Hunting and gathering may have been de rigueur in the Ohio valley a thousand years ago, but over the last 500 years more deliberate attempts have been made to scratch a living from this particular piece of earth. Caucasian settlement of the Ohio valley has a history of almost 250 years now, virtually all centered on farming of one sort or another. There is still the odd hunting and fishing occurring here, both tightly regulated by the state with licensing and tagging and sufficient bother to take hunting off the table as an economic means of providing one’s sustenance. So, farming it is.
The summer ’15 edition of The Land has a nice review of Andro Linklater’s book Owning the Earth. Mike Hannis’ review is straightforward and well done. Much of the history leading to the concept of private property took place before the age of discovery so the Caucasian invasion of North America essentially brought folk searching for land to own. Taking it from indigenous people was part of the bargain, not a particularly handsome human bargain in retrospect.
It is not my intent to draw out the history of farming here in great detail. I would rather hit a couple highlights of the history of one particular parcel perched alongside a lazy, and still quite lovely little creek in Madison County Ohio. This parcel drains eventually to the Ohio and then the Mississippi rivers so is not presently garnering as much attention as similar parcels to the north which ultimately drain to Lake Eerie. [the significance of land drainage may one day be discussed here in more detail] The particular parcel considered here is for the moment the private property of my wife and me. Before us the land was held in joint by another married couple of European descent. Prior to the previous owners the piece was part of a larger farm. I am sure detailed records of its ownership exist back at least a century, and likely go back to a time before the States fought a bloody war over State’s Rights and the matter of one human’s right to own another human as private property. But I’ve not researched this particular parcel’s train of ownership.
First a little background on the ‘U.S.’ part of today’s farming experience:
Now it is still legal to farm in the U.S. without Uncle Sam’s direct participation… but very little of this actually occurs. “Participation” in this sense ranges from Sam’s very penetrating observation(s) of what you’re up to at one end to full blown partnership in your farm operation at the other end. For our present purposes here I’ll merely mention two aspects of Sam’s participation in our farm: crop insurance and CRP. The CRP relationship pits us as landlords to the USDA (for which ‘US’ is exactly who you think it is). As a tenant Sam can be – well, complicated. I really have no need to complicate this aspect of our relationship any further so I’m going to jump over this one and focus on crop insurance.
Margins earned for broad acre grain production these days are quite variable, but tend toward the razor thin. In an effort to guard against many of the all-too-common risks associated with the practice one can pay a premium to an insurer to purchase insurance on the crop. If one enters the land marketplace by borrowing capital to finance a purchase, the lender (as lenders for other property, i.e., cars, houses, etc) can expect the borrower to have insurance. I have no quarrel with this. Even if one’s ownership stake in the land is sufficient to obviate a lender’s insurance requirement it can still be a desirable investment. Uncle Sam seems to agree – to the extent that crop insurance is subsidized. There may come a time when this subsidy is abolished, but for the present time it exits and as a crop insurance customer I am subsidized. There are worse things. Arlo Guthrie lists a few in his ditty Alice’s Restaurant – such as those things done by other occupants of the ‘Group W’ bench.
Being subsidized by Uncle Sam leads one into a fiduciary relationship… he is now a sort of partner. He can be a testy partner. To be fair, Uncle Sam is partner to millions. Working with millions of partners has to be difficult. With only a moment’s reflection that just one of those millions is me – well, I suppose I should cut him a little slack.
To be a crop insurance customer I found it necessary to have a form from the Farm Service Agency (FSA – a piece of the USDA). Said form demonstrates I have an insurable crop, the exact acreage, planting date, and a long list of other details (farm number, legal description, etc., etc. – some details more pertinent than others). They haven’t asked for my boot size (yet). This particular form, btw, is FSA-578. The curious might wonder what the previous 577 forms are all about. I’m not that curious. I can share this tidbit though: form FSA-578 has been approved the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as No. 0560-0004 – and this information is seemingly significant enough to warrant inclusion on all printed copies of FSA-578. OMB is not directly affiliated with USDA – but is still part of Uncle Sam’s fiefdom.
When Radar O’Reilly (of M.A.S.H. fame) returned home to Ottumwa, IA after his tour in Korea he likely found fitting employment at the Wapello County FSA office (it would have been known then as the Commodity Stabilization Service).
To obtain my very own legally executed form FSA-578 I duly made an appointment and showed up at the appointed time. A fellow Caucasian male of not yet my vintage was completing his appointment when I arrived. He was asking questions about other FSA matters… questions whose answers I paid rapt attention to so I might save them the trouble of repeating them for me. We middle aged Caucasian males with a predilection for trying to farm can be full of questions. Particularly when we find ourselves in a business relationship with Uncle Sam.
An overview of the history of a small holding.
On this particular piece of land in central Ohio about 250 years ago one might imagine an indigenous family burying scraps from a fish dinner next to a couple kernels of corn – fish procured from the nearby lazy and quite lovely creek. Imagine this corn burying ritual repeated across an open field so that in the autumn they might harvest their produce and set up to survive a winter. The land is not owned, but is respected and cared for as though it were a partner.
About 200 years ago the very same piece of land is now a property, privately held by someone of fairer skin and the property rights protected by the fledgling State of Ohio and the government of the United States. Corn, wheat, and oats are likely planted and husbanded by hand and with rudimentary gardening tools. The government is partner only in defense of property rights. There is no crop insurance, and if you can’t grow enough to survive… you best be on good terms with the neighbors.
About 150 years ago this very same piece of ground might be worked by descendants of the previous owners, or new settlers on the land. Similar crops are cultivated, now with the help of specific tools for the purpose. Labor is either of family origin, paid labor of free men, or labor of animal origin. Ohio, always a free state, there were no slaves to help with farm labor. The government has increased its partnership role by increasing the infrastructure to move about (roads, canals, rail, and bridges). The USDA has been created and farming is becoming a somewhat reliable way of living on the land. Land Grant Universities are being established.
About 100 years ago this very same piece of ground is still privately held and likely by folks with larger holdings than those from 50 years earlier. Farm equipment is now becoming more than hand tools and animal drawn devices. But animals still play a significant role on most farms by providing manure for rotations and converting forages and/or crop wastes to food. Cooperative extension has been created so that modern farming methods can be shared with the agrarian public. Sophisticated markets are emerging. Uncle Sam is about to emerge on the world stage as an extremely significant player. His role in this regard balanced on the backs of his vast bread basket’s many able bodied farmers. This is becoming a partnership like the world has never seen.
About 50 years ago this very same piece of ground is still in private hands, is worked by very significant investments in iron and diesel engines. Hybrid corn seed is planted in rows without the aid of human hands. Soybean is now planted in these parts and is beginning to make a name for itself as a rotational partner for grass crops like corn and wheat. Livestock are still present on many farms, but the trend toward specialized farming is taking shape at an alarming rate. Cooperatives are coming into their own. Strange chemicals that can be sprayed on fields will kill undesirable plants and animals. US farmers are producing so much surplus food that export markets are considered necessary and their development and care now considered another role for Uncle Sam in his evolving partnership with the farming public.
On a personal note, I was on board 50 years ago. Still learning to read and write, and to plant vegetables, hunt chicken eggs in the barn, care for steers, and dream of a time when I might farm for myself. For me at that time Uncle Sam wasn’t yet a business partner. He was the guy pointing at you from the military recruitment posters. Now he helps me pay for my crop insurance.
Today this piece of ground is in my hands. The arable piece is growing corn this year, it will be in soybean next year. White tail deer frolic on the CRP piece down by the lazy and still quite lovely little creek. There remain a couple vantage points on this farm where no other human presence can be discerned. This is for me one of its best features.
About 50 years from now – it’s unlikely I’ll have any remaining interest in this piece of ground. I can however hope that for the time I shepherd this piece of the earth it will continue to prosper and find in me a capable partner.