Nearly 16 million acres of land were converted to development between 1992 and 1997 - a rate of 3.2 million per year, the Agriculture Department said Monday. Between 1982 and 1992, the development rate was 1.4 million acres a year.
The development has driven up land values, providing a windfall to many farmers who live near cities and choose to sell out. But critics of the trend, including Vice President Al Gore, say that it is hurting the environment and quality of living around the nation's cities.
"These new figures confirm what communities across America already know: too much of our precious open space is being gobbled up by sprawl," said Gore, who has made suburban development an issue in his presidential campaign. "We need to help communities grow in ways that work."
Some states and cities attempt to curb farmland development by paying farmers to stay in business.
By voluntarily selling easements, farmers continue to own the land they till but are barred from pursuing non-farm activities. Supporters say the programs help channel sprawl and maintain farm clusters needed to ensure a viable agricultural supply and support network.
The 1996 federal farm law set aside $35 million over six years to supplement state and local efforts, but the money lasted only three years and met fewer than one in five requests. Bills are pending in Congress to renew the programs at $55 million a year. Gore said the Clinton administration would seek a significant increase in funding for the program for 2001.
The development data are contained in the USDA's National Resources Inventory, a study that is done every five years of the nation's nonfederal land, about 75 percent of the land base.
Data are collected from 800,000 statistically selected locations.
Government economists say the development of farmland poses no threat to the food supply. Because of improved crop yields and technology, agricultural output has increased steadily over time, at nearly two percent a year since 1948, while the amount of land that is being farmed has declined slightly, according to USDA's Economic Research Service.