Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic

Note: Brian DeVore has a degree in agricultural journalism and wildlife biology from Iowa State University. He grew up on a crop and livestock farm in Cass County in southwestern Iowa and, while serving in the Peace Corps, managed a dairy cooperative in Lesotho. He was a contributor to the 2002 book,The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, and for the past 25 years has worked as an editor at the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota. His recent book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic was published in 2018 by University of Wisconsin Press. (https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/5621.htm)

The following essay is an excerpt from Wildly Successful Farming.

A Day on the Farm, a Night on the River

The idea for writing a book about farmers who refuse to separate the “ecological” and the “agronomic” was sparked by time I spent with the late Dan Specht. Before his tragic death in 2013 as a result of a haying accident, Dan had spent decades raising crops and livestock on a ridgetop farm overlooking the Mississippi River near McGregor in the Driftless Area of northeastern Iowa. That farm also “produced” ecological health, which was evidenced by the prodigious presence of grassland songbirds, pollinators, healthy soil, and clean water, among other things. He was recognized nationally as a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, and had even testified before a Congressional committee on why regenerative farming was a public good worth being supported by public policy.

On a summer day in 1999, I visited his farm in an attempt to put a human face on a highly complex story: how nutrient runoff from Midwestern crop fields was creating a hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to write an article about the role farmers like Dan Specht could play in mitigating the problem. Dan agreed to spend the day showing me some of the innovative farming methods he was using to tighten up his nutrient cycle—managed rotational grazing of cattle, cover cropping, diverse rotations—as long as I agreed to go fishing with him and Jeff Klinge, another farmer from the area, that evening.

While trolling the backwaters and talking with Dan and Jeff about everything from agricultural policy to water chemistry to geology, it became clear there was a direct connection between what took place up on the nearby hilltops and the results down on the bottomlands, all the way downstream to the Gulf. This excursion was part and parcel of the personal seminar Dan was giving me on farming, fishing, and fertilizer.

Dan and others like him are what I call “ecological agrarians”—farmers who understand Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology: “Everything is connected to everything else.”

Below is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of my book. I attempt to describe here how difficult it is, especially in the Midwest, to arrive at a worldview that a productive agriculture and a healthy ecosystem are not mutually exclusive.

The Land Ethic
Growing up on a 240-acre farm in southwestern Iowa during the 1970s, I considered farming and the natural world to be two very different animals. You raised corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle up on the DeVore hill, and wildlife thrived in those hidden, and somewhat mysterious, hollows down in the bottomland where a scrappy little stream called the 7-Mile cut a gash through our neighborhood. That belief was reinforced by the fact that the 1970s was witness to a “fencerow-to-fencerow” grain production explosion, when farmers were encouraged to farm every last acre in the name of “feeding the world.” Wildlife habitat was a luxury on “real” working farms. My home place succumbed to this thinking, but not nearly to the extent of other farms. My dad removed plenty of trees and a few brushy fencerows—more out of a need to see things neat and tidy than any desire to “feed the world.” He had hunted, fished, and trapped back in the day, but now he was a farmer, and his interaction with the land began and ended with how to wrest a living from it.

I had always preferred spending more time in the untamed bottoms of the 7-Mile than the domesticated tops of our farm, so when I went to college I studied fish and wildlife biology and journalism, thinking I was going to be the next Mark Trail, the outdoor writer of newspaper comic strip fame. My belief that farming and the natural world did not mix was reinforced early by a professor who was a big believer in the role wildlife refuges, parks, and other publicly owned natural areas could play in preserving remnants of nature. During a field course called “The Ecology of the Missouri Ozarks,” we drove by section after section of farmland so we could visit federal and state wildlife refuges, waterways that had been protected via the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and national forests.

At one point, we visited a Missouri lake that was inundated with boaters and swimmers on an early spring day. It was a cacophony of activity, and quite frankly, did not show American outdoor recreationists at their best. It was particularly jarring after spending several days in the more “natural” parts of the Ozarks.

“We need areas like this,” my professor explained as he slowly guided our college van through the crowds. “It’s like a safety valve that keeps people away from real nature.” By extension, farming the hell out of the best soils kept farmers away from those “natural areas” as well, I assumed. This would mark a common belief I ran into in subsequent years: it wasn’t just farmers who thought agriculture and the natural world did not mix, so did many ecologists and government natural resource professionals.

And during my college years in the early 1980s, farming and nature seemed more alienated from each other than ever. I wrote articles about studies showing that agrichemical contamination of Iowa’s drinking water wells was ubiquitous, while wildlife habitat was shrinking to all-time lows. I’m reminded of the first magazine story I tried to write as a student journalist. It was supposed to be about how farming could actually help wildlife. My first interview was with a well-known bird expert at Iowa State University. When I presented him with my thesis for the story, he said something along the lines of, “I’m not sure if there’s a story there. Farming does more harm than good to wildlife.” He then went on to talk about how harvesting corn with combines left the fields so denuded of grain that there wasn’t even anything left over for the wildlife to glean. I ended up doing the story anyway, but it was pretty lame—something about farmers planting wildlife-friendly windbreaks along fence lines sticks out in my head. To be sure, this was 1983 or so, and we had just come through the 1970s and its decimating fencerow-to- fencerow planting fever. That ornithologist was right to be pessimistic.

It turns out there was a very important human element to all this bad news that I missed at the time: as farms became less numerous and larger, environmental degradation increased. There were simply fewer people on the land to care if a pasture was plowed or a brushy fence line bulldozed. It turns out the fate of the family farmer isn’t just tied to the price of corn—there is a real connection to the health of the land as well.

Somewhere along the line, my view of agriculture’s relationship with nature changed. I’m sure it was a combination of things, but one experience stands out. One of the farmers who farmed on the bottomlands of the 7-Mile had hunted, fished, and trapped with my dad back when they were young. But this guy, perhaps because of his nearness to the creek, had never quite lost his interest in woods and streams. One day he told me about a book he had just read. “You might be interested in it,” he said nonchalantly. “It’s about this guy who kind of takes you through the seasons and describes our relationship with the land, things like that.”

That book was A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. Even though it had been written almost half a century before I picked it up, it set my brain on fire. I loved the descriptions of nature, and Leopold’s ability to observe one small aspect of the land and extrapolate it into a larger way of thinking. But what really drew me in was his idea of the “land ethic”—the idea that we have a moral responsibility to the land and its wild flora and fauna, that not every “cog and wheel” in nature must justify itself economically in order for us to give it permission to exist. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote Leopold. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

When I first read those words, I didn’t know enough about “biotas” or “ecosystems” to judge what land practices were preserving “integrity and stability.” All I knew was I didn’t like the cold feeling I got in my gut when I saw a stand of hardwoods bulldozed and burned, a creek straightened or a pasture plowed up and planted to corn. To be honest, when I was younger my opposition to such “land improvements” was rooted in self-interest. I remember when a neighboring farmer ripped out a brushy fencerow soon after he bought property in our neighborhood. My first thought was, “Well, I’ll have to find another place to hunt rabbits.”

But Leopold helped me begin observing the workings of the land less as a consumer of outdoor diversions and more as a member of a community, one that was much more interesting than I could have imagined. When we stop viewing land as mere property, the possibilities, for us as well as that land, are opened wide. Ironically, some of those possibilities are actually based in economics. For example, farmers in recent years are discovering that by ignoring all that “useless” soil biota and focusing exclusively on adding to their fields’ financial value with high-priced, artificial inputs like petroleum-based fertilizer, they are sacrificing the long-term viability of their land. That would not have surprised Leopold, who called it a false assumption that “the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.”

And I liked what Leopold said about how an all-encompassing ethic should apply not only to pristine wilderness areas but to where we live and work every day. When one considers such an ethic in terms of agriculture, the health of the land in rural areas is best served when food production and wild areas exist side-by-side, rather than as separate entities performing seemingly unrelated tasks. Such a way of looking at the world was highly appealing to a wildlife-loving farm kid who was living nowhere near a national park, wildlife refuge, or nature preserve. If I was to have any interaction with nature, it had to be in the pastures, crop fields and ditches that made up my agrarian world. Seeing my family’s 240 acres through Leopold’s eyes suddenly made that farm seem much larger and layered.

In his essay “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” Leopold eloquently described how woodlands, meadows, sloughs, and wetlands, those odd corners where ecological services quietly go about their business, can coexist with corn production, pasturing, and other farming enterprises. Wilderness areas, national forests, and wildlife refuges are important. But as Dana and Laura Jackson point out in a book I contributed to in 2002, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, too often people see their presence as an excuse to sacrifice a functioning ecosystem on good farmland: “Farm the best and preserve the rest.”

The result of this segregation on a landscape scale is pristine preserves such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on one end of the spectrum and ecological sacrifice zones such as the Corn Belt on the other end. On an individual farm scale, it often means gradual elimination of residual habitat fragments on the assumption that displaced wildlife can simply take up residence on public land somewhere else. The whole concept of wetland mitigation fits this mindset—in a state like Minnesota, highways, housing developments, and other such projects are allowed to displace a natural wetland as long as developers provide the means for a replacement marsh to be established elsewhere. It’s a nice idea, but ignores the concept that perhaps there was an important ecological reason that wetland was located in its original spot.

An integration of the tamed and the wild not only makes economic sense by saving soil and protecting water quality, for example, but it provides a certain “wholeness” that is so critical to the overall success of a farm. Wrote Leopold: “No one censures a man who loses his leg in an accident, or who was born with only four fingers, but we should look askance at a man who amputated a natural part on the grounds that some other part is more profitable.”
In the seven decades since Leopold wrote those words, it has become clear he was right in more ways than one. The sustainable agriculture movement is based on the idea that all aspects of a successful farm—from its soil, croplands, and pastures to its woodlands and sloughs—are part of a healthy whole. Farmers and scientists are realizing that an agricultural operation too far removed from its biological roots is more vulnerable to disease, pests, and uncooperative weather—in other words, it’s less resilient.

Leopold was writing in a different era, when industrial agriculture and agroecological thinking were both in their infancy. But recent research and real-farm experience have proven him right. Environmentalists are now aware that creating islands of natural areas is not sustainable in the long term. To be sure, waterfowl benefit from state and federal wildlife refuges, but when migrating they rely on the food and shelter present in the potholes and sloughs found on farms across the Midwest. A protected waterway may be safe from having factory waste dumped straight into it, but what about the non-point runoff from all the farms present in the surrounding watershed? It can be ecological death by a thousand hidden, and not so hidden, cuts.
In places like the Midwest, working lands conservation (of course, it could be argued that all lands “work” in terms of ecosystem services) is more than a nice concept—it’s a necessity in a region where vast tracts of publicly owned acres are few and far between. Pore over a map where shades of green indicate the percentage of land devoted to agricultural production, and you’ll see the midsection of America resembles the dominant clothing choice for a St. Patrick’s Day parade. In Iowa, almost 89 percent of the land area is farmed. Even in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, with their timberlands and lakes, 54 percent and 45 percent of the landscape, respectively, is in agriculture. Nationally, privately owned croplands, pastures, and rangeland make up about 40 percent of the terrestrial surface area, and are managed by just 2 percent of the population.

And a tiny subset of that 2 percent makes support of a functioning ecosystem a priority when producing food. But when one gets an opportunity to see such a philosophy in action, the psychological impacts can have an outsized effect. Soon after I went to work for the Land Stewardship Project in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to encounter numerous farmers, such as Dan Specht, who blended the natural world and their farming systems almost seamlessly. As I wrote in The Farm as Natural Habitat, some of these farmers were prompted to make major changes in their operations by health concerns (a well contaminated with agrichemicals), while others were triggered by economics (seeking a premium price in the organic market, for example).
I’ve always been fascinated by what prompts a farmer to make changes that are likely to invite the derision of others in the community, particularly other farmers. But the stories I find particularly intriguing are those of farmers who I call “ecological agrarians”—people who never really separated the natural world from food production. Sometimes they seemed to be born with this inability to disconnect the two. Other times, early life experiences forged this connection.

Wildly Successful Farming
No matter what the avenue or the timing, the result is, as Art “Tex” Hawkins refers to it, “wildly successful farms.” Hawkins is a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service watershed biologist who went on to start a sustainability initiative at Winona State University in Minnesota, and his late father, Art Sr., was one of Leopold’s first graduate students. The
younger Hawkins has worked closely with many of these farms that are blending nature and agriculture, helping them, for example, monitor the health of the ecosystem via bird identification. He sees them as the living embodiment of what good can come from refusing to separate the ecological from the agronomic.

I like the term “wildly successful,” partly because it’s a play on the title of a well-known farm magazine, Successful Farming. Just as a pop musician pines to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s long been acknowledged in the agricultural world that to have your farm featured in a magazine like Successful Farming is a sign that you’ve arrived. Farm magazines like this offer up lots of practical advice, but like their glossy counterparts in the suburbs and cities, they also have an aspirational component to them. “You too can be a successful farmer!” is the message their profiles and photographs convey.
Such success is measured by how many bushels are being produced on how many acres utilizing what kind of technology and inputs. However, there have always been groups of farmers who measure success based on how well their production systems interact with the land’s natural functions. When done right, these farms are able to succeed not only ecologically but financially and from a quality of life point of view. These are the wildly successful farms I refer to in the title of this book.

And we’re not just talking about farms that are homes to ducks and deer. “Wildness,” in this case, extends beneath the surface as well: healthy soil is perhaps the most diverse ecosystem on earth and maintaining its diversity to the point where natural systems can function has repercussions all the way up the food chain, to us. So, this book isn’t just about marshes and prairies—it’s about farms that give a variety of natural forces the opportunity to interact with human-driven forces in a positive way, literally from the ground up. Some of those interactions happen through a hands-off approach; others are more directed. Either way, thought and conscious decision-making must go into the process for it to be successful. This is, after all, for all intents and purposes the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by the actions of human beings.
This book tells the stories of farmers across the Midwest who are balancing agricultural productivity with a passion for all things wild. These farmers are utilizing a wide range of techniques and strategies, but they are united by a single philosophy, which is to approach working lands conservation as, to quote Leopold, “a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution.”

Whenever people read or hear about a farmer who is doing innovative things to balance food production with a healthy, functioning ecosystem, a natural response is, “Nice story, but what does it mean in the bigger picture?” In other words, are these examples fated to be feel good tales that have no real relevance when it comes to making our overall food and farming system more sustainable? I don’t think so. This book also describes how wildly successful farmers can have impacts beyond their field borders—all the way to research test plots and our supper tables. That said, I don’t want to mislead readers into thinking that this book is reporting on some sort of regenerative farming revolution that’s sweeping the U.S. Corn Belt. These stories are about farmers who are returning resiliency to their particular piece of the landscape. Given the catastrophic environmental threats our entire region faces, it can be difficult to accept the fact that wildly successful farming is an outlier.
But for now, it is—we will need to seek our optimism in the isolated, but powerful, examples profiled here. I’ve chosen to focus on the Midwest in this book because in many ways its landscape has been thoroughly reshaped by production agriculture to a greater extent than any other region in the country. If wildly successful farming can get a foothold in an area where, in some counties, 95 percent or more of the landscape is blanketed in either corn or soybeans during the growing season, then there’s hope for other places dominated by a version of the “Corn, Bean, Feedlot Machine,” as Montana rancher Becky Weed calls it. To use an agronomic metaphor, wildly successful farms are seeds and it remains to be seen whether society provides fertile soil—both in the marketplace and the public policy realm—for them to sprout the kind of growth that spreads widely.

`This is no shop manual on what that seedbed should look like, but I’ve included in these pages what I see as some of the common traits shared by farming operations that have in some way become wildly successful. Teamwork, cutting-edge science, curiosity, a willingness to ignore the conventional wisdom adhered to by peers, the ability to foresee (or at least weather) unintended consequences, and, of course, personal passion all play key roles. That’s a complex formula, one that makes creating a standard template for being wildly successful pretty much impossible. But when’s the last time something truly transformational came out of a neatly organized toolkit?

Community Economic Utilities: A Tool for Building Agricultural Cities

By John Ikerd

Note: John Ikerd is professor emeritus at University of Missouri, Columbia whose teaching, lectures, and writings on sustainable agriculture and sustainable economics have made him a frequent speaker at conferences here and abroad. His idea for Community Economic Utilities would create economic justice, not only in rural but in urban America.

In his book, Building the Agricultural City, Robert Wolf makes a compelling case for rethinking economic development in rural America. He explains the multiple ways in which industrial economic development has systematically depleted the productivity of natural and human resources by exploiting rural people and places. The industrialization of agriculture has been a key part of this process. Rural economic development is destroying the resources upon which its productivity and economic viability ultimately depend. This cannot continue indefinitely; it quite simply is not sustainable. (https://freeriverpress.org/agricultural-city-project/)

Wolf proposes a “bioregional” approach to economic development as a sustainable alternative to industrial development., John Thackara, in How to Thrive in the Next Economy, defines a bioregion as “a ’life place’ that allows the regeneration of soils, watersheds and biodiversity .  . .  that is definable by natural rather than political or economic boundaries. A bioregion reimagines the man-made world as one element among a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food production, information.” Bioregionalism is not about returning regions to some pristine natural state that existed before human intervention. Instead it seeks to create thriving human communities and economies that function in harmony with the natural ecosystems upon which they are ultimately dependent. Bioregional economies allow the “regeneration of soils, watersheds, and biodiversity” essential for sustaining positive personal relationships and progressive human cultures.

The “agricultural city” is the central concept of Wolf’s bioregional approach to development. An agricultural city is a bioregion that includes farms, rural residences, and small towns as well as a significant population centers. He writes, “Rural America must become more self-reliant and self-sufficient if it hopes to avoid the trauma of another national Depression.” Thus, a bioregional agricultural city must be large enough to include significant sectors of agricultural production, processing, distribution, and consumption—as well as supporting public services. He continues, “I believe that it is imperative that we in rural America build self-reliant regional economies, and that this can only be done at the grassroots level.” He writes, “A sustainable, self-reliant economy developed at the grassroots level need not wait for the collapse of the current systems.”

A major challenge of bioregionalism is effective governance. Bioregions are not defined by political boundaries but instead by ecological boundaries. Cultural values also must be considered in defining boundaries as human culture affects the functioning of “developed” bioregions. Governments are notoriously territorial and typically have difficulties working across political boundaries. Furthermore, today’s economy shows no respect for either ecological or political boundaries. The economy is an equal opportunity extractor and exploit within all political jurisdictions and bioregions, including some supposedly protected by law.

As Wolf points out, “regions as viable economic and cultural entities will not be a product of any government.” Governments cannot create sustainable bioregions. However, government is the only means of protecting bioregions from economic exploitation and thus the only means of creating agricultural cities as “viable economic and cultural entities.” Obviously, agricultural cities will require some creative thinking to meet this challenge. One possible approach to solving the problem of bioregional governance would be to create bioregional alliances of public utilities. Public utilities are commonly used to provide essential public services such as electricity, water, sewers, and telecommunications. Public utilities could be organized under current laws that authorize and regulate other existing public utilities and thus would require no legislative action. Most important, public utilities essentially create local or regional monopolies that are protected from the exploitative pressures of economic competition.

The creation of “Community Economic Utilities” (CEUs) as independently-operated, publicly-regulated entities, within political and across political jurisdictions, would minimize government involvement. Beyond giving legal approval to establishing and operating CEUs, the only essential role of government would be public oversight. Voluntary participation or membership in any particular CEU would minimize local political or community resistance to the CEU as an imposition of government.

Some might question using public utilities to create agricultural cities because utilities typically are used in cases that economists refer to as “natural monopolies.” For example, it’s logical to utilize only one electrical system, water system, or sewer system in a city or county because of the high cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure for these systems. The existence of only one service provider would constitute a monopoly, with monopoly power to exploit its customers. Thus the justification for government intervention. However, public utilities are equally appropriate in any case of “market failure.” Natural monopolies are but one example of market failure. The ecological, social, and economic exploitation of rural America under the guise of rural economic development is clearly a “market failure.”

In general, public utilities are legitimate means of providing any essential public service that competitive market economies will not provide. For example, in the early 1950s many residences in rural areas were still without electricity. Those without “power” typically lived on farms that would have required extension of existing “power lines” for several miles to service a few customers who initially would use very little electricity. It didn’t make economic sense to extend the existing power lines. This was not a natural monopoly because there was no economic benefit to be monopolized. It was nonetheless a “market failure.” The Rural Electrification Association (REA), a public utility, was established to provide electricity to those remaining without power, regardless of the economic costs and benefits of doing so. The REA even paid electricians to install electrical wiring in old farmhouses—which was a costly undertaking. Access to electricity had become an “essential public service,” rather than a market privilege.

Some local businesses may contend that a CEU would represent unfair competition with existing providers. However, public utilities are often used to provide essential public services when private services exist but are inadequate to meet the needs of all, as in the case of rural electrification. Another example is public transportation, including buses, light rails, and even taxi cabs, which are either provided by municipalities or regulated as public utilities. Public transportation obviously competes with private transportation providers. Public utilities also are currently being used to extend high-speed internet service to rural areas. This public alternative clearly competes with existing services provided via satellite. Such cases nonetheless address legitimate market failures.

In addition, since membership in CEUs would be voluntary, a CEU would have no monopoly power because private providers would still be able to compete for members. However, CEUs would still allow people in rural communities to establish economic boundaries within which they can provide specific public services by means that are “insulates,” even if not isolated, from exploitative economic competition. CEUs eventually would need to blanket the bioregion if they are to protect the bioregion as a whole from economic exploitation. This might be a challenge but would not be a particular problem, as a self-sufficient, sustainable agricultural city eventually must function with the “consent of the people” in the bioregion, regardless of how it begins.

The justification for utilizing CEUs to create agricultural cities would need to be premised on the claim of “market failure”—specifically the failure of today’s market economy to meet the basic economic needs of people in rural America. The existence of a variety of government funded social welfare programs provides strong evidence of such a claim of market failure. Supplemental Nutritional Assistance programs (SNAP or food stamps), free and reduced price school lunches, Medicaid, low-income housing assistance, public transportation, and temporary income assistance for needy families (TANF), are examples of the current piecemeal approach to meeting the basic human needs of the least fortunate Americans. Such programs mitigate the market failure but obviously have failed to ensure that the basic human needs of many, if not most, people in rural America are met. CEUs would provide a local government-sanctioned, voluntary alternative means of meeting the basic economic needs of all.

A further argument could be made that the basic needs of future generations are being threatened by the degradation and depletion of rural natural and human resources upon which those of the future must depend for their food, clothing, housing, and overall economic well-being. Everything of use to humans, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from nature by way of society. Current government funded programs for soil and water conservation, sustainable forestry, environmental protection, renewable energy, organic and sustainable farming, reflect a piecemeal approach to protecting and maintaining the productivity of natural resources for the benefit of future generations. Public education, subsidized college loans, job training, civil rights laws, and public defenders are examples of government programs that invest in human resources for the future and protect the civility and integrity of society upon which future economic development ultimately depends.

CEUs could be established to administer all existing government benefits that members of the utility are eligible to receive. Separate utilities could be established for food, housing, energy, health care, transportation, soil and water conservation, education, civil liberties, etc.—either within or across political jurisdictions within bioregions. Regardless, all CEUs within the bioregion would need to conform to a common set of guiding principles. An umbrella CEU for the bioregion as a whole could ensure the social and ecological integrity of all CEUs in the bioregion. The mission of the alliance of bioregional CEU as a whole would be to build self-reliant regional economies by empowering people at the grassroots. As Robert Wolf wrote, “A sustainable, self-reliant economy developed at the grassroots level need not wait for the collapse of the current systems.”

Umbrella bioregional CEUs could ensure that the individual public utilities were organized and operated by means that help restore and sustain the ecological, social, and economic integrity of the bioregion. The bioregional CEUs could also help those creating individual CEUs within the region to make the case with local government officials to allocate local tax dollars, to the extent necessary, to compensate the utilities for the economic costs of resource conservation, environmental protection, social integration, and cultural preservation. Those who choose to join CEUs would be expected to bear some of these costs as an expression of their personal values and commitments—particularly to the extent that costs of operating CEUs exceed existing government funding. However, local tax payers in general also must be willing to allocate local tax funds to local CEUs that provide essential public services not currently provided by government.

Since CEU membership would be voluntary, agricultural cities would incrementally emerge and gradually grow within the existing political jurisdictions of bioregions covered by umbrella CEUs. The emergence of Wolf’s vision of agricultural cities would depend on increasing the numbers of CEU members within bioregions until members eventually represent a bio-community consensus mandating local governments to protect their bioregions for economic extraction and exploitation.

No blueprint or recipe for development of a bioregional alliance of CFUs is possible. Creating new agricultural cities would require that each bioregion develop its own umbrella organization and set of basic principle that would increase self-reliance and sustainability. The principles must reflect the culture and ecology of the particular bioregion as essential principles of sustainable economic development. The day-to-day operation of individual CEUs also must accommodate the social and economic culture of the communities within which they are organized and function. Some communities are more altruistic and might be willing to ensure basic benefits to all in need, regardless of the willingness or ability of recipients to provide anything in return. Other communities are more utilitarian and require that people earn or be willing to work for whatever they receive beyond current government benefits.

Over time, the ability of CEUs to locally source food, shelter, energy, health care, education, and other basic needs would be expected to expand beyond the needs of those eligible for existing government programs to include everyone in the bioregion. At that point, benefits could be made available for purchase by anyone in the community covered by a CEU. The cost of membership to those not eligible for government programs should be sufficient to cover the CEU’s full cost of operation, in order to avoid unfair competition with other local service providers.

When shopping in a CEU supermarket, eating in the CEU restaurant, receiving CEU health care, or participating in a CEU educational program, community member who paid full cost of membership would be indistinguishable from those who paid less than full cost, worked for their added CEU benefits, or were unable to contribute anything of economic value. Relationships formed by patronizing and participating in CEUs would perhaps be the most important community building aspect of using CEUs to build agricultural cities.
Relationships within agricultural cities would not be impersonal economic or political relationships but relationships based on shared commitments to the fundamental principles of self-reliance and sustainability. The shared commitment would be to the people’s right to meet their basic economic needs through means that are ecologically sound and socially responsible and their right to protect themselves and their communities from economic exploitation. As the concept of agricultural cities spreads across and beyond rural America; cities, state, national, and global economies would begin to move toward a more just and sustainable future for humanity.

  1. Wolf, R. (2016). Building the Agricultural City: A Handbook for Rural Renewal. Decorah, Iowa, Ruskin Press.
  2. Thackara, J. How to Thrive in the New Economy. London, Thames & Hudson.
  3. Thackara, p 29.
  4. Wolf, p 13.
  5. Wolf,  Agricultural Cities, p 12
  6. Wolf, p 40.
  7. Wolf, Agricultural Cities, p 12.
  8. See John Ikerd’s website:  https://www.johnikerd.com/

Anticipating Changes—And Preparing for Them in Advance

Frederick Kirschenmann

Frederick Kirschenmann shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.  He is a prolific author, whose most recent book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher, was published in 2010. In addition, Kirschenmann manages his family’s organic farm, where he developed a diverse crop rotation to improve the health of the soil without synthetic inputs.

In our current culture it is not unusual for dominant innovators to attempt to predict the future and develop new technologies that they believe will more effectively control life on earth by further enhancing what we have done in recent centuries. However as Jared Diamond has pointed out there are compelling reasons to question that strategy. Following his Pulitzer prize-winning best seller, Guns Germs and Steel, in which he outlined the reasons Western Civilization created the technologies which enabled them to dominate their world, Diamond published a second game-changing book, Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In this second treatise he points out, based on his study of past civilizations, that while there is little evidence that people have been successful in predicting the future, those civilizations that “anticipated changes coming at them,” and prepared for those changes in advance, were the ones that tended to thrive, while those that failed in that exercise were the ones that tended to “collapse.”

I would suggest that those findings are worth paying attention to in our own time. Given that there are always more unknowns, than we are able to identify, in any evolving, emerging world, any attempt to predict the future based on what we can know, is seldom likely to be “right as rain”. However we can anticipate potential changes and if we prepare for them in advance, the likelihood that we can effectively deal with them—if they occur—increases. Similarly, if it turns out that they don’t happen, it is generally not a serious problem.

I realize that there are some who do not see much of a difference between “anticipating changes” and “predicting the future” since both are based on an attempt to foresee the future. But while it is true that both attempt to prepare for future occurrences, predicting the future assumes that we are able to foresee future occurrences clearly and that we can sufficiently dominate nature to control evolving events. Anticipating changes, on the other hand, assumes that we can neither predict future occurrences, nor can we dominate nature to control them. Consequently, a more effective alternative is to prepare for potential occurrences so that if they occur we will be far more likely to be able to adapt to them.

Wendell Berry has, as always, succinctly described the “mistake” we continue to make in our current culture. “Our original and continuing mistake has been to ignore the probability, even the inevitability, of formal misfitting between the human economy and the economy of nature, or between economy and ecology” (Our Only World, p. 146) Yes, assuming that we can predict the future is grounded in principles of economy while anticipating changes is grounded in the principles of ecology.

That is why I think it is much more important for us to collectively anticipate some of the changes that may emerge in our not-too-distant future, and prepare for them in advance, than it is to attempt to predict the future and assume that we can control it sufficiently to insure the prosperity of humans.

Fortunately we have some creative thinkers who have already provided us with important information that can enable us to anticipate changes and prepare for them in advance. One contribution to this effort, which I have found particularly useful, is a study produced by anthropologist, Ernest Schusky. In 1989 he published Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Framing Systems. In this comprehensive historical analysis Schusky provides us with useful information about changes we can anticipate. However, while he bases his analysis on the question “how have we humans fed ourselves ever since we have been on the planet” his perspective is relevant to much more than the future of food and agriculture. In fact, it provides us with important information about the evolution of humans on planet earth and the “era” in which we now find ourselves, as well as some of the changes we can anticipate.

Schusky points out that we humans emerged as part of life on planet earth, roughly 200,000 years ago, and that, for the first 190,000 years, we fed ourselves as “hunter gatherers”. In other words we were not food produces, we were food collectors. We did not begin to become food producers until about 10,000 years ago, when we began to do agriculture, and initially we were mostly “slash and burn” producers. We cut down perennial grasses and/or trees and then planted our preferred plants into the fertile soils which had evolved in earth’s perennial poly-cultures, and eventually we also began to domesticate our preferred animals. Of course the soil fertility in our slash and burn plots eventually became depleted, and then we would slash and burn a new plot and let the original plot lay fallow.

However this slash-and-burn approach required a lot of land and labor and eventually led to the evolution of a new era of feeding ourselves that Shuskey called the “neo-caloric era,” which “began in the 19th century.” That revolution was driven largely by the development of the industrial economy and the “use of fossil energy” which ultimately developed the input-intensive, highly mechanized agriculture of the modern period.

Another moment in our history which encouraged the adoption of this input-intensive system was a contribution by Justus von Liebig, a German scientist, who developed the discipline of organic chemistry and was influenced by another German scientist, Carl Sprengel. Sprengel was intrigued by the industrial economy and came up with the concept of “the law of the minimum” in 1828. Sprengel was interested in making the industrial economy more efficient and one way to do that was by implementing the law of the minimum—introducing technologies that enabled one to get the maximum output for the minimum amount of input. And Liebig was attracted to that concept and decided to apply the principle to agriculture. After some research he published his influential paper, “Organic Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology,” in 1840. It was the law of the minimum, applied to agriculture, that ultimately led to the adoption of the principle goal of modern agriculture—“maximum efficient production for short-term economic return.” That goal was largely achieved by applying cheap inputs—mostly N, P, and K—instead of wasting energy on the “laborious process” of managing soil. And that ultimately led to the adoption of the concept of “specialization, simplification, and economies of scale.”

All of this created what Shuskey called the “neo-caloric era.” That “era” was largely defined by inputs that are non-renewable, and since we are rapidly using up those non-renewable inputs, the neo-caloric era, he argued, will of necessity be ”a very short period of time” in the time-line of human history. That is one of the “changes” it might be especially important for us to anticipate!

Anyone who still believes that it would be a disaster to abandon the phenomenal progress of the industrial economy, might want to acquaint themselves with some insights provided by another anthropologist, James Suzman. In his intriguing, recent book, Affluence Without Abundance, he points out, that the “Bushmen,” in southern Africa, never transitioned from being hunter/gatherers in order to adopt industrial principles. As a result they lived lives of contentment and were able to meet their few needs easily, and he invites us to consider whether it might not be possible for us (especially as we enter the post-neo-caloric era) to cope with such radical changes by learning from people who have already demonstrated, by example, that it is possible to live “affluent” lives without an abundance of work and wealth. An interesting cultural consideration.

Of course this obviously will not only require us to anticipate changes in agriculture. In fact based on his research, Ugo Bardi, an Italian scientist, pointed out in his book, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet (which is now a new Club of Rome Report) we are rapidly reaching a point that will require us to design an alternative way of living on the planet, which will include ways that recycle our “wastes” and regenerate our resources.

Of course the end of the neo-caloric era suggests that we need to anticipate an assemblage of changes, like these, that will challenge our current culture. The evolution of the industrial economy fostered a culture that promotes the notion that we humans are in charge of nature and that it is our responsibility to dominate nature. As Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon already pointed out in the early stages of the industrial economy, in the mid-17th century, that we humans needed to “become the masters and possessors of nature” and that we needed to “bend nature to our will.”

Ironically, there have been a few visionaries, almost a century ago, who recognized that this view of nature was the wrong direction. However, their perspective has certainly not become part of our culture.

One of those visionaries was Liberty Hyde Bailey who in 1915 published one of his many books, which he titled The Holy Earth. In that alternative vision he argued that we should not be trying to “control nature” but rather we should relate to nature as if it was “holy” and try to determine how we could learn from nature. But that perspective got very little attention in our culture of becoming the “masters and possessors of nature.” And while the culture of controlling nature still prevails today, one of the changes we may want to anticipate is the need for a cultural transformation.

Such a transformation is already articulated in Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker’s new booklet, Journey of the Universe. In this creative treatise they remind us that we humans, living on our tiny planet earth, which is a small part of our universe, is actually a very small part of the “cosmos” which has been evolving for “14 billion years.” Since we humans on planet earth are part of that long-term evolution, which is on-going, if we, on our tiny planet earth, still think that we are “in control” we are truly kidding ourselves.

As they put it, given that we are part of this long-term, on-going evolution “no one knows what the future holds—all of that is hidden in the darkest night. The future is being created by all of us, (i.e. all of the cosmos) and it is a messy and confusing process. What is needed is courage to live in the midst of the ambiguities of this moment without drawing back into fear and a compulsion to control.”

In anticipating these changes and preparing for them in advance they suggest that “Our challenge is to construct livable cities and to cultivate healthy foods in ways congruent with Earth’s patterns. Our role is to provide the hands and hearts that will enable the universe’s energies to come forth in a new order of well-being. Our destiny is to bring forth a planetary civilization that is both culturally diverse and locally vibrant, a multiform civilization that will enable life and humanity to flourish.”

I think this is the kind of cultural shift that we might consider as we anticipate the changes coming at us in the post-neo-caloric era—it can be part of what we can do, in advance, to prepare for the changes coming at us.

Jared Diamond, 1997. Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of human Societies. W.W. Norton & Co.
Jared Diamond, 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking.
Wendell Berry, 2015. Our Only World: Ten Essays. Counterpoint Press.
Ernest Schusky, 1989. Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Farming Systems. Bergin & Garvey.
Justus Von Liebig, 1840. Organic Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology.
James Suzman, 2017. Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushman. Bloomsbury Press
Ugo Bardi, 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green
Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1915. The Holy Earth. C. Scribner’s Sons
Brian Thomas Swimme & Mary Evelyn Tucker, 2011. Journey of the Universe. Yale University Press

Restoring Rural Communities of Necessity

John Ikerd

Note: John Ikerd is professor emeritus at University of Missouri, Columbia whose teaching, lectures, and writings on sustainable agriculture and sustainable economics have made him a frequent speaker at conferences here and abroad. His message here is one we desperately need to hear and implement.

During the 1940s and 1950s, when I was growing up on a small farm in Missouri, we still had strong rural communities. Farming communities were interwoven networks of people who knew each other mainly out of necessity. Most farms in those days couldn’t be farmed by a single farmer or farm family. Farming was a community affair, by necessity.

In the early days, steam engines that powered threshing machines led threshing crews with teams of horses from farm to farm. Crews of up to forty men and boys traveled from farm to farm to fill silos with corn silage. Each farmer brought along their share of farm equipment and labor. For my dad, it was mostly labor—as there were three growing boys in our family. Haying crews tended to be smaller because there was less equipment involved, but it still took a crew, a community, to put up hay. The men and boys worked hard, but a lot of socializing also took place at these gatherings. There was a feeling of social connectedness.

The “farm wives” also renewed relationships during these times of harvest. Several women and girls would gather at the host farms on harvest days to help the hosting wife prepare the noon meal for the harvest crews. The farm women also had their own groups or social clubs who gathered periodically to make quilts to keep their families warm in winter. They also helped each other can fruit and make preserves or cut meat and make sausage on butchering days. The work was often tedious and tiresome but the varied conversations helped to pass the time and maintained bonds of social connectedness.

These networks of necessity were interconnected through local churches and schools. Everybody knew everybody in their own churches as well as most folks in the others churches nearby. The parents of kids who went to school together all knew each other for school sports and social activities. Visiting on Sunday wasn’t limited to kinfolks but also included neighbors. People visited and passed the time of day at the local country stores and at barber shops, filling stations, and farmers’ cooperative exchanges in nearby towns. “Giving someone a hand” wasn’t limited to helping out in emergencies, but was given any time someone “needed a hand.”

These communities, created out of necessity, were communities that not only helped rural people make a living but only gave them a common sense of purpose and brought fullness and meaning to their day-to-day lives. Personal relationships back then, as always, were difficult to maintain, and disagreements naturally arose. But, rural folks knew they needed to “get along to get by” in life. They weren’t going to move away and live somewhere else simply because of a difficult relationship with a neighbor. The challenges of community, as well as the rewards, added a sense of substance, significance, and quality to day-to-day rural life.

But “times changed” in Rural America. The industrialization of agriculture removed the necessity for community-based farming. Individually owned field choppers replaced the big silo crews, individually owned combines replaced the big threshing crews, and inexpensive hay balers replaced the big haying crews of my youth. Networks and communities of farmers were no longer necessary. Farmers were free to harvest their own crops whenever they chose, rather than wait their turn to be helped by the big crews of neighbors. Even on farms without their own harvesting equipment, the work sharing groups were far smaller. Modern kitchen conveniences also eliminated the need for farm wives to share housework. Farm wives may have had more free time but fewer reasons to spend it with others in their local communities.

Social circles in farming communities narrowed still further as farms grew larger and surviving family farms became fewer and farther apart. With fewer farm families, many rural schools were consolidated into larger schools and rural churches struggled to survive. With improved roads and cars, farm families bypassed the country stores and even nearby towns to shop in larger stores elsewhere.

The number of people rural people still knew grew fewer and fewer as they grew older and their kids left the community to raise their families elsewhere. New people moved into some rural areas. Some were seeking the low-paying jobs in small factories that moved out of metropolitan areas and others found work in the large “factory farms” that were replacing family farms. Some new residents were simply trying to escape the high living costs in cities. Most people in rural communities didn’t bother to get to know their new neighbors because they “didn’t need to.” Communities were no longer a necessity in rural areas.

The disintegration of rural communities has not been an accident of fate or even the inevitable consequences of a “free-market” economy. The process can perhaps best be described as “economic colonization.” Economic colonization is a term used to describe a process by which nations use superior economic power to exploit the natural and human resources of previous political colonies. Political colonization was deemed immoral and ended in the early 1900s, but economic colonization continues and is not limited to exploitation of nations by other nations. Today, large financial and agri-business corporations are using their dominant economic power to exploit and extract the natural and human resources of rural areas under the guise of rural economic development.

Rural economic colonialization is defended by the proposition that rural people are incapable of developing their own economies and thus must rely on outside investments. Local officials are told outside investments will bring badly needed jobs to rural areas, stimulating the local economy and resulting in a greater variety of retail businesses and an expanded the local tax base. More local tax revenues will provide opportunities for better schools, better health care, expanded social services,

In cases where promises of prosperity have failed to persuade the people, corporations have resorted to economic favors for local leaders or outright “bribery.” If all else fails, they simply resort to interstate commerce laws and claim an “economic right” to force their way into communities where they are unwanted. These are the same basic strategies colonial empires have used with the indigenous peoples of their colonies throughout history. As with political and economic colonies of the past, the promises of economic development are soon replaced with the reality of economic extraction and exploitation.

Whether intentional or not, industrial agriculture has been a primary means of colonizing rural America. Rural communities have been promised economic prosperity through industrial agriculture. Instead, industrial farming operations have eroded the fertility of the soil and polluted the air and water with chemical and biological wastes—more like mining operations than traditional farming. Comprehensive corporate contractual arrangements have replaced thinking, caring family farmers with far fewer “farm workers.” Communities are supported by people, not simply production. It takes people not only to buy farm supplies and equipment at local dealers but also to shop for clothes, cars, and haircuts on Main Street, to fill desks in local schools, pews in local churches, and seats on town councils and school boards.

Rural kids who grow up and choose to “stay home” are often labeled as not being among the “best or brightest.” Some are “bribed” to stay by parents who help them get long term loans they must stay to repay. New rural residents are more likely to be immigrants desperate for temporary work or people fleeing the cities for a variety of reasons. These remnant rural residents may be good people but they have no shared commitment to a common vision of the future. The sense of community has been lost and the shared hope for the future is lost.

A recent Wall Street Journal article calls “Rural America the New Inner City.” It began, “For more than a century, rural towns sustained themselves, and often thrived, through a mix of agriculture and light manufacturing. Until recently, programs funded by counties and townships, combined with the charitable efforts of churches and community groups, provided a viable social safety net in lean times. Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places. Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings”1—below inner-cities.

Wendell Berry summarized the current plight of rural America in a recent letter to the book editor of the New York Times: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying. 2 The economic colonization of rural America has turned promises of rural prosperity into the reality of rural ghettos.

Margaret Wheatley, a leading thinker on institutional and cultural change, recently identified three major trends in American society: First, “A growing sense of impotence and dread about the state of the nation,” second, “The realization that information doesn’t change minds anymore,” and third, “The clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action—that there is no greater power for change than a community taking its future into its own hands.”3 I agree with Wheatley.

First, I believe the prevailing mood in rural America today is one of “impotence and dread.” Many rural people are beginning to awaken to the sources of economic exploitation but feel powerless to stop it. Their desperation makes them even more vulnerable to continued exploitation. Second, I agree that information no longer changes minds. We now have more than 50 years of “sound science” and the real-world experience of people in rural communities confirming the negative environmental, social, and economic impact of agricultural and economic industrialization on rural America.4 However, many in positons economic and political power are heavily vested in the industrial model of agricultural and economic development and have deflected blame to various “others” and fed a widespread sense of fear and denial in rural areas.

So where is the hope for the future of rural America? I agree with Wheatley, the hope is in the “clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action.” I think most rural people either don’t understand or don’t want to believe what is happening to their communities and why it is happening. If they understood, I believe people in rural communities everywhere would realize they are once again living in “communities of necessity”—and would take action. 
People act whenever they feel it is necessary to defend against acts of nature—windstorms, floods, fires. People also take action whenever they feel compelled to defend deeply held social and ethical values. Honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect! “These five core ethical values are common to many cultures, regardless of race, age, religious affiliation, gender, or nationality,” according to the Institute for Global Ethics.5 The economic colonization of rural America violates every one of these core ethical values. Whenever people fully comprehend this blatant disregard for the values of basic human decency, I believe people in rural communities will be compelled take action.

To break the cycle of rural economic extraction and exploitation, rural people must again join together, as communities of necessity to protect themselves and their families from the ecological, social, and economic consequences of economic colonization. This is a not a farm-versus-town or rural-versus-urban issue. It‘s a matter of necessity for those who care about the future to come together and reclaim the sovereignty of their communities that has been sacrificed to economic expediency. A common sense of community is no longer an option or choice, it is absolutely necessary.

Meaningful change is necessary but real change won’t be quick or easy. The defenders of the status quo are economically and politically powerful. The personal relationships and commitments necessary to empower local communities and to build alliances or communities are difficult to form and to sustain. We Americans have a long history of striving for self-reliance and independence, making it difficult to admit we need to rely on each other. That said, we also have a long history of coming together, even making government work, whenever it has been necessary to do so.

We don’t have to wait for the federal or state governments to step in and defend our basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All other rights are dependent on a right to life. If we have a right to life, we have a right to air that is safe to breathe, water that is safe to drink, and enough wholesome, nutritious food to sustain human health. The fact that those rights are not specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution does not mean they are excluded as constitutional rights. The 9th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Certainly, everyone has a right to make an economic living, but there are many ways to make a living that do not threaten the basic human right of others.

We also have the power to claim our constitutional rights. The 10th Amendment states that “Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The Declaration of Independence states that the fundamental purpose of government is to secure the rights of the governed. We have the power to restore purpose to government, if we begin at the local level. One person can’t change the balance of political power, but a small group of committed people can, particularly at the local level. Individual concerns can become community concerns. Communities of concerned people can link with other concerned communities to form community “alliances” committed to protecting their communities collectively.

As people change, communities change, and eventually, societies change. That’s the way change has happened and always will happen; one person, then another… one community, then another and another… one at a time. A major challenge is to find fertile places to start. This will be the theme of the next piece in this series: Reclaiming Communities of Necessity.

End Notes:

1 Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, RURAL AMERICA IS THE NEW ‘INNER CITY’, The Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/rural-america-is-the-new-inner-city-1495817008 .
2 Wendell Berry, “Southern Despair,” New Your Times Review of Books, Reply to Nathaniel Rich, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/05/11/southern-despair/ .
3 Margaret Wheatley, “Big Learning Event,” University of Wisconsin, Madison, http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/Wheatley-The-Big-Learning-Event.pdf .
4 John Ikerd, “The Economic Colonization of Rural America; Increasing Vulnerability in an Increasingly Volatile World,” http://johnikerd.com/the-economic-colonization-of-rural-america-increasing-vulnerability-in-a-volatile-world/ .
5 Institute for Global Ethics, “Fast Facts,” https://www.globalethics.org/Who-We-Are/Fast-Facts.aspx .

You can learn more about John Ikerd’s works with links to his books at www.johnikerd.com

See also Building the Agricultural City: http://www.robertwolfthewriter.com/agricultural-city/

See John Ikerd’s website: https://www.johnikerd.com

Island Housing Trust

For those who live on Mount Desert Island, a major New England tourist destination, the close of a summer season elicits a bittersweet reflection on the calendar. From Memorial Day until Labor Day, the Mount Desert workforce has kept a breakneck pace, guiding tour groups, bussing tables, and greeting guests. The gateway towns to Acadia National Park have welcomed another million visitors for the season, and for four months they have logged long hours, making the summer economy hum. But as the fall air chills around some of the most visited towns in the region, it also beckons the island residents back into their beloved communities as active, engaged neighbors. Visitors depart, making spaces for locals to recreate in their backyard again, while neighbors catch up in the aisles of the once frenetic grocery store. The libraries warm with tuned-up furnaces and evening gatherings to hear from a local author. Schools welcome back their educators and students. Community organizations gear up for another slate of 5Ks and live entertainment, making the snowy months seem more like a winter-long neighborhood party than just another chilly push until May.

These year-round islanders are the emergency responders, nurses, scientific researchers, and caretakers who keep a steady working pace twelve months a year. They work for the Park Service, school administration, and hospital. They keep a few restaurants open despite only breaking even during mud season. Sadly, they are also finding their ability to live near their workplace and beloved communities more challenging every year.

That’s because opportunities for affordable home ownership and year-round rental housing are as scarce as a downtown parking spot on 4th of July weekend. The median price for a family residence on Mount Desert Island (excluding the million-dollar estates on the market) is just under $400,000. And the reliability of vacation rental income is too seductive for investors to pass up, making property inventory sparse and sale prices high. For the year-round workforce and their families, living on the island is often impossible, resulting in record low enrollment in the local elementary schools and shuttered businesses in the winter.

Alison Beane is the executive director of Island Housing Trust (IHT), an organization dedicated to preserving the community landscape of Mount Desert Island. “We understand how affordable housing is crucial to community preservation and a thriving economy,” says Beane. “And we are keenly aware that the lack of year-round housing on this island is not unique to Maine or other destination towns across the county. Martha’s Vineyard and Jackson, Wyoming, for example, face similar challenges. We are committed to sharing goals and strategies with these other towns and working closely with local leadership to generate as many home ownership opportunities for workforce members and their families as we possibly can.”

“Without assistance from IHT, we wouldn’t have been able to afford to live on the island, which was so important to us,” says Jenny Rogers, an administrative assistant at Mount Desert Island High School. “We wanted to be a part of the island community and live as close as possible to our workplaces and these wonderful towns.”

Similarly, Jenny’s husband, Mike, generously credits IHT with much of his good fortune as a small business owner. Rogers co-owns LARK Studio, a Bar Harbor–based landscape architecture firm serving the needs of the island and the New England region. “IHT allowed me to live on the island,” says Rogers. “It enabled me to stay, start a business, and now give back to the organization that allowed me to do all those things.” Mike and LARK Studio have helped sponsor IHT events and supported various projects with design work.

The Rogers family lives in IHT’s Ripples Hill Community in Somesville, a postcard-inspiring village near the center of the island. This small subdivision is made up of nine energy-efficient homes that the organization designed and sold to qualified buyers who agreed to detailed affordability covenants. The Rogers own their home, as do the eight other families in this close-knit community that prides itself on an open-door policy for each other’s kids and employing group text messages to borrow a recipe ingredient.

Lucy and Ethan Rogers are among the nine kids from Ripples Hill who attend the nearby elementary school, which has seen steady decline in enrollment in the last several decades. Nearly 240 students attended the K-8 school in the late 1990s; last fall’s enrollment boasted a small uptick from the past few years to 181 kids. A record low of five kindergarteners started school this fall. Mount Desert Island schools like this one aren’t alone, as many schools across Maine show similar enrollment trends and hints at consolidation. The region’s status as a prized summer destination, however, adds to the complexity of the school district’s dilemma.

Linda Higgins, a lifelong resident of the island, is a real estate agent and IHT board member. She describes a common trend in communities where she grew up and raised her family. “It used to be that you knew everyone in the neighborhood,” she says. “But now, with summer residents and rental properties, we’re losing the families. We just don’t see as many lights on in the wintertime.”

Since 2008, Island Housing Trust has risen to meet these challenges by completing 35 home ownership projects for 108 adults and children on Mount Desert Island. These include, in addition to Ripples Hill, another development of four homes in Bar Harbor, and the Home ownership Assistance Program (HOAP), in which IHT provides financial assistance to enable qualified applicants to purchase year-round houses all over the island. IHT also oversaw the acquisition of two other properties, which were then placed under affordability covenants: one donated and one made available through the conservation organization Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Among the 35 homeownership projects completed by IHT in the past decade are five successful resales of residential properties that carried IHT’s affordability covenants, which enabled IHT to resell these homes at below-market rates to qualified working families and individuals.

This fall Ethan Rogers joins his sister and neighborhood pals at the Ripples Hill bus stop as a proud kindergartener, one of the five comprising his whole incoming class. His parents resume the reliable pace of winter, with work, school, and community events. Like many locals, they share a secret delight in the change of season.

“The truth is that the winters can be hard, but they are also a time of connecting with our friends and neighbors,” says Jenny. “And most importantly to us, our neighborhood has turned out to be everything we were looking for in a community, allowing us to appreciate all the seasons here and give back to IHT and surrounding towns. We are truly grateful.”

On Mount Desert Island, year-round and seasonal residents are working with Island Housing Trust to protect one of their most valued assets—a vibrant community that keeps the lights on and shares the best of what it has to offer, from education to emergency services to a cup of sugar, all year round.

This piece was written by board member and IHT homeowner Kendra Rand. Kendra is an instructor in communications at the University of Maine and her husband works with Acadia National Park.

There are two unaffiliated Island Housing Trusts: one on Desert Island, Maine and one on Martha’s Vineyard. They are separate entities. It is crucial to note that primary funding for both come from individual contributions. The Desert Island Trust in Maine has not obtained state or federal funding, but a small portion of the housing trust for Martha’s Vineyard does. Below are annual reports for each.

Island Housing Trust 2015 STATEMENTS OF ACTIVITIES

Revenues and Other Support
Contributions $ 249,819
Interest Income 67
Program Revenue 16,215
Total revenues and other support $ 238,661

Expenses Projects $ 199,905
Management and General 31,476
Fundraising 31,921
Total Expenses $ 263,302

Increase (decrease) in net assets $ 2,799
Net assets beginning of year $ 400,051
Net assets end of year $ 402,850

Link: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/569fba9076d99cc6c04e5005/t/58262184cd0f684ed1f4d86d/1478893971593/iht2015AnnualRptv3.pdf

The Island Housing Trust has created over 60 homeownership opportunities throughout Martha’s Vineyard over the past eleven years. These homes consist of one, two, and three-bedroom single-family homes, townhouses, and condominiums located through out the Island towns. See Our Homes for more information.

Homes sell between $150,000 and $300,000 to households earning between $35,000 and $100,000. Homeownership opportunities are advertised in the local newspapers and notices are mailed to income eligible families and individuals who are enrolled in the Island Affordable Homebuyer Clearinghouse administered by the the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority.

Private Donations: $3.6 million
Town Grants: $2.5 million
State Grants: $900,000
Banks & Private Financing: $600,000

The private donations have come from hundreds of people. THIS IS THE KEY TO CREATING A COMMUNITY HOUSING TRUST.