A Critical Importance of Land Access in 21st Century America

Graham Herbst

There are many types of governments throughout the world and each of them provides for different degrees of freedom, individuality and personal agency. From North Korea to the Netherlands we can look at different ways that societies develop to accommodate the needs of the people and keep order amongst its citizens. Dictatorships are widely recognized as power that is too highly concentrated to lead effectively or equal the collective wisdom of larger groups, but from within the most powerful democracy in history it can be hard to tell what fields the United States underperforms in. What is the role of government in a free society and how do we allow for the greatest good while interfering in peoples’ lives as little as possible?

One of the problematic aspects of a republic and representative democracy is the huge human network of administrators, advisors, lobbyists and politicians who exert their influence in specific fields or industries without necessarily needing to understand how that field impacts others.  The network of relationships between people, goods and services, and the law is so complex that it is often seen as lacking the ability to respond quickly to societal changes.  During our country’s shift away from a predominantly agriculture- and manufacturing-based economy, television shows like Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies exemplified the stereotype held by much of the country about the farmers and ranchers that fed them: inept, low-tech, and uncivilized folk that didn’t “fit in” among high-rise buildings and taxi cabs.  The loss of large segments of our manufacturing industry further contributed to the large number of Americans that needed to find a new line of work, often in the service or information industries.

Corporate-owned large-parcel farms began to spring up in response to environmental calamities for crops and the instability they presented to the small family farm. These smaller farms at one time were situated in close proximity to urban centers in order to efficiently feed cities that had very little capacity to provide for themselves. To imagine the huge quantities of food, goods and resources that flood in to accommodate New York City’s 8 million people is simply staggering. As the scale of commodity markets increases, producers have been detached from those they provide for and replaced by the grocery store which drives down prices for producers in order to accommodate vastly centralized distribution networks. Through the wonders of science and ingenuity, new degrees of efficiency are made possible and quickly demanded by the free market. 

These new economies created vast changes in both housing demand and demographics as foreign, low-cost labor infills the industry. As Macoinis points out, this immigration is often viewed as a net negative on society when a more nuanced reality exists. Language barriers temporarily burden government and school systems with effectively communicating and educating ESL citizens and their children but diminishes as a problem within a few generations. When cities continue to expand their boundaries, outlying farms once dedicated to providing for the city itself become more difficult to manage and fall under pressure to sell out by increasing property value.

As these new economic models drive workers off the farm and into the city, the need for more food from industrialized farms grows in a self-fulfilling prophecy that accelerates economic changes that must be adapted to. The inability of people and our government to fluidly adapt to these rapid changes is part of where high urban crime numbers come from. 80% of Americans now live in cities and are completely dependent on “someone else” to grow their food and/or create a job for their income. This process of disconnection is so complete that most view vegetable gardening as drudgery intended for those with no other option. Connection to the land (and nature in general) has become an optional pursuit for people that often struggle to find life purpose in the absence of those most basic of human interactions with the world around us.

In a country where life is expensive, necessities are inequitably accessible, and many are oppressed by racist, classist or otherwise bigoted hierarchies, some will choose to become predators of their neighbors or scavengers of scrap metal. During the last half of the 20th Century, as we turned away from urban cores and towards the suburbs, spread out rather than re-envisioning our existing infrastructure, and made our first attempts at re-thinking the scope and scale of community-building, the majority of Americans lost touch with the knowledge and capacity to provide for themselves. The New Urbanism tenants of decentralization and “communities within larger communities” is equally applicable to our food system. As long as cheap, subsidized food is available, American society continues to complicate its ability to accommodate the safety, health and prosperity of Americans and staves off the pressing need for a localized agricultural renaissance.