The U.S. Agriculture Department - using techniques developed in part during a study that revealed striking patterns of wealth, absentee ownership and estate size in Rappahannock County, Va. - has begun the first nationwide survey of land ownership in the United States.
The study of Rappahannock County, located in the Blue Ridges mountains 70 miles west of Washington, found that 53 percent of the land owners lived elsewhere.
The study, conducted by USDA senior economists Gene Wunderlich, also found that only five percent of the owners were primarily farmers and that 14 percent of the land was owned by people with annual incomes of at least $50,000.
Demand for the national study, long sought by agricultural econimists worried by the steady decline for crop land in the Unites States, was sharply increased recently by worries over the potential impact of widespread foreigh investment here.
The study is designed to develop information on such things as the income, nationality, place of residence, age, race and sex of the owners not now exist on a national basis an this study will provide a base line to measure future changes in land ownership an use.
"It's clearly recognized thatthere is a serious lack of data on land ownership, Wunderch said. "For example, if we want to know how a farm subsidy really affectsa community we need to know something about the structure land ownership."
Robert Otte, also an economist in the Natural Resource Economics of income and residence related to Division of the Economic Statistics and Cooperatives Service. "We've had a piecemeal surveys of farmland, but this will be the first survey of the entire land surface area of the nation. Each parcel of land will not be surveyed, but data will be amassed, from a sampling of land owners considered large enough to provide statistically valid results.
Otte said questionnaires have been mailed out in recent weeks to owners of about 70,000 "points" of land. Only Alaska, which has little farmland, and central cities will not be included according to Waunderlich and Otte.
The "points" are sities picked by the Soil Conservation Service for which the owner, soil type and land use already are known, By next fall, information from detailed questions about the owner will begin to be correlated.
"We should be able to say how much land is owned by very large owners - over one million acres - and how much is owned in tracts of less than on acre.We should be able to determine how much land is owned by individuals and how much by corporations," Otte said.
Wunderlich, said, "This will provide us core data with which we could test hypotheses such as does age or income make a difference in land conservation. The intent is to give us a core of data which does not now exist.
Wunderlich also working in two closely related areas. Under the International Investment Survey Act of 1976, USDA was directed to examine the feasibility of of a system of monitoring foreign investments in U.S. real estate. Currently overseas money may be masked through corporations or U.S. front men.
Wunderlich said methods of tracking foreign investment could range from a simple foreign registration law to a more complex and useful computerized land information system.
He designed and tested such a computerized system in Rappahannock County, describing it in a USDA publication as "an inexpensive land information system suitable for small rural counties."
If compatible systems were installed in all 3,000 of the nation's counties, computer linkages could provide continuous, up-to-date information on changes in land use through development foreign investment or the impact of tax changes, Wunderlich said.
His system uses a special code for each parcel and links tax, transfer, and land use records to provide extensive data useful for such things as tax billing, assessment and planning decisions.
Wunderlich, after an actual test of the system, concluded that it would satisfy all legal record keeping requirements and save the county money by eliminating operations now done manually.
Wunderlich's survey of Rappahannock County, published in 1975, revealed that 47 percent of the owners, owning 58 percent of the land, lived in the scenic, rural county. Forty-three percent of the owners considered themselves to be in professional, managerial or technical occupations and an addditional 25 percent were farmers.
Only nine percent of the owners reported incomes of $50,000 of more, but they owned 41 per cent of the land. Owners with income under $10,000 made up 31 percent of the total but owned only 13 percent of the land.