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Populating the Land
On my recent road trip following the Santa Fe trail from Missouri to New Mexico I
noticed the ubiquitous green signs saying “Cemetery” with an arrow pointing the way.
These lonely burying grounds are along every roadway in America and serve as a reminder
that not so long ago the countryside was well stocked with people. But things changed
and the old ways were not sustainable.
In the early days of our nationhood the United States was land rich and money poor.
When Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase from France (including all of
Arkansas) for $15,000,000 — or three cents an acre — there was even more land available
but not much cash. So, not surprisingly, selling land cheap to prospective farmers
became a favored way of raising money.
A difference of opinion developed between the well-established and wealthier East
Coast representatives, who wanted land sold in 640 acre blocks (one square mile),
and frontier representatives who wanted smaller parcels at cheaper prices. In 1785
the minimum purchase was 640 acres at $2 per acre. By 1800 the price had dropped to
$1.25 per acre and an 80 acre farm in the west (Ohio was west then) could be had for
$100. By 1820 Ohio farmland could be purchased from the government in 40 acre blocks
for a total of $50. By way of comparison, an Ohio farmhand in those days would make
from $5 to $15 per month.
This remained the price for government land until 1862 when President Lincoln signed
the Homestead Act, which gave citizens, or foreign-born in the process of becoming
naturalized citizens, 160 acres of land for just a minimal filing fee. To gain clear
title to the land, homesteaders were required to live on it for five years and make
minimal improvements to the property. Most of the better midwestern farmland had been
purchased by 1862, so mostly the Homestead Act applied to the prairie states from
North Dakota to Kansas. In much of Oklahoma the land was claimed in the five land
runs which began in 1889. Once claimed during the run, the five year residency requirement
of the Homestead Act applied. In 1909 the Homestead Act was amended for the drier
western states with the parcel size increased to 320 acres.
The tenure of the farmers on these newly homesteaded farms was relatively short, often
lasting for but a single generation. In the rich farmland of the Midwest, a farmer
and a bevy of children could make an 80 acre farm work financially. But when all of
this newly offered farmland was put into production in just a few years’ time, commodity
prices plummeted and even farmers with good soil and plentiful rainfall struggled.
In drier places, such as the land along the old Santa Fe Trail, yields were lower,
costs of production higher and railroads charged outlandish prices for shipping produce
to distant markets. Throw in an environmental catastrophe such as the Dust Bowl, and
the land was quickly vacated, leaving behind all those little country cemeteries that
dot the countryside.
Today in the southern plains where I prowled about for a week, farms are large, industrial
concerns with thousands of acres under cultivation, not hundreds. As I’ve noticed
in other areas, broke land is being returned to pasture. Wheat, if it is planted,
is often grazed to fatten the calves before they are shipped to the feedlots that
dot the countryside. I can’t discern the ownership of the farms as I drive by, but
it is likely that these large farms often have a significant proportion of their farmland
under lease. Many of the feedlots don’t own the cattle they fatten, instead feeding
them on contract for others.
Is this modern iteration of industrial agriculture any more sustainable than those
who toiled on the land a century ago? Perhaps, but only marginally so. All of this
mechanization has led to tremendous cost savings by eliminating people from the production
process. Soon tractor and truck drivers will be phased out as software replaces the
need for operators. At some point even low cost, efficiently produced food will become
too expensive if there aren’t a few jobs left in the system. And then there is the
issue of water, but that’s an issue for another day.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.