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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: An Ethical Predicament on Farmland

Stanley A. Temple

21 Oct 2015

Can non-farming landlords and tenant farmers who have less long-term stake in farmland’s health fulfill the obligations of a land ethic?

20 October 2016 | By Stanley A. Temple, Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Senior Fellow, Aldo Leopold Foundation

When renowned American conservationist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was confronting the problem of land abuse in the American heartland 85 years ago, most farmland was in private ownership. The individual owners, therefore, had to play a central role in sustaining local and regional land health. Back then, the owners of America’s farmland were mostly family farmers, “owner-operators” who had lived on the land and worked it, often for several generations. They had close ties to their land and usually hoped to pass it on to the next generation. Leopold reasoned they should have had compelling reasons to take care of their property, and many did just that. But too many abused their land, leading to the soil and water erosion and loss of biodiversity that characterized the 1920s and 30s.

Leopold recognized that it would be challenging to rely on government regulations and incentives to coerce irresponsible owners into taking care of the soil, water, native plants and wildlife on their farms. Owners resented regulations and only complied with subsidized practices as long as there weren’t more lucrative uses for the land. Leopold instead conceived of what he called a “land ethic” as a promising approach. In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold made several key observations about a land ethic:

  • “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
  • “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic invoked the individual owners’ personal sense of right and wrong to guide their land management practices. Because family farmers were so close to their land, Leopold thought these owner-operators should feel a moral responsibility to avoid abuses, such as soil erosion, that rendered their property less productive for current and future generations, as well as abuses that damaged community resources such as water and wildlife. His ethical approach is still an important component of most public and private land conservation strategies today.

But, there are changes on America’s farmland that may require the land ethic to evolve to deal with situations Leopold never anticipated. Some 400 million acres (nearly half of US farmland) are predicted to change hands in the next 20 years. In the process, traditional family farms are being gradually purchased by a new class of non-farming owners who no longer live and work on the land and have little personal connection to it; many may never even set foot on their land. More than ever, the new owners—often large corporations, LLCs and investment companies–really do regard farmland as a commodity. Land management decisions are left to hired farm managers who rent the land to tenant farmers who do the actual work. Today, 39 % of American farmland is rented and worked by tenant farmers, and non-farming landlords own 80 percent of all rented farmland. Although they have access to sophisticated management tools that help increase yields and conserve soil and water, absentee owners, hired managers and renters are less easily influenced by a land ethic than owner-operators with more personal investment in the land’s health. Can these new non-farming landlords and tenant farmers who have less long-term stake in farmland’s health fulfill the obligations of a land ethic?

It’s a very big issue. Of the 1.9 billion acres of land in the 48 contiguous states, 914 million acres (nearly half) are in agricultural use; most of the precipitation that falls in the US falls on (and runs off) that land with consequences for water quality; and about 40% of US threatened and endangered species are found there. In spite of its importance, there are many indications that land health is not being sustained on American farmland. Run-off from farmland and resulting downstream problems are major concerns. The expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico attests to the enormous scale of the problem. Wildlife species that depend on farmland for habitat are struggling. Meadowlarks and other grassland birds that were once common on farms are in severe decline as more land is farmed intensively. Even the ever-popular monarch butterfly that once flourished on farmland has declined to the point at which it is being considered for listing as a threatened species, in part a victim of changes in farmland management that have decimated the milkweeds and nectar-producing wildflowers on which the butterflies depend.

Is the answer more government regulations of modern farming and more public subsidies for farmland owners who do sustain land health? Although necessary parts of the equation, those weren’t the keys in Leopold’s day, and they probably aren’t today. As Leopold observed so long ago, “We seem ultimately always thrown back on individual ethics as the basis of land conservation. It is hard to make a man, by pressure of law or money, do a thing which does not spring naturally from his own personal sense of right and wrong.”

The challenge is how to make a land ethic relevant to the new farmland owners and their operators and how they care for their land. With farmland increasingly regarded as a commodity, the challenge is to find the balance between profit-maximizing behavior and non-economic concerns. Many corporations have adopted ethical guidelines for the way they do business, and responsibility for the environment is typically prominent. But, the new class of farmland owners has not yet conspicuously embraced the concept of a Leopoldian land ethic, and too few have clearly acknowledged and fulfilled their ethical responsibilities for land health. One problem may be that the products of America’s farmland are not often closely associated with either the owners or the health of the land that produced them. Although there is growing consumer demand for transparency about where and how food is produced, exactly what that will mean in the broader context of land health remains somewhat unclear.

The conservation-minded community at large needs to engage new owners, managers and renters of farmland and help them understand and adopt a land ethic, perhaps by rewarding them for their efforts. It’s a task even more challenging than it was in the bygone era when Leopold’s land ethic was conceived, and will require new levels of engagement with these new owners and their significant stakeholders. Who and what are important to the modern, non-farming landowners? Is it just shareholders and profits, or is it also the larger community and an ethical responsibility for land health?

In the end, Aldo Leopold realized that it would take time for his concept of a land ethic to lead to land health on America’s farmland. “We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive…” And he provided a sort of golden rule to guide those strivings. “Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.”


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