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Farmland: going, going

Are Americans going to get serious about saving the farmlands that are being recklessly wasted the way energy used to be? Or are they going to wait until they have to line up for food the way they had to line up for gasoline? They have the opportunity to avoid their mistakes on energy and forestall a farmlands crisis.

As the final report of a major governmental study says, the issue today is similar to the energy efficiency issue ten years ago. An urgent resource problem can be seen down the road unless conservation goes forward, but the immediate incentives for conserving the resource seem weak.

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The means for doing so, on the other hand, are ready when government policy and private practice permit. Indeed, some successes can be recorded.

These include local balanced development programs that shift nonagricultural ventures away from farmland that is being paved over or otherewise used for nonfarm purposes at the rate of three million acres a year. They also include treating the land with care to reduce the erosion which takes away five billion tons of topsoil a year.

It is not only a United States problem, of course. But as the world's major food exporter the US has to realize that its success or failure in saving its farmland will affect both its economy and the food needs of other countries.

This month has brought two major spurs toward doing something about it:

* The final report, mentioned above, of the National Agricultural Lands Study. It is accompanied by "The Protection of Farmland: A Reference Guidebook for State and Local Governments," almost 300 pages described as the first comprehensive evaluation of farmland protection programs ever published in the US. It is full of information on programs already underway to help in designing such programs suited to local circumstances.

As it is, if farmland is converted to other uses at the 1967-77 rate, the report sees such disturbing results as these: Florida, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island would lose all of their prime farmland within twenty years. West Virginia would lose 73 percent; Connecticut, 70 percent; Massachusetts, 51 percent. And the list goes on.

Until recently the US had plenty of unused and underused farmland available. In addition the increases in yield per acre were more than making up for the farmland lost to other uses. But rapid changes involving food, energy, and economics at home and abroad have created uncertainties, says the report. The question is whether America's land base will have the capacity to meet the levels of production required by tomorrow.

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To do so it will need more of what the lands study has found to be effective. Most successful programs started off simply by getting citizens involved in studying the situation. Among key ingredients have been strong local leadership , farmer participation from the beginning, sufficient financial and technical support, initiation before nonfarm development pressures became too strong, and inclusion in comprehensive growth management providing alternatives for development on less productive farmland.

On the federal level, the study found policies to consider effects on farmlands in only two of 37 federal agencies with programs that sometimes actually encourage the conversion of productive farmland to other uses. It reasonably calls for the President or Congress to take a lead in enunciating the national interest in protecting such lands -- and calling for the adoption of policies to do so.

* The federal government is the principal target of an effort launched by the Natural Resources Defense Council to reduce the disappearance of topsoil through erosion. It gives the government credit for efforts without which the topsoil losses might be at the rate of a billion more tons a year. But it warns of farm aid programs that can encourage erosion by going to farmers who do not practice soil conservation. One result is that the wasteful farmers may produce more for a time, gaining more income than farmers who do practice conservation in the interest of the land's future.

The trend may be positive -- with farmers using "no-till" and other forms of conservation tillage on 60 million acres in 1980 as opposed to four million 16 years before. But that leaves 300 million acres to go.

The council suggests that loans, target prices, storage payments and other aid be given farmers in return for compliance with cost-effective conservation practices selected by local boards of farmers.

"What we have today," says a council spokesman, "is a steady destruction of the soil base with the federal government continuing to finance farms that ignore the conservation practices being promoted by local farm organ izations. That must change."

So it must.

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