Multifunctional rural landscapes: Impacts of land-use change in Nebraska

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By Twyla M. Hansen and Charles A. Francis The conversion of farmland near cities to other human uses is a global trend that challenges our long-term capacity to provide food, fiber and ecosystem services to a growing world population. If current trends continue in the U.S., the population will reach 450 million by the year 2050. At the same time, an accelerating change in land use will reduce today’s two acres per person of farmland to less than one acre per person. This is scarcely enough to produce food for our domestic population, without any food available for export—even assuming advances in technology. We need to take these trends seriously, as the national economy and domestic food security are threatened by conversion of land to nonfarm uses.

Rural land conversion in the U.S. and Nebraska

In recent years, many parts of the rural landscape in the U.S. have been converted to other uses through development, resulting in a loss of farm, ranch and forest land from production. In part, this change is due to an increase in the urban population. Between 1980 and 2000, the U.S. added more than 50 million people, a 24 percent increase. During the same time period, the amount of land in urban uses increased by more than 34 percent, with most converted from prime crop and forest lands. A USDA survey shows a 12 percent decrease in cropland between 1982 and 2003—from 420 to 368 million acres. Urban sprawl and rural land conversion to nonfarm uses are becoming causes for concern, and alternative strategies for using land need to be examined. Many areas of the country are now taking steps to improve efficiency of their land-use practices and are embracing thoughtful planning to limit sprawl.

Implications of rural land-use changes

The majority of Nebraska’s population is concentrated in the eastern part of the state. According to a recent three-year land-use study of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, the metro-area population is projected to double from about one million in 2000 to two million people by 2050 within a 60-mile radius surrounding Omaha. This includes Lincoln and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Urban-influenced growth will impact ecological and agricultural systems and the region’s quality of life. Rapid urbanization is occurring between the two metropolitan areas along the I-80 corridor, especially at the interchanges. One result is conversion of agricultural and wooded land to other uses, as well as damage to the area’s fragile ecosystem. In Nebraska, the long-term implications of farmland conversion include: *Reduction in the supply of fresh local food for human consumption; *Decline in local, established businesses that serve agriculture; *Fewer opportunities in rural economic development, such as employment in businesses that produce, process, package and market agricultural products serving metro-area customers; *Loss of wildlife habitat and ecosystem services provided by farm and ranch lands; *Reduced recreational opportunities on farmed areas and adjoining woodlands and stream corridors; *Elimination of a “viewshed” that includes working agricultural landscapes; *Reduced water quality and less potential to recharge the groundwater supply when land is covered with houses, roads and other impermeable surfaces; *Lower flood-control capacities due to loss of permeable land surfaces; *Reduced potential to retain and attract highly skilled persons who value outdoor recreation, wide choices of fresh food, and other amenities provided by the agricultural landscape; and *Increased pressure on public finances due to the higher fiscal burden of providing services to low-density developed areas such as rural subdivisions and individual acreages.

Managing urban growth

In the U.S., rapidly urbanizing communities are struggling with the question of whether or not the loss of farmland and agriculture is inevitable in expanding metro areas and an unexpected but essential cost of economic development. They are exploring whether public and private efforts can succeed in preserving open space and viable food-growing land. Many communities in the U.S. and especially in Europe have been able to balance expanding populations and commerce with a desire to maximize the remaining open space. Eastern Nebraska has more people and less well-distributed water resources than the rest of the state. Productive soils and normally adequate rainfall allow dryland farming, and there is limited irrigation of high-value crops. Rural areas and communities have access to growth-management tools that can be used to phase the expansion of urbanized areas into agricultural land, reducing many of the associated problems with sprawl development near cities. These management tools include zoning, purchase of development rights and designation of historical sites, including farms. Another option is donation of land—with or without maintaining the right to farm—to public or nonprofit groups that will preserve the character of the landscape and make it available to society at large through conservation easements. Obstacles to slowing unplanned development and maintaining land in agriculture include unaffordable land prices and inadequate resources for beginning farmers, including young persons with farm backgrounds lacking land and equipment. Other challenges are government zoning and other regulations, as well as nonfarm neighbor complaints that hinder farm-management freedom. However, successful efforts in Nebraska so far have resulted in: *Policies in place to protect floodplain areas for agricultural use; *Zoning policies such as cluster zoning to protect upland agricultural areas; *Discussions of transfer of development rights in Lancaster County; *Growing consumer interest in farmers’ markets and increased numbers of metro-area growers willing to produce for them; *Expanded production of nursery crops in metro areas with low transportation costs between the producing farms and the ultimate consumers. *Farming of energy crops in metro areas on other than temporary or remnant fields; and *Regional, multidisciplinary and stakeholder studies and consensus-building approaches to land-use practice, policy and planning.

Impacts of changes in today’s agriculture

Along with urbanization, there have been major changes in agricultural practices over the last few decades. Because of growth in farming, Nebraska has lost a majority of its historic native-prairie vegetation in the eastern half of the state and one-third of its historic wetlands. Change from a diverse landscape into one that is mostly monoculture crops may enhance short-term economic gain, but it reduces the long-term potential for providing ecosystem services. These natural processes—including pollutant filtration, slowing runoff, a source of natural predators and pollinators—are vital to both urban and rural populations but are often taken for granted. The increased use of technology and monoculture-crop practices result in externalized costs to the environment, such as natural-resource depletion and pollution, that are not reflected in the market or in low food prices at the supermarket, but instead are passed on to society and the environment and paid for by other means, often in the future. However, in recent years direct marketing and sustainable and organic agriculture operations have grown in the U.S. and Nebraska, along with consumer demand for local sources of food. The organic foods market has grown 20 percent every year since 1990. Agri-tourism and other alternative on-farm/-ranch enterprise activities, such as growing alternative products, can add value to present systems, use alternative and organic methods and offer seasonal or recreational activities. They can allow farmers and ranchers to earn higher profits in addition to or instead of conventional methods. The increase in Nebraska wineries in the past few years is just one example of this growing potential for niche markets and agri-tourism in the state.

Farmland conversion realities

Economic and social realities lead to changes in land-use patterns in the rural landscape. People who desire open space purchase acreages or small areas of prairie or forest for home sites or land for hunting and recreation. Rural lands carry an agricultural value, and are typically much less expensive than urban building sites. Acreage development often leads to increased demand for services and infrastructure, such as paved roads, police and fire protection, snow clearing, connections to sewer and water and the electricity grid. Need for all these services places a burden on nearby communities to which they are linked. Moreover, the longer trips by private cars, school buses and other service vehicles to and from rural home sites, compared to urban locations, results in more fuel consumed and related higher carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to ozone depletion and global climate change. There are obvious economic reasons for farmland conversion to other uses. Land that is suitable for dryland farming with a value of $1,500 per acre, for example, is often worth ten times or more per acre for housing if it is near a city. Landowners would find it difficult to resist the temptation and not accept the opportunity because of the cost of staying in farming and not developing such land. Big-box retailers want inexpensive land for parking and access to a large regional market, and often seek rural land on the urban edge that is far less expensive than similar areas in town. Tax bills on farmland, on which the assessments should be based only on the land’s agricultural-use value, often inflate due to additional rising school budgets and other taxing unit costs. Unless there is some relief or protection or there is a financial commitment by the community to maintain those lands in open space—such as purchase of development rights—it can be costly to stay in farming at that location. There is opportunity to sell the land, move out of the area influenced by sprawl, and perhaps purchase a larger tract of land elsewhere to continue farming or ranching. Some communities have taken advantage of long-term planning strategies to provide for economic growth in less land-consumptive patterns and for preservation of productive agricultural soils. There are advantages of maintaining farmland near the city, such as intensive food production for the nearby urban-population market, which provides fresh food with lower transportation costs and results in energy conservation. Communities that value open space, farming and local food production as integral parts of the local economy are motivated to take steps to assure that some of the land can remain open, and thus ensure the preservation of ecosystem services and provide for greater food security.

Benefits of peri-urban agriculture

According to the USDA, farms in metro areas are an important part of U.S. agriculture, making up 33 percent of all farms and a third of the value of U.S. agricultural output. Unlike large-scale conventional agriculture, peri-urban agriculture can include smaller operations raising horticultural crops and livestock products—fresh food for direct markets as part of a local food system. Low-density housing developments near cities and rural acreages or “ranchettes” within commuting distances of cities often fragment or hinder conventional agriculture operations and open-space functions. However, farmers on the urban fringe can adapt to urban-influenced growth by changing to alternative higher-value products and more intensive production methods on smaller land parcels. Consumers can play a huge role in agricultural production by purchasing fresh food raised by local farmers. Local systems can provide a safe source of food from locally accountable producers, and grow the local economy through the food-dollar multiplier effect. Local food systems can provide a source of fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, nursery plants, flowers and livestock products grown near urban areas, reducing the need for extensive processing, materials for packaging and energy for shipping. Foods are grown for sale at peak freshness within a short time of harvest, providing a greater variety of nutritious and flavorful food with less processing. There is also less concern for its ability to withstand shipping or over-ripening, since it will be consumed in a short time. Similarly, rotational grazing systems are a more sustainable alternative to large-scale, confined-animal feeding operations, and can supply meat, poultry and dairy products on a small and medium scale. This system can also lower feed costs, recycle nutrients and improve animal health in local food systems. It is unrealistic to believe that area farmers can supply all food needs for all local markets, yet supplying a portion provides benefits to local systems. Both urban and rural residents can benefit from productive agricultural land and open space near cities. Today’s typical pattern of city growth is based on automobile transportation and favors suburban sprawl into the countryside, with little regard to the amount of land used, and offers few opportunities for interaction between urban and rural people. Keeping downtown areas viable is important to cities, and one way communities can achieve this is to support their local farmers’ markets. Communities that value their local economy and integrity can also plan for growth through comprehensive land-use policy and regulation, preserve open lands and farm lands near cities for future local food production, follow various “smart-growth” principles for needed city expansion, offer incentives for peri-urban agriculture included in development plans, and help local farmers stay in business through tax relief on their development-potential land or by other means.

Multifunctional rural landscapes for the future

Multiple factors and points of view must be considered by private action groups as well as public-sector planners in designing a future rural landscape in order to maintain a productive landscape as well as allow economic growth, taking into account the future needs of society and the environment as a whole. Incentives can be provided for beginning and present farmers to help develop local food systems while maintaining a diverse landscape and ecosystem services for society. Often, planning attention focuses exclusively on cities, where most of the people and votes and power are concentrated. But Nebraska is still a rural state, with 93 percent of the land used for farming and ranching. The economy and quality of life depends on a vibrant and diverse rural landscape and its contribution to a healthy environment. Economic incentives will need to come at least in part from the public sector in order to assure long-term progress toward equity in access to benefits of natural resources and the rural landscape. Success in future land use programs will depend in large part on education so that all stakeholders—in rural and urban communities—have a part in the planning process and feel ownership of the results.

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