Land Grabs, Now and Forever



I am not sure of very much in this crazy old world, but one conviction I hold to firmly: the more people in a society who have the opportunity to own their own homes and a little land, the better the chance for democracy and individual freedom to flourish. So I am aghast at the way the Chinese government is forcing its farmers off their land and into tall apartment buildings that to me are nothing more than giant tombstones in what will become the cemeteries of another civilization. But what made China’s land grab so poignant to me was that at the same time I read about it, and totally by happenstance, I was also reading Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village,” written in the middle 1800s. I had not realized earlier in my education the historical background that prompted the poem. Goldsmith was not sentimentalizing the passage of time as represented by an abandoned village but was writing in outrage because this was the time of the Enclosure Acts when the wealthy oligarchs of England grabbed up the common land, driving off the people who lived there, and bought up the holdings of small farmers too. A little research showed that what England was doing then what China is doing now. More research showed that the same thing happened in Scotland. Read The History of the Highland Clearances by Alexander MacKensie if you want to get really angry. People were burned alive in their homes when they refused to vacate their land. No wonder you can find all those huge castle-like mansions in the English countryside today. The concentration of wealth that built them came from forcibly acquiring a monopoly on the land.

Some Chinese authorities are defending what I will henceforth call the Chinese Clearances by saying that they are only doing what capitalism did in the United States, only faster and more mercifully. Moreover, they say, some of the peasant farmers are glad to get a little money and live in the high-rise mausoleums into which they are being crammed. Yes, some poor American farmers thought that way too— better off to sell out and move to town. Facing a future where The Economy was making sure that no matter how hard they worked, they were not going to get out of debt, then living in town on a nine to five work schedule looked better than farm work from five to nine. But millions of other farmers in America, and I bet in China, stolidly opposed this kind of displacement and still do.

If you are a student of history, you know that land grabs have been endemic in almost every civilization. And when the small farmers lost out, decline inevitably set in. Study the Etruscans in Italy and what happened to their admirable small farm, small business economy when the great Roman Empire was coming to power. Russia in more modern times is a better (or should I say worse) example, more hideously violent than what is going on in China, at least so far. When Stalin didn’t know what else to do with his landless farmers, he just killed them.

I still want to hope that democracy will prevail because I see in America reasons to be hopeful.  But with farmland selling at $10,000 an acre and up, it looks to me that welfare capitalism is preventing poor and middle class people from owning land just as effectively as social and military force has done elsewhere.

But let Oliver Goldsmith say it so much better:

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay;

Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade,

A breath can make them as a breath has made;

But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,

When once destroyed, can never be supplied.”

But who am I to point the finger of blame at anyone? My farm lies on land in Ohio from which the Wyandot Indians were forcibly removed in 1842.


Yes , and Mine came by way of the Cherokee removal by way of the trail of tears to Oklahoma, but My great Grandfather married a Cherokee and she was allowed to stay
and the land became mine when My father died after it had been in my family UNINCUMBERED until the Progressive Bank of Jamestown Tn took 119.2 acres from me
illegally in 2006. So it still goes on.

I am proud to completely own my house and 1.5 acres in only about 2.5 months from now….and I’m 27 years old. Been working hard at it, but its a great feeling. Everyone should be able to own their own land and I find it deplorable that the state thinks it can force people off their land. The individual is at the top of the pyramid, but don’t tell that to the state.

    Living on the land is becoming more difficult here as well. Ever more complex and burdensome building codes and zoning in the name of sustainability are forcing more and more of us into preplanned developments replete with HOAs and busybody HOA panels.

Monday I went to a seminar on how to use UAV on your farm. I came home rather depressed.
The technology is so cool and kind of affordable but a couple of the speakers gave me chills.
(Leaving aside the issue that will annoy all of us and perhaps put a few of us in jail, the issue of drone use for enforcing codes and regulations that seemed to be a good idea when they were going to be applied to someone you didn’t like…)
Here is what depressed me most.
A small farmer intimately knows every detail of his ground. A farm manager who has to keep track of 5000 or more acres can’t observe every detail and that gives us small guys an advantage.
But the drone can fly fields and report back all sorts of useful info about fertilizer management, irrigation, and it can use GPS to tie into yield monitors and variable rate planting and do you get where I’m going with this?
They also talked about drone use in other countries and how the USA has fallen behind.
Last winter I sold some hay to a fellow with relatives in Mexico and he told me about huge land buys in Mexico. Some countries may even provide their own security.
So what is my point?
Lots of things are working together to enable land ownership and control to be consolidated in the hands of a few. We don’t see it because we don’t see the big picture. We see our little hollar or hillock or county or province.
The reason drone technology is moving ahead outside the USA is that land ownership consolidation has already happened a little south of here. They need drones to manage those huge soybean fields with limited management.
I deal every day with the local and sustainable folks and they have no clue as to the big picture. The absurdity struck me Tuesday. I was listening to a lady tell me why she could buy my flax seed for half the price of Organic cause I didn’t put poop on it, and I couldn’t give her a bag of organic soy I got from the fellow who makes fake cheetos cause it was soy, and how “those people” are ruining the world, blah, blah, blah.
She can rant at me all she wants and feel better about whatever, but I’m going to go out of business one day and be replaced by a mega-farmer. If the mega-farmer decides to adopt the Organic label then I guess she will be happy.
BUT….And that is a big Butt…It has always been the efforts of individual landowners who have insured personal freedoms. Lots of bodies with private property ownership means lots of votes.
As to the issue of the Native Americans. I think it is the same issue. When their population was decimated then their ability to determine their own destiny was eliminated. However, that is not a reason to let it happen to us, or happen again to the remaining Native Americans.
Also, we are Americans, or Canadians, or citizens of what ever country we reside in. The country provides the governing body for people who live there. So, getting all sympathetic for indigenous peoples is fine if you feel that way but you have to take care of your country as it is right now at this point in time, or it won’t be “your” country any longer… (in my humble opinion)
Now, all we need is leadership. Where is Thomas Jefferson when you need him?

    Budd, I couldn’t agree with you more about drones. There is going to be a terrible hullabaloo over them. Bad enough to have helicopters and small planes droning overhead much of the time. How many hundreds of laws will be fought over, trying to regulate these giant horseflies. Gene Logsdon

How ironic that the same people who say we need more wind and solar power now fight eminent domain takings for power lines from those same power sources. Folks, you cannot have it both ways. The wind farms along the S.D/Minn border have to move that power to the national grid somehow. At the same time, those wind farms are killing birds by the hundreds.
I think Germany has the right idea in pushing to put solar power in every locality right next to the user. Their goal is 1/2 their electrical power from solar…think about that…if you have ever been to Germany it is the last place you would expect solar power to be! Unrelieved day after day of cold rain is the norm for about half the year.

With such a diverse group of voters in Illinois, increasing landowner protection would be a great issue for a candidate. It would rally rural voters without offending and turning off urban areas.

If I was a candiate running in a primary, landowner protection from eminent domain would be a key issue to stand out.

Look at Kansas. A company comes in and asks asks for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (public utility status). Then they change the planned route completely and blindside farmers with eminent domain for a windmill powerline. After that, they schmooze county politicians with offers of annual money rather than taxes.

Lots of things in the USA are working against individual land ownership at a reasonable price for those that want to have a small farm or homestead.Local zoning laws that require a minimum lot size of 21 to 50 acres in some counties here basically reserve the land for the wealthy.Federal Gov’t Ag policies since the 40’s have contributed mightly to consolidation of land.Then throw in the so called Conservation Districts or more correctly schemes that stop any ordinary person from using their land to make a living.Also its absurd how much land that state and especially the Feds own in the form of National Forest or Parks so much better for individuals to privately own such land to make it help them live a healty and peaceful life.But of course the tax system now in place depends not on folks doing for themselves,growing their own food,cutting their own fuel etc but depends on each step passing from one company or individual at every step so every step can be taxed.Laughingly all these steps are collectively called ‘Productivity’ which its anything but that.Also another radical idea I have on land use is no one that owns land should be able to pass onto the next owner what the land should or should not be used for by whomever is

the owner.Why in world should someone be able to dictate forever more what an owner of a piece of property can do on it for years or I guess eternity unless the deed restiction is taken off some way?Strong landowner rights for the owner is the key to individual freedom in my opinion

“Buy land, only God and the Dutch know how to make it.” I think you hit the nail on the head. When people own the land they live on they tend to take care of it.

    I’ve wanted to believe this idea which I first came across in Gene’s writing for a long time, but time after time since I have observed people living directly on (spatially, not subsistencely) the parcel of land they are screwing up. The mess and stench and terrible quality of living I perceive people putting up with, not to mention the direct and readily observable degradation of the the land, to make their money from it absolutely blows my mind. I just don’t understand.

The land grabs are perhaps the most insidious thing that governmental action can do. Eminent domain actions are too common. My family farm was mostly lost in the late 1970s when the town decided that the land, zoned as light industry by town planning and zoning, was taken and resold to private interests. The money wasn’t great and that move all but guaranteed that the farm that had been in the family since before the civil war would be carved up. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any method to fight civil takings. The lesson I learned as a young man was that nothing we own is ours and it can be taken from our hands if it is attractive enough and if someone wants it badly enough. The New London (CT) eminent domain proceedings, settled by the SCOTUS, allowed the highest and best use of the land to win.

Just where does the infringement of individual land rights stop in the interest of the public good?

My own family roots originate from immigrants from Europe and possibly Native Americans displaced or starving from the effects of such land grabs by the rich and powerful or government sponsored suppression.

I was of the opinion that Thomas Jefferson envisioned these United States as eventually becoming a nation of land-holding yeoman craftsmen and farmers with a fair amount of small towns interspersed to provide what couldn’t be locally bought from craftsmen or grown on the farm. Even small town shopkeepers often lived behind or above their shops and often had a small plot and/or pasture out back to provide some of their food needs. I was taught Jefferson felt this is how freedom and dignity could be best preserved. Has this vision been lost? Is China a vision of the USA in the future?

Until this land grab issue is resolved I’m doing my best to make my own small acreage (Thomas’s Tight Squeeze Farm) very productive and sustainable and keep this small holding in the family. (Note the tight squeeze reference applies to the amount of products on a small acreage, but could also bring up some humorous mental images inasmuch as our main product is spring-time eggs.)

Great Post Gene.

Thank you. That essay speaks volumes. In Northern Illinois we are opposing a privately owned venture capital speculation project. Put simply, a privately owned company is seeking eminent domain to put up a powerline across Illinois and Iowa for wind energy. A private company of Texas and New York billionaires (Clean Line Energy) wants over 12,600 acres of right of way easements through the center of fields for personal profit with full acknowledgement the Rock Island Clean Line project (RICL), if successful, will someday be sold.

I’ve seen my share of right of way easements com through, four of them, but I’ve never seen one so unnecessary and for personal profit. It’s frightening how easy some governmental bureaucrats will support just about any project without asking the needed questions. The Kansas Corporation Commission virtually shut out the farmers and landowners concerns with this company’s sister project, The “Grain Belt Express” as they approved the project for public utility status.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has no mechanism in place for citizen concerns to be voiced. They see their position as umpire between energy companies and Regional Transmission Organizations. Landowners, ratepayers, and residents are an inconvenience as FERC attempts to create “incentives” for more transmission to promote wind energy.

Seeing the desire and just how easy it is for companies to get powerline projects approved, I fear the Keystone pipeline is a walk through the park compared to the landowner envelopment that is forming across the Midwest.

Because of projects like RICL, organizations are forming across the Midwest, like BLOCK RICL, of concerned landowners who are questioning the real need for these powerline projects. I’ve met and actively working with farmers and ratepayers from West Virgina, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin all concerned about the same issue, abuse of eminent domain for personal profit.

Again, great essay. Thanks.

    After Kelo v. New London it’s not necessarily “abuse” of eminent domain for personal profit, but simply the new rules for eminent domain.

I just finished reading “Nature as Measure” by Wes Jackson. He points out that what is happening in China has already happened in this country more than 60 years ago. When the Committee for Economic Development, organized during WWII, decided there were too many farm workers and that these workers and returning service men would be better used as urban labor by industry. The CDC advised doing this by reducing price supports for “wheat, cotton, rice, food grains and related crops,” thus forcing farmers to “get big or get out.”

I guess that’s why small farmers today must either have a job to support their farming habit or mush live and farm as the Amish do.

Gene, your short essay made me think of the ghost towns in China today. “Cities” of empty high rises..
Land ownership is one mark of freedom for sure!

How does state control of the land enable it to generate wealth? The state can generate revenue either by rents or taxes on property or its produce, whether agricultural or mineral. What the state cannot do is provide a cost-effective labor supply. In effect, this is what the Soviets did only to find out that as long as people were fed and housed, however squalidly, and more or less left alone by the State, they would produce only at the minimum necessary to subsist.

I saw a WSJ article that said China has concluded that Russia’s failure was its LACK of adherence to Marxism rather than a failure of Marxism itself and is beginning to move in a more collectivist direction than away from it. That may be what you are seeing.

As for your last sentence, it only serves to reinforce the article. Once the Wyandotte (and Seneca, and Miami, and…) were removed from their land, they lost all their power. I believe your original premise is correct that the key to freedom and productivity is land ownership.

Incidentally, is there a reason it’s snowing on this screen? Nice touch, given the season. >:-)

Some things never change. The desire of those with wealth and power to control the productive capacity of the land is one of them. The desire of those with neither wealth nor power to enhance their own security by gaining or retaining control of the productive capacity of a parcel of land is another.

If you want land do like the Amish do. Sell out and move to a area were land is cheap. Recently we’ve had a lot of Amish come up to Polk county MN and buy land just outside the Red River Valley. The soil isn’t as good but the land go’s for about $1’500 an acre. Not a bad trade-off for high quality land the sells for $8’000+ an acre.

Three-plus years ago, I and my family tried to purchase what to us was a lot of land (42 acres) and the century-old farmhouse on it, with the intent of joining the ranks of the small farmers we’d always wanted to be. We started out with mortgage pre-approvals for the price of the property, one from Farm Credit. Both were withdrawn, however, because the value of the house on the land turned out after appraisal to be too small compared to the value of the land. Farm Credit wanted us to put 20% down for the purchase, instead of the 10% we had been told we’d need; needless to say, we did not have double the cash on hand we’d expected and had to walk (well, move, since by then we were caretaking the place). The old farm seemed destined for development. After spending about two years on the market, empty, the property was finally purchased by some wealthy family who planned to use the fields _as a landing strip for their helicopter_. My question to the Farm Credit lady was, and still is, how the heck do they expect farmland to remain farms with rules like this?

10,000 an acre sounds pretty good to me. The valley I live in it’s more like 40,000 for farm land.

This is what’s happening in america today. The Agenda 21 youtube documentaries by John Anthony clearly show it. Words don’t mean the same thing to the people as they do to the politicians in congress. Words like sustainable, private property, taxes, etc., all have a different meaning than what you’ll find in a dictionary.

Land is near and dear to my heart. At first it was the housing bubble… land was ridiculous because of development and speculation… then it was $8 corn… any land that supported corn was a gold mine, even at low bushel returns… now? If cycles are to be believed, its going to drop and even out. I called Farm Credit this morning to find that they lowered their dwn pmt on land from 30% to 20% – 25%. The young and restless farmers will find a way!!!

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