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Northwest Arkansas and its communities often make national “Best Places to Live” lists. Area residents, civic, and business leaders are proud to be recognized for the efforts taking place to drive both the economy and quality of life in the place we call home.
Over the summer of 2020, however, our state made another list, and unfortunately this one is a cause of concern. American Farmland Trust, (AFT) under its groundbreaking multi-year study Farms Under Threat: The State of the States, documented Arkansas’s high rate of farmland conversion and ranked Arkansas dead last among all 50 states for its lack of statewide policies or programs to retain and permanently protect farmland. Mississippi, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Oklahoma ranked similarly to Arkansas. New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Vermont ranked in the top five for their efforts. AFT’s Agricultural Land Protection Scorecard shows how all 50 states have—or have not—responded to the leading threats to agricultural land: development pressure, weakening agricultural viability, and the transfer of land to a new generation.
From 2001 to 2016, more than 267,000 acres of farmland in Arkansas were converted to urban and highly developed use, as well as low-density residential use. According to the 2014 Plantrician Project, it takes 3.25 acres to feed one person annually a standard western diet consisting of protein, including the crops raised to feed livestock. If we divide the loss of Arkansas farmland documented in this report by the acreage required to feed a person annually, we can estimate a decreased food supply for some 82,000 people. You can see a summary report about Arkansas Agricultural Land Conversion to learn more or explore interactive maps.
While some may argue Arkansas has plenty of farmland and other working lands, we have learned through our NWA Farm-Link program the challenges farmers face when seeking or transferring farmland. Land costs are rising, as is the average age of farmers. Four times as many food producers are over the age of 65 compared to those under 35. Family heirs are reluctant to continue farming operations, and beginning farmers often lack access to the capital required to enter the market.
The American Farmland Trust hosted a webinar July 14, 2020 to share Arkansas-specific data from the Farms Under Threat study. It was recorded and is made available here. We encourage those in agriculture and related industries, as well as those working in city, county, or state planning roles, to review this data and discuss strategies to address our rapid rate of farmland loss.
A complementary American Farmland Trust report provides useful suggestions for taking action, and provides baseline data to measure against. The suggested actions include:
Action 1: Analyze and Map Agricultural Land Trends and Conditions
Action 2: Strengthen and/or Adopt a Suite of Coordinated Policies to Protect Farmland
Action 3: Support Farm Viability and Access to Land for a New Generation of Farmers and Ranchers
Action 4: Plan for Agriculture, Not Just Around It
Action 5: Save the Best, but Don’t Forget the Rest
As a partner grantee of the Walton Family Foundation NWA Food Systems Initiative, along with the University of Arkansas, The Food Conservancy, and other sustainable agriculture-focused nonprofits, our goal is to grow more local food, increase farm viability, develop new food market opportunities, and help farmers access land. This gives me hope that we are on the right track to help Arkansas #savefarmland.
We look forward to sharing updates about what we are learning through NWA Farm-Link and through the NWA Land Trust’s broader conservation efforts that benefit our community’s drinking water, wildlife, biodiversity, climate resiliency and recreation. We see a future where we can turn this last place ranking around for the better, just as we have in the past with other challenges. Because we are, after all, one of the best places to live, work, and raise a family.

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