Purdue University

Cooperative Extension Service

West Lafayette, IN 47907

Protecting Prime Farmland in Indiana

B. R. Wheeler and G. C. Steinhardt, Department of Agronomy; and
C. A. Sargent, Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University

Interest in the protection of Indiana's prime agricultural land is growing. At the community level, this interest is often spurred by urban sprawl into rural areas, which can bring into conflict the goals of farm and non-farm neighbors. At county and multi-county levels, planning organizations are having to deal with the farmland preservation issue as they formulate comprehensive area plans for future orderly land development. And at the state level, the General Assembly already has made an in-depth study and is fashioning what it hopes will be meaningful policy.

Just what is prime farmland? How is it determined? How much has already been lost, and how much do we have left? What are the consequences of continued loss locally, statewide and nationally? And what kind of influence can the average person have in farmland protection decisions? This publication seeks to answer these and similar questions in the belief that the best decisions come from the input of an informed citizenry.


Since passage of the Rural Development Act in 1972, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) been working to determine the types and amount of prime agricultural land in the United States. The definition of prime agricultural land has changed somewhat over time; the one currently being used by the NRCS is as follows:

Prime farmland is that land best suited for producing food, feed, forage, fiber and oilseed crops, and also available for these uses. (In other words, the land could be crop, pasture, range, forest or other land, but not built-up land or water.) It has the soil quality, growing season and moisture supply needed to produce sustained yields of crops economically if treated and managed according to modern farming methods.


The Natural Resources Conservation Service evaluates and classifies soil mapping units (areas of soil delineated on detailed county soil survey maps) as "prime" or "not prime" farmland based on characteristics that favor economic crop production. Nationally, eight uniformly applied minimum criteria must be met for a soil mapping unit to qualify as "prime".

National criteria. All prime agricultural lands possess the following characteristics:

Indiana criteria. To apply these guidelines to Indiana soils, the specific criteria that define prime farmland in this state are as follows:


By the above definition, much of our land in Indiana would be classified as prime farmland. Because the classification process is still going on, it is not known at this point how much prime farmland there is. We do know that, of the state's 23 million total acres, 15.5 million is reported as farmland; and of that, 13 million is cropland. Of the cropland, 11.5 million acres is estimated as "prime". There is also another 2.5 million acres of prime land that is in pasture or forest use. In the northern two-thirds of Indiana, most urban areas are surrounded by land that is at least 75 percent "prime".

The Indiana soil survey staff (involving Scientists of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Agricultural Research Programs at Purdue University) has developed a state map showing the general prime farmland areas. They have also completed some of the more detailed county-level maps. The newer county soil survey reports also list those mapping units that are considered to be "prime". Check with your local NRCS office to see if a prime farmland map is available for your county or if your county soil survey report lists prime farmland mapping units.


From 1940 to 1974, Indiana farmland declined by 3,015,600 acres, 48 percent of which was cropland. The NRCS currently estimates that conversion of rural land to urban uses in the state is proceeding at a rate of 85,000 acres per year.

Nationally, total farm acreage dropped from a high of 1,161 million in 1950 to 1,017 million in 1974 (a 12.4 percent loss). In that period, cropland declined 27 million acres, from 409 million to 382 million (a 6.6 percent loss). Importantly, over one-fourth of that cropland acreage loss was recorded in the five-state region of Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, which all have a high percentage of prime farmland.


The United States is not going to run out of land to feed itself within the foreseeable future; thus, reasons for preserving prime agricultural land are difficult to express just in terms of domestic food needs. But other considerations related to present and future requirements for prime land make its continued, unchecked loss a matter of grave concern. Here are some reasons why:

1.Food is produced on prime farmland more efficiently and with less soil erosion, resulting in less pollution from sediment, nutrients and pesticides. When prime land is lost, it not only takes more non-prime land to produce the same amount of food, but also results in lower returns per unit of production input. This means either higher domestic prices or less product to export.

To illustrate, there are about 66 million acres of what could be termed prime corn-growing land in the U.S. Studies of corn production trends show that, without improved technology, for every million acres planted to corn above that 66 million, average yield drops approximately 1/2 bushel per acre. So, while there are other acres on which to grow corn, they are obviously not equivalent to prime corn land.

This indicates that our nation's agricultural land base, although large, cannot be expanded much beyond current levels without sacrificing efficiency. And although some acreage could be converted to row crops, the result is lower per-acre production at a higher cost plus loss of that land's present output (such as lumber from woodland or cattle from pastureland).

2.The United States is a food-exporting country. Loss of prime farmland, as mentioned above, eventually reduces our export potential or forces into production land previously considered marginal. Much of this marginal land should remain in forage or forestry production to prevent the land resource from being damaged. However, increased pressure to export high-value foodstuffs to balance payments for imports from other countries may cause us to use such land unwisely from an agronomic standpoint.

3.Loss of agricultural land to urban development, by and large, is irreversible. The inflexibility of much urban land use makes it impractical, if not impossible, to bring such land back into production again. This is not the case when cropland is diverted to forestry, forage production or recreation uses. Such acreage can be returned to intensive grain production, if needed.


Loss of prime farmland to urban sprawl is not only costly in terms of land resources, but can also be an inefficient way for a community to grow. Too often in Indiana, growth has been by "leap frog" and "strip" development. (The term leap frog refers to development of land outside the urban limits but not adjoining it; whereas, strip development refers to growth on lots of varying sizes along rural roads near the urban area.) Both forms of development are usually characterized by relatively few home-sites on relatively large amounts of land.

These types of urban sprawl can produce severe growing pains for communities-both economic and social. For instance, public utilities for the new area may be nonexistent or stretched to the breaking point, creating water supply and waste disposal problems. And many Indiana soils which were prime for corn and soybeans are poor for septic systems. As a rural area becomes more developed, the police, fire and emergency services that were adequate for a few farm families, now have to keep pace with a population ten or a hundred times as large. And the country roads that used to serve a handful of people are unsuitable for commuter traffic. Of course, all these public facility and service improvements must be paid for by the community.

On the social side, urban encroachment can bring into conflict farm and non-farm groups whose goals and aspirations are decidedly different. To the agricultural producer who is trying to grow as much food as cheaply as possible, farming means dust, livestock odors, chemical spraying and late-night field activity. To the transplanted urbanite seeking the peace and quiet of country living, these characteristics of modern farming are not at all appreciated. In some states, nuisance laws regulating agriculture beyond strictly health and safety concerns have created tremendous difficulties for farmers in rapidly urbanizing areas, even putting some out of business. In this atmosphere of tension, other conflicting issues are often "settled" according to which side has the most votes, rather than reasoning together.


While the "experts" may differ somewhat as to the world's ability to feed itself in the years ahead, most would agree that continued loss of highly productive agricultural land is undesirable. Here are some strong arguments for preserving land as a contingency against possible difficulties that may develop in food production.

1. Availability of energy will continue to be a problem in the future. If increasing amounts of energy are to come from biomass harvested off the land, then the nearly level, non-erosive prime lands will support intensive production of biomass far better than rolling lands. Prime agricultural land can produce both food and biomass for energy in the cheapest, most efficient manner.

2. A number of scientists feel that the earth's climate may be changing to a cooler, shorter season, particularly in the Corn Belt. If this is correct, then steps must be taken in this generation to insure that future generations have sufficient opportunity to grow food. Preserving those lands having maximum production potential under less-than-optimum growing conditions is a hedge on the side of safety. Hoped-for breakthroughs in the growing or manufacture of food may negate the need for preserving agricultural land. But can we take that chance for future generations?

3. Many developing countries already depend on food-surplus nations like the United States for their survival. Despite attempts to increase food production in those countries, this dependency will not lessen, at least not in the near future. Thus, loss of productivity due to conversion of our prime agricultural land to other uses could not only affect world food supply stability, but also markedly influence availability and price of domestic supplies.

4. If the U.S. is to maintain a diversified economy, agriculture should be an important part of that economy. Diversification tends to level out some of the peaks and valleys within a particular industry and helps maintain a greater overall measure of prosperity. By the same token, because of the interrelationships that exist among segments of the economy, if a particular industry like agriculture is curtailed, the various service industries associated with it are also affected. No input component is more important to the viability of agriculture's contribution to U.S. economic strength than the productive soils resource; thus the importance of preventing its loss.


Government policy at federal, state and local levels can greatly affect what happens to agricultural land. One key finding of the 1 980 National Agriculture Land Study was that many federal programs were responsible for irreversible loss of agricultural land by encouraging conversion to non-farm uses. This, among other things, led Congress to pass the Farmland Protection Act of 1981, which seeks to decrease the loss of farm and resulting from federal programs. Prior to passage of this Act, only two agencies--the USDA and USEPA--had policies requiring consideration of their programs' impacts on agricultural land loss.

Various states have taken similar legislative steps to insure minimum effect of state government programs on farmland conversion. Some have enacted formal laws; others, such as Illinois, have issued executive orders limiting activities of the executive branch of state government that impact agricultural land.

Local government units often deal with farmland protection issues through zoning regulations and land use planning. However, the extent of local government's ability to influence the conversion of agricultural land is greatly affected by the basic policy guidelines of state government.

Several policy options are available to preserve agricultural land within a relatively free market system, including tax incentives, farm operation protection laws and government control of land development rights.

Tax Incentive Programs

Currently, 46 states, including Indiana, assess farmland at its agricultural value rather than the market value. But this alone has not been very effective in reducing the conversion of agricultural land. Therefore, a number of states have additional incentives, including property tax advantages on agricultural land.

Some states require relatively long-term agreement by the landowner that his land will be maintained in agriculture. In return, the owner is protected from any assessments for urban development, such as sewer systems or other public utilities, and realizes a property tax break. In the event his land is converted to non-agricultural use, the owner usually must pay back taxes for the period of the agreement.

A review of tax incentive programs shows that use-value assessments by themselves are not an effective means of preserving agricultural lands. Programs that include contracts requiring land to remain in agriculture work well in rural areas, but are not very useful in urban fringe areas. In some cases, reduction of taxes can help a farmer stay in business, but it could also have the effect of partially subsidizing speculation if the qualifying requirements are not selective enough.

Laws to Protect Agriculture Operations

Zoning is a police power granted by states to local government, permitting local units to regulate the use of land. In Indiana, "exclusive agricultural zoning" can be implemented to limit the use of land solely to agriculture; this has been adopted in three counties. It is important that any system for protection of agricultural land require careful study of soil conditions and have strong public support.

Right-to-farm legislation is another legal development that several states, including Indiana, have adopted. Such laws are designed to protect farmers from nuisance suits as a result of urban encroachment. Briefly, they state that if a farming operation is not a nuisance when it started, it can't be declared a nuisance later, provided it has not greatly changed. This means, for example, that a farrow-to-finish swine operation cannot be limited by subdivision residents who have the misfortune of moving in next door.

Not all of the right-to-farm laws have been tested in court, so some might not stand up against a determined suit. And while these laws can better the conditions for farming operations, by themselves they still may have only a minor impact on urban development of agricultural land.

Government Purchase of Development Rights

Some states in the eastern U.S. have purchased the development rights for limited tracts of farmland to provide "green belts" in the midst of intense urban development. In an area with a relatively large percentage of agricultural land, this is not a practical alternative.

A major difficulty in this method of agricultural land protection involves compensation to landowners for loss of development rights. One attempt to provide adequate and equitable compensation is the transfer fee system, which operates as follows:


* At the state level, the General Assembly formed a temporary legislative study committee in 1979 to investigate the prime farmland issue. The result was a report recognizing the importance of the issue and the need for preserving Indiana's land resources. However, no legislation was developed.

* In the late 1970s, a Land Use Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on State Planning was also convened to discuss the issue of prime agricultural land preservation. In August 1979, this group summarized the results of its deliberation in a pamphlet entitled, "Prime Agricultural Land Preservation in Indiana: Need, Definition and Alternatives." Limited quantities are available from local NRCS offices.

* Another group made up of U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies was formed in 1980 to investigate and monitor the fate of agricultural land.

* As mentioned earlier, NRCS and Purdue University soil scientists have developed a map showing the distribution of prime agricultural land on a statewide basis. This map, available in local NRCS offices as well as from the Agricultural Experiment Station at Purdue, is useful in identifying broad areas where urban development may conflict with agricultural use of land. Individual county maps, now being prepared by NRCS, are sufficiently detailed to show the extent and location of significant tracts of prime agricultural land. Your local NRCS office either has the map or knows when it will be completed.

* Numerous non-governmental groups and organizations have also been studying the question of prime agricultural land. Farm groups, including the Indiana Farm Bureau, Indiana Farmers Union, Indiana State Grange and National Farmers Organization, have all issued policy statements generally favoring the concept of agricultural land protection. Copies of these statements are available from the organizations mentioned. Various service, religious and professional groups, such as League of Women Voters and Soil Conservation Society of America, also have studies and position statements on the issue.


In the United States, and Indiana in particular, we are truly fortunate to have a great soils resource. It has been a major contributing factor to a standard of living that is the envy of the world. Future generations will undoubtedly depend on this same soils resource for their food. What we leave them as a legacy is determined by the land use decisions being made today--not just by government but by individuals as well.

There are several ways to become better informed on the prime farmland issue. Ask your local planning commission about how they are approaching the matter. Visit the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office to get information on the extent and location of prime farmland in your community. The situation nationally is summarized in the "Final Report of the National Agricultural Land Study," available in various libraries and for purchase from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. Numerous articles in popular magazines are also available in local libraries.

For a more thorough discussion of the issue, what's involved and how it might be dealt with at local and state levels, see Purdue Extension publication EC-563, "Farmland Protection Techniques," at your county Cooperative Extension Service office or order from CES Publications Mailing Room, 301 South Second Street, Lafayette, IN 47905 (cost, $1.00).

All of us, by action or inaction, will participate in the decisions made about prime farmland. The options are many, and careful study will be needed to make reasoned decisions. We owe it to ourselves--and our children--to become informed on this issue.

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Cooperative Extension work in Agriculture and Home Economics, state of Indiana, Purdue University, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperating; H.A. Wadsworth, Director, West Lafayette, IN. Issued in furtherance of the acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. The Cooperative Extension Service of Purdue University is an affirmative action/equal opportunity institution.