Monday, May 23, 2011

Righteous Indignation

If I've heard it once, I've heard it two dozen times: at sales over the years, after the break, or perhaps just before, the auctioneer will intone the mantra, "They're not making any more of it!" We lookers on will snigger just a bit because the whole ritual is so predictable. The "it" in question is farm land and the auctioneer is using every trick in the book to coax the last few dollars per acre. Like the hucksters in television infomercials, we are led to believe this piece of property, this issue of commemorative coins, will be the very last and we'd best get while the getting is good.

"I was a child of the sixties, while dreams could be held on TV...and I believed, I believed, I believed." This is liberal songster Nanci Griffith reminding us of the "good old days". Well, I was a child of the sixties, too, and I remember the environmental meters in the National Wildlife magazines my parents got in the mail. I remember the first Earth Day and the dread and foreboding I felt when I read the assessments and noted the trends in the categories of air, water, wildlife and.....urban sprawl. We were running out of forest, running out of prairie: running out of land. I believed, I believed, I believed: I was a child of the Chicago suburbs, living on the front lines of the transition from black earth to back yard.

And then, I was a student of agriculture in the seventies, the first agricultural boom in decades. Though the term globalization was not yet jargon, a new generation of farmers was beginning to realize the potential of exports. The world was hungry; we had land 'set aside' to feed it. We were on the cusp of a technological revolution in U.S. agriculture and it was a good thing: we were going to need every possible advantage to overcome the monstrous obstacles of a growing population worldwide. We were cognizant of the writings of Paul Ehrlich, the warnings of the Club of Rome. We were prepared to make the most of the limited resources at our disposal, to beat the odds makers, to fill the gap between the haves and have nots, to feed all the people represented by that growing area under the population growth line on the graph. happened? When in this time line that I know like the back of my hand did land become a surplus? Did I miss something? Am I missing something? The market, a pretty good indicator, is sending the message of scarcity: raise more crops, says $7/bushel corn! The land market says the same thing: even in northwest Missouri, an acre of land has broken $10,000, an absurd, unheard of value for our risky weather, no matter how fine the land lays.
I need to know: when did we quit worrying about urban sprawl, feeding the world, and decide we had a surplus of arable land in the humid breadbasket of the world?

Because that's what I'm hearing right now in defiance of all past history, all present statistics, and all reasonableness. All of a sudden, after our forefathers cleared the timber, our grandfathers drained the swamps, and our fathers laid the land to grade and irrigated it, all this land is disposable, unneeded, worthless. The crops grown during nearly three seasons of the year have less value than cottonwoods and cottonmouths. What kind of math is this? I am speechless when I contemplate the possibility of this beautiful cultivated patchwork of fields, homes, and small communities returning to scrub and twelve foot tall horseweeds.

The current levee system is the federal government's reaction to the monster flood and dislocation of 1927. Then, as now, the authorities chose to protect the urban areas, especially New Orleans, while sacrificing the lowlands, the farms, the villages in between. The flooding this year is the result of nature's excess, not merely the actions of man. But the willful dismissal and denial of the vital agricultural economy of the river bottoms could wind up being more destructive in the long term than any breached levee, controlled or no.

Do we rebuild after earthquakes? Do we come back to the coasts after hurricanes? Did we leave Chicago in rubble after the fire? We need our cities, our homes, our coasts, even our multi-million dollar mansions in the tinder dry brush of the California hills. Is this the first time we turn our backs on disaster?

If we as a society declare our willingness to repair, rebuild and renew these, how can we possibly reject the call to make the Mississippi river bottom grounds whole again? Back in the sixties, we were told 'the world doesn't need another mountain', it just needed 'love, sweet love'. The world may well have plenty of mountains. But the evidence is plain enough to me that we will never have enough good productive farm land.

After all, they're not making any more of it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Do You Feel Lucky?

Once upon a time there was a little house on the prairie. No, no, not Laura Ingalls Wilder's famous little house, but still a simple square plain little box of a place surrounded by fields of grain in the summer and buffeted by the four winds all year round.

Because it was just a little house, the dad and mom, two girls and a little boy quite filled it. Even when the mom and dad built on for their growing family, the noise, commotion, and generally high energy level made it seem as if the house were bulging at the seams. Only after the last phone conversation had ended, the last bath taken, the news shut off, the coffee prepared for the 'morrow, did the mom walk through the house in silence.

The mom and dad worked side by side and the kids grew up working right along with them. There were few idle hours because there were always jobs for those who proclaimed 'I'm bored!' With lots of open space, the kids had the run of the place, whether out in the yard or down the road to the bridge over the creek and the giant rock nearby in the field. The girls danced and sang without embarrassment; the little boy built elaborate constructs of blocks and Brio trains.

The kids went to school. The mom's favorite time of the day became the hour after they arrived home when, without fail, one or the other would seek her out and report on the day's happenings. As the children grew, these get togethers would increasingly occur around bed time, at the quiet kitchen counter, or over the phone in the dark. Gnarly decisions, heartbreaks, religion, philosophy; any and all comers were absorbed into the scarred floors, walls and ceilings of the little house on the prairie.

The kids aren't kids anymore. Before you know it, it will be their turn to counsel their children. But the mom is still the mom and is privileged to be close enough to continue in her role as occasional sounding board for her children even though they are perfectly capable of handling the thorniest decisions themselves. What a blessing to be a mother to these three and the wonderful people they married! While we sing the praises of moms in general and our own in particular, I just want to tell my kids how thankful I am for them.

Lucky mom.