Farmland: Disappearing Act

Farmland: Disappearing Act

Jerry Goodbody
Published: 11/07/2008

Every year the United States loses roughly 1.2 million acres of agricultural land to development, says the American Farmland Trust. By my calculations, that works out to roughly 3,300 acres a day, or about 137 acres an hour, or nearly 2.3 acres a minute. Somehow to me the daily, hourly, and by-the-minute tolls sound the scariest, since 1.2 million can seem almost abstract. Still, no matter how you look at it, it’s pretty frightening stuff. The loss of our agricultural lands has wide-ranging implications for all sorts of issues, from food production to air and water pollution to global warming and on and on. It is, of course, immensely important to our birds and wildlife.

At Audubon, we refer to the roughly billion acres of cropland, pastureland, and rangeland in the United States as “working lands.” We believe these working lands are a crucial piece of the overall conservation puzzle, filling a sort of middle ground between conservation in backyards (the responsibility of individual homeowners) and on public land (protected, on our behalf, by governments).


Bobolink/Courtesy of John Parke/New Jersey Audubon Society

In 1939 my grandfather bought a dairy farm in New Jersey’s Warren County. Today that farm belongs to me and my seven siblings. It’s still a working farm, although the long-running traditional dairy operation shut down in 2005. Warren County has changed hugely since my grandfather bought land there, but it is still a lovely and often peaceful place. Its western edge is formed by the Delaware River and Kittatinny Ridge, which is cut spectacularly by the river at the Delaware Water Gap. The rest of Warren County is surprisingly rugged, with steep, heavily wooded ridges framing beautiful valleys, many of them still filled with farm fields and meadows, streams and wetlands. The county, and our farm, provide important habitat for a wide range of wildlife.

For the past couple of years, my family and I have been working with a man named John Parke, who is a stewardship project director for the New Jersey Audubon Society. John has been hugely helpful getting us involved in a number of conservation projects on the farm. If I ever need to be reminded of how important it is that we remain good stewards of our own land, I can read the list John has compiled of the birds and other wildlife sighted on our property.

John’s list contains more than 80 bird species, including a number that are designated as either endangered or threatened in New Jersey (northern harrier, Cooper’s hawk, bobolink, Savannah sparrow, barred owl, and short-eared owl) or as a state species of special concern (great blue heron, sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, eastern meadowlark, and barn owl). Some of the other birds seen at the farm are yellow-billed cuckoos, lots of wood ducks and wild turkeys, pileated woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and an assortment of sparrows and warblers. Some 15 or so kinds of reptiles and amphibians have been seen as well, including five frog species and four turtle species, as have a range of mammals, from black bears and red foxes to muskrats and beavers.


Eastern bluebird/Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In the larger scheme of things, 200 acres isn’t much of course, and we all certainly need to do much more. But as our small part of New Jersey—a mere 70 or so miles from New York City—shows, where you find good habitat you’ll also find wildlife.