You don't have to travel very far in Connecticut to see farms sprouting their final crop; new subdivisions with enormous houses, one practically on top of the other. Farmland is also being buried under parking lots, big box stores, distribution facilities, highways, and malls. Connecticut loses about 8,000 acres of farmland, or eighty farms annually. Just since 1984, we have lost one-fifth of our state's farmland.
You'd think that people had forgotten that food comes from the soil. In fact, it takes about one and a half acres to feed the average American. Unfortunately, there remains only about one half an acre of farmland per person on the whole planet, so each of us here in the US requires about three times our fair share of arable land. In much of Asia, there is just one-fifth of an acre to grow food for each person.
The reason it takes so much land to feed us is the large amount of animal protein that we consume in this country - meat, milk, and eggs, that is. Gardeners know how little land it takes to grow a bounty of fruits and vegetables. The vast majority of US farmland is used to grow corn and soybeans for animal feed.
Many in Connecticut are inclined not to worry about losing farmland here because most of the food we eat comes from somewhere far away. However, farms are vanishing under buildings, asphalt, and chemical lawns everywhere. The latest report from the USDA confirms that farms are disappearing even faster now. This should worry us. Between 1992 and 1997, US farms and other open spaces were covered with developments at a rate twice as rapid as they were in the ten years prior to 1992. What should concern us even more is that major agricultural states lead the list. California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North and South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas, all states with extensive agriculture, have the highest rates of farmland conversion.
This loss occurs at a time of increasing global demand for food and fiber, as well as for ethanol and other plant-based, industrial products. And. good farms provide more than just food and fiber. They create habitat for wildlife, recharge aquifers and create fresh air. The scenic vistas and rural character that so many towns enjoy quickly disappear without farms. There are more than enough reasons to be concerned about the loss of farmland.
Twenty years ago, Connecticut established the Purchase of Development Rights Program which pays farmers the difference between their land's value as a farm and its often much-higher development value. In return, the land must remain agricultural. The state's original goal was to protect 130,000 acres of farmland. After twenty years, a mere one-fifth of that has been protected. Lack of funding and Bond Commission delays have limited the program's effectiveness. Currently, more than 200 farms are on a waiting list to participate in this program.
The Working Lands Alliance is a recently-formed coalition of Connecticut farm, conservation, food security and local government associations which hopes to slow down the loss of farmland here. For its first year, the Alliance is recommending three legislative measures that would protect nearly 20,000 acres over the next five years.
Some Connecticut towns, land trusts and historic properties are finding other ways to preserve working farms in their communities. At the national level, the American Farmland Trust works in many ways to preserve farms.
This is a critical issue. We all need to be actively involved in preserving farmland in our communities.
Farmland: We can't live without it.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
The Working Lands Alliance, c/o Hartford Food System, 509 Wethersfield Avenue, Hartford, CT 06114
American Farmland Trust, 1200 18th Street, NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20036
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