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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
Private Lands: Farmland Preservation Policy, 1933-1985, by Tim Lehman.
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995. xii, 239 pp.
Reviewed by John C. Allen, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Public Values Private Lands is
a must read for individuals interested in the structure of agriculture,
environmental legislation, or political science focusing on regulation.
The book is organized around five major chapters. These include The Rise
and Fall of the New Deal, Agricultural Land Use Planning; The Reemergence
of Agricultural Conservation; Farmland Protection on the Federal Agenda
and Farmland Protection in Congress; and The National Agricultural Lands
Study. Each chapter, as it develops, is linked to the book s core question:
If private land has inherent public values, how is it to be governed in
a society that resists regulatory controls?
According to Lehman, attempts to
regulate agricultural land use at the national level have been undertaken
in response to anticipated shortages and resource abuses. Only two such
attempts in U.S. history have been serious, first during the New Deal
of the 1930s, and again during the 1970s. The New Deal was a sad story
of what might have been, according to Lehman. He argues that the primary
impetus for the New Deal land use reform was a natural outcome of historical
agricultural production practices that resulted in soil exploitation.
Tracing this exploitation to the rapid expansion of farmland from 1850
to 1930, where over 300 million new acres were brought into production,
he presents a sound argument that this expansion increased erosion by
entering environmentally sensitive areas. As early as 1850, agricultural
practices were observed to have dramatic adverse environmental consequences.
This was a period of increased mechanization, land consolidation, and
movement towards monoculture. John Strong of California claimed that grain
production was a complete illustration of how man failed to understand
the linkages between agricultural practices and the environment. By 1878,
John Wesley Powell argued for land classification and planned settlement
in the arid West. Within Powell s classification scheme were three categories:
irrigation, timber and pasture.
Although many decades of accumulating
concerns for the environment in general -- and the soil in particular
-- played important roles in influencing the New Deal, another source
of concern was the Country Life movement. This movement focused on improving
the quality of life in America, in part through an efficient agriculture.
The Commission on Country Life issued a report in 1908 expressing worry
that the land s declining productivity was due to the mining of its virgin
fertility. The social condition of any agricultural community was said
to be closely related to soil quality. The Commission report argued that
poorer individuals were forced to move to areas of lower quality soil.
The report also warned that continued soil deterioration could reduce
farmers to a dependent class.
The development of a political constituency
increased the speed of social conservation and social issues linked to
monoculture agriculture and exploitive practices. By 1933, the Soil Erosion
Service had been established. By 1935, this agency had been given permanent
status as the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), part of the Department
of Agriculture. A primary theme echoed through policies of the Department
of Agriculture during this period: farmers did not have the inalienable
right to allow their lands to erode. The federal government had the right
At this point in the historical
narrative, Lehman takes us straight from the New Deal era, and jumps ahead
three decades to the 1970 s. The changes in agricultural structure, the
movement from farming to agribusiness, is important in displacing agricultural
interests from a Jeffersonian pedestal to the ranks of yet another special
interest group. As land became a less important part of the productivity
equation between 1950 and 1970, Lehman suggests that the conservation
ethic, which had animated the land economists of the 1930s, gave ground
to the dominant notion that agricultural land was more a commodity than
a resource. In 1951 Theodore Schultz argued that technology had replaced
nature s constraints and that agricultural land was declining in importance.
The political climate also influenced
the positions taken by the SCS. Lehman demonstrates that in 1947, in the
face of uncertain Congressional funding and recurring hostility from the
Farm Bureau (and it allies in the Extension Service), the SCS created
the National Association of Conservation Districts. During this historical
period, Lehman argues that conservation values were sacrificed while the
SCS was reorganized from a regional to a state basis and most technical
services were shifted from the SCS to the land grant colleges and the
The re-emergence of agricultural
conservation during the 1970s is linked to several factors. Agricultural
areas were being subjugated rapidly to accommodate suburban growth. A
recognition was growing in the U.S. of a need to feed the world. It was
also during this period that soil erosion was rediscovered. The environmental
movement of the 1970s influenced the re-emergence of agricultural conservation.
The argument was that for rural democracy to survive, ecological stability
and sustainable agriculture must be achieved. This blend of ecology and
agrariansim was not entirely new; much had been discussed during the New
Deal of the 1930s.
The Nixon administration of the
early 1970s promoted a number of policies with the premise that land use
control is a legitimate public interest. The first major change in land
use policy of the 1970s was the Coastal Zone Management law, which moved
the power of land use from local jurisdictions to the state. The argument
was that the key to environmental land reform lay in activating the power
of the state to regulate private property. By 1973 Congress had enacted
the Land Use Policy and Planning Assistance Act. A key feature of the
act was to preserve farmland.
As the legislation moved through
Congress, the Department of Agriculture seemed to lag behind even its
administration, according to Lehman, and the new legislation was interpreted
as a criticism of USDA conservation policies. Lehman argues that division
with USDA about land use planning and soil conservation practices revolved
around the conservationists and economists within USDA. He states that
the economists, centered in the Economic Research Service (ERS), believed
that government was an inefficient interference in the private marketplace.
By 1979 Congress was discussing
a federal land use bill but it failed to pass. Failure of the bill s passage
was linked to the perception that this might be the first step toward
national land use planning. Strong fears were voiced that such policies
would lead ultimately to a situation where government tells every landowner
what they do with their property.
Lehman presents three primary conclusions
from the examination of land use legislation. He argues, successfully,
that on the political level, the movement for agricultural land preservation
in the 1970s provided environmentalists an important inroad into agricultural
policy making. Social science research was enhanced as many of the issues
dealt with the social phenomena rather than strictly physical issues of
land. These discussions renewed the focus on the ecological restraints
on agriculture, enhancing the perspective that agriculture was moving
from an era of abundance into an era of uncertainty about land, water,
and energy resources.
Lehman concludes that farmland preservation should be viewed in the context of a more encompassing scope of federal and state policies. Export policy, agricultural research, federal grants, tax policies, federal interest rates, and even birth control policies, all of which are part of the context of land preservation in the 1990s. Given the increasing importance of land preservation, the movement within USDA to include sustainable agriculture in their discussions about agricultural production, and the increasing linkages between environmental and rural groups, this book makes an important contribution. By placing in context the federal policies influencing farmland preservation Lehman has provided a service to those of us who study and work with agricultural, environmental, and rural interests.