Category Archives: Rural Reconnaissance

Articles by S. Roy Kaufman Rural Revival member and contributing columnist, Freeman Courier.

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

Community Rooted in Agriculture

My part-time work at Heritage Hall Museum reminds me at every turn of the history of this rural community, and its agricultural roots. The larger Freeman community was established mostly by Germans from Russia, who arrived here in the 1870s, now 140 years ago. They were an agrarian people, with a long history of living on the land, coming here as faith communities of Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic and Mennonite faith.

Southeast South

Dakota was virgin prairie when these pioneers arrived here, only recently opened for white settlement after the 1858 treaty of the Yankton Sioux with the United States. There was no infrastructure—no roads or towns or commercial settlements. The railroad was not built until 1879 leading to the incorporation of Freeman in 1893. Life was incredibly harsh and hard in those early years. In his memoir of Mennonite immigration to the Great Plains, Emil Waltner in Banished for Faith recalls the blizzard of 1888 (recently highlighted in the January 9 Courier), an 1889 prairie fire, the 1878 West Vermillion flood in which nearly the whole Jacob Gering family perished, and the grasshopper plague of 1875 that decimated the first crop the pioneers had planted (pp. 196-202).

The early pioneers preferred land near a creek or river, with easy access to water. My own great-grandfather, Christian Kaufman, claimed a homestead on Turkey Ridge Creek a mile east of the “church road.” But the West Vermillion flood demonstrated the dangers as well as the opportunities of settling near the streams of southeast South Dakota. It was often only through bitter and painful experience that these pioneers learned to cope with what was then a harsh and erratic climate. But these pioneers were resilient and resourceful people, as the eventual establishment of the Freeman community attests.

Undoubtedly, it was the agrarian heritage of the pioneers that enabled them to establish a community in this place. These people knew how to make do. They knew or were willing to learn what was required for them to become self-sufficient in living on the land they had homesteaded. In the end, the community they established was largely self-sustaining. They gave more

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than they took from the land, while also trading for the things not readily available to them in this climate and geographical setting.

At the same time, the local ecology also dictated the formation of the community. The agriculture they

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established in this unique natural setting shaped the culture of their community. Agriculture describes the practices, arts, and sciences involved in cultivating the soil, producing crops and raising livestock, and preparing and marketing these products. In its root, agriculture literally means “cultivation of the field.” Culture, meanwhile, describes the “customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits” of a particular group or community. In the case of the Freeman community, the culture of the community was shaped by its agriculture.

The question I have is how agriculture still shapes the culture of this community. My own bias is that the life of a rural community depends on the vitality of its particular agriculture. A healthy agriculture rooted in the possibilities and limitations of a particular place will produce a healthy community. How do our current agricultural practices inform and shape the cultural life of our community?

S. Roy Kaufman

Land Auctions and Our Future

It’s alarming for someone like me, who grew up in this community, to see the disappearance of landmarks familiar from my childhood—groves of trees, fence lines, farm places, schoolhouses, churches. This trend has accelerated in recent years as corn prices have risen due to the artificial ethanol bubble with its demand for corn. Perhaps it could be argued that the landscape looks more like it did when settlers first arrived here 140 years ago—flat open prairie with nothing obstructing the view. But I’d prefer to see the countryside populated with farms and farmers making a living from the land.

One of the practices accelerating the changing landscape in recent years is land auctions, when land is put up for sale at public auction. This is surely one of the easiest and cleanest ways to accomplish the transfer of land for those who have land to sell. Professional auctioneers are engaged to advertise and accomplish the land sale for a small share in the proceeds, and the highest bidder walks away with the land.

Nevertheless, this form of land transfer carries with it some consequences, perhaps unforeseen and unintended by those who have land to sell, for the future of the rural community. Let’s say someone has a quarter

section of land to sell, mostly prime agricultural land, but with a set of buildings and a farm residence. What happens when this land is sold at public auction?

Such land is sold to the highest bidder, who in the current market is often an outside investor, at prices local or beginning farmers cannot afford. Having no use for the grove of trees and old, useless farm buildings, the investor will either sell off farm-site acreage as a non-farm rural residence, or more likely in today’s climate, bulldoze the whole works to increase the cultivated land. Having made a large investment, the investor will require a rental fee most local farmers cannot afford, so the land will be rented out to some large, industrial-sized farm operators from outside the community. These farm operators have no investment in the local community. They will bring in the agricultural inputs from wherever they are based and ship the crop out that way as well. Not only does the community lose a farm place and a

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farm family that might help fill our schools and churches; it also loses all the investment that local farmers give and provide to local businesses and agricultural cooperatives.

That same local landowner, perhaps a farmer past retirement age, could choose other options for the sale of that quarter section that would serve the interests of the local community. He might, for instance, sell the bulk of the tillable land on favorable terms to a neighboring farmer who is getting established or could use a few extra acres for his operation. Then he could take out the farm place with a small acreage, perhaps 20 or 30 acres at most, and advertise this land to new and beginning farm couples who want to do alternative farming— perhaps a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) operation, or a small dairy. That way, both established, conventional farmers would improve their operations, and new, alternative farmers could begin their farming operation. More families, rather than less, would be residing in the community, contributing to our churches and schools, and re-investing in the local business community.

Which future do we want—an endless prairie of corn and soy-bean fields unbroken by any human habitation, or thriving rural communities populated by a diverse and vibrant farm population? If you have land to sell, give this some thought before you just put your land up for public auction.

S. Roy Kaufman

Face-to-face relationships are a rural value

RR Loretta Epp

Many regular readers of this column may know that my wife and companion for the past 43 years died in October. Loretta was a beautiful and gifted woman of course (I’m

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Loretta was born in southwest Minnesota, the eldest daughter of a farm couple who courted and married during the height of World War II. She was a year old when her father returned from service with the army in France, and then he and Loretta’s mother embarked on a career of farming on

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a succession of rented farms. They never owned the farms they worked, and today most of those farms have been completely erased from the landscape. But they were conscientious farmers, caring for the land and the buildings owned by their landlords and working hard to provide for themselves and their growing family of four children.

For all its hardship in hard work and the lack of an abundance of material resources, Loretta grew up deeply loved and well-nurtured as a person and in her Christian faith. She always remembered her childhood and youth on the farm fondly, surrounded by nature and animals and the love of her family. Upward mobility was nonetheless evident in Loretta’s family, as in most post-World War II farm families, as Loretta went off to nurse’s training, eventually completing her bachelor of science in nursing.

Then, of course, she met me and we married. Our first 2 ½ years of marriage were spent in a foreign rural culture on the island of Crete, Greece. There we both learned to appreciate and cherish the rural life of Cretan villages, and there our first child was born. And when we returned to the U.S., I abandoned dreams of graduate school and sought a call from a small rural church to be their pastor, since I had seminary training. Thus began a 38 year pilgrimage in four rural congregations in three states and one province in Canada that ended just over two years ago with our retirement here in Freeman.

In each of these rural settings, Loretta adopted the church family as her own and entered deeply into congregational life as a teacher, musician, mentor to women, and friend. While she would have made an excellent nurse and while I encouraged her in that, she chose instead to devote herself to the nurturing of the family and the life of the community. She (and I) learned to garden and can, raising and preserving a large share of the food we ate through the years. She baked bread from the wheat I ground with a small mill. (I can only hope I can make her bread as well as she did!)

By devoting herself to the welfare of her family and the community in which she lived, Loretta was only doing what rural people the world over devote themselves to do. For rural folks, the family and the community—those face-to-face relationships in which we live close to God’s creation—take priority over careers and success and all the more well-known and recognized achievements that are typically sought after and celebrated in our culture. It is what leads me to say that she was a quintessentially rural person. And this is why rural communities and the people who live in them and sustain them are so important to me. This is the setting where people are best nurtured to be whole, well-rounded people, the kind of people who themselves nurture and sustain the common life of a community wherever they live.

S Roy Kaufman

Our Community is Rich in Cultural Capital

Rural sociologists define cultural capital in terms of the values and symbols reflected in the artifacts used by a particular community. (Cornelia Butler Flora &

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Jan L. Flora, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, Boulder: Westview Press, 25.) Cultural capital is the legacy that enables individuals to “know who they are” and how to make their way in life. Families and the communities in which they live pass on to their children the tools they perceive to be needed for their children’s survival and well-being, whether in the form of land or education or other resources. For example, my daughter, with an inter-disciplinary liberal arts degree, began temping for a bank after graduation and is now a valued client manager, due in part to the work ethic she inherited from this community through me.

By any measure, this community is rich in cultural capital. I see it in the artifacts at the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives where I work part-time, representing almost a century and a half of life since European pioneers first began settling here. We have been creative in devising ways of making a rich life on what was once a largely empty prairie. (It is easy to forget that American Indians have lived here for centuries and have their own rich cultural capital accrued from living on this land.) This is the legacy, the cultural capital, we are passing on to our children through our homes, churches and schools.

A large part of our cultural capital consists of knowing who we are and where we have come from. This derives in part from the knowledge of our ethnic heritage. Freeman and the rural community around it were settled mostly by various groups of Germans from Russia. These were German farmers who had been invited to Russia by the German Czarina Catherine the Great in the 18th century, and who already had a long history and experience with creating agrarian communities when they came to this country in the late 19th century. While an ethnic heritage can easily become a kind of exclusionary idol that wrongly discriminates against “outsiders,” it is also an indispensable form of cultural capital that enables us and succeeding generations make a sustainable rural community in this place. Heritage Hall Museum and Archives documents and preserves this cultural heritage, and Freeman celebrates it each spring at Schmeckfest.

It is also possible to squander our cultural capital as a community. Or perhaps more accurately, it is easy to choose forms of cultural capital from the dominant culture that destroy a rural community like ours. Recent generations have chosen to adopt the cultural capital of commodity agriculture from the dominant culture. Now we find that there isn’t enough land and that it’s too costly to sustain such farms. It has not been uncommon

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for me to hear successful farmers discourage their children from staying in the community with comments like, “There’s no future here for you!” While the cultural capital reflected in such advice may serve their children well in terms of individual success, it almost certainly guarantees the continued decline of rural communities like ours.

We need to choose forms of cultural capital that encourage our children to remain in this rural community. Using the cultural capital we have inherited from the history of this rural community, we need to envision ways of living that can be supported by our specific place. The current generation of farmers, aging as many of them are, will not be the last, despite the fatalism often reflected in their comments to their children. We have a much richer cultural capital from which to draw. There is a future for an agrarian community like ours!

S. Roy Kauman

Taking Stock of the Assets of a Rural Community

Historically, rural communities like ours here in Freeman have experienced

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a decided disadvantage within the dominant urban cultures where they have lived. While urban centers depend on rural communities for their food, fiber and the raw materials of urban life, their numbers, wealth and power far outstrip those of rural communities. Rural communities typically live under the shadow of the “metropolis,” which literally means “mothercity.” Decisions affecting life in rural communities are often made not by rural residents, but by government bureaucrats, corporate boards, and elite specialists centered in the city. Governments, corporations and universities, all institutional expressions of urban power, all too often dictate decision making in rural communities.

All this is ironic, given the fact that the city depends directly on the countryside for its very life. One would think that would give rural communities some leverage! It is ironic as well because in fact, rural communities possess unique assets that could and should enable them to hold their own against the urban powers in which they live. Rural sociologists speak of these assets in terms of different forms of capital that are present, sometimes uniquely, within rural communities. These types of

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capital are:

• Cultural capital—the values, heritage, and ways of life represented in the community;

• Human capital—the skills and abilities of each person within the community;

• Social capital—the networks, norms of reciprocity, and mutual trust within and among the groups comprising the community;

• Financial capital—the money available to be used for investment in the community;

• Built capital—the infrastructure and institutions available within the community;

• Natural capital—the landscape, natural resources, and biodiversity present within the community; and

• Political capital—the ability of people and groups within the community to influence and control decision making regarding the other assets of the community. (Cornelia Butler Flora and Jan L. Flora, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, 2004, p. 9-10.)

Rural communities like ours rarely take stock of these assets in any systematic way to see what they have and how they are utilizing the assets they have. We tend to focus on one or the other and perceive the limitations we might have. But the question is how well we are utilizing all these various types of capital for the welfare of the community as a whole.

For instance, we might recognize the limitations of our financial capital, but fail to realize and utilize the social and human and natural capital that exists within our community. We have often allowed our natural capital to be defined almost exclusively in terms of the dominant paradigm of commodity agriculture when in fact the natural capital of this area may be largely unexplored in terms of its potential benefit to our community.

In this community, we may do fairly well at appreciating and capitalizing on our cultural capital, but perhaps we struggle in translating that strong cultural heritage into political capital capable of influencing decision-making and the exercise of power.

Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the assets we have and in that way build and utilize all the forms of capital present in this rural community. This community does not have to keep declining, and we are capable of regaining the political capital that will enable us to make the decisions required for a sustainable community life.

S. Roy Kaufman

Intimacy with the Land

One of the beauties of farming as a way of life is the intimacy that it affords farmers with land and the natural community of life among which we humans live. Writing in the Iowa State University newsletter of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Fred Kirschenmann writes, “Every farmer ultimately knows that good management requires intimacy. Like all living organisms, farms constantly change and therefore close involvement with the plants, animals and soils of the farm is essential to skillful farming.” (Leopold Letter, Summer, 2012, p. 5)

This intimacy has been reduced by the pressures of industrial agriculture to specialize and achieve economies of scale. Farmers, like the rest of us, have been encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy to see a disconnect between themselves and the rest of the natural community of life among which we live. We are led to believe that we can “master” nature. We claim to own the land to use as we please, instead of seeing ourselves as a part of natural systems and dependents of the land.

But even so, most farmers I know pay close attention to their land. They learn to know how the land lies, what creatures and plants are most likely to thrive on each part of their land. They observe how the land absorbs and holds the moisture, where it is likely to erode, and how best to conserve the soil. Undoubtedly there are moments, perhaps daily, when farmers pause in awe at the mystery and grandeur of life in which they are privileged to play a part as tillers of the soil and keepers of the plants and animals we have shaped to form our agriculture.

This intimacy with the earth which sustains our lives by God’s providence and grace is something that is also sought and claimed increasingly by people in every walk of life, including urban dwellers. It explains the explosion of urban gardening we witness in decaying cities like Detroit. It is in no small measure the reason for the popularity of the local food and community supported agriculture (CSA) movement which links rural food producers with urban consumers. Often these CSA’s will encourage and invite urban consumers to visit the farm and assist in caring for the crops and livestock. There is deep within us, alienated as we are from nature, a longing to be more connected with the deepest sources upon which our lives depend.

Some years ago Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., wrote the provocatively titled book, Becoming Native to This Place. The title suggests that the heart of the agricultural task is learning how to fit in and belong to the place we find ourselves. Another provocative book title in my library is Learning to Listen to the Land, a collection of articles about sustainable ways of living here on planet Earth. And still another book I have is titled Meeting the Expectations of the Land, suggesting that it is the land, and not we humans, that calls the shots. As Fred Kirschenmann says at the end of his column, “Being ‘a part of’ our world

instead of ‘apart from it’ will

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be critical to any sustainable future.” (Ibid.) It is important for each of us, farmers and city dwellers alike, to learn how to “be at home” in the place we find ourselves, to be content there, but also to understand how and where we fit in the grand scheme of things, this web of life in which we find ourselves.

S. Roy Kaufman