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A Conservative’s Crusade to Save America’s Soil

Author Grace Olmstead on why betting the farm on Big Ag is a bad idea.

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• March 28, 2021 5:00 am

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In 1909, the U.S. Bureau of Soils announced, "The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up." The claim was astonishingly bold—that nothing farmers did could affect the underlying health of their land.

A growing wave of young conservatives, however, are pushing back on this way of thinking. Drawing on disparate influences like Wendell Berry, James C. Scott, Patrick Deneen, and Wallace Stegner, they argue that both big government and big corporations have squeezed small farms almost into oblivion, stripping American land of nutrients and health in the hunt for profit. By subsidizing monocrops such as corn and soy, we have weakened rural food security and economic resilience.

Grace Olmstead is one such thinker. Her new book, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, functions both as an investigation into the policy tools that have crushed small farms and a memoir about the effect these policies had on rural communities, many of which are aging rapidly. The young in these communities see little opportunity to build a full life for themselves in places where their parents and grandparents now struggle to break even.

Olmstead speaks from personal experience: Her grandparents farmed a small plot in rural Idaho, but she has since moved to Virginia. She wrestles openly with the tension of moving away from home while calling for more commitment to the places we’ve been given.

Uprooted argues that there are values other than efficiency and low consumer prices worth defendingamong them the vibrancy and self-sufficiency of rural communities, and their consistent care for the land. "Care" is a touchstone for Olmstead. "Our world is preserved through the work of maintenance and caregiving," she says. "The work of those who tend the very young and very old, who steward soil, plants, and animals, or who maintain the integrity of our infrastructure. They are the ones who fight back entropy and death, who preserve and protect life and health. They are most often devalued and underpaid."

And yet "the work they do is indispensable to the ongoing health of our society and ecology. Without maintainers and caregivers, everything starts to fall apart."

When I interviewed her a few weeks ago, Olmstead noted how hard it is to defend the value of nurturing land to big agribusinesses, which see farming as a fundamentally extractive business. Those big farms receive massive support from the federal government for producing crops like corn and soybeans that can be marketed internationally. These businesses tend not to nurture the soil they grow on. "The ideal farm of the modern era," says Olmstead, "was seen as a machine or even a factory: an endeavor of cold efficiency and productivity, not a work of complexity or of culture."

Uprooted’s focus on soil health is especially timely now, as advances in sensing technology have exposed the degraded state of much American land. A new study from UMass Amherst found that erosion from modern methods of crop tilling and harvesting may be removing as much as 30 percent of topsoil from the Midwest "Corn Belt." Researchers leveraged remote sensing technology, using high-resolution satellite imagery to determine where topsoil has been completely stripped from land.

The Department of Agriculture, on the other hand, uses less technologically advanced methods to assess land erosion—it takes soil samples from various locations and qualitatively assesses the severity of erosion in a given field. As a result, it is less gloomy about the effect of monocropping on land. But if the UMass Amherst researchers are correct, farms big and small across the American West could face a coming catastrophe, as the land is slowly stripped of its value.

Meanwhile, city governments claiming to be environmentally friendly are turning away from composting and other soil regeneration efforts. New York City, which in 2015 committed to sending zero waste to landfills by 2030, has shut down its curbside composting program. A recent Civil Eats piece revealed the city is also forcing out two major privately run composting initiatives from their plots of land in East River Park and Queens.

In the leadup to the Dust Bowl disaster, the Department of Agriculture told farmers that settling and tilling the West could actually change the climate, making it more hospitable to farming: "The rain will follow the plow." This belief was profoundly misguided. Olmstead cites a 1934 soil erosion study that found roughly half the state of Idaho had serious erosion problems. In the wake of disaster, New Deal programs funneled support to larger farmers, on the assumption that small farms were not sophisticated and efficient enough to use that support wisely.

Rural communities today continue to struggle with the same patterns of corporate consolidation, soil erosion, and subsidies for large farms. Olmstead directs her most cutting remarks toward commentators who suggest rural Americans are holding themselves back. Citing Kevin Williamson’s argument in National Review that "some towns are better off dead," she notes, "The prevalent national attitude, at least among many conservatives and libertarians, seems to be that we need to let communities evolve according to the dictates of the market.… Leave the broken places behind."

For Olmstead, this view ignores a host of truths about how federal policy has shaped rural America. Instead, she argues, these Americans have faced a set of federal policies (and corporations able to take advantage of them) that have consistently eroded community and care in the pursuit of profit.

In her view, and the view of a growing contingent, decline is a choice, but not one made by rural America. In places like Olmstead’s hometown of Emmett, external drivers have undercut valuable community. She says, "Townspeople have tried to keep up over time: There have always been efforts to follow the latest fad, to embrace the latest boom, or to listen to the advice of the current agricultural experts.… Emmett has suffered not because it didn’t keep up—but because it did."