coastal Zone Conservation Commission. August 21, 1974.
  42. MEASURES TO PRESERVE AGRICULTURAL AND UNDEVELOPED LANDS.  Prepared for Wisconsin Legislative Council.  State Planning Office. Madison. August, 1974.

SA DC 75-9750

Blobaum, Roger, The Loss of Agricultural Land 1974. A study Report to Citizens Advisory committee on Environmental Quality, a white house counsel, Washington DC.