March 3, 2024

A New American Homestead Act

The Demise of the Family Farm

            America was once a nation of farmers. With the most arable land of any country at 2.3 billion acres, agriculture was and remains the backbone of the American economy. (8) Today, the cornfields of the American Midwest supply domestic and international needs. The plentiful harvests of cereal crops sustained America during the War of Independence when British ships of the line blockaded the thirteen breakaway colonies obstructing trade. America’s strength derived from the plow, so much so that American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, envisioned a land of small yeomen farmers tilling the plentiful virgin lands of North America from Kentucky to the Pacific Ocean. Contrary to the European experience of noble landlord ownership of nearly all arable land with peasants tenants, ownership would be distributed to anyone who could settle and work the new lands opening on the American frontier.

            America’s new lands in the 18th and 19th centuries would be held as freehold estates by an emerging middle class. The great American experiment was pushing the frontier west and settling a wild land with self-sufficient pioneers who would enjoy the fruit of the soil by the sweat of their brows. In 1850, 64% of Americans were farmers, however today only 3.1% of Americans work in agriculture according to the United States Department of Agriculture. See Figure 1 below. Notably, this statistic includes occupations other than farmers. (1)

Figure 1

            Since the 1930s the number of farmers has dropped dramatically as agricultural consolidation and mechanization led to the rise of agribusinesses. (2) See also Figure 2. These changes in agriculture do not occur in a vacuum. Rural areas are quickly aging, with younger generations forced to relocate to urban areas for work. Many are dissatisfied with living in a hardscape of concrete and glass cut off from nature. Numerous studies show that mental illness is on the rise in America, but likewise, spending time in nature such as walking through the woods or gardening is linked to lower levels of stress and a greater degree of mental wellbeing. While living a rural life may not be for everyone, nature teaches the importance of balance, and the urban life of the 21st Century leaves much to be desired with its cosmopolitan lack of spirituality and direction. Further statistics shed light on the divergence between past and present land management.

Figure 2

Figure 3

            The trend towards consolidation and larger farm tracts has accelerated in recent years. Large agribusinesses are driving out smaller farms. Crops for both human and livestock consumption are increasingly grown on land operated by large agribusinesses, many of which can be described as factory farms. (3) The workers operating these farms are increasingly employees and not owners, a farcry from the Jeffersonian vision. While there has been a slight shift towards smaller ranches, the overwhelming majority of ranchland is still controlled by large agribusinesses (for purposes of this article, ranchland is treated as a farm). This decline in small family farms has led to a near eradication of a way of live which once defined America. Few Americans have ever met a farmer or rancher, and even fewer Americans understand where their food comes from.

            While some may claim that this is a sign of improved technological potential and a net boon to humanity, the truth is that agricultural consolidation is devastating for America in a number of ways. The first issue with agricultural consolidation is its effect on rural America, which is already struggling with the impact of the opioid crisis and the long-term aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”). The small family farm is the traditional way of life in rural America and this institution’s erasure removes the heart from small towns in the American heartland. Without small family farms, the rest of the town goes under-other small businesses providing goods and services to that community either move away or wrap up operations in the face of bankruptcy. (4) Agricultural consolidation destroys entire communities, with towns that survive being husks of their former selves.

            The decline of small farms is also an environmental issue as small farmers have a long-term stake in the land and are not under the pressure of delivering exponential returns to shareholders. The family farm is a long-term investment, and land is scarce, unique, and is impacted by the choices of landowners. Real property in economic terms is not like personal property. Goods such as a desk, a refrigerator, or a notebook are fungible goods in that other goods of that kind and quality can be readily found. While products such as paper or lettuce can be produced, new land cannot be produced on a human time scale. The quality of the land we have today and in the future is dependent on how land is historically managed.

            Small family farms are more likely to practice sustainable agriculture that prioritizes the health of the soil and balance to the outlying ecosystem, as the owners likely wish to pass their land onto their children. The family farm has a longer time horizon and a lesser time preference. Owning a parcel of land gives the owner a stake in the future. Corporate farms behave like tenants with a high time preference to extract as much value from the land in the short term as possible even if the land is drained of productive potential for future years to come. Large agribusiness has much less of an incentive toward longevity of operations.

            Liberal modernity disregards tradition and nature. It seeks to remake nature and especially human nature. Rather than come to terms with the darkness of human nature and construct a better world by taking responsibility for management and incurring the costs and responsibilities in conserving natural resources, profit is the only object. Americans waste large quantities of food and purchase products whose design is to become obsolete and to facilitate the purchase of yet more products. This mindset of exponential material extraction and consumption is unsustainable. The environmental consequences are too numerous to count from the slaughter of the American Bison to the dust bowl, from arsenic-based pesticides to microplastic pollution, from strip mining without land remediation to depletion of aquifers.

            Restoring the family farm is a strike against commoditization of every aspect of daily life and a return to traditional ways of life. It is unprecedented for billionaires such as Bill Gates to buy millions of acres of land on mass. It is even more unprecedented to see Chinese and Saudi Arabian companies buy up large quantities of American farmland. In Arizona, a Saudi Arabian-owned company, Almari Company, had contracted to pump large amounts of water in the drought-stricken state to grow alfalfa for export back to Saudi Arabia. In total, the U.S Department of Agriculture estimates that 3.1 percent of all American farmland is owned by foreign entities. (7) This is only counting those entities that meet the statutory definition of foreign since even domestic corporations often act as global citizens.

            Large agribusiness is primarily concerned with providing immediate dividends to shareholders, as failure to meet market benchmarks has an immediate impact on the pool of investors for a company. The concern with immediate short-term returns contributes to behaviors that may result in improvements to productivity in the short-run, but will lead to a collapse in the land’s viability in the long-run. Large agribusiness use far more pesticides like glyphosate which is a carcinogen and often ends up in runoff and damages lakes and rivers across this nation. (5) Additionally, large agribusiness is pushing untested genetically modified organisms on the American people when the long-term consequences of the consumption of these crops is unknown.

            Another issue with the massive consolidation of agribusiness is that large agricultural corporations often rely on foreign labor to work their fields instead of hiring Americans. This includes both illegal aliens and work visa holders. Currently, it is estimated there are over 280,000 illegal farm laborers and an additional 258,000 legal H-2A Visa guest workers who work for American agricultural firms. The competition from foreign workers, usually from impoverished developing countries, drives down wages for American workers in the agricultural sector. The existence of this seemingly inexhaustible pool of cheap labor further drives American small farms away because the 21st Century version of plantation agriculture can outproduce their competitors.  Small family farms do not have access to the same resources as corporate conglomerates. (6) American culture stands to wane, as foreign weeds enter the fields and pasture lands of the United States. The use of people from the third world demeans the value of work and robs a new generation of Americans from their birthright in the soil.

            The American people ought to be stakeholders in rural America rather than strangers in the land their forefathers won. America is best served when more Americans are given a property stake in the management of natural resources. It is for this reason that that the family farm must thrive again.

Solutions to Restoring the Family Farm: A New Homestead Act

            One solution to the current crisis of American agriculture is a new Homestead Act. In 1862, Congress passed the original Homestead Act as an incentive to settle the American West. In return for settling and working land in the West for a period of five years, a farmer could obtain title to up to 160 acres of federal land. Farmers could purchase the land outright or meet the residency and improvement requirements under the act. While today, Western lands have been settled for well over a century, land ownership has become too concentrated in the hands of a few. Agricultural land ownership needs to be more evenly distributed based on merit- capability to work the land rather than ownership on the basis of capital access.

            A new homestead act would address the problem of accumulated economic power in the hands of a few. Thomas Jefferson foresaw the dangers of powerful banks, but he would be shocked to see the rent economy that has emerged in the wake of the 2020 World Economic Forum initiative for people to own nothing and be happy. What the World Economic Forum really meant is a kind of neo-feudalism in which people become serfs to multinational corporations. A new homestead act would seek to reverse the trend in 2020 of large corporations closing down small businesses under the guise of pandemic response and then acquiring the market share of those small businesses.

            For those who would criticize this initiative as resembling Marxist redistribution, I retort that this plan is no different than antitrust laws used to break up monopolies, and furthermore, the plan is not to destroy property rights. Rather, the plan will increase the number of land owners. What this plan rejects is for anyone to corner the market for natural resources and to unceasingly acquire limitless tracts of land that will be worked solely by the sweat of others.  

            Plutocracy is not the same as meritocracy and small businesses such as family farms should be given a chance to thrive, thus fulfilling the promises of free enterprise and diversifying the economy. America has no need for foreign plantation-style labor from Latin America to work this land. There are enough men in this country of heritage American stock who will manage this land if given the economic opportunity to succeed. This land can serve as both a home and a farm- a homestead for young Americans who increasingly find real estate ownership out of reach. Homesteading captivates the imagination of many Americans and presents a real opportunity for the entrepreneurial, small business spirit that transformed early America. America is at heart a frontier people, and a new generation needs space to claim and conquer for itself through the fruit of meaningful labor.

            For too long, Americans have been alienated from the land of their ancestors. Consolidation of power into a few hands is an object of fear for the constitutional conservative, but little attention has been given to economic conglomerates that buy up America’s farmland. There are two core tasks to be implemented in the new homestead act. The first is in breaking up large accumulations of land that is worked primarily by the labor of others and corporately held. The second is selling the land to small farmers who agree to work the land.

Land Acquisition for the New Homestead Act

            A new homestead act will require an extensive land inventory to implement. Unlike the 1862 Homestead Act, there are few arable lands that are not already developed. A new homestead act would contain various provisions for acquiring land inventory. The federal government should first break up large agribusinesses in a manner similar to antitrust legislation and sell the land to small farmers. Large publicly traded corporations would not be permitted to own more land than the people of this nation, whether that land is owned directly or through subsidiary companies. Accumulations of agricultural land owned by corporations would be capped. Though the final details of this bill would undoubtedly be revised, a cap of 2,000 acres of corporately owned farmland would be a starting place for debate. Land used for agricultural purposes for ten years or more would meet the definition of farmland for purposes of the act, whether farmland or ranchland. Corporations would be given a year to liquidate excess land holdings in a commercially reasonable manner, but the new homestead act would be designed so as to prevent the corporation from engaging in sham transactions or self-dealing to avoid the consequences of the law.

            A new homestead act would allow for excess land to either be condemned and sold to the state, or the corporation would have the option of selling the land to a farmer or rancher to be used for agricultural purposes. In the latter case of the corporation selling the land to another farmer or rancher, the deed would need to convey the land in fee simple absolute and contain a stipulation that the land be used for agricultural purposes for a period of at least five years by an owner that lives on or adjacent to the land in question. If the land ceased to be used for agricultural purposes within five years, the land would revert to owners.

Additional land for the homestead program could be acquired by placing an individual contiguous size cap for farms at 10,000 acres and 50,000 acres for ranches. Individuals would be capped at owning a total of 150,000 acres of agricultural land across the United States and no more than 60,000 acres in any individual state or commonwealth. Excess acreage would be purchased at market value by the federal land commissioners. Historical family-owned farms and ranches operating for over fifty years such as the King Ranch in Texas would be exempt from the size cap.

            In addition to breaking up large accumulations of corporate owned farmland, land would be seized for breaking America’s immigration laws by knowingly or recklessly hiring illegal aliens. The seizure would take the form of civil asset forfeiture except that the federal government would have the burden of proof, acquittal would operate as an absolute defense, and participation in an e-verify or similar program would operate as a defense to prosecution. Employing, harboring, or inviting illegal aliens onto farmland would result in land confiscation in proportion to the extent of the crime. This would have the effect of disincentivizing the hiring of illegal aliens to work on farms, increase jobs for Americans in the agricultural sector, improve overall wages, and reduce the pressure on small farmers. 

            Agricultural land owned by individual foreigners or foreign corporations would be purchased, and further ownership of American agricultural land would be prohibited in the future. Any future transfers of agricultural land to foreigners other than one small residential lot per lawful permanent resident of 10 acres would be prohibited with the consequences of land seizure without compensation for any attempt at evading this law. The cited prohibition would also include title to subsurface water used or useable for agricultural purposes.

Homestead Land Commission

            A homestead land commission would be created with multiple offices in each state by geographic region to enforce this statute. Each field office would be run by a local commissioner appointed from that geographic region on the basis of agricultural expertise in that area. The national homestead land commission would oversee local offices and hear appeals of local land commissioner rulings. Each office would employ land procurement officers, enforcement counsel, surveyors, and agricultural experts. After procuring the land, a local office would divide tracts into parcels suitable for agriculture, taking into account factors such as access to water. Agricultural experts would prepare an abstract on each parcel describing the land, soil, water, and agricultural potential of a property. The land would then be advertised on the open market in a database for applicants to search. Title to homestead land would be insured by the homestead land commission.

            The homestead land commission would process applications from prospective homesteaders. Smaller tracts of ten acres or less could be sold outright for single family residences, but the larger tracts would be awarded to applicants based on the ability to utilize the land for agricultural purposes for a period of five years. Therefore, a conditional deed or lease would be issued to an applicant that is selected to receive a parcel of land. This deed or lease would contain a clause stating that the land would return to the homestead land commission if the homesteader failed to use the land for agricultural purposes during the five years. At the end of five years, if the homesteader met the requirements of the statute, the homesteader would own the land.

Land Distribution Under Homestead Act

            Prospective homesteaders would begin the process of obtaining a homestead by submitting a homestead application. The applicant would have to be a citizen, a natural person, no older than 70 years of age, and possess relevant agriculture knowledge or experience or have a sponsor with agricultural knowledge. The application would state the parcel or parcels being applied for, the intended use of the land, plans for sustainable harvests, whether the applicant owns the necessary farming equipment or plans to rent it, and whether the applicant lives near or has historical ties to the area.

            Land parcels and their sizes would be awarded based on a number of factors, including the capability of the homesteader, the limited land inventory, and the suitability of land for a particular agricultural use. Ranches for instance are typically more land intensive than farms. Additionally, land in Central California useful for growing almonds is not the same as boggy land in New England used for cranberry production. Distribution of homestead land would take innovative land management techniques into account, including ecological farming such as restoring native grasslands for sustainable grazing and the raising of native fauna such as Pronghorn Antelope and American Bison for sustainable hunting or ecological tourism. Crop rotation and grazing rotation would be important elements in any homestead plan.

            The new homestead act would also be pro-natalist. Married couples would be eligible for more land than single adults. Likewise, larger families would receive additional land in proportion to the number of children in that household. Homesteaders would have to demonstrate in a homestead application that a particular agricultural use is feasible in that area, and the homesteader would sign a certification of intent to live on or adjacent to the parcel and use the parcel for agricultural purposes for a period of five years.

            Finally, applicants for a homestead must demonstrate at least five years of competent farming experience, or have a mentor that will co-sign the application, or have completed an agricultural training program at an institution recognized by the national homestead land commission office. In the latter case, any state accredited agricultural program would be automatically accepted. However, other non-accredited programs would be recognized on a case by case basis.

            Each applicant will fall into three categories of priority: A, B, C, and D. Category A is the highest level of priority for homestead award and includes persons that historically lived in the area and worked in agriculture within the area. The idea behind Category A is that the act is intended to remedy the economic displacement of former family farms and encourage the return of families to restore adversely impacted communities. Disabled veterans and persons with special training that are in short supply in rural areas such as doctors and veterinarians would also fall under Category A. Category B includes persons living in the state or geographic region. Category C includes persons with special agricultural knowledge from across the country, and Category D would include other special circumstances not previously covered by the previous categories.

            Applicants upon completing an application would be required to take a basic agricultural examination to verify their knowledge before receiving a homestead grant. An applicant selected under the program would receive a lease or conditional deed, and the applicant if not already residing within five miles of the homestead land would be required to move onto the land within six months or begin construction of a residence on the property within one year. Grantees would then be required to file quarterly agricultural reports, and after the fifth year of meeting homestead act requirements, title to homestead land would vest in fee simple to the homesteader.

Sources

  1. https://sci-hub.se/https://www.jstor.org/stable/24966681
  2. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=58268
  3. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2020/february/consolidation-in-us-agriculture-continues/
  4. https://www.iowapbs.org/iowapathways/mypath/2422/farm-crisis-1980s
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2667010021001281
  6. https://cmsny.org/agricultural-workers-rosenbloom-083022/
  7. https://www.fb.org/market-intel/foreign-investment-in-u-s-ag-land-the-latest-numbers
  8. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/land-and-natural-resources/?topicId=a7a658d4-f209-4641-9172-066ca0896abe