LaVon and Craig Griffieon are becoming an endangered species. They're farmers.

Once part of a pristine farming area near Ankeny, IA, the Griffieons' operation - in the family since the 1860s - is now being gobbled up by urban sprawl.

They used to look south from their barn and see pasture, crops and farm neighbors across the flat land. Now, the horizon is broken up by town houses, single-family residences around a golf course, and a brand new convenience store whose lights illuminate the Griffieon cattle feedlot.

Ankeny-area farmers are under heavy pressure to compete with developers for land. Some are giving up and moving north, toward Ames, where similar development and suburban settlers are pushing south to meet them.

But it's not just the farming corridor between Des Moines and Ames that's being threatened. Nearly every business and population center in the U.S. has a similar story.

Urban, suburban and even rural development can offer landowners a better return on their capital than crop production.

LaVon Griffieon is adamant about keeping good land in crop production and limiting development to more marginal quality soils. "Once we've put houses or pavement over all this farmland, it's gone," she says.

"You can move a toy company to Mexico, and it will do fine. You can move insurance companies to the Sahara Desert, and they'll survive. Move our farm to Arizona, and you've lost something," LaVon says.

States on the East and West Coasts have been dealing with farmland protection for years. The fight has been going on in some Midwestern and Great Lakes states for a decade or more. But it's just now reaching the less populated areas of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and the rest of the nation's highly agricultural "outback."

Iowa is losing about 26,000 acres, or about 0.07%, of the state's farmland to development each year. Minnesota is losing a similar amount.

The number is about three times that high in Illinois, says Steve Chard, chief of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Land and Water Resources. Since they began keeping track in 1950, 3.7 million acres of land have been taken out of farms in Illinois.

Granted, that's a lot of land. And while it's hard to accept the loss of highly productive, deep-black prairie soils, it's not possible to save it without imposing some significant restrictions on the rights of property owners.

The bundle of rights assigned to property ownership allows land to be used for any legal purpose. The landowner has the right to lease, sell or give the private property to anyone.

Land-use laws are seen by many as an infringement on these ownership rights. While we might like to channel development toward hillsides and other land with lower productive capacity, the highest and best use (translated as most profitable use) of some of the best farmland in America right now is for houses, streets, schools and factories.

This debate is too broad and deep to be adequately covered here. However, Craig and LaVon Griffieon and thousands of others like them believe the good farmland in these hot development areas really is worth preserving.

The question is how. Wisconsin's Farmland Preservation Act, now nearly two decades old, taxes farmland in urban areas at lower rates if landowners promise to maintain the land in agricultural production.

Success with this and similar laws has been good at keeping farmers farming. But as older operators retire, younger farmers aren't anxious to take over land surrounded by development.

The best answer, says Chard, is planned development. While sprawl, rather than orderly planned development, has been the rule in Illinois to date, the state's House of Representatives last year commissioned the formation of the Illinois Smart Growth Task Force.

The task force looked at historical trends in ag land conversion, studied efforts in other states, and early this year presented the state legislature with formal recommendations for allowing development while preserving the agricultural land base.

In Iowa, a grassroots organization called 1000 Friends of Iowa, has been organized. There are 1000 Friends groups in Minnesota and a number of other states across the nation.

LaVon Griffieon says state groups like these are needed to educate citizens and policy makers about the benefits of sound land use.

"We need to understand this isn't just about ag land. It's about farms and rural communities, woodlands, prairies and wetlands. It's about keeping our developed cities strong and revitalizing urban areas. All those are a part of responsible land use. And it can work," she believes.

"But the real effort must be locally led. State governments can help where needed," adds Chard. "We can help create an awareness of the farmland base and the need to protect it. But priorities must be set and programs developed for each local area. Local leadership is the key to the success of farmland preservation."

Several organizations help preserve farmland or develop land-use planning. For more information, contact the American Farmland Trust at 1920 N Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036 (www.farmland.org). For more on "1000 Friends" organizations, contact Barbara Lawrence, chairman, National Growth Management Leadership Project, at 201-222-6800.