Monday, November 21, 2011

The relative merits of poverty

One thing I've not done this fall is walk down the Cinder Path a mile or two and stop at a favorite place to just look --- through an old gateway under arching oak limbs into a savanna-like field that rises toward more oaks on a small hill.

These are some of the oaks along that field's fence line, lifted from a file of photos shot a year ago. I've just been too busy, or so I've thought, this year; and then there's that knee --- still aching sometimes after ill-advised trail-side acrobatics several weeks ago.

This relatively wild place came to mind yesterday while reading a Register article about the rapid inflation of Iowa farm land prices resulting from a combination of high commodity prices ($7 corn) and an otherwise stagnant economy that makes land seem like the best investment around.

Some of the prices cited in the article seem outlandish --- from $10,050 per acre for a 225-acre Jasper County tract to a record high earlier this fall of $16,750 per acre way up and over there in Sioux County. This is farm land, keep in mind, not land with the potential to pave and develop into strip malls, subdivisions and parking lots.

Naturally, old-time farmers and many others are worried that the land market will collapse --- and it probably will. Periodic crashes always have been responsible for rapid shifts in the nature of Iowa life. According to some estimates, the great depression of the 1930s cost Iowa half of its farms; the crisis of the 1980s, another third. And there was a good deal of talk about that in the Register article.

This is not Lucas County land, however, which averages out as far less suitable for intensive cropping --- although there are those who row-crop the hell out of it anyway, relying on chemicals to provide life-support to the soil they're degrading. But trends elsewhere pull land prices up here, too, even in a region of the state sometimes considered to be "poor."

One thing not mentioned in the Register article was the chilling effect of inflated land prices on acquisition of private land for public use and on sustainable, or natural (translated as chemical-free) conservation practices. Even no-till farming, adopted by many as a way to prevent erosion, generally requires generous application of herbicides whose long-term impact, despite reassurance from Iowa State University experts and others, just isn't known.

There have been benefits, perhaps underappreciated, of Lucas County's perceived status for many years as kind of "impoverished" --- in part because our soils are not as "productive" as those in other regions of the state. We do have thousands of acres of public land, for example --- state forests, county conservation areas, the Chariton River greenbelt.

Chariton is kind of unique, although we probably don't think about it often enough, because of the ease of access from it to public land --- Red Haw State Park to the southeast, the Greenbelt to the south, the Cinder Path, leading 13 miles out of town to the southwest. All are underutilized, which actually increases their value for those of us who do utilize them --- I know that sounds selfish.

Another trend around here that I like --- although I'm in danger of being haunted when I mention it because it's a trend my dad hated --- is the purchase of land by urban "outsiders," however you define them (for better or worse, if your home base is or has been Des Moines, even Chariton sometimes, some will consider you an outsider in the country), who buy land not to exploit agriculturally but primarily to look at, or for the view, to hunt on, to hobby-farm or to experiment with --- any number of non-traditional purposes, agricultural and otherwise.

All of these are aspects of our perceived poverty that probably could be turned around and used to regional advantage --- if we really focused on them, something else I've been thinking about this fall as we move through the Main Street application process for Chariton.


Decatur County, just down the road southwest of here, is another southern Iowa county sometimes perceived elsewhere in the state as a little backward. But interesting things happen there, one of which is reflected in another of my favorite blogs.

This is William and Sibylla Brown's Timberhill Oak Savanna site, which details their restoration efforts since 1993 on 200 acres of mixed timber, savanna and prairie near Leon.

When I first found the site, I read it like a book --- easily done since posts to the blog part of it are regular but not excessive --- and now look forward to new posts. It's an interesting account of the pioneering work the Browns did as part of the ongoing restoration of a rare oak savanna. I keep wondering if there are similar sites in Lucas County.

1 comment:

Big Grove Walker said...

Nice post on land prices.