Georgia citizens like to see fertile farmland and crops near urban areas and are willing to pay to preserve them, according to a University of Georgia survey.

“The loss of farmland to urban and related development is an issue of considerable interest in Georgia, especially in rapidly urbanizing counties,” says John Bergstrom, an economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Bergstrom is collecting and analyzing Georgia data from a survey that asked citizens what farmland they value and how much they'd pay to help preserve it through the purchase of agricultural conservation (or PACE) programs. The survey was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Similar surveys were conducted in Ohio and Maine.

PACE programs are used to secure farm conservation easements. These easements are agreements between landowners and government agencies or private land trusts to place legal restrictions on the development of agricultural land in return for money to the landowner.

Most Georgians in the survey believe the protection of farmland is consistent and compatible to environmental protection and that the family farm should be preserved in Georgia. But they prefer to protect farmland near urban areas. And they want that farmland to look fertile and be used to grow livestock and crops for human consumption.

And they'd be willing to pay a one-time tax, possibly as a checkoff on state tax returns, to protect this land. According to the survey, Georgians would be willing to contribute $62 per household to preserve 100,000 acres or $81 to preserve as much as 2 million acres.

Most survey participants also believe farmers aren't wealthy.

The survey was mailed to 1,000 randomly selected households in Georgia. The response rate was just over 25 percent. Bergstrom says this was a lower response rate than he had anticipated, but high enough to justify the findings.

PACE programs can be financed by public and private money. But funds, he says, can be limited. He says this survey can help those administering such programs gauge what farmland citizens want to preserve.

Bergstrom is completing a paper about the survey.

In 2003, Georgia had about 10.8 million acres of farmland and about 49,000 farms, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. In 1954, Georgia had about 24 million acres of farmland and about 165,000 farms.

How much a landowner is given per acre to preserve land varies, Bergstrom says. But last month the Athens Land Trust, a private organization, secured $500,000 to buy a conservation easement for 63 acres of farmland in Oconee County, Ga. The funds came from the USDA and the Georgia Greenspace Program. This was the first time Greenspace funds were used to buy such an easement in Georgia.