Since the beginning of the 21st century, the U.S. has lost millions of acres of farmland to development, and Indiana lawmakers want to know how much farmland the state might be losing and why.
The Indiana Senate will consider House Bill 1557, authored by Rep. Kendell Culp, which instructs the Indiana State Department of Agriculture to conduct an inventory of all the farmland lost in Indiana between 2010 and 2022 and identify the cause of the loss.
The bill has already passed the Indiana House of Representatives and the Senate Committee on Agriculture.
“I think we all know in Indiana the importance of agriculture. It’s a real economic driver, not only to our state’s economy, but it’s crucial to the economy of our rural communities,” Culp testified. “I realized that we really needed the data to see how serious this issue was, if it was a serious issue at all.”
Agriculture contributes about $31.2 billion to the state’s economy. According the ISDA, about 80% of all the land in Indiana is devoted to farms, forests and woodlands.
Indiana farmlands can help combat climate change. They emit much less greenhouse gases than developed land overall and can prevent tens of millions more metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere through no-till farming and the use of cover crops.
A 2022 study by the American Farmland Trust found that the U.S. lost 11 million acres of farmland, or about 2,000 acres of farmland and ranchland a day, between 2001 and 2016.
About 7 million acres of farmland was converted to low-density residential areas, or areas with single-family homes or buildings with a small number of units. The remaining 4 million acres of farmland were lost to the construction of commercial buildings, industrial sites and other urban growth.
The group warns that without better planning at the local level, the U.S. could lose another 18.4 million acres of farmland by 2040.
Former ISDA director Bruce Kettler, who now serves as CEO of the Agribusiness Council of Indiana, said an inventory would help determine whether the farmland lost in Indiana was adding value to the state’s economy or hurting it overall.
“If we step back and look from a business perspective, it might be good. Maybe we’re able to bring in businesses and know what they can do. They can add value to the products that our farmers are producing,” Kettler testified.
Record high farmland prices, inflation-boosted prices for fertilizers and pesticides, higher fuel costs and other financial considerations have made life difficult for farmers, and about 82% of farm household income now comes from off-farm sources.
Within a one-year time frame, prices for farmland that is transitioning out of agricultural production has increased by 36.5%, potentially convincing some farmers to sell their farmland to developers.
Farmers have for years backed legislation that whittled down state and federal regulations on wetlands in order to make it easier to develop farmland or make the farmland more lucrative for sale to developers.
In 2021, farmers backed Senate Enrolled Act 389, authored by Sens. Chris Garten, Mark Messmer and Linda Rogers, members of the Indiana Builders Association also serving as state senators. SEA389 removed state protections for half of the state’s remaining wetlands and weakened the few protections that were kept in place.
The wetland protection rollback may have aided the purchase of thousands of acres of Boone County farmland containing wetlands by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. The IEDC is establishing the LEAP Lebanon Innovation and Research District, a 9,000-acre corporate and manufacturing megasite.
The full Indiana Senate could vote on the bill later this week.
Culp has also introduced another bill, House Bill 1132, which would establish a land use task force to examine growth trends in the state and what communities can do to attract economic development. That bill will be heard later this month by the Senate Committee on Commerce and Technology.