Comment: Keeping farmland in ag production must be priority

Farmers are aging and pressures are growing to convert farmland to residential land and investment.

  • Anthony Pahnke Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
  • Sunday, April 24, 2022 1:30am
  • OpinionCommentary

By Anthony Pahnke / Tribune News Service

Luckily for my family, we get along. So when it came to deciding what to do with our farm, we agreed to form a trust to keep the land together, rather than dividing it up and selling it.

Right now, we rent most of our land to neighbors, who use it to grow crops. But our neighbors, like most farmers, are getting on in years, which raises questions about whether this relationship can continue long-term.

The U.S. Census of Agriculture, taken every five years, found that the average farmer was 57.5 years old in 2017, up from 56.3 years in 2012. (Numbers from 2022 are not available but will likely continue this trend.)

These aging farmers, like us, must make decisions about what to do with their farms, as their children move to urban areas and real estate developers are eager to buy their land for new subdivisions. Between 1992 and 2012, more than 31 million acres of U.S. farmland left food production for housing.

Without policies to dedicate land to small-scale, prospective farmers, the future of agriculture is in danger. According to the American Farmland Trust, approximately 40 percent of U.S. farmland is owned by people over 65, and thus will presumably change hands over the next 15 years. That’s approximately 370 million acres.

Some farmers see an opportunity to cash in. According to the USDA, farm real estate values increased 7 percent from 2020 to 2021 alone.

Contributing to that increase is the pension firm known as Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, or TIAA, which has been involved in large-scale transactions totaling hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland not only in the United States, but also in Brazil, Europe and Australia. Critics claim that TIAA’s acquisitions drive up land prices and contribute to the creation of plantation-style operations that use environmentally harmful chemicals.

Meanwhile, as of 2020, various European countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, as well as China, have spent billions to purchase millions of acres.

Even Bill Gates is taking advantage. The co-founder of Microsoft is now the nation’s largest private owner of farmland, with 269,000 acres as of 2020. “It’s an asset with increasing value,” explains American Farmland Trust CEO John Piotti. “It has great intrinsic value and beyond that, it is a limited resource.”

Some policies could protect farmland from wealthy elites and developers. For instance, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, a New Deal-era reform, created a land bank, which made the government a vehicle for transferring property to new farmers, instead of the market. Even though sufficient resources were never allocated to the initiative, more than $9 million was dedicated to 38,000 applicants in 1937 alone.

There’s a similar idea in the current Justice for Black Farmers Act. This bill would help potential Black farmers with credit and technical assistance to acquire farms of 160 or fewer acres. And if a farmer begins, but quits, the land reverts to the USDA for distribution to another person.

And the National Young Farmers Coalition, as part of its One Million Acres campaign, calls for creating land banks for prospective farmers, as well as a proposal to forgive the student loan debt of young producers so they can have more resources.

A trust keeps my family’s farm intact. But not every farm family has that option. For farmers who are aging and want to keep their land in agriculture, certain policies may work as bridges to help a new generation enter the profession. Hopefully, our legislators realize this, recognizing that the future of our country’s food system is at stake.

Anthony Pahnke is the vice president of Family Farm Defenders and an associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Monday, Sept. 25

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Randall Tharp’s month recovery coins after battling a fentanyl addiction.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Fentanyl crisis should force rethinking of approach

A continuum of care, that includes treatment in jails, is imperative, says a journalist and author.

Flowers bloom on the end of a dead tree on Spencer Island on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Restore salmon habitat but provide view of its work

Comments are sought on a plan to restore fish habitat to the island east of Everett with popular trails.

Comment: Carrying Narcan requires having compassion for addicts

The stigma around fentanyl addiction remains a barrier to its availability to treat those overdosing.

Comment: If AI ‘writers’ were human, they would have been fired

A series of stories, written by AI, have embarrassed news sites and raised questions about their use.

Comment: Murdoch’s out; not his legacy of ‘alternative facts’

The Fox News creator’s formula for laundering right-wing narratives as news lives on without him at the helm.

Fact check: No, migrants aren’t getting $2,200 a month from U.S.

A viral tweet by Rep. Lauren Boebert is a zombie claim that started in 2006 in Canada.

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, Sept. 24

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2015, file photo, pumpjacks are seen operating in Bakersfield, Calif. On Friday, April 23, 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would halt all new fracking permits in the state by January 2024. He also ordered state regulators to plan for halting all oil extraction in the state by 2045. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Comment: If ‘peak oil’ is ahead why is oil industry doubling down?

Fossil fuel use could peak by 2030, but Big Oil may be putting profit ahead of prudent transition.

Most Read