This Land Is Whose Land?

[imgbelt img=dead_zones_map527.jpg]When do private property rights impinge on public welfare and become public issues? Timothy Collins says when it comes to land mismanagement, all the time.


[imgcontainer left] [img:deadzoneshogsspoonriver530.jpg] [source]Timothy Collins

Hogs wallow in tributary of the Spoon River of Western Illinois.
On days off, I take great pleasure in “chasing the seasons” across my larger backyard of western Illinois, and occasionally, eastern Iowa and northeastern Missouri. The backroads landscape is truly beautiful in the upper Midwest, delicious, a place you can grow to love.

Unfortunately, too many farmers and landowners don’t seem to care about their land. I see hogs and cattle wallowing not only in smaller watercourses, but in larger ones. Animals wear away the grass, causing soil erosion and spilling their urine and manure (euphemistically called “nutrients” in some livestock management literature) directly into the streams where they wallow.

I see that some landowners tear trees down along fence lines and watercourses. This practice opens the soil to wind erosion, lowers the capacity of waterway buffers to filter out agrichemicals, and reduces wildlife habitat.

There’s plowing mud in the rush to get the crops in. This year, heavy rains and cool weather washed out the earliest plantings, a waste of nonrenewable fuels and time.

Others plow steep slopes, causing soil erosion that pollutes streams with silt and chemicals.

Wooded areas have been mismanaged by allowing grazing and not improving tree stands that could increase farm profits through timber, biomass, or hunting and recreation.

Some  host junkyards, with abandoned trucks, cars, farm equipment, and other industrial flotsam and jetsam.


Dr. Robert Diaz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science created a map of dead zones throughout the world, including the United States. According to scientists, agricultural runoff is a major contributor to the problem in most cases.

Agriculture has moved far beyond the agrarian myth of the independent yeoman farmer. Today’s agribusiness is a private activity done in the name of public interests and the public good with massive public funding. Food is a necessity, and producing it has widespread environmental and social impacts in a wider political economy. The impacts of destructive and problematic local practices extend far beyond the abuses I see in my backroads meanderings, into the arenas of food production, processing, and handling, and into the global environment,.

Citizens have a right to know how food is produced, including the treatment of animals. They also have a right to know about pollution associated with agriculture. Food quality and agricultural processes affect all of us as consumers, not only the producers driven by the necessity of seeking profits to assure the survival of their families and businesses.

The very idea of farm secrecy is ominous, a threat to norms of public trust. Operating in secret also betrays the huge public investments in this country’s farms. A few questions: Could passage of farm privacy laws set a precedent that will move beyond investigations and photos by animal rights activists? Could the laws let landowners cover up other illegal or potentially illegal abuses? What about flagrant pollution or waste dumping? Cockfighting?  Growing marijuana or producing methamphetamines?

On a more personal note: All of this makes me wonder if the day could come when I will no longer be able to pursue my passion of photographing rural landscapes, whether those lands are used well or badly. Do I have something to be afraid of as I drive across the countryside?

Are we approaching a time when this land may not be our land after all?

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.