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Rescuing The First Resource

June 2024
4min read

As the introduction to “Explosion in the Magic Valley” (page 26 of this issue) suggests, the concept of the small, freeholding family farm was, through most of the nineteenth century, considered one of the bulwarks of democracy, an expression of the essentially independent American spirit, a wedding between man and land that enriched the national inheritance. “Pioneers,” Henry Clay wrote in 1842, “penetrate into the uninhabited regions of the West. They apply the axe to the forest, which falls before them, or the plough to the prairie, deeply sinking its share in the unbroken wild grasses in which it abounds. They build homes, plant orchards, enclose fields, cultivate the earth, and rear up families around them.”

Splendid words, and in many respects true. Yet for every hard-working family farmer dedicated to the notion of cultivating his own self-sufficient patch of land, there were three or four others who looked upon their own land as a poker chip in the game of possibilities. “Go West, young man,” Charles C. Nott wrote in the 1890’s, “go West, to make money to buy land to grow corn to fat hogs to make more money to buy more land to grow more corn to fat more hogs.” The fact is, American farmland over the past three centuries has been perceived less as a resource to be nurtured than as a commodity to be used, used up, and sold for whatever the market would bear. So it was that George Washington, sitting at his estate in Mount Vernon, could cheerfully dismiss the British Crown’s 1763 edict against settlement and land acquisition west of the Appalachian Mountains as a mere “scrap of paper” and invest heavily in 20,000 acres of potential farmland at the confluence of the Ohio and Great Kanawha rivers in the Ohio country. So it was that every single one of the scores of nineteenth-century land laws designed to put farms into the hands of small freeholders was subverted to one degree or another by the speculations of land manipulators and brokers—and often by the small farmer himself, who “mined” his land for a couple of years, then moved on to bigger and better things, to buy more land to grow more corn to fat more hogs....

Such attitudes denoted a certain carelessness, and the land suffered for that. New England farms were simply worn out; hundreds of thousands of poorly managed croplands in the plains states blew away to circle the globe; grazing lands in the West were stripped to desert by the overloading of cattle and sheep. Still, the reasoning went, there was so much land, land that had made the United States the greatest agricultural nation in the history of the world; what was there to worry about?

A great deal, as it happened. In a process accelerated by the urban, suburban, and exurban sprawl of the 1950’s, farmland began to slip away from us. From a high of 1,161,420,000 acres of farmland in 1950, acreage dropped to 1,063,346,000 in 1970; from a high of 6,293,000 farms in 1941, the number had dropped to 2,954,000 in 1970. In some regions, the decline was almost cataclysmic: in 1880, New England possessed 207,000 farms; in 1970, only 29,000; Rhode Island had 6,000 farms in 1880 and only 1,000 in 1970. And the process continues. Each year, it is now estimated, the United States loses some 3,000,000 acres of farmland—enough to form a corridor half a mile wide from San Francisco to New York.

The reasons are manifold. In the past ten years, the average price of farmland has blossomed from $196 per acre to $640; near major urban areas the price has gone even higher (in New Jersey, for example, the average price soared from a little over $1,000 in 1970 to $2,400 in 1980). That kind of money is hard to ignore, particularly when a farmer has only a modestly successful farm on one hand and a beckoning developer on the other. Equally important is the fact that for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the population of rural areas is increasing at a faster rate than that of urban areas; and so are jobs. “Where the jobs are, people are,” Charles E. Little of the American Land Forum has written. “And where people are, the land must be used to accommodate them.” This, in turn, leads to what agricultural economists call the “impermanence syndrome,” a conviction on the part of local farmers that the farming community is doomed, so they might as well sell out and move to Florida or some other haven of the retired.

All this bodes ill for the future—not only of America, but of the world, for each year this country exports thirty-two billion dollars worth of food, much of it to nations almost totally dependent upon us for the very stuff of life. Alien Hidlebaugh, a soil scientist with the National Agricultural Lands Study, has graphically pointed up the economic implications: “Even in America’s agricultural heartland—the Corn Belt states—there is cause for concern. We anticipate a total of 3,200,000-acre prime farmland loss in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri combined if present trends continue to the year 2000. The annual loss will equal 480,000,000 bushels of corn—at $2.50 a bushel a...loss of $1,200,000,000 a year every year by the century’s end.”


Concern over the situation did not seriously develop until after 1957, the peak year of the postwar “baby boom” that had been the impetus for so much urban development. Confronted with the increasingly obvious, states, counties, and even towns scrambled to come up with zoning regulations and other devices that would stem the loss of farmland. Some—as in Oregon, where tough zoning restrictions and heavy tax advantages were instituted—were reasonably effective; others—as in Florida, which may lose all of its prime land in twenty years—were not. Since it was a national problem, it seemed clear, efforts on the national level also would have to be made to solve it. To that end, in June, 1979, the Department of Agriculture and the Council on Environmental Quality, with the participation of other federal agencies, state and local governments, private landholders, and public interest groups, launched the National Agricultural Lands Study to examine the dimensions of the problem and explore solutions.

Then, as a kind of adjunct to that study, a group of interested citizens got together in August, 1980, to form the American Farmland Trust, sponsored by the Conservation Foundation and financed in part by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Scherman Foundation. Director Douglas P. Wheeler has articulated the organization’s goals: “The principal purpose of AFT is to address the challenge posed by rapid depletion of the nation’s farmland resource, which is being lost to haphazard development at the rate of three million acres a year. As a national, non-profit membership organization, AFT will (1) inform Americans about the gravity of this threat to agricultural equilibrium...and (2) undertake projects, both directly and through affiliated organizations, which demonstrate techniques by which farmland retention can be achieved.”

Whether such studies and organizations can significantly change the perception of farmland as commodity— which has all the weight of history behind it—to one that sees it for what it truly is—a resource—remains to be seen. We will probably know by the end of the century. In the meantime, it might be well to contemplate the implications of a poem which Alien Hildebaugh has tacked to the wall above his desk. The last stanza reads: “Behold the suburbs and their yield:/ Beneath the web of streets is sealed/ The coffin of a fertile field,/ The ghost of unborn grain. ”

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