Residential, commercial sprawl threatens farmland in Indiana

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ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) — Agriculture in rural Indiana has been negatively impacted by residential and commercial sprawl.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that between 1982 and 2012, residential and commercial developments claimed more than 740,000 acres of land that had previously been cropland, forest land and prairie.

Development can destroy wildlife habitat, increase environmental contamination and decrease the capacity to grow food, The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin reported. The farmland decrease can also lead to non-environmental problems, such as food prices increasing.

The rate of rural land conversion slowed after the housing market crash of 2008, but data from the department show the pace is picking back up as the economy recovers.

“You can see in Indiana, when things (economically) were starting to recover, it still shows pretty steady growth in acreage of developed land and more farmland and forest being lost,” said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Conversion has slowed down, but it certainly still is a problem.”

Craig Dobbins, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, said the answer isn’t to stop building homes and businesses outside of large cities, but to better plan development to avoid uneven and unnecessary sprawl.

“Certainly, this is a trend that has been going on probably since the country was founded,” he said. “So what we can do to prevent excess . comes in the form of planning on the boundaries of how a city or town grows.”

He said many Indiana counties and communities have set zoning ordinances that encourage development near the community’s center while discouraging development on the rural outskirts.

Maloney said the most recent development trends include younger home buyers who wish to live in small communities instead of purchasing large plots of former farmland to build homes.

“We had policy that encouraged sprawl, and now it seems that trend is reversing and you see a lot of new urban development and redevelopment focused on bringing people back to the cities,” he said. “From our standpoint, and the environment’s standpoint, those are all positive things.”