Tom Eblen

Kentucky has been rapidly losing farmland. Where most of it went may surprise you.

About 63 percent of the farmland Kentucky has lost since 1992 has gone to low-density residential development, like this subdivision in southern Fayette County, according to a new national analysis by the American Farmland Trust.
About 63 percent of the farmland Kentucky has lost since 1992 has gone to low-density residential development, like this subdivision in southern Fayette County, according to a new national analysis by the American Farmland Trust.

Kentucky’s rich farmland is rapidly disappearing, and most of it is being lost to a different kind of development than you might think, according to a new study by American Farmland Trust.

The high-tech study, which analyzes every piece of American agricultural land down to the quarter-acre, shows Kentucky lost 791,000 acres between 1992 and 2012.

Urban edge expansion and suburban sprawl accounted for 37 percent, or 292,000 acres, of that loss. But 63 percent, or 499,000 acres, was lost to individual homes built on lots of two to 10 acres, mostly in rural areas.

Nationally, that kind of development accounted for 41 percent of farmland loss, putting Kentucky on the leading edge of a dangerous trend.

"The rate of farmland loss is significantly higher than we thought; roughly twice as high," said John Piotti, the president of American Farmland Trust, who is in Central Kentucky this weekend to publicize the study. “Low-density rural development is eating large amounts of farmland. It's the 10-acre house lot that is a huge issue."

More information about farmland trends will be released later this year as the Trust and its research partner, the Colorado-based firm Conservation Science Partners, completes the massive computer analysis, which combines U.S. Department of Agriculture information with data from 40 other sources.

The new study, called Farms Under Threat, includes much more information and better data analysis than the Trust’s 2007 study, Farming on the Edge, which helped spark farm conservation programs around the country.

“It is the most comprehensive study of our farmland resources that has ever been done anywhere by anyone,” Piotti said. “We can look at the past in a way we comprehensively haven't been able to, and then we can also look at the future.”

The new data allows the Trust to build computer models that predict development patterns, with and without conservation easement programs and new land-use regulations. It also can identify the most valuable land for preservation and see climate change models to predict how agricultural land will change in the future.

That is important because the Trust is not only concerned about preserving farmland, but improving farm productivity and economic models that allow farmers to be able to stay on the land.

Piotti said the extent of the large-lot development problem was a surprise nationally, but it is something Lexington has recognized since the early 1990s.

Fayette County lost 4,700 acres to 10-acre lots between 1990 and 1997, prompting the Urban County Council in 1999 to increase the minimum lot size outside the Urban Services Boundary to 40 acres. It also led to Lexington’s Purchase of Development Rights program, which has paid Fayette County landowners to put conservation easements on a total of 30,000 acres on 261 farms.

But most other Kentucky counties have few if any incentives or regulations to protect farmland from development.

The American Farmland Trust, founded in 1980, has helped preserve 6.7 million acres. While that sounds like a lot, it is less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmland.

The organization’s work helped lead creation of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Purchase of Agricultural Easements Programand the Bluegrass Conservancy. The non-profit conservancy works with agricultural landowners to put conservation easements on property that lowers their property tax bills and permanently protects land from development.

“Even though you have very active programs here, this state is lagging behind,” Piotti said. “It's kind of ironic, because you have the model in Lexington. You have the best program in the country with your Urban Service Boundary.”

Piotti would like to see conservation easement programs and stricter land-use regulations in other Kentucky counties. That’s because the state has some of the nation’s richest farmland and most abundant water resources. It also has a strong agricultural community and many people with strong affinity for the land.

“I think you have a more active local food movement than anywhere except for the two coasts,” he said. “I'm really high on Kentucky and what it can do, but there needs to be a bit of a wake-up call to make sure you don't lose the land that drives that potential.”

The W.T. Young family wants to put 85 single-family homes, 10 three-story apartment buildings and 16 townhomes on 55 acres of what is now Overbrook Farm on Armstrong Mill Road.

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