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Disappearing farmland: An issue for One Region Forward

Submitted by One Region Forward:
Since 1970, the Buffalo-Niagara region has lost more than 1,250 working farms, and nearly 160 square miles of farmland – an area four times the size of the City of Buffalo and down by roughly a third from what we had 40 years ago.
Why is the loss of farms and farmland a concern for regional sustainability? Because local farms make fresh and healthy foods more securely accessible to family tables in our cities and suburbs. Because locally produced food can have a dramatically smaller “carbon footprint” than food shipped from thousands of miles away. Because farming can be an important part of our regional economy, providing good income and jobs. [Learn More]
This is one of the issues being considered as part of the creation of a regional plan for sustainable development under the banner of One Region Forward – and one of the topics to be discussed as part of an occasional series of “data stories” in Buffalo Rising. Please visit our website.
Led by a consortium of public, private, and not-for-profit organizations in Niagara and Erie Counties and funded by the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, One Region Forward is addressing the interconnected issues of land use and development, transportation and mobility, housing and neighborhoods, climate change action, and food access and justice.
The goal is to create a regional plan for sustainable development that will help us shape our region to be more prosperous, healthy, and equitable for our children, our children’s children, and the generations beyond.

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How much agricultural land have we been losing?
Nearly 30 percent of Buffalo Niagara (that’s 456 square miles) is devoted to agriculture. If that seems like a lot, imagine forty years ago when 40 percent of land within our two counties (that’s 616 square miles) was used for farming.
The region has lost 1,254 operating farms since 1969, 789 in Niagara County alone. This decline reveals the precarious position of agriculture in Buffalo-Niagara; since 1969, every year sees over 4 square miles of agricultural land converted to other uses. That’s more land we lose for the production of our region’s staple products such as apples, wine, dairy and vegetables.

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This lengthens the distance between farm and dinner table, increases energy inputs into the agricultural process, and increases our dependence on distant food sources. It also hinders creation of a more robust local economy and sustainable food culture.
Why this is important to moving one region forward?

Many of us take access to food for granted. We go to the supermarket and buy what we want. We don’t necessarily think about where it comes from, how it gets here, or what might happen to disrupt the supply.
If we continue to lose our farms and farmlands our ability to supply any significant proportion of our food needs locally will be greatly diminished. Food shipped from long distances – California, Florida, South and Central America – involves greater consumption of fossil fuels and production of greenhouse gases. And food produced far away is inherently less reliable than food grown closer to home. This is especially so given that we don’t know what impact climate change will have on the growing regions from which we get much of our food now.

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As farmland goes fallow or is consumed by sprawling residential development, our agricultural economy shrinks further. The number of jobs, not just on farms, but in transporting, processing, and marketing food, continues to decline. When we “grow” homes where fruits and vegetables used to grow, we also trade land that produces value with land that consumes costly puslbic services.
What strategies can we adopt to decrease agricultural land loss in our region?
One of the most important ways to protect agricultural land from conversion to development is to support the economic viability of the farms we already have. Some farms are building connections to local restaurants that feature local products. Others have established Community Supported Agriculture programs through which consumer purchase produce directly from the farmer. Improving marketing and distribution can help farms reach markets and raise sales.
But we can also protect farmland more directly. Conservation easements can be applied to farms, where farmers get paid to preserve their land in agriculture. Localities could create “transfer of development rights” where developers get density bonuses in developed areas for protecting farmland elsewhere. Zoning and property tax policy can also protect farmers from paying taxes on what their land would be worth if it were converted to single family housing.
One Region Forward Working Team
How can we ensure that all of our citizens have access to fresh, affordable, healthy, and nutritious food? The Food Access and Justice working team will generate proposals to improve access in “food deserts,” protect farmland in our region from urbanization, promote the health of enterprises that produce and process food and fiber, and improve the connections between farm and market. The team will work closely with the other working teams to ensure that proposals align.  [Learn more about our Working Teams]
Get involved
Help us chart a course for our region’s future by becoming a Working Team Contributor. YOU know what IS and what ISN’T working in YOUR community. Share your knowledge and expertise with our Working Team Members and inform the decision making process. [Become a Work
ing Team Contributor
]
Lead Image: Where are we losing our agricultural land?
Data Sources:
Census of Agriculture, USDA-National Agricultural Statistical Service. (2009, 1999, 1989, 1980, 1976). 
U.S. Geological Survey. (1997). 1992 New York Land Cover Dataset.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistical Survey, Research and
Development Division, Geospatial Information Branch, Spatial Analysis Research Section. (2011). New York Cropland Data Layer.

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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