Exploring the Spatiotemporal Patterns of Agricultural Land Abandonment in the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Ashrafi, Saeed, Civil Engineering - School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Shafiee-Jood, Majid, EN-Engr Sys & Environment, University of Virginia

Agriculture is the primary land use globally, covering approximately 40% of the Earth's land. Despite the growing demand for agricultural products and the limited availability of suitable land for farming expansion, there is an increasing trend of agricultural abandonment, especially in the US. In recent decades, coastal areas, particularly the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in the US, have been adversely impacted by challenges such as sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and waterlogging as key consequences of climate change. Therefore, agricultural abandonment is becoming an evident reality in such regions. As agricultural land abandonment and its contributing factors reveal distinct regional variations in the primary elements shaping this intricate phenomenon, this thesis uses the United States Department of Agriculture CropScape Data Layer (USDA CDL) from 2008 to 2022 to explore the spatiotemporal patterns of agricultural land abandonment in the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a coastal area, to provide insights into when and where these abandonments occur. This study also analyzes the regional characteristics of ESVA, such as elevation, drainage quality, as well as proximity to salt-affected areas, to investigate the specific traits of such coastal areas contributing to land abandonment. Applying the introduced framework, significant abandonment was observed in the years 2009, 2010, and 2018, with estimated abandoned areas of approximately 1764, 1516, and 1530 acres respectively, representing 96% of all recorded abandoned areas between 2009 and 2019. Our analysis revealed that 24% of abandoned areas were located in low-lying regions, with 16% affected solely by drainage issues, 27% by adjacent salt-affected areas, and 53% by both factors. Conversely, 76% of abandoned areas were situated in high-elevation zones, with 14% facing drainage issues alone, 39% affected solely by adjacent salt-affected areas, and 27% experiencing the combined impact of both factors. Also, calculating the probability of agricultural abandonment highlighted that the most severe instances of abandonment occur when poor drainage coincides with proximity to salt-affected zones. Moreover, while low-lying regions generally exhibit higher abandonment probabilities overall, similar challenges increased abandonment probability significantly in high-elevation areas as well. Our findings underscore the complex interplay of economic, climatic, and demographic factors such as the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the Nor'Ida Storm in 2009, increasing agricultural expenses, demographic changes, and inadequate regulatory frameworks to counteract farmland conversion pressures in the state of Virginia in influencing land abandonment patterns in ESVA.

MS (Master of Science)
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