|By VICKI JOHNSON
REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Educating the public - both rural and urban - about the necessity of protecting agricultural land is a challenge faced by American farmers.
“Ohio clearly leads the Midwest in the issue,” said Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust.
He was the keynote speaker Thursday during the seventh annual Ohio Farmland Preservation Summit at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
“It’s going to take a concentrated effort to educate people all around the country,” Grossi said to about 250 people who attended the conference. “I’ve spoken at many of these meetings, but I’ve never seen so many people at a state farmland preservation conference.”
Grossi said 27 states now have offices devoted to farmland preservation, and there are hundreds of local, township and county government movements.
“It’s never too late to get ahead of the curve,” he said. “We hope your neighboring states will learn from you.”
Grossi said he became interested in farmland preservation in the 1970s when he was president of his local Farm Bureau. His farm in Marin County, Calif., is 28 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.
In 1980, AFT was founded; and in 1985, Grossi became president and began to take his message nationwide. In the 2002 farm bill, he said the first federal money was set aside to assist the effort.
Today, he said much progress has been made, but there’s a long way to go.
“At least we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “And there’s broad public support.”
Between 1-1.25 million acres of farmland annually is converted to other uses nationwide, Grossi said. However, he sees encouraging signs. One is the trend of people to renovate existing city housing.
“Now more people live in the existing urban footprint,” he said. “People are moving back into the city for a better quality of life again.”
Grossi said more of the general public now understands the importance of agricultural land – not only for “open space,” but as an integral part of the rural culture and for the economic activity that happens there.
Grossi said he continues to be concerned about the competition for land between agricultural and urbanization.
“I believe we haven’t seen anything yet,” he said. Within the next 40 years, Grossi said another 50 million acres will be urbanized.
But it’s not only development that will move land away from food production. He said there are other competitors at work that are not necessarily negative, but are causing changes. For example, he said the expanding number of ethanol plants will need raw materials.
“We’re talking here about 30 million to 40 million acres of land that will be shifted from food production to industrial production,” he said.
Returning farmland to wetlands and the creation of rural recreation areas are taking 70-80 million more acres from food. Grossi said it’s time the federal government plays a larger role by providing tax dollars to help counties create land use plans that will balance all the various demands for land.
At the same time, he said a change is needed in the attitudes of county planners.
“The attitude in many counties is, ‘It’s agricultural until we find a better use for it,’” he said.
Regarding the 2007 Farm Bill, Grossi said there’s a general consensus that a new bill is needed.
“The extension is off the table, and we will write a new Farm Bill next year,” he said.
He expects intense discussion in Washington next July.
Because of broadening interest by several special interest groups, he said the next farm bill might be decided on the House or Senate floor instead of in committee.
No matter where it is discussed, Grossi said the new bill must take change into consideration such as the trend toward globalization and the changing markets.
He also said the size of the federal budget will be a large issue, along with the needs of agricultural sectors such a specialty crops that have not been covered under previous farm bills.
“That’s a big part of agriculture and it happens to be found in more populated states,” he said.
For more information about the AFT’s policy, visit online at www.farmland.org/programs/campaign/Agenda2007.asp
This farm news was published in the Nov. 8, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.