"Our ancestors were bright people," Mr. Grossi says. "They settled where the most fertile land was, so our cities are now growing on the best farmland in the country. If we continue to develop at our current rate, there won't be agriculture in some of these areas 15 or 20 years from now."
A cloud of uncertainty hangs over farming production. Biotechnology, environmental regulations, and Washington-based policies continue to change the livelihood, making it less attractive to farmers' children, who go off to college and often don't return. And when a drought occurs, farming families begin to wonder if the huge investments of time, labor, and money are worth it.
"It's increasingly difficult to convince the next generation to keep the farm in the family," says Mike Matson, a spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
Thus, when developers offer retirement-age farmers more money than they can imagine, many take it, as agonizing as that decision may be.
In Yolo County, Calif., two cities have taken a different approach. Davis and Woodland have signed an agreement that prevents a green buffer of more than 11,000 acres between them from being annexed by either community.
In some cases, governments and private conservation organizations simply buy up the property development rights from farmers so there won't be development. Twenty-four states have such programs on the books, and others will soon join them.
Local and state initiatives are responsible for protecting about 1 million acres, and now the federal government has significantly raised its support, providing $50 million for preservation in the latest farm bill.
Agricultural zoning for farmland isn't considered a true solution because zoning can be changed. Conservation easements provide more permanent protection.
With these easements (paid for by a variety of government and private sources), the farmer gets the difference between the "fair market value" and the "agricultural value" of his land.In exchange for this, a permanent deed prevents any use that limits agricultural viability. The farmer continues to own the land and can make his livelihood from it. He can pass the land on or sell it, but the land must remain in cultivation or as open space.