Livable Communities, Wise Land Use, and Corn

Published September 1, 1999

There is nothing like a drive across the fruited plain–which, I get the impression, few liberal politicians have taken–to convince you that the free market, operated by free citizens, is the best arbiter of land use.

We’ve reported at length on these pages about great failures in managed growth and land use both in Europe and the U.S. Portland, Oregon and San Diego, California are perfect examples of land and growth management run amuck, as Randal O’Toole, senior economist at the Thoreau Institute, has pointed out. But in fly-over country, where trends land last, growth is still a natural thing.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa is growing, adding manufacturing and other business in a state whose fortunes have swung almost exclusively with soy bean, corn, and hog markets. As a result, people are moving to Cedar Rapids–or, more accurately, its outlying suburbs. New home construction is everywhere in the small towns in the surrounding farm country. To get themselves from these idyllic little communities to their jobs, the folks of Iowa are, quite sensibly, improving the roads, on which they actually intend to drive automobiles.

Roads, we know, are popular with liberal politicians only when built for their own convenience, but we’ll address the proposed twelve-lane bridge into Washington, DC at another time.

Timing Couldn’t Be Better

Today, as Iowans well know, the farm markets are a disaster–a fact to which the Clinton-Gore administration pays only lip service. I’ve talked to farmers, who told of friends who were giving up the business and selling out. About crop prices that will scarcely pay the cost of planting and harvesting, if that. About a sense of discouragement that is growing among farmers long-known for their determination and grit. Many say they are going to have to go into the city this fall and find a factory job.

It is a fortunate irony that these farmers are able to sell some of their land to build houses for the people moving in. The builders tend to prefer, for its aesthetic qualities, the poorer, hillier farm land that is least-suited for the farmers’ purposes.

But How Will We Feed the Masses?

That is a perfectly understandable liberal question, given their apparent lack of knowledge or disregard of economics. Do they ever wonder why farm prices are so low? Production has outstripped demand. The new strains of crops are so productive, yields per acre have soared in recent years. “Roundup-ready” soy beans have banished nutrient-sucking weeds from nearly 70 percent of the bean fields. Bt corn has prevented insect damage without spraying pesticides.

Yet export markets have collapsed on the American farmer. The economies of Eastern Europe and Asia have collapsed, and those countries have greatly reduced their imports from the U.S. The European Community has banned advanced strains of American corn and is considering a number of other bans. So much for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and a U.S. administration that lacks the international authority and credibility to address these issues.

At the same time, competition from South American growers is increasing rapidly. Agricultural economists assure us we will be able to feed every man, woman, and child well into the foreseeable future.

Yes, it is true that in some countries people are starving. Corrupt, dictatorial, and socialist regimes have destroyed many countries’ economies to the point where they simply can’t afford to take advantage of the abundance that is available. And the American farmer can’t afford to produce that abundance for nothing.

But We’re Losing Farm Land!

Of course. We’ve been losing farmland since the 1920s, as advances in farming have far outstripped our demand for food. We’ve never eaten better, for less. And advances continue to be made. So the demand for farmland has fallen.

Between 1920 and 1950, the eastern U.S. lost 31 million acres of cropland, much of it to trees. Contrary to what anti-growth advocates would have you believe, we now plant many more trees than we harvest. In 1990 alone, about a million acres of those trees were planted on farm and other private land.

A Word about Water

Anti-growth extremists worry that we are running out of water. Not true. There is the same amount of water on the planet now as there ever was. It can’t get off. Nature endlessly recycles it through evaporation and precipitation . . . no matter how it is used in-between.

Do some areas occasionally run low on water? Of course. California was so low on water a few years ago, the state implemented numerous water-saving measures, which failed to reverse the situation. Then Mother Nature shifted the weather patterns and filled the reservoirs once again–often with a vengeance, as in the case of El Niño–and has kept them full.

In the meantime, water levels in the Great Lakes have dropped about two and one-half feet from a near-record level just a few years ago, when houses fell into Lake Michigan due to cliff erosion and Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive was often closed due to high seas washing across it. Still, it’s is a good thing they are building new sea walls along parts of the Drive. Water levels will eventually rise.

Both man and nature are far more resourceful than the anti-growth activists can possibly understand.