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The Land Ethic Must Evolve in a Changing Agricultural Landscape

Aldo and his dog surveying the land

In a draft of the Foreword to A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold wrote:

“I do not imply that this philosophy of land was always clear to me. It is rather the end result of a life journey.”

His meaning is clear: the land ethic, as he was about to present it, had evolved over time, and that dynamic process of adapting to change must be ongoing as those who follow in Aldo’s footsteps cope with environmental and social challenges that he could never have anticipated.

There is little doubt that the final honing of Leopold’s land ethic took place on the privately owned agricultural landscape of the Midwest. Beginning with his observations of wildlife during the Game Survey of the North Central States (1928-31), Leopold came to realize that maintaining wildlife populations in the Midwest, and on working lands in general, depended crucially on how private landowners treated their land. He concluded: “There can be no solution until conservation practices are habitual on private farms.”

Aldo Leopold and his dog Flick look out over an agricultural landscape.

The private farms that Leopold was thinking about in the 1930s and 40s were owed by family farmers. They differed in many ways from owners of today’s agricultural landscapes. Changing patterns of farmland ownership mean that the land ethic must now evolve to remain relevant to a new type of owner of farmland.

During the foundation’s August Building a Land Ethic conference I served as one of the panelists charged with addressing Leopold’s evolving legacy. In both that presentation and an essay I recently wrote, I addressed what I see as a looming issue for land health on the very landscapes that gave rise to the land ethic.

Some 400 million acres (nearly half of US farmland) are predicted to change hands in the next 20 years. In the process, traditional family farms are being gradually purchased by a new class of non-farming owners who no longer live and work on the land and have little personal connection to it; many may never even set foot on their land. More than ever, the new owners—often large corporations, LLCs and investment companies–really do regard farmland as a commodity. Land management decisions are left to hired farm managers who rent the land to tenant farmers who do the actual work. Today, 39 % of American farmland is rented and worked by tenant farmers, and non-farming landlords own 80 percent of all rented farmland. Although they have access to sophisticated management tools that help increase yields and conserve soil and water, absentee owners, hired managers and renters are less easily influenced by a land ethic than owner-operators with more personal investment in the land’s health. Can these new non-farming landlords and tenant farmers who have less long-term stake in farmland’s health fulfill the obligations of a land ethic?

Aldo Leopold gave us a fresh idea about our relationship with land, but that “end result” of his “life journey” was just a stage in the ongoing evolution of the land ethic. It is as true now as in Leopold’s day that “It is the individual farmer who must weave the greater part of the rug on which America stands?” Whither a land ethic in today’s changing farm landscapes?