What is Happening to Cattle Country?

America's shrinking garden.

Published on: May 26, 2006

Each year you have to drive a little farther out to find it. Slowed by traffic, through tangle intersections, past rows of houses that seem to have sprouted from the field, finally, you see the bountiful farmland. For the past two decades, we've paved over our farmland for roads, houses and malls. Wasteful land use puts America's farmland at risk, especially our most fertile and productive - our most valuable - farm and ranchland.

Less than one-fifth of U.S. land is high quality, and the nation is losing this finest land to development at an accelerating rate. U.S. agricultural land provides the nation and the world with an unparalleled abundance of food.

But farmland means much more than food. Well-managed farmland shelters wildlife, supplies scenic open space and helps filter impurities from our air and water. These working lands keep our taxes down and maintain the legacy or our agricultural heritage.

  • Every single minute of every day, America loses two acres of farmland. From 1992 to 1997, we converted to developed uses more that six million acres of agricultural land - an area the size of Maryland.

  • We lost ranch and farm land 51% faster in the 1990s than in the 1980s. The rate of loss from 1992 to 1997, 1.2 million acres per year, was 51% higher than from 1982 to 1992.

  • We’re losing our best land - most fertile and productive - the fastest. The rate of conversion of prime land was 30% faster, proportionally, than the rate for non-prime rural land from 1992 to 1997. This results in marginal land, which requires more resources like water, being put into production.

  • Our food is increasingly in the path of development. About 86% of U.S. fruits and vegetables, and 63% of our dairy products, are produced in urban-influenced areas.

  • Wasteful land use is the problem, not growth itself. From 1982 to 1997, the U.S. population grew by 17%, while urbanized land grew 47%. Over the past 20 years, the acreage per person for new housing almost doubled; since 1994, 10 plus acre housing lots have accounted for 55% of the land developed.