It's difficult to disparage anything that'll put more money in the farmer's pocket, but the growth in recent years of the “agro-tourism” industry is disheartening for what it represents. Farmers certainly can't be blamed for taking advantage of the increasing number of urbanites who want a small taste of country living. It's capitalism at its best. But it's some of the reasons for this phenomena that are so troubling.

Why do we have a viable agro-tourism industry? Sadly, because farms and farmland are becoming an oddity, much like the “Live Gator” stands dotting the two-lane highways from south Georgia through Florida. It's not a bad thing that farmers can supplement their incomes with corn mazes, hayrides, pumpkin patches and other samples of country life. But it's not a good thing that farms have become so rare that they now rank as tourist attractions.

And, according to the American Farmland Trust, the situation is becoming more dire with each passing day.

Eighty-six percent of American's fruits and vegetables and 63 percent of dairy products are grown on farmland that increasingly is at risk from sprawling development, according to a new study by the Trust. “Farming on the Edge: Sprawling Development Threatens America's Best Farmland” finds that between 1992 and 1997, the United States paved over more than 5 million acres of farmland, an area approximately equal to the size of Maryland.

“The problem is getting worse,” says Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust. “America developed twice as much farmland in the 1990s as it did in the 1980s. The scary part is that we're losing our high-quality farmland — the land best suited for growing food the fastest. It just doesn't make sense, and it's unnecessary.”

The study finds that America's wasteful use of land is causing the problem — no big surprise there. From 1982-1997, the U.S. population grew by 17 percent while urbanized land grew by 47 percent. Over the past 20 years, the acreage per person for new housing almost doubled. And, since 1994, 10-acre-plus housing lots have accounted for 55 percent of the land developed.

Every state is losing some of its best farm and ranchland, according to the study, along with the agricultural economy, wildlife habitat and water recharge that the land supports. At this rate, working lands in some of the nations' renowned agricultural areas - like Texas' Rio Grande Valley, New York's Hudson Valley and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley — could disappear.

The study includes a ranking of the “top 20” states by acreage of prime farmland lost to development. And, unlike the college football polls, this is one ranking where exclusion is an honor rather than a snub.

Unfortunately, several Southeastern states are listed in the “top 20, including Georgia at No. 3, North Carolina at No. 4, Tennessee at No. 8, Alabama at No. 10 and South Carolina at No. 14.

Looking specifically at the highest ranking Southeastern state — Georgia — the study says that between 1992 and 1997, the state has paved over 184,000 acres of high-quality farmland, ranking it third nationally in prime acres lost to development.

“Even rural areas outside of smaller cities like Albany, Macon and Savannah were impacted by the state's staggering loss of farmland during the 1990s,” according to the study. The problem, it continues, has spread to some of the more economically depressed areas of the state.

Many of the counties that contribute to Georgia's reputation as a top producer of peaches, onions, pecans and other foods face tremendous pressure from development, states the study.

And, just in case you're wondering, the No. 1 ranked state for loss of farmland is Texas, which the study says has developed 332,800 acres of high-quality farmland between 1992 and 1997.