fedgazette

Is farmland endangered?

Edward Lotterman - Agricultural Economist

Published July 1, 1997  |  July 1997 issue

Change in Crop and Urban Land,
1945-1992
  % change
Crop
1945-92
% change
Urban
1945-92
Urban
as % of
all land
Minnesota
5.47
119.6
2.4
Montana
61.23
249.0
0.2
North Dakota
18.00
152.3
0.3

South Dakota

10.16
112.3
0.3
Wisconsin
-18.11
159.4
3.0
Ninth District
13.63
140.8
1.0
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

From time to time there are news stories decrying the loss of farmland, primarily to urbanization. Is this a problem in the Ninth District? The figures at right suggest that while urbanized areas may be growing, such growth has not reduced the amount of cropland in the district. From 1945 to 1992, urban areas more than doubled in all district states. But in spite of this growth, the area of cropland also grew in all states, except Wisconsin. And only in Minnesota and Wisconsin did urban areas make up more than a fraction of 1 percent of total land.

The 60 percent increase in cropland in Montana over these 47 years indicates how suitability for farming depends on product prices. Much of the Montana land whose topography permits tillage is marginal land, land that can be profitably cropped when grain prices are relatively high, but gives greater return as pasture when grain prices are low. Wisconsin's decrease in cropland is largely the same phenomenon. Even if all Wisconsin's increase in urban land came about through conversion of cropland, which is unlikely, urbanization would account for only a third of the decline in Wisconsin cropland. Most of the decline was due to the demise of small dairy farms in the northern third of the state, where soils are relatively poor and the growing season short. Cropland on such farms reverted to forest or pasture. But if prices rose high enough, it might conceivably go back into grain or forage production some day.

While 2.3 percent of Minnesota is urbanized, little of the best agricultural land in the state is. Much of the 10-county Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area was cropped at some time, but the soils in these counties are not nearly as productive as those in the southern three tiers of counties or in the Red River Valley. In Wisconsin, most of the urbanized 3 percent of land is in the southeast quadrant of the state. For the 26 counties that are located in the Ninth District, the proportion of urban land is probably about the same as in the Dakotas.

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