The Future of Agricultural Land Preservation

Government responses to the urbanization of agricultural land have recognized the need to develop programs to support agricultural viability in conjunction with agricultural land preservation policies. However, policies to protect agricultural land must account for the uncertainty of the agricultural economy. If farming becomes too unprofitable an occupation, it will not be economically viable for governments or private landowners to preserve farmland in anticipation of changes in the market. Similarly, if high quality farmland is not preserved, farmers will be forced to farm marginal lands that will be less sustainable and harm the resource base and economy in the long term. Clearly, agricultural land preservation programs must coexist with programs supporting the agricultural economy to ensure the sustainability of the land resource, the long term viability of the industry and the food supply. Farming is not just a lifestyle, it is an economic activity, and if it cannot be undertaken in a way that allows farmers an adequate life, then how much farmland has been saved from bricks and mortar matters little.

No single farmland preservation strategy has proven entirely effective and it is unlikely that a perfect strategy exists. Similarly, there is no existing set of universal characteristics that can guarantee farmland preservation and a viable agricultural industry. A strategy that works in one jurisdiction may fail in another. The success or failure of a strategy depends on a number of political, social, and environmental values and circumstances: land productivity, income levels of area residents, level of planning experience, skills and leadership of government officials, public attitudes toward land use control, land ethics, and the need, perceived or real, to preserve farmland.

Nevertheless, for a farmland preservation strategy to succeed, certain characteristics should exist. The presence of these characteristics may also be used to measure the effectiveness of farmland preservation policies and programs. A comprehensive list of criteria, which may be used to evaluate the effectiveness of a proposed, or existing agricultural land preservation program includes: does the program identify high quality agricultural lands to be protected? Does the program prevent or limit landuse conflicts? Does the program provide certainty that significant agricultural lands will remain available for agricultural use? Does the program provide an integrated approach to agricultural land use planning and meet the objectives of economic and environmental sustainability? Can the program be implemented using existing resources? Can the program be implemented readily? Will it provide immediate results? Is the program supported by farmers, municipalities, and the public? Does it address the concerns of these groups? Is the program affordable? Will it negatively affect the agriculture and food industry in the long term? Is the program compatible with other land use planning and financial programs? These criteria are useful measures of policy effectiveness. While some argue that policies and programs to preserve agriculture should focus on land use planning rather than exclusively on other initiatives, such as tax incentives, others argue that preservation initiatives do not guarantee viable agriculture if they focus too much on physical land use planning.

In contrast to the criteria presented above, a purely economic view argues that farmland preservation strategies will not be effective unless they influence the rural land market so that farmers are not outbid by households seeking rural nonfarm lifestyles. In other words, preservation strategies must reduce or eliminate the impermanence syndrome and the speculative value of land; otherwise, farmers will sell their land and/or cease farming. In this context, preservation strategies must incorporate social and economic considerations and work in cooperation with farmers, families, and professional associations.

While many areas appear to account for various social, environmental, and economic issues by using two or more strategies to preserve farmland, these are rarely coordinated into a larger framework. Legislation and policy influencing agriculture and land use are developed and enforced by various government departments and agencies. Land use planning for agriculture and the economic health of the agri food industry are generally regarded as separate issues, yet they are very much connected. If farming cannot remain a viable industry, then farmers will choose other occupations, thereby freeing up land for consumption by other uses. In the meantime, if there is no intervention to protect the agricultural land base, then farmers may choose to make a quick profit by selling their land when development pressures escalate.

Agriculture is an important industry in most nations, and the most basic resource – land – should be a national concern. While the forces behind agricultural land conversion are often found at a broader scale than that at which land use planning is normally carried out, it seems clear that all levels of government should play a role in slowing or preventing agricultural land conversion, and preserving the agricultural land base.While municipalities are primarily left with the often voluntary responsibility of protecting farmland through local land use planning (usually under provincial land use law or policy), most upper level governments, take charge of agricultural research and financial support programs. Further, strategies to preserve farmland need to coordinate preservation policy with the development of a viable and environmentally sustainable agricultural industry. These strategies should be part of an integrated effort within and among government departments and jurisdictions, because issues affecting agriculture and landuse occur at various scales, often transcending political boundaries. Additionally, land use strategies which integrate conservation techniques involve farming and local populations, and combine landuse planning with other forms of social and economic development to hold more promise for achieving farmland preservation, and social and economic goals.


In response to growing concerns about the loss of farmland to nonagricultural land uses, many jurisdictions have adopted a variety of approaches to preserve farmland. Policy and legislative tools are used to combat the loss of farmland in different ways with varying degrees of success. Most areas use land use planning controls to influence the use and allocation of agricultural land, and tax or other incentives to encourage farmers to keep their land in agricultural use. This combination of techniques attempts to protect land for agricultural use while keeping farming profitable for farmers. While farmland conversion has generally been slower than it would have been in the absence of farmland preservation strategies, it has not been eliminated. The future of farmland preservation depends on the coordinated efforts of all levels of government and the integration of economic, social, and environmental issues into a comprehensive land use program designed to preserve farmland and the agricultural industry.