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Indiana, get serious about farmland preservation
In case you have not noticed, they are not making any new farmland. In fact, just the opposite is happening. We are losing acres of farmland every day as strip malls, housing developments and highways cover productive land in concrete.

This is one issue on which farmers and environmentalists agree. Yet one state east of the Mississippi, with the largest percentage of its landmass in production agriculture, is turning away millions of dollars that could be used to preserve farmland.

Last month, the USDA announced that $70 million was being made available for states to preserve farmland. The program called the Farm and Ranch Protection Program (FRPP) provides a 50 percent match on the purchase of conservation easements on farmland. There are only a few restrictions, and they are broad and flexible.

The main ingredient for this program to work is a partner to come up with the other 50 percent. This can be done by state or local governments, regional organizations, private nonprofit groups, or many others.

Many states have used this program to safeguard thousands of acres of land. Since its inception the FRPP has protected 270,000 acres of farmland in 43 states. Last year, Nebraska used the FRPP to protect 524 acres once used by Lewis and Clark in 1804. In Illinois, $1.2 million will be matched with federal funding; and, in Ohio, more than $2 million has been allocated for 2006. Michigan will take advantage of about $1.6 million, and Kentucky $1.9 million.

Indiana, however, for the 10th straight year, will let the program pass it by yet again.

According to the Indiana Deputy Conservationist Xavier Montoya, the reason is no group, government, or organization in the Hoosier State has stepped forward with the necessary match. He expects that, again this year, Indiana will give back to Washington the $207,861 that it had been allocated under FRPP because there are no takers.

Funding for conservation in the state is tight, and Montoya said they have had a great deal of difficulty finding groups that are willing to put up the matching funds, even small amounts. While there are lots of groups willing to talk about protecting farmland, few of them are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Montoya said there are areas of the state that, in the next decade, will face pressure from urban expansion. He wants to see these areas targeted for this program.

Once land is placed in the FRPP, it can be farmed but local eminent domain rules won’t apply. Thus, farmland in the program cannot be taken for a highway, airport, or municipal project. Interstate 69 in southern Indiana will chew up thousands of acres of prime farmland. This land could have been saved if instead of paying high priced lawyers and PR firms to fight the highway, opponents had purchased conservation easements on that land through the FRPP.

Local governments in Indiana have been giving away millions of dollars in incentives to ethanol and biodiesel plants. Perhaps they should use some of those funds to protect the farmland in their area so there will be fields left to supply the raw material for the plant.

Every year groups spend thousands of dollars to preserve a home for ducks. Perhaps preserving a food supply for people should be a higher priority.

Indiana agriculture is in the midst of an economic revival. Producers, policy makers and agribusinesses are stepping up to grow the Hoosier ag economy. I challenge state and local leaders as well as the agricultural and environmental communities to put up or shut up when it comes to protecting farmland for the future.

This farm news was published in the May 3, 2006 issue of Farm World.