New Iowa Homestead Act

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by Ed Fallon

My Dad tells me that when he was a kid growing up in the South Bronx, most of the food he and other New Yorkers ate came from the many small farms stretching the length of Long Island. Today, sub-divisions and strip malls have crowded out Long Island’s farms. New Yorkers, like most Americans, get the majority of their food from far, far away. Even in my home state of Iowa, one of America’s top farming states, 80% of our food comes from beyond our borders.

It’s high time for a New American Homestead Act. If current trends toward the industrialization of agriculture continue, few farms will survive in America. At the present rate of loss, Iowa, for example, will have only one farm per each of its 99 counties by the year 2065!

Over the past several years, the subject of the so-called “urban-rural divide” has become quite heated in Iowa. If stories from my legislative counterparts in other states are indicative, tension between city dwellers and country folk is a national phenomenon. Yet those who insist that rural and urban America must be locked in struggle fail to see that the best future for all builds on the historic strengths of both our cities and farming communities.

With increasing political tension between urban and rural interests and fewer and fewer farmers working the land each year, progressives ought to ignite a debate over how to resolve such tensions and repopulate rural America — not with trophy homes, strip malls and resorts, but with family farms growing high-quality food for local markets.

Let’s consider the benefits of a New American Homestead Act, using Iowa as an example.

According to two separate studies, one by Sales and Marketing Magazine, the other by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowans spend $8 billion a year on food. As I indicated earlier, 80% of that food comes from beyond Iowa’s borders. If Iowa farmers would produce and process even $4 billion of the food currently imported, we could create 80,000 new farms selling fruits, vegetables, meats, milk, honey, jams and a huge range of processed foods. That averages out to a gross income of $50,000 per farm and 800 new farms per Iowa county.

To add some perspective, while Iowa had 215,000 farms in 1940, it had only 95,000 in 2000. In 2001, Iowa lost another 1,500 farms, for a total of 93,500. Aggressive policies supporting local food security could nearly double the number of existing farms. As new farmers repopulate rural areas, increasing enrollment in rural schools and shopping at Main Street businesses, they would breathe new life into struggling rural communities.

This is not a new idea. USDA statistics show that in 1929 Iowa produced vegetables on 52,915 acres of land. Today, that figure stands at 12,495 acres. In 1929, when my Irish grandmother was making Dad eat his locally-grown peas and green beans, Long Island produced vegetables on 18,036 acres of land. Today, that figure stands at 5,900 acres.

Urban and rural Americans alike should be appalled at the continued annual loss of farms and farmers. The damage from this trend should be evident in the environmental degradation of America’s countryside, the death of small towns, and the increasing dependence on bland food that travels thousands of miles before arriving on our plates.

Other benefits of a shift to local food security are better quality food, healthier citizens and a more vibrant, beautiful countryside. For urban and rural Americans alike, a rural landscape of small farms growing food for local consumption is visually attractive, environmentally friendly and basic to a decent quality of life.

How much do the residents of your state spend on food each year? How much of that is actually grown in state? How many new farms could be created in your area through policies encouraging local food security? How many new businesses would those farms help support? If you’re able to research this data, I’d love to hear back from you.

None of this is pie in the sky. The trend toward industrial “farms” and the loss of agricultural diversity is enabled by existing national, state and local policies, pure and simple. Both rural and urban communities will thrive if we change these policies to encourage the development of local food systems.

The demise of the family farm and the control of our food by a handful of huge multinational corporations is unacceptable. It’s time for a New American Homestead Act.

{Ed Fallon was an Iowa state representative and executive director of 1000 Friends of Iowa when he wrote this for The Progressive Populist in 2002.}