The Planted Row: Some things change, some things don’t

Farm Forum

In the world of farming, sometimes it’s just the same struggles, different day. Plutarch was a famous historian who lived from 45 AD – 120 AD. There’s a passage in his work about the life of Tiberius Gracchus, who died in 133 BCE, that might seem familiar to those trying to start a farm today.

Plutarch writes, “Of the land which the Romans gained by conquest from their neighbours, part they sold publicly, and turned the remainder into common; this common land they assigned to such of the citizens as were poor and indigent, for which they were to pay only a small acknowledgment into the public treasury.”

So when the Romans took control of land, they auctioned some of it, and they reserved a portion of it for poorer people to farm while paying a minimal rent. That last bit kind of sounds like a government program to help beginning farmers get access to land, doesn’t it?

Plutarch continues, “But when the wealthy men began to offer larger rents, and drive the poorer people out, it was enacted by law that no person whatever should enjoy more than five hundred acres of ground. This act for some time checked the avarice of the richer, and was of great assistance to the poorer people… Afterwards the rich men of the neighbourhood contrived to get these lands again into their possession, under other people’s names, and at last would not stick to claim most of them publicly in their own. The poor, who were thus deprived of their farms, were no longer either ready, as they had formerly been, to serve in war or careful in the education of their children…”

Plutarch goes on to say that the wealthy landowners used foreign slaves to work the land they had taken from the poorer citizens. Hmm… cheap labor brought in from outside the country’s borders to work. Does that ring a bell?

Plutarch writes, “…Tiberius went through Tuscany to Numantia, and found the country almost depopulated, there being hardly any free husbandmen or shepherds…”

Sometimes history repeats itself. When you drive through the rural countryside of South Dakota, does it seem very populated? Do the small towns seem to be thriving? Are there as many houses dotting the prairie as there were in years past?

The land of the Dakotas was taken from the Native Americans, but in order to settle it, the U.S. government passed the Homestead Act of 1862. For a small fee, a family could claim 160 acres, live on and improve the land for five years, and then apply for a deed. Most of these homesteaders were poor, but the government gave them access to land. They worked and struggled through amazing hardships, and they and their descendants built the foundations of our current agriculture industry.

But a funny thing has happened since. According to the latest South Dakota Department of Ag Statistics Bulletin, the number of farms in South Dakota has shrunk from 37,000 in 1984 to 32,000 in 2013. The average farm size has grown from 1,203 to 1,353 acres over the same period. So farms are growing fewer in number and larger in size.

A beginning farmer trying to get started today has a hard time when bidding for land against larger, more well-established farmers who have more wealth or better access to financing. A young person trying to find a piece of ground to support himself and his family today might well ask, “Where is my Homestead Act? Where is my chance?”

There are no government programs offering 160-acre parcels of farmland for $18 anymore, but there are Farm Bill programs offering landowners incentives for selling to beginning farmers (such as the Conservation Reserve Program – Transition Incentive Program). If your family’s farm was built by a homesteader who got his start with the help of the government, if you don’t like the look of the depopulated rural landscape, consider participating in these programs and helping the next generation of American farmers get their roots in the ground.