Why the demise of the American farm is more important than you know.
Why the demise of the American farm is more important than you knowWhen Frank Bascombe, the Everyman-Realtor hero of Richard Ford's latest novel, The Lay of the Land, muses on the challenges facing his little beach town on the Jersey Shore, it seems like Ford has the whole American republic in mind. "Growth, smart or even stupid, is the perceived problem here. ... There was no space to grow out to, so my business model pointed to in-fill and retrench."Most reviewers took Frank's zoning-and-realty talk (and there's a whole lot of it in the book's more than 500 pages) as existential metaphor-charting the sublets, high-rises, and home lots of the human soul. That's not surprising-real estate can be a numbing subject for liberal-arts majors-but it's a shame.Growth, smart or stupid, is a perennial American problem, and Frank's discussion of "in-fill" and "retrench" versus "grow-out" has a lot in common with the latest progressive land-development model, called, as it happens, smart growth.Smart growth has roots in the European rural village model, where housing and shops get clustered in the town center, so the surrounding outskirts can stay open for farmland ("in-fill" rather than "grow-out"). It's been slow to catch on in this country. After all, our national identity was forged on the kind of individualism that requires endless land-if you don't like it on this patch of acres here, then you just pull up stakes and head farther west. The kind of land planning that Europeans have taken for granted for centuries, where the prerogative of the community trumps that of the individual, rubs us the wrong way. We've always had enough land to afford to do whatever the hell we want with it.That era is long over, of course; we're facing the prospect of a coast-to-coast exurb. And, confronted with the reality of strip and sprawl, of so many of our paradises paved over for parking lots, we've been wising up-but it may be too little, too late. This is especially true for our working land: New York State, for example, loses ten times more farmland to development than it protects, annually. Understandably, most farmers find it hard to resist the instant riches that come with selling out to developers, in no small part because the practical incentives to continue farming are so meager these days. (I grew up in western Massachusetts dairy country, where, in the last decade or so, many farmers have become real-estate paper millionaires, but still can't afford health insurance.)\n\n\n
|We're only just beginning to have a place for agriculture in our conservation ethic.|