A CRISIS IN ATTITUDE
WHERE IS AMERICA'S FARMLAND GOING?
The paradox may be that it is not poverty, but wealth, that leads
© 1998 By Tim Findley
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The American dream is of property and place-something of one's
own and somewhere to belong. Most of us today can say we're "from"
a city that helps explain our education, our experience and our
motivation. But as the 20th century ends, more and more Americans
desire to call someplace else, "home." It's not population pressure,
it's choice. Technology makes it possible, a blossoming economy
makes it affordable. Small town country living is the trendy way,
as cities sour on traffic by day and empty cold light after dark.
Even the metropolitan suburbs are not growing as fast as the distant
Social scientists, such as those at Denver's Center for the
New West, have concluded that at least part of the population
shift is a search for "heritage" in the freedom of open spaces
and clear horizons, and part of it is a move away from the increasingly
restrictive control of government regulation and taxes. Bad news,
they say, for democrats like Vice President Al Gore.
It may be even worse news, however, for the rural West and
the cultural traditions newcomers mean to rediscover. As the countryside
is absorbed in a spreading puddle of similar neighborhoods and
identical floorplans, agriculture, especially smaller family-based
agriculture, is being smothered and lost forever.
America is still the world's most efficient producer of food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture cites 460 million acres, about
one-fifth of the land mass, as "available" for crops. That's 10
million acres more than in 1945, and today, the United States
produces 2.4 times as much food as it did 50 years ago. American
consumers still spend less of their income on food than people
living anywhere else in the world.
Yet the American Farmland Trust reports that the nation's cropland
is a resource in danger of being squandered by our times. Some
60 million acres of farmland has been taken out of production
in the last 15 years, according to the government's own figures.
The Farmland Trust says another million acres is lost every month,
at a rate of 55 acres an hour. The federal government itself has
encouraged much of the land to be taken out of production for
conservation purposes, but at least five million acres of it was
prime farmland essential to production; land that is now gone
for good under the stick and stone and sprinkled lawns of development.
In another 50 years at that pace, the Farmland Trust reports,
America could become a net food importing nation.
If so, there are even more dire implications for the rest of
the planet, where the reduction of American agricultural production
spurs the destruction of vital wildlands, including rain forests.
The paradox may be that it is not poverty, but wealth, that leads
Something about the heritage so many Americans say they value
isn't adding up, and it could be because the little guy just doesn't
Karl Baker can be as tight and thorny as a double strand of barbed
wire. Knowing that, some folks try to avoid getting snarled up
with him at all. On the other hand, Karl figures if you can't
find some humor in it, it might just not be worth the struggle
to start with.
Back at the start of the Gulf War in 1991, Baker was busy in
the stable trying to get his best stud in the mood for doing what
stallions do best. Every time they both settled down enough to
get on with business, another Navy jet would come screaming over
at 500 feet or less, shattering the afternoon in a hail of noise
that left the whole building trembling.
"They were coming from all the way up in LeMoore, Calif., and
cutting across my place on their way to the bombing ranges around
Fallon," Baker recalls. "I called 'em a couple of times out there
and the people at the Fallon base said they didn't know anything
about it. So then I noticed those turkey vultures circling around
out in the flats over the desert like they do every spring, and
the next time I called I asked 'em how much they figured it was
worth to suck one of them birds through the intake. You know what?
Within two days, I never saw a plane that low again."
Unknowingly, Baker had just nominated himself as a world-class
expert on a protected bird species nobody had thought to pay much
attention to in Nevada before. He is now the founder and president
of the International Turkey Vulture Society, a registered non-profit,
tax-exempt organization with its own web site that he says still
gets 10,000 "hits" a month. More to the point in his mind, his
favorite stud is getting along just fine without all the distractions.
Baker isn't the type to gloat, at least not without making
a good joke out of gloating. But the battles he's been having
to protect his ranch and his water rights 35 miles east of Reno
on the fringes of suburb-sprawling Fernley over the last 10 years
haven't ended up with near the glory or good humor of the turkey
Of the some 5,000 acres of alfalfa and pasture land that used
to surround his own half of a former homestead, at least 2,000
acres are already gone to curving blocks and cul de sacs of new
split levels, along with a new golf course just this year producing
a good enough expanse of watered lawn to make it look presentable.
None of the farms will ever be back, and more go every month as
owners give in to the same kind of pressure being put on Baker
to give up agriculture in the last best pieces of producing land
between the Truckee and Carson rivers.
"I've said they can have mine when they show up with a paper
bag full of small denominations-anything less than a million won't
be considered," says Baker. "Until then, I'm staying."
But even wiry and plain-talking Karl Baker may be hedging his
bet against a relentless pressure on irrigated farms in his area
that had already seen some fields go at a rumored $1,500 an acre.
If the pay-offs aren't coming in paper bags, they are as often
in just-as-good-cash deposited out of a fund of over $24 million
provided by the federal government for upstream interests in Reno
and Washoe County to buy out rights along the Truckee River for
"water quality" purposes upstream.
The bureaucrats and the power company behind those offers claim
they want the water for endangered and protected fish in the Truckee
and its terminus at Pyramid Lake. But combined with the developers
right behind them eyeing the green on leveled fields, the real
intentions seem obvious. "You'll never see them building a house
on the sagebrush uphill from the irrigation ditch," Baker points
out. "That's what they call the 'view.' What they want to build
on is the good farm land."
In the last 26 years, Baker has established his ranch behind
the girth of 100-year-old cottonwoods and massively blooming lilac
as the American Quarter Horse Association's only 50 year Legacy
Award winner west of the Rockies. He's a steady, consistent producer
who earns his living from the horses and the feed he grows for
them. But analysts of the Bureau of Land Management lump him in
with the same term they use to describe his dwindling older neighbors
on Farm District Road. "Hobby farmers," the government sneers
at them, as vulnerable to economic pressure as a fruit stand is
to a supermarket.
"I'm an agribusiness person," Baker bristles. "But I'll tell
you this, if you don't fight 'em, if you're not dynamic, you're
gonna go down. They'll get ya."
Central Valley, Calif.
Jack Pandol of Bakersfield, Calif., is about as far from Baker's
beleaguered 60 acres in Nevada as an 18-wheel truck full of produce
blowing by that fruit stand. But Pandol knows just what Baker
is talking about.
Like other major growers around him in the lushly productive
Central Valley of California, Pandol has reason to doubt such
common consumer confidence in supermarket America. Over the last
20 years, and really only the last 10 that drew his attention,
Pandol has seen perhaps the richest prime farmland in America
shrunk back to a point that groups like the Farmland Trust now
call it the most threatened agricultural region in the nation
(see map and chart). Thousands of acres there are at risk from
much the same kind of onslaught that threatens Karl Baker's small
spread in Nevada.
"I've seen it accelerating in the last 10 years," Pandol says.
"It's not a crisis yet in terms of food production, but it's the
pattern, the attitude that is being set, suggesting that farmland
is only important because it's open space.... It's a crisis in
attitude that will lead to a crisis in substance."
Pandol is president of an almalgam of farm interests, including
town and county political officials and various agricultural associations,
which have formed a task force to address the problem that has
already begun undermining the foundations of the Central Valley's
If the naturally arid soil of this great gut of California
does not make it America's richest farmland, the irrigation provided
just since the middle of this century has certainly made it the
nation's most productive. Sacramento, Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield-all
once farm towns built from the riches of water, now reach out
like long fingers struggling to touch each other in links of highways,
houses and strip malls narrowly spread across the fertile ground
that is still responsible for at least 10 percent of California's
total economic output and one in every four of its jobs.
It was a region that for generations of family summer excursions
somehow always called hungrily to mind hamburgers from the blended
aromas of onions and tomatoes. But now there are daily traffic
jams of SUVs and upscale sedans funneling in and out from the
concrete arteries leading to the major cities, including San Francisco.
It can still smell like hamburgers in the summer, but few of the
daily commuters would spoil their climate control by lowering
the windows for a breath.
"We're not against growth," Pandol says of his task force.
"We accept that it's coming, but there has to be a common sense
way of reaching a win-win solution that will not have an adverse
impact on the primary economy in this part of the world. Every
acre of farmland here is a factory that produces jobs and wealth
and economic activity. We create a product that makes it run.
The strip malls produce nothing. We have to make people see. They
have to lose their ignorance about where food comes from."
As everywhere else in the West, the malls and the subdivisions
will soon spin away on highways bordered by open fields. But it's
the billboards that have changed most. Where once they promised
baskets of produce or live gila monsters or simple curios, now
they advertise romantically named "ranchettes" and easy financing.
If Karl Baker might be content in his way to hold on to his
own 60 acres like an Alamo surrounded by golf courses, Pandol,
like other major growers in his region, can hardly be so cavalier
about the 4,500 acres his family controls in a business worth
$140 million-a-year, much of that in export sales.
Pandol is a former state official, for two years the undersecretary
of California's Environmental Protection Agency. He is highly
successful, well-off, and sophisticated in politics. But he can
sound just like Baker. "If you're lazy and want to sit back on
this," he warns, "you will get run over."
An Erosion of Trust
Dismally deep into the Great Depression of the 1930s, the southern
plains of the United States boiled out of drought into great,
unbelievable clouds of top soil swirling in the helpless waste
of what is remembered as the Dust Bowl. Perhaps the most successful
and popular federal agricultural program of all time emerged from
that in the creation of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. For
the next half century, the SCS and its field representatives developed
a unique relationship of trust with American farmers. The SCS
offered help and successful advice and avoided even indirect roles
in creation of new regulations. It was in the same grim period
of economic hard times that the U.S. Corps of Engineers began
serving a vital role in taming the rivers, particularly in the
South and Midwest, opening richly fertile new bottomlands to crop
But times have changed. Under the Clinton Administration, the
Corps of Engineers is following new mandates. No longer will the
corps repair their own flood-damaged dikes and levees. In the
river valleys once made so productive, farmers and even whole
towns are being advised simply to move to higher ground.
The biggest change, however, may be in the subtle mission adjustment
of the Depression-era SCS, renamed in flatteringly clumsy 1990s
correctness as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
The new title implied the new mission of expanding the service's
responsibility beyond its old field-by-field relationship with
farmers into a broader and, in ways, more regulatory perspective.
In the foreword to its new publication called "A Geography
of Hope," NRCS Chief Paul W. Johnson offers a new "partnership"
with private land owners. "Private land," he writes, "need not
be devoted to a single purpose enterprise. With a broader understanding
of land and our place within the landscape, our nation's farms,
ranches, and private forest land can and do serve the multiple
functions that we and all other life depend upon."
Soil conservation in the old terms meant helping farmers produce
better and more secure crops. Natural resources conservation clearly
implies directing the farmer in the "multiple functions" of his
land and in meeting the requirements of the Environmental Protection
Agency. The erosion of trust between farmers and the once-kindred
federal service is part of the result.
While written in congratulatory terms to American agriculture,
NRCS's "Geography of Hope" thrums in the same tone of environmental
sanctity, for wetlands and forests especially, that characterizes
today's Department of Interior and even the U.S. Department of
Agriculture as a whole. The document sounds no particular alarm
even while noting that, "The total value of agricultural production
in the Central Valley of California could drop by as much as $2
billion annually as a result of low-density urban sprawl...."
In the same paragraph, the document casually observes that preserving
some farmland around urban areas is important to a "...feeling
of openness that is so important to us. Scenic vistas with a minimum
of manmade obstructions have been shown to reduce the stress of
modern living. Natural areas provide us with opportunities for
reflection, rest, and renewal."
Promises are made, and broken. It's part of the history of the
American West especially where federal policy in dealing with
Native Americans is reflected now in newer Interior Department
policies toward all people on "public" lands.
These are the lands the government meant to "tame" in the 20th
century through programs of reclamation and other incentives for
permanent settlement and productive use of the land. Theodore
Roosevelt's classic promise to "make the desert bloom" was epitomized
by the government's first major reclamation project to harness
the Carson and part of the Truckee River into Nevada's Newlands
Reclamation Project. Though it never succeeded to its most hopeful
expanse, Newlands did blossom from irrigation into the most productive
agricultural region in the driest state of the nation.
The state's senior senator, democrat Harry Reid, has called
it "a mistake," and is principally responsible for a relentless
federal campaign waged in cooperation with environmentalists over
the last 20 years to dismantle what was promised to early settlers
as a "permanent and assured" source of water.
Reid's 1990 legislation, meant to shift the water resource
to urban and environmental priorities, was aided from its beginning
by a "Memorandum of Understanding" between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service (FWS) and The Nature Conservancy, the powerful non-profit
pressure group whose representative, Graham Chisholm, was assigned
the role of identifying farmers willing to be bought out under
the new federal priorities.
Chisholm (see RANGE, Fall '96) went about his job with winning
ways in Newlands' Lahontan Valley, getting to know the farmers
and the weaknesses helped by a long drought that led them to sell.
Perhaps his most dramatic success came with the purchase of one
parcel of land near the marshy spread of shallow wetlands where
the Carson dies in the desert. The land came with a modern farmhouse,
built only two years before, which Chisholm grandly proclaimed
in a Reno news conference would be converted to a wetlands "Visitor
Chisholm, however, departed from The Nature Conservancy soon
after that, and soon after it was revealed that the purchase had
been made, with pressure from Reid's office, on behalf of former
casino giant and now mega-developer Del Webb Corporation. Del
Webb was only interested in the purchase as a swap for federally-owned
land on the edge of booming Las Vegas.
The "Visitor Center" never happened, but more than two years
later, Chisholm continues his efforts at farmland purchases on
behalf of his own tax-exempt Great Basin Land and Water, Inc.,
which is backed by federal funds provided by Senator Reid to aid
actual purchases by Reno's Sierra Pacific Utilities Corporation.
At the same time, the former Nature Conservancy operative has
formed another non-profit organization called the Great Basin
Bird Observatory, which, with support from FWS, sponsors fund-raising
tours for urban backers of the Carson wetlands.
"It won't happen," Chisholm bruskly assured a critic concerned
about the ultimate loss of Lahontan Valley farmland. "And even
if it does, this will be better."
Here, as elsewhere, little consideration is given to how much
"better" the raging growth of new development with assured utilities,
roads and services will be to preserving American farmland, or
even to preserving the world's ecology.
It has been four remarkably good years of high precipitation
winters since the long drought so stressed the Lahontan Valley.
This spring, pelicans soaring up from their nests at Pyramid Lake,
50 miles to the north, have appeared in great low-wheeling rafts
of formations above the fields and irrigation ditches, gliding
down in the same smooth illusion that carries away many of the
But south of the U.S. border, in regions made dry by the weather
pattern, fires send up a sulky grey-brown haze that covers the
Southwest. The origin of the impossibly smoldering blazes is unclear,
but the media holds the farmers there mostly to blame for their
slash and burn techniques of clearing the land.
"Without the green revolution," writes Dennis Avery of the
Hudson Institute, "the world would have lost wild land equal to
the combined area of the United States, Europe and Brazil. Instead,
with hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, today
we crop the same six million square miles of land that we did
in 1960 and feed 80 percent more people...."
Avery, however, is not endorsing a "green" movement that continues
to contradict itself with policies meant to debase and demonize
American agricultural technology. "Meanwhile," he writes, "Greenpeace
and the World Wildlife Fund have gathered millions of European
signatures on petitions to ban biotechnology in food production.
They do not protest the use of biotechnology in human medicine,
but only where it could help preserve nature by increasing farm
Unsaid, but clearly implied by such scientific observers as
Avery, is that the worst use of land through slash and burn techniques
in underdeveloped countries is driven at least in part by the
restriction and reduction of more efficient production on American
farmlands themselves. "By 2030," he concludes, "the world will
need to be able to provide 55 grams of animal protein per person
for four billion Asians, or they will destroy their own tropical
forests to produce it for themselves. It will not be possible
to stave off disaster for biologically rich areas unless we raise
The Balance of Trade
It matters very little to most Americans that Karl Baker's alfalfa
may play some small part in the production of protein, or that
Jack Pandol's grapes may serve in the balance of trade, or even
that pelicans may cruise over grain fields and pastures in the
Lahontan Valley. "Reflection, rest, and renewal" are important
aims in the new federal policies on the "open space" of American
This summer in the Central Valley, the task force led by Jack
Pandol prepared to take the initiative from unchecked urban sprawl.
In a professionally-mounted and expensive campaign, the task force
laid out its aims for planning and local public policy to direct
the reaching fingers of new development in patterns more reasonable
to preserving the agricultural economy.
"Our problem has always been in how divided and independent
the interests of growers can be," says Pandol. "We've spent a
lot of time on that, and not everybody is in perfect agreement
even now. But this time, we're better organized and stronger together
than ever before."
Karl Baker can't count on the sort of market-preserving influence
that has brought the big growers together in California. For Baker,
the problem has been convincing his Nevada neighbors of a better
purpose than to give in to the temptation of ready cash. In that
way, his small campaign carries an almost religious zeal to preserve
the farms. "What are you going to do," he asks, "when the money
Both Baker and Pandol have been influenced in their own ways
by the conclusions of the American Farmland Trust's "Farming on
the Edge" report, which suggests serious consequences from the
steady loss of American crop and pasture land.
But the Farmland Trust, founded in part with the help of The
Nature Conservancy itself, relies heavily in its conclusion on
new federal agricultural policies adopted in 1996. This includes
a key element to provide "conservation easements" through the
purchase of farmlands by federal funds blocking any other option
for its use.
Baker saw that as a possible choice for some of his neighbors,
but he, and they, view it with a skeptical eye. "The first time
I heard about it," he says, "the American Land Conservancy [based
in San Francisco] was offering to broker the whole thing for a
fee of 30 percent."
It wouldn't be Baker's money, or that of any of the farmers
who might accept a conservation easement. It would be federal
money directed in part to an environmentalist organization active
in the deal. And the bottom line would be ultimate federal influence
over the land itself.
"The government says these easements are intended to protect
farmland," Baker says. "Why should I trust the government?"
In Oakland, Calif., last June, voters overwhelmingly elected
as their mayor a character who seemed out of place among the poor
and racial minorities who symbolize the fractionated city across
the bay from San Francisco. Jerry Brown, the former California
governor, presidential candidate, Jesuit seminarian and noted
advocate of "lowered expectations," ran and won on a platform
of promising to demand more federal attention to decaying cities
Ironically, the ultra-liberal Brown, son of Governor Pat Brown
who created the modern California Water Project, sounded a theme
very much like that of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
"We don't need more federal programs over agriculture," says
Ross Korves of the Farm Bureau. "The federal programs of the past
are part of the problem now. New federal involvement with farms
isn't an answer. The answer is for the federal government to quit
doing what it is now in explicit policies that drive people off
farms, and for federal policy to address ways of making the cities
more livable, and more affordable. Stop chasing people out."
In one way, Korves is criticizing something that has become
an American pop-culture cliché: "Build it, and they will come."
Build new highways, provide new utilities of water and electricity,
establish the same franchise outlets of consumer goods familiar
anywhere on the continent, offer less tax pressure, and "they"
will come, looking for a better life and unaware of how little
and how much they bring with them. Federal policy and political
expediency, Korves said, has played a major part in actually subsidizing
the expansion of rural development.
On all sides of the issue, there is no doubt that such rural
expansion far exceeds any actual population growth in the United
States. "People may think they're moving to the country," Korves
said, "but that's not really what they want. What they want is
to move everything they have-the shopping malls, the sewer lines,
the mail service, and so on-into what was the country."
Korves favors a "market oriented" approach to channeling development,
putting the burden and full cost for new infrastructure on the
developers themselves, and most important, establishing a "common
bond" among farmers and rural communities in general that takes
into account the full value of agricultural production versus
the long term costs of "planned" development.
"Government policy already affects land use," he says. "That's
nothing new, and the government's track record over the last 50
years hasn't been very good. We must stop digging that hole deeper."
In Washington, D.C., the missionized Natural Resources Conservation
Service is speeding up its efforts despite complained-of staff
shortages to produce an update to its 1992 Natural Resources Inventory.
The U.S. Bureau of the Census has already announced that in
the year 2000 it will no longer count small family farms as a
separate category in the American population. However much the
alarm may have been sounded and ignored, few doubt that the conclusion
of such an inventory will show much the same thing. Hour by hour,
another 55 acres ceases to produce food in America.
* * *
Tim Findley lives in rural Fallon, Nev. His neighborhood is changing
fast, and not for the better..