Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland


For generations, immigrants left their homes for a new land, and of homesteading farms on some of the millions of acres of virgin soil.

But now the land is under threat from giant agribusiness corporations, many of them owned by investment bankers, real estate developers, and, more ominously, by the threat of climate change, which is literally squeezing th last drops of water out of once-fertile soils.

While the first threat seeks to end the role of the smallholder, the latter two change the very nature of the land itself.

We come from a long line of farmers. The first Brennemans were political refugees, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 1600s in search of farmland in Pennsylvania, a colony founded by a religious dissident to provide a safe haven for other religious dissidents.

We know that small farmers care about their land, developing intimate relationships with each contour, learning which patches of soil bring the highest yields and which need special care, while investment bankers obsess only over the bottom line.

Many farmers agonize over the growing corporate control of their own land in an age when companies genetically alter the crops they plant by retaining ownership of the seeds themselves, barring farmers from doing what farmers have done for millennia — saving seeds from this year’s crop to grow next year’s harvest.

And then there are the patented chemicals made by those same corporations, chemicals needed to grow those same patented crops.

The investment funds move in

Like vultures, investment funds circle America’s wounded businesses and institutions, waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and harvest “troubled assets” everything from apartments and newspapers to — since the crash of 2008 — America’s farmland.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Madeleine Fairbairn has been looking at the change of ownership of America’s farmland, as the university reported last year:

“We’re seeing growing interest in farmland acquisition, and we are seeing new investment vehicles being developed, but we have no idea what it means for small and mid-sized farmers,” said Fairbairn, who received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study “farmland financialization” in areas of peak agricultural production in California and Illinois.

Until about 2008, financial services companies looked askance at buying farmland, but today, they are snapping it up at an impressive pace: As an example, Fairbairn says TIAA, the leading retirement investor for the academic community, owned no agricultural land before about 2007; today, TIAA controls $8 billion worth of farmland globally, investing on behalf of itself as well as other institutional investors.

“We’re in the beginning stages of what could be a significant shift in land ownership,” said Fairbairn. “Pension funds have enormous resources because they manage money for so many individuals. This has potentially major implications, since access to affordable land is a cornerstone of American agriculture.”

A rural sociologist, Fairbairn has tracked the trend since it first emerged. She has attended agricultural investment conferences where “farmland funds” were pitched to potential investors, and witnessed the development of investment vehicles that cater to the phenomenon, including publicly traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) that first came on the U.S. market in 2013.

“Land ownership is a really important part of agriculture, but one that most people spend very little time thinking about,” said Fairbairn.

California and Illinois represent two poles of U.S. agriculture: California is dominated by high-value specialty crops and “permanent crops” like almonds and wine grapes; land is very expensive; and corporations already are major players. Illinois produces commodity row crops like corn and soybeans, and is home to more small, family-owned farms.

There’s another force at work too, and that’s overseas investors.

Consider, for example, the Saudi royals, who have been scooping up American soil, buying acreage to raise hay to feed the imperial horses.

But the extent of the land grab is much greater, as the Midwest Center for for Investigative Reporting revealed in a 22 June 2017 account:

[B]etween 2004 and 2014, the amount of agricultural land held by foreign investors doubled from 13.7 million acres to 27.3 million acres — an area roughly the size of Tennessee.

While representing only about two percent of total farmland, the value of the foreign-owned U.S. farmland soared from $17.4 billion (in today’s dollars) to $42.7 billion during that same time period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Most of today’s foreign investment in agricultural land began to increase in 2005, according to the Midwest Center’s analysis.

Of the top foreign investors who own agricultural land, nine bought most of their land between 2004 and 2014, about $8.1 billion worth of farmland, the Midwest Center found.

The final threats: Destruction of the soil itself

Worse still are those threats that destroy the land itself.

Of the two, we’ll consider the less threat first — the destruction of land through development.

We begin with a map, depicting the amount of farmland lost to the bulldozer between 1992 and 2012, as revealed in Farms Under Threat: The State of America’s Farmland, a new report from the American Farmland Trust [click on the image to enlarge]:

Conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential development between 1992 and 2012

The development of agricultural land is shown in relationship to the low-to-high continuum of productive, versatile, and resilient values for agricultural land. The conversion of agricultural land to urban and low-density residential uses between 1992 and 2012 is shown as high (dark brown-red, > 25% conversion within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius], moderate [light brown-red, 10–25% conversion] and low [tan, 5–10% conversion]. Urban areas are shown in gray.

From the report:

  • Our analysis, the most comprehensive ever undertaken of America’s agricultural lands, shows that nearly twice the area of farmland was lost than was previously known. Additional major findings, include:
  • Between 1992 and 2012, we lost nearly 31 million acres of land. That’s 175 acres an hour, or 3 acres every single minute
  • 11 million of those acres were among the best farmland in the nation—classified as the most productive, most versatile and most resilient land
  • Development disproportionately occurred on agricultural lands, with 62 percent of all development occurring on farmland
  • Expanding urban areas accounted for 59 percent of the loss. Low-density residential development, or the building of houses on one- to 20-acre parcels, accounted for 41 percent

And the temperature’s rising

The final threat up for consideration today is the long-term and destructive impacts of global warming on the soil itself.

As any farmer can attest, soil is more than just inert dirt. Each soil is a complex ecosystem, harboring microbes that process soil minerals, digest dead organic matter, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses.

Crops favor specific soil types as well, requiring significant levels of fertilizers when planted in less-favorable soils. A considerable body of science reveals that changing water levels changes the microbial community, and the drier soils become, the fewer species of soil microbe can thrive, resulting in a collapse of soil biodiversity.

And now a new study reveals that drier soils also play a direct role in global warming, as starkly captures in these maps, with the upper maps reflecting the regions average temperature increases between 1965 and 2014 compared. to a 1902-1951 baseline period. The lower maps feature of projection of temperature rises for 2050-2099 compared to a 1951-2000 baseline [click on the image to enlarge]:

More from the University of California, Irvine:

Dry months are getting hotter in large parts of the United States, another sign that human-caused climate change is forcing people to encounter new extremes.

In a study published today in Science Advances  [open access], researchers at the University of California, Irvine report that temperatures during droughts have been rising faster than in average climates in recent decades, and they point to concurrent changes in atmospheric water vapor as a driver of the surge.

“Available soil moisture can remove surface heat through evaporation, but if the land is dry, there is no opportunity to transport it away, which increases the local temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a UCI graduate student in civil & environmental engineering. “Atmospheric conditions can influence soil, and we argue that they’re shaping the temperatures we experience during droughts.”

UCI’s research team analyzed observed temperature and precipitation data from the early and late 20th century and discovered that regions undergoing droughts warmed more than four times faster than areas in the southern and northeastern United States with average weather conditions. In addition, climate models showed a significant warming shift in Southern states between the late 20th century and early 21st century.

These changes point to a greater number of droughts and heat waves co-occurring. This can lead to such calamities as wildfires and loss of crop yields. Widespread conflagrations, spurred on by abnormally high summer temperatures, are currently burning around the world, including in parts of California, Scandinavia and Greece.

“Heat waves and droughts have significant impacts on their own, but when they occur simultaneously, their negative effects are greatly compounded,” said co-author Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor of civil & environmental engineering and Earth system science. “Both phenomena, which are intensifying due to climate warming, are expected to have increasingly harmful consequences for agriculture, infrastructure and human health.”

He suggested that society has a responsibility to respond to the challenges presented by this new climate reality.

“The observed escalation in the number and intensity of wildfires is likely caused by the increase in frequency of hot droughts,” AghaKouchak said. “We need to bolster our resiliency against these threats to protect our population health, food supply and critical infrastructure.”

This study was partially supported by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

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