Daily Archives: March 1, 2014

Farm Transitions

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in February 2014, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

A recent issue of The Land Stewardship Newsletter (No. 4, 2013) featured articles highlighting a new initiative of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), the well-established, Minnesota-based “rural revival” effort to keep “land and people together.” The initiative is “farm transitions.” It is designed to counter “current land consolidation trends,” and provides tools to assist farm owners and would-be farmers transition land to the next generation.

LSP and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) have developed a Farm Transitions Toolkit for this purpose which

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can be accessed by calling 800-909-6472 or at www.landstewardshipproject.org/farmtranstionstoolkit. The Toolkit “contains resources, links to services and practical calculation tables to help landowners establish a commonsense plan for farm transitions.” MISA executive director Helene Murray says, “The target audience for the Toolkit is those people who want to pass their farm on in a way that supports healthy rural communities, strong local economies and sustainable land stewardship. Too often retiring farmers or people who find themselves in possession of family land feel pressured to make decisions that go against their own values. The Toolkit can help people align those values with the decisions they make as far as their land’s future is concerned.” (12)

“FarmLASTS Project is a national research, education and extension project funded by the USDA National Research Initiative. In 2010, FarmLASTS produced a special report on farmland success, succession, tenure, and stewardship.” (3) Here are some of the findings.

    • Over the next two decades, 70 percent of the nation’s farms will change hands.
    • Two-thirds of retiring farmers have not identified successors.
  • Ninety percent of farm owners neither had an exit strategy nor knew how to develop one.
  • Only three percent of farmland buyers are new farmers.
  • Four percent of farmland owners own nearly half the land.
  • In 2002, 34 percent of farmland owners in Iowa were investors, double the proportion in 1989.
  • Over 40 percent of U.S. farmland is rented. (3)

These statistics confirm that there is indeed a “big land grab” going on in the United States. The same trends are occurring locally. A study I did in 2009 on the sixteen square miles surrounding the Salem Mennonite Church in Childstown Township showed that the land was owned by 84 property owners. Seventy-six of these parcels were farmland properties, with 55.3 percent being farmed by local farmland owner/operators, though not all of these farmers resided on these properties. This means that 44.7 percent of the parcels were rental properties. Half of these farmland owners were non-resident landlords, usually heirs of the family farms on which they had grown up.

In this study I did not correlate the ages of the farmland owners and operators who owned and worked this land. Anecdotal evidence would indicate that many of these farmland owners were near or over retirement age. Quite apart from questions about the types of agricultural enterprises involved, the future of this rural community depends in large measure on whether these farmland owners will choose to transition their land to a new generation of local farmers, or whether the trend toward corporate ownership of land fostered by investors and misguided government policies will continue.

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

February 18, 2014

Tending The Margins

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in January 2014, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

The margins in mind are those boundaries between human habitation and cultivation and the wild places of nature, those intersections between settled places

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and wilderness. It may be nothing that more than that patch of weeds in the corner of the garden or field, or the few scrub trees and bushes springing up along the fence lines. It may be the roadside ditches on country lanes. Or it may indeed be the boundary between farmland and a state park or between the field and the creek or river or prairie or forest.

How that boundary is tended says a lot about the health of both nature and the land, and the human community that lives on that land. Nature, you see, establishes its boundaries so seamlessly that we are rarely aware unless we pay close attention that we have moved from one ecosystem to another. And farmers do quite well at marking the boundaries of their fields. But the margins between wilderness and settled land are another matter. Here it isn’t clear who is in charge, or how things are being managed. At the margins we discover how healthy both the natural and the human systems living on that land really are.

I recently re-read a tribute I had given at the memorial service for my much loved sister-in-law some 24 years ago. She was, as I described her then, a refined and cultivated lady whose life led her to be transformed into a farm woman. It was she, more than anyone, who taught me as a young man what I have come to know of elegance, culture and taste. And yet, it was also she who would later teach us so much of what we knew, Loretta and I, of nature and its workings, of sustainable living on the land. And in that transformation of her life, Sally revealed herself to be “a lover of the wild within and around us.”

As I said on that occasion, “I speak of the wild not as the grand mountain reserves of wilderness, but as the lurking wild-flower outside the door, the native glories which so many of us, in our haste for the exotic on a grand scale, never see. Sally knew, as Wendell Berry says in Home Economics, that, ‘We need to go now and again into places where our work is disallowed, where our hopes and plans have no standing. We need to come into

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the presence of the unqualified and mysterious formality of Creation’ (146). Sally knew the importance of the margins, and observed the margins carefully. For as Wendell Berry says, ‘These margins—lanes, stream sides, wooded fence rows, and the like—are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention. . . . They enact, within the bounds of human domesticity itself, a human courtesy toward the wild’” (151).

The measure of our humanity and our communal life may well be found in how the margins between wilderness and settled land are allowed to thrive, how they are tended, not by our management—God forbid, but by our notice and our care. And if the margins are offensive to us, perhaps it is because we have made them so. But it need not be so. As I said about Sally, “Countless spots on the land where she lived will miss the nurturing care of her touch, the wise and helpful arrangement of her hands, and most of all, the awe-struck wonder of her gaze.”

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

January 15, 2014

Wasn’t This a Treeless Prairie?

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in November 2013, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

So why should it be troubling to see more and more shelter belts and fence lines and pioneer wood groves being bulldozed and burned and buried? Or hasn’t anyone else noticed the disappearance of landmarks that have graced our landscape for some 100 years now? Even those of us native to this place find ourselves lost on familiar country roads when we come to intersections that used to mark a farm or a grove of trees, as my brother who now lives in Michigan and I discovered when we were out for a drive a few weeks ago.

It’s hard to believe that nearly all the trees that grace our landscape were planted since pioneers from Europe settled this land in the 1870s. Many groves were planted as part of the terms for claiming a homestead on this land, and they sheltered the homes and farmsteads established by these settlers. While my parents banked the furnace with coal for the cold winter nights, most of the fuel used to heat their home through the 1930s through the 1960s came from the grove of trees behind our house. One of the tasks each fall was to drag out the dead trees and branches from the grove and cut them up with a bucksaw for the winter’s fuel.

Of course, I understand the dilemma of farmers who have to work around shelter belts and fence lines and groves of trees. With today’s modern equipment, how much more easier and more pleasant it is to work straight across an 80 or a quarter section (or more) without having to work around the trees. Plus, the trees sap moisture from the crops planted near them,

reducing the yield in those fields. Still, I confess that it seems somehow shortsighted to me to bulldoze the trees for the sake of convenience and profit, in order to raise a few more bushels of corn for a few short years until this ethanol balloon bursts.

Can we even begin to understand what we are losing with every tree destroyed? Few use them

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for fuel any longer, as my parents did. But, oh my, what those trees represent in terms of erosion and climate control! What those trees represent for wildlife habitat! It’s incalculable! Unless we are climate change deniers, we worry about global warming that happens because of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. But the trees through photosynthesis absorb some of that carbon dioxide and give off life-giving oxygen in exchange. And when the winds blow across the prairies, as they do, the trees buffer the wind and prevent erosion. Perhaps no one cares any longer for all the diverse animals and birds that share our landscape, or the wild berries and chokecherries and plums that grew along the fence lines, but everyone’s lives are impoverished when all this diverse life is driven out and replaced by monoculture fields.

It is not a new story. Even in this land, the farmers of the 1920s neglected a diverse landscape only to be enveloped by the dust storms and droughts of the 1930s. Many of the shelterbelts we see in the Midwest were planted in response to that catastrophe. There are, to be sure, incredible financial pressures driving the current uprooting of the trees, given the price land is selling for these days. Still, I have to wonder how long this fragile, life-giving earth will be able to withstand the devastation we are bringing to bear upon it.

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

November 20, 2013

Land, Crops, Livestock, Family: An Integrated Agricultural System

The following article was featured in the The Freeman Courier in October 2013, as part of the feature “Rural Reconnaissance”.

Last August, Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa, died. Thompson was an “alternative farmer” before that came to be a common thing, as it is today. A founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Thompson and his wife Sharon believed strongly that a healthy agriculture/rural community involves an integrated system of land, crops, livestock and family. I remember him speaking at rural life conferences in Iowa during the farm crisis of the 1970s, though it isn’t clear to me that that crisis has ever stopped.

In honor of Thompson’s life, the Leopold Letter, the newsletter of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, reprinted a short piece Thompson wrote in 2004, and I’d like to quote from that too.

“Since we lost the cow—since we lost animals and livestock as an integrated part of the farm—the fabric of rural life has been steadily unraveling.

When we lost the cow, we stopped

planting oats and hay, we lost our crop rotations, and we lost the best source of our soil fertility—animal

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manure. We gained costly inputs, eroding soils and impaired waters.

When we lost our animals, we turned our grass, our pastures and our meadows over to row crops. We gained lower grain prices, greater weed and pest pressure, and a less diverse and resilient landscape.

When we lost our livestock, we lost much of the hard work of the farmer; we lost chores for the kids, and lost a cooperative spirit with our neighbors.. We gained outside jobs, aimless youth and the need to gobble up our neighbors’ farms to stay in business.

When we lost the balance of crops and livestock, we lost a farm that needed a whole family to work together. We gained farms that could be run by one person and lots of equipment. We gained boredom and fragmentation of the family.

When we concentrated the livestock, farms began to struggle economically; we began to lose more and more farms, and we lost the vitality of our small communities. We gained boarded up main streets, empty churches and consolidated schools.”

 

We are fortunate to live in a landscape that counters and mitigates to some extent the agricultural imbalances Thompson describes in this quote. The rivers and creeks of our larger community—the Vermillion and James rivers, Wolf and Turkey Ridge creeks, and Turkey Ridge itself, require diversified farming in many areas and for many farmers—a balance of crops and livestock, in order to utilize the often rolling hills and bluffs with their pastures and hay fields.

Yet it seems to me that our community too is suffering from the imbalances Thompson describes.

An integrated agricultural landscape is to me a thing of beauty. In contrast to the barrenness of endless corn and soybean fields with the occasional hog or poultry confinement unit or beef feedlot, a balanced agricultural landscape features a patchwork of livestock roaming on a rotation of small, diverse fields supporting many small farm families all involved in the production of food for their own community and nearby urban centers.

But more than

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being nostalgically beautiful, an integrated agricultural landscape is the key for guaranteeing sustainable and viable rural communities like Freeman. Nature is built on the principles of diversity, uniqueness and interdependence. Industry thrives on efficiency, uniformity and autonomy. Agriculture is torn between nature and industry, with industry currently having the upper hand. Until nature replaces industry as the paradigm for agriculture, rural communities like Freeman are likely to continue to struggle and decline.

S. Roy Kaufman

Freeman, South Dakota

October 16, 2013