New statistics indicate land use laws have helped, but prime ag land still at risk
The loss of farmland in Oregon to development and other uses continues, but at a much reduced rate, according to the latest numbers from an inventory of land uses conducted statewide and nationally. While still a concern to agriculture, state officials credit Oregon’s land use laws for minimizing the inexorable reduction of crop, pasture, and range lands.
“Agricultural land can’t be viewed as an idle resource waiting to be converted to homes, office buildings, retail outlets, or other types of development,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Agriculture’s survival and sustainability depends, in large part, on protecting important farmland needed for production.”
Between 2007 and 2010, the inventory indicates 59,300 acres of crop land was converted to other land uses, including urban and rural development. That’s a loss of 1.66 percent of Oregon’s 3.5 million acres of crop land. However, that is a huge improvement over the 394,000 acres of crop land lost between 1982 and 1987.
“While we are still losing agricultural land in Oregon, the progression has really slowed,” says ODA land use specialist Jim Johnson. “You can easily see when our statewide land use planning program kicked in because that’s when the slowdown of ag land loss became noticeable.”
Overall agricultural land– which includes pasture and range as well as crop lands– decreased by 19,500 acres between 2007 and 2010 (0.13 percent) compared to 217,000 acres between 1982 and 1987 (1.37 percent). In both time segments, the loss of crop land was largely offset by an increase in pasture land, range land, or both. Currently, there is about 15.2 million acres of agricultural land in Oregon.
“While overall agricultural land loss has slowed down quite a bit over the years, the land that we are losing the most is in crop production that generally takes place in prime land– the best of the best,” says Johnson, noting that overall prime farm land has decreased by nearly 7 percent since 1982.
The latest numbers come from the National Resource Inventory (NRI), a scientific, statistically-based process performed by the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Historically, the NRI was done every five years but now is conducted every three years through air photography and interpretation. The NRI is a good tool for measuring changes in land use.
Further analysis of the NRI’s huge cache of numbers will be done in the coming months, which should give an even better idea of specifically where the agricultural land conversion is taking place. State officials believe a major portion of the loss is within urban growth boundaries and designated rural residential areas already affected by growth and development. A closer look at the inventory data will help determine the true effectiveness of current land use laws.
“Based on my past experiences and being involved in land use issues in Oregon, the loss in crop land in particular is occurring on prime farm lands in the Willamette Valley, “ says Johnson. “That’s, of course, where the development is occurring and where people want to live.”
Johnson says past inventories showed that more than half of the agricultural land lost was converted to urban uses and another small percentage lost to development in rural areas. The preliminary results of the most recent NRI appear similar. Some of the lost ag land has probably been converted to other uses, including the creation of wetlands. But the vast majority is still being lost to development.
Overall, since 1982, 700,000 acres of agricultural land in Oregon has been converted to other uses at a rate of 4.4 percent. That compares favorably to the national average of 5.5 percent. Neighboring California has lost 2.6 million acres of agricultural land in that time period at a rate of nearly 8.5 percent.
“No matter how you calculate it, Oregon is doing a heck of a better job protecting ag land than California,” says Johnson.
To the north, Washington has lost 551,900 acres of agricultural lands to other uses since 1982, a rate of 3.65 percent. However, compared to Oregon, Washington has lost ag land at a slightly higher percentage since 2007.
The NRI also measures erosion taking place on Oregon agricultural lands. The latest numbers are encouraging.
“Agriculture sometimes takes a bad rap for its practices, but from 1982 to 2010, the amount of soil lost to erosion has dramatically decreased,” says Johnson. “We’ve gone from a 3.7 ton per acre soil loss in 1982 to 1.44 ton per acre loss in 2010. Oregon agriculture is doing an especially good job on cultivated crop land. There are still some issues with pasture and range lands, but overall it looks better.”
Johnson says farmers are making improvements as they realize losing soil to erosion is expensive. Better farm practices, technical assistance from NRCS, Oregon State University, local soil and water conservation districts, and help from ODA’s Agricultural Water Quality Management Program have had positive impacts.
Johnson is not surprised by the latest NRI numbers and hopes that agriculture is strongly considered when decisions are made about future land use in Oregon.
“While we are doing a great job of protecting farmland, we can do better,” he says. “The take home message for Oregonians and policy makers is this– we need to support the land use planning program in place because it really has slowed the loss of ag lands. But we still should be concerned about losing our best farmland and need to look at some of our policies as they relate directly to protection of that land base.”
One thing has remained constant over the years– once farmland is converted and built upon, it never reappears as farmland again.