Craig and LaVon Griffieon live on the dividing line between farm and city. When they married, their 1,800 acres of prime land (90-98 corn suitability rating) was three miles from Ankeny, IA. Now they’re bracketed by subdivisions on three sides.

The Griffieons are staying put on the farm, which has been in the family for more than 100 years, but development is forcing changes in how they farm.

“We’re realizing we can’t have the big equipment and transport it on the road anymore,” says LaVon, who was hit while driving the tractor.

Urban neighbors’ concerns have prompted other changes. “We get lots of questions about biotechnology, so we decided to steer away from biotech hybrids,” she says.

LaVon’s greatest worry is the way development is driving up land prices. Three years ago, a farm to the east sold for $43,000/acre, almost $1/sq. ft.

“What’s really scary is that 78% of the farmland in Iowa is owned by people who are 55 or older,” says LaVon. “A lot will change hands within the next 10-15 years, but no bank is going to give a young farmer the money to buy land at these prices. It’s going to be investors.”

The Griffieons aren’t the only farmers facing this problem, according to USDA’s latest Natural Resources Inventory (NRI). The Midwestern states that produce the top 10 corn and soybean crops lost more than 4.4 million acres to conversions between 1982 and 2007

Anita Zurbrugg, Midwest director for the American Farmland Trust (AFT), sees similar problems across the region.

“The price of farmland is growing and there’s more institutional interest than ever before,” says Zurbrugg. “Even the investment world seems to realize that the supply of prime farmland is finite.”

The NRI shows prime farmland being converted to development at a faster rate in the Midwest than rural land in general. “In the last five years, Illinois was number three on the list of states with the most prime farmland development,” she says. “Iowa developed more than 2½ acres for each new person added to its population between 1982 and 2007.”

Part of that development was the 7,000 acres of farmland Ankeny annexed between 2003 and 2008.

The current housing decline is masking the over-all development trend, which has accelerated in recent years, Zurbrugg warns.

Just west of Indianapolis, IN, farmer John Hardin’s experience bears out the NRI numbers. Hardin, who chaired his county’s first-ever effort to develop a land-use plan, says the current building slowdown creates an opportunity for agriculture.

“You can have a more rational discussion when you don’t have builders lined up to go,” says Hardin. “Development follows economic cycles, and I would encourage farmers that this is the time to get more restrictions in place.”

He argues for policies that require newcomers to pay the costs of development – streets, sewers, city water, new public buildings, schools and services. “Otherwise, the existing landowners will pay a disproportionate share to subsidize development.

“Development follows the roads and pipelines, so we need to be rational about where we do or don’t encourage it,” he says.

The programs and legal options available for farmland preservation vary widely from state to state and even from county to county. For growers interested in farmland preservation one starting point is the AFT’s Farmland Information Center at www.farmlandinfo.org.

Zurbrugg also encourages youto get involved by contactingelected officials, zoning boards and planning commissions aboutprotecting agriculture and local farmland.

“People don’t realize that land is a non-renewable resource,” LaVon Griffieon says. “When you think about the soils here in Iowa, we’re looking at a global treasure.”