In every region of America the impact of rural sprawl is taking its toll on agriculture. Many farmers and ranchers are being displaced, while others fight to maintain standard business practices amidst the growing population of neighbors who view agriculture as environmentally unfriendly.

As Americans have become more affluent the past decade, their desire to own a few acres for a horse or a handful of cows has turned into a national trend. And technology has helped make their dreams possible. Powerful home computers, e-mail and the Internet have made telecommuting both fashionable and feasible. In over half of the counties in western states, rural population growth exceeds the urban rate. One impact of that trend: over the last decade, land used for grazing has been declining at a rate of 1.6 million acres per year.

But as these 21st Century families move to the country they create a strain on a community, both financially and socially. An influx of new homes and subdivisions can create a financial burden for local governments because the developments tend to be far from utilities and services. They also take water away from agricultural use, and they reduce wildlife habitat and interrupt migration corridors. For farmers and ranchers, increased land values mean increased taxes, and those rising land values make it difficult to expand their operations or transfer them to their children.

The impact of "weedettes," as ranchers call these new hobby farms because they are too small to grow and too big to mow, can also be found in a 1999 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) study that predicts a decrease in the amount of land available for forage production in all regions. The study, conducted every 10 years, asks 35 forage experts to report on the trends in grazing lands use they can identify in their region.

The study notes that nearly all respondents expect grazing of livestock on federal lands to decrease in the West. The availability of land and environmental issues are reasons. The opportunity costs of Western cattle ranching is forcing some ranchers to relocate and others to leave the business.

Cow numbers will likely decline in the West, but may pick up in the Plains states, such as Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. And USDA survey data show increasing cow numbers in those states since the 1980s, while declines are evident in western states such as California, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho and Washington.

Prospects for livestock grazing in Southern states, however, may increase over the coming years. The potential for year-round grazing makes states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee candidates to see growing cow numbers. The USFS study also suggests an increase in wildlife numbers in the South driven by increasing demand for hunting and other non-consumptive uses.

These trends support the claims of analysts who believe the dramatic changes in rural communities over the next decade will create terrific disruptions of traditional ways of life, and may create some new opportunities.

Despite the problems weedettes can bring to your area, and the overall impact they will have on agriculture in the future, there are several strategies you can implement to minimize local impact (see Rural Sprawl: Coming soon to a pasture near you.). Farmers and ranchers must become more involved in their local community government, and search for ways to reach out to their new neighbors to help them understand the positive impact of agriculture on the environment. There are also private initiatives and non-regulatory solutions that are constantly being refined. Your participation now, rather than later, may help hold rural sprawl in check, or at least make it bearable for your business.