Why Save Farmland
The Case for Farmland Protection
Listed below are key points to help you make the case for farmland or ranchland protection in your community. Each section lists numbered data sources and research to support the key point and additional supporting resources.
Farmland is an Irreplaceable Resource
More than 10 percent of the earth’s agricultural land is found in the U.S (1). It includes crop, pasture, range and wooded lands which sustain basic human needs for food, fiber and fuel. It supports millions of jobs and the nation’s balance of trade. And when managed well, it supplies environmental services like flood and fire control and storing carbon in the soil.
Fertile soil is a dynamic living resource. It forms slowly and its loss threatens the world’s supply of arable land for generations. Less than 20 percent of American farmland is comprised of nationally significant soil—the land best suited for sustainable food production. Yet these productive soils are most threatened by poorly planned development and short-sighted farming practices (2).
Soil conservation has been a national priority since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s when severe dust storms ravaged the Great Plains. Poor farming practices coupled with widespread drought caused severe soil erosion and ruinous crop failures. While soil health practices have improved, tilling and the use of large equipment continue to create erosion, topsoil loss, and dry, compacted soils unable to hold water.
Since 1982, America has developed about 26 million acres of farmland—an area larger than the state of Kentucky (3). Millions more acres were compromised by low-density rural development, creating conflicts with neighbors and threatening agricultural viability. Just between 2001 to 2016, the U.S. converted 11 million acres—equal to all the land planted to fruits, nuts, and vegetables in 2017 (4). If this continues, another 18.4 million acres will be converted by 2040—an area roughly the size of South Carolina (5).
- World Population Review – Arable Land by Country, 2023
- Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland
- USDA – 2017 National Resources Inventory Summary Report
- Farms Under Threat: The State of the States
- Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future
Read2017 NRI: Changes in Land Cover/Use Talking Points Benefits of Farmland Protection Reference List
Farmland Underpins the Agricultural Economy
The U.S. agriculture sector includes individual farms and ranches and extends beyond them to include a wide range of farm-related industries. Agricultural land is like the factory floor—essential infrastructure needed to support a wide range of economic activities.
Many economic sectors rely on agricultural inputs including food and beverage manufacturing and stores; food services and eating establishments; textiles, apparel, and leather products; and forestry and fishing. Together, agriculture, food, and related industries contributed about $1264 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021 (1). These also support over 22 million full- and part-time jobs—more than 10 percent of total U.S. employment in 2022 (2).
Nearly 60% of U.S. farm market value is produced in metro or metro-influenced counties. That includes 90% of fruits, nuts, and berries, 81% of vegetables, 66% of dairy, and 55% of eggs and poultry (3). Local food production has been found to create more jobs and stimulate larger spillover effects than conventional commodity production (4). As important is this is to the economy and food supply, the land needed to grow these crops is under increasing risk of nonfarm development.
It Supports State and Local Economies
Agriculture is a cornerstone of state and local economies. Its economic impacts multiply as agricultural products cycle through the economy through support services like feed and equipment dealers, processing, marketing, distribution, and secondary markets.
Most agricultural multipliers measure direct and indirect changes in output, income, or employment. Some also include induced effects to provide an estimate of agriculture’s total economic impact. The direct effect is the agricultural production itself. The indirect effect is when related economic sectors provide products and services or add value to raw products. The induced effect is how households spend the income earned from direct and indirect production. Most studies use an input-output model called IMPLAN (Impact Modeling for PLANning) to calculate these effects.
For example, in Kansas, agriculture, food, and food processing sectors had a total economic contribution of about $63 billion in 2015, supporting 126,652 jobs, and roughly 43% of Gross Region Product (5). Or in 2019, the total economic impact of Kentucky’s agriculture was nearly $50 billion, supporting 271,693 jobs (6). And in Pennsylvania, every dollar of direct agricultural output generated another $0.63 of indirect activity for a total economic impact of $132.5 billion in 2019, supporting 593,600 jobs (7).
This effects also are felt at the local level. For example, the total economic impact of agriculture in Scott County, Tennessee was estimated at $108 million in 2021. Every dollar of direct agricultural output had a total economic impact of $1.24 on the county’s economy. This is especially true when communities have a vibrant local food sector. Numerous studies have found local food systems add substantial value to local economies, enhancing incomes, employment and community health and wellbeing (8).
- Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy, USDA ERS
- Total Full-time and Part-time Employment by NAICS Industry, U.S Bureau of Economic Analysis
- 2017 Census of Ag Fact Sheet
- Putting Local Food Dollars to Work: The Economic Benefits of Local Food Dollars to Workers, Farms and Communities
- Estimated Economic Impact of Agriculture, Food, and Food Processing Sectors in Kansas
- The Importance of Agriculture for Kentucky
- The Economic Impact of Agriculture in Pennsylvania
- Economic Importance of Local Food Markets: Evidence from the Literature
ReadMultiplier Analysis for Agriculture and Other Industries Economic Impacts of Agriculture Reference List
Farmland Provides Fiscal Stability
Privately owned agricultural land generates more in taxes than it demands in public services, thereby supporting a community’s bottom line. Results of more than 150 Cost of Community Service Studies (COCS) studies conducted across the U.S find Farmland, Forestland, and Open space contribute more revenue than they receive in public services, even when land is enrolled in “current use” and related property tax programs. On the other hand, Residential development requires more in community services than its revenues provide, which is offset by the surplus from other land uses, including Farmland and Open Space.
COCS studies are a snapshot in time of costs versus revenues for community land uses. Using a case study approach, they provide a baseline of current information to assess the net fiscal contribution of land uses including Commercial, Industrial, Residential, and Farmland, Forestland and Open Space. They compare annual revenue to expenditures for services such as public safety, schools, roads, transportation, water and sewer, and so on and with input from local officials, distribute these across a community’s land uses.
Farmland Enhances the Environment
Farmland is important to green infrastructure as it filters and absorbs stormwater, reducing flows to sewer systems and surface waters. It increases community resiliency by providing flood control and fire suppression, and when managed sustainably, supports biodiversity and ecosystem services like clean drinking water, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat (1). Diversified farming systems and sustainable practices support soil fertility, help control pests and disease, and support pollination (2&3), enhancing biodiversity without negative effects on crop yields (4).
Increasingly, producers are using regenerative farming practices like low- or no-till, cover crops, inter or double cropping, rotational grazing, and other approaches to sequester carbon in the soil. Building carbon stocks is crucial for farm productivity and mitigating climate change. Especially when adopted as whole farm systems, it increases soil health and improves water quality and holding capacity to withstand droughts and flooding (5&6). Implementing no-till and cover crops on ~35 million acres could reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of ~30 million metric tons of CO2 per year—or taking more than 6 million cars off the road.
Farmland emits fewer greenhouse gases than development. A California study found cropland emits 58-70 times fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) per acre than developed land and a similar study in New York found it emits 66 times fewer GHGs per acre than developed land (7&8).
- Building Soils for Better Crops
- Diversified Farming Systems: An Agroecological, Systems-based Alternative to Modern Industrial Agriculture
- Biodiversity Conservation and Agricultural Sustainability: Towards a New Paradigm of ‘Ecoagriculture’ Landscapes
- Agricultural Diversification Promotes Multiple Ecosystem Services Without Compromising Yield
- A Critical Review of the Impacts of Cover Crops on Nitrogen Leaching, Net Greenhouse Gas Balance and Crop Productivity
- Responses of Soil Carbon Sequestration to Climatesmart Agriculture Practices: A Meta-analysis
- Greener Fields: California Communities Combating Climate Change
- Greener Fields: Combatting Climate Change by Keeping Land in Farming in New York
ReadNational Climate Assessment NRCS Climate-Smart Mitigation Activities List Combatting Climate Change on US Cropland: Affirming the Technical Capacity of Cover Cropping and No-Till to Sequester Carbon and Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
UseThe Carbon Reduction Potential Evaluation Tool, or CaRPE Tool™ Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS) Web of Soil
Farmland Sustains Community Character
Often the most compelling reasons to save farmland are local and personal and some of its most valued qualities are the hardest to quantify—such as rural character and sense of place. Farmland and ranchland maintain scenic views and open spaces. They provide opportunities for hunting and fishing and recreational activities like hiking and horseback riding. Farms and ranches create identifiable and unique community character which adds to the quality of life. These are many of the reasons that public preferences studies typically find that people are willing to pay to protect agricultural land from development. Along with supporting economic opportunities, local food and family farms, many people want to save farmland to protect rural amenities (1).
Agriculture is an integral part of our heritage and identity as a people. American democracy is rooted in an agrarian past and founded on the principle that all people can own property and earn a living from the land. Our ongoing relationships with farmland and ranchland connect us to history as well as to the natural world. Our land is our legacy, both as we look back to the past and as we consider what we have of value to pass on to future generations.