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The View from Here: Land use: City life vs. rural life

Mike Gangwer Published on 29 August 2012

I am now home from Africa. My duty station is East Lansing, Michigan, on the Ecological Sciences Staff at the NRCS state office. I am on standby status, which means if I am needed to go somewhere outside the U.S., then the phone rings. But I was told I will be here in the U.S. for the near future. I am enjoying being home.

I stored my Mooney aircraft in Willmar, Minnesota, during my South Sudan assignment. Some major work was done on the engine, a 200-horsepower fuel-injected Lycoming, and that work was done a week ago.

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I flew commercial airline over to Willmar and, after three days of familiarization and flight review, I flew N201NJ home to Alma, Michigan, my home station.

I flew over eight states, all Upper Plain and Midwest states and the home to one of the most productive regions in the world. My route took me over the Dakotas, through Minnesota and Wisconsin, down through Iowa, east through Illinois and Indiana and finally north through Michigan.

Some parts of these states are dry and crop yields are expected to be lower than normal. But other regions have an almost normal yield; rain has fallen and soil moisture sufficiently is keeping the crop canopy cool.

In this article, I point out the obvious. That is, in my opinion, the most important long-term policy we need to implement is land use. Many futurists claim that we are, in our lifetime, witnessing a huge move of people to urban environments, as in megacities. The cities are places of opportunities that village life and rural life usually do not offer.

Village and rural life are particularly challenging in the developing world. Women especially have difficulty finding any role other than farming – and much of it backbreaking work with just hand tools.

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Even in South Sudan, a brand-new country, there is stark difference between women in the village and those living in towns and cities. The differences include opportunities to find a job, live on their own and network with other women. Even education opportunities are great; the basic brick and mortar schools are generally in urban environments and, for much of the world, Internet connectivity is available only in the urban landscape.

I view the urbanization of our global population as a positive. People are social … we seek each other to build networks of social relationships, and there is synergy already as teams of people work on building the infrastructure of a town or city that simply cannot be done in the rural environment.And, fewer people in the rural landscape translates into more land available for farming especially on the better agronomic soils.

Further, the mechanization of the rural landscape that is fully manifest here in the states I flew over can be done easier with a lower population density. Contrast this approach with densely populated regions of the world like China, Japan, India and many Middle East countries – and we find that they are or will soon be importing food.

In these densely populated countries, the land-use policy is paramount to protecting what limited land can be reasonably farmed without huge inputs to the farm field. This is why in every country I have served, my first operational suggestion is the development of a soil survey, easily the most valuable product built by my agency – the NRCS.

Policy-makers must know where the valuable soils are and then save them for food production so that less reliance on importing food is made. My premise is that these limited land bases are best served by modern technology and mechanization, similar to what we see across the Midwestern states and in other agricultural regions of North America.

The depopulation of the rural landscape will mean fewer hands (literally) to cultivate fields. Modernity brings with it an understanding of the inputs necessary for optimizing crop production so the return on our investment is greatest.

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Yet, there are many writers and thinkers today championing the approach of the subsistence farmer, of families returning to the farm and eking out an existence that is usually organic and rather romantic. We find photos of a couple holding bunches of vegetables and livestock in a pastoral setting.

But these photos are taken during harvest time, or during the growing season, with cloudless days of blue sky. They do not write or show us what happens in the rainy season or during winter snows.

To be fair, there is merit to returning to a farm and pushing our hands into the soil matrix and finding a healthy soil tilth with an earthworm or two. Our own agency supports the Organic Initiative and small-scale farmers that make a valuable contribution to the buy-local food movement.

My wife shops at the Alma, Michigan, farmers market every Saturday but, come the first week of November through most of the spring, the market is not there.

And there is a lot to be said for finding modern farm methods that minimize the chemical loading of our soils with contaminants that may reach pollutant loading rates in our surface or ground water. Our land-grant universities help understand these challenges with objectively based research – and our private sector agribusiness companies understand that they are working in the public domain.

The message these public-sector and private-sector industries shape is an important one, and we seek to educate the general public with science-based knowledge.

So we have people moving to cities and a depopulation of rural and village life. This important transition will require policy makers to fully develop strategies for managing our most important soils and fields. Modern technology and mechanization are of paramount importance.

We ought not to continue this romantic view that small shareholder plots of land cultivated especially by women and especially using hand tools is a desirable course for the future. For the rural landscape of the developed world, land-use policy that is based on urban zones or urban growth boundaries makes complete sense.

Here in the Midwest, often we see the spread of non-agricultural uses near cities. The preferred land is flat, near water and close to infrastructure. Often this land is prime farmland.

One challenge is, of course, requiring a farm field to remain in agricultural production when the landowner may be offered a huge sum of money for just a road-front corner 10-acre lot. Policy-makers have developed workarounds to this challenge and this is the importance of land-use policy.

The enormous productivity of these eight states during my flight was obvious … farmland as far as the eye can see, with small rural towns every 10 to 20 miles. Add to this that much of this land is in the rain-fed climate region, thereby in most years the crop can be grown with water evaporated from somewhere else and deposited here in the form of rain during the growing season.

In fact, I am suggesting that on our good soils in the rain-fed system anywhere on planet Earth must be protected from urbanization as a first step, irrespective what country these regions are located in. Climate change is another qualifier and we may see shifting climate regimes as rainfall patterns change.

Nevertheless, a comprehensive understanding of land usage built upon an understanding of soils and their quality is essential. Further, policy-makers must decide the relative mixture of crops that are grown for export, for human food use, for livestock use and for biofuel use.

If the reader realizes that these components require some deep thought and a systematic approach, then great. My Mooney aircraft has an autopilot so as I flew at a mile high hour after hour, I thought of all these things. I found myself realizing that we have much to do in preparing for the future, a future of an increasing worldwide population, of changing climate (as in weather extremes) and the costs of inputs directly tied to the costs of energy.

May I suggest we should commit whatever time is necessary to have these discussions so our policy-makers can help us manage our land so our children and their children have an enduring landscape of green. To do anything less lowers the bar of where humanity will be in the coming decades. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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