Urbanization spreading Farmland conversion for development - and loss of open space - strike a chord of controversy in Tennessee. On one side a "don't-tell-me-what-to-do-with-my-land" attitude prevails. On the flip side are those who seek to protect agricultural lands.

Increasingly, the two perspectives are fiercely debated.

A few Midwestern state universities, most notably Purdue University, the University of Illinois and Ohio State University, have research-based, land-use teams in place. Educational programming may include general land-use issues, zoning, the rural/urban conflict and agricultural-land protection and planning.

Meanwhile, in much of the South, educators, economic-development planners, community members and landowners struggle to leap over a high hurdle of contention.

Other issues Other land-use issues skirting the public's consciousness include keeping out unwanted land uses, displacement and gentrification, competition, dereliction/pollution, low density/inefficiency/sprawl, growth impact on new land uses, taxing and infrastructure.

Tennessee is among the top 10 states in conversion of farmland to development. So says the American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national non-profit organization working to stop the loss of productive farmland and to promote sustainable farming practices.

Between 1982 and 1992, 436,000 acres were converted to urban use - about four percent of the state's total farmland. Of land converted during this period, 36 percent was prime or "unique" farmland, compared to 31 percent nationally.

"The quality of the land being lost and the distribution of that loss deserve attention," said Herb Lester, University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service district supervisor in Middle Tennessee. "Prime farmland is irreplaceable.

"When sprawling urban areas overtake farmland, more than cropland is sacrificed to development. Communities lose a resource that not only produces food and fiber, but also can provide open space, riparian areas, wildlife habitat, bird migration corridors, recreational opportunities, scenic views and more."

According to AFT's "Farming on the Edge," a study of land-use trends first published in 1993, the Nashville Basin is the 12th highest among Major Land Resource Areas (MLRAs) in the nation. MLRAs are geographic areas defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that have relatively homogeneous patterns of soil, climate, water resources, land use and type of farming.

The top 20 MLRAs, as identified by the study, had higher-than-average "red" areas in which high-quality farmland coincided with a high-development rate. Three basic factors were considered in the scoring: market value of agricultural production, development pressure and land quality.

AFT analysis of agricultural and population census data (1987 and 1980-1990, respectively) revealed that more than half the value of United States' farm production was generated in counties in and around the urban areas.

The population growth in counties with the highest agricultural productivity was more than twice the national average.

"These numbers were alarming," said Ed Thompson Jr., director of AFT's "Competition for Land Project" and a contributor to the "Farming on the Edge" study.

The Nashville Basin includes 6,060 square miles in a densely populated area that includes Bedford, Davidson, Giles, Lincoln, Marshall, Maury, Moore, Rutherford, Smith, Sumner, Trousdale, Williamson and Wilson counties.

Usage breakdown About 14 percent is in crops, 33 percent in pasture, 33 percent in forests and 13 percent in urban development. Fifty-eight percent of this MLRA area is high-quality farmland that coincides with a high rate of development.

Much of the farmland in the Nashville Basin has been converted to residential use and to small estate-type farms, especially around Nashville. Hay, pasture and some grains for beef and dairy cattle are the principal crops. Small acreages of burley tobacco, cotton and soybeans are grown as well.

Farm size in the state continues to decrease, but the number of farms in the Nashville basin rose slightly in the mid-1990s. Statewide, according to the Tennessee Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of farms has increased from 85,000 in 1992 to 91,000, where numbers had remained unchanged since 1996.

"It's a shame to see prime agricultural areas, like Springfield, starting to grow subdivisions," said Don Fowlkes, Extension tobacco production specialist."I understand the issue, but there's an element of sadness to it. As long as we have more people and fewer farmers, it's going to continue to happen. Land values are such that a lot of farmland that has changed hands from one generation to the next is no longer going to be able to remain farm land."