Land Auctions and Our Future

By S. Roy Kaufman | Mar 5, 2013

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 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.