Charles Lutz, director of the Church in Society Office with the American Lutheran Church, speaking at forum on "The Implications of Consolidated Land Ownership" from the "Food, Farming and the Future" symposium, held at Concordia College in Moorhead. Lutz shares his views on the social concept of “land”, and against large farming operations.
Read the Text Transcription of the Audio.
I want to speak about the very specific question of joining fields to Fields Forever and Ever. My thesis is that that is not a Biblical idea. And my text is from Isaiah 5:8 a part of which reads woe to those who join field to field until they are the sole inhabitants of the land. I take it from that writing and Isaiah and other places in the in the Hebrew scriptures that the issue of expansion in size of land Holdings among human beings has been a problem. I probably ever since Human Society was formed. It is not a new problem. It is not a new issue, but the Bible spends quite a bit of time, especially in the Old Testament talking about the dangers of unchecked expansion in the size of Holdings of land. I would imagine that there are many reasons in all times of history and in most societies of history for this to happen the expansion in size of farms and the concomitant reduction in the number of separate Holdings, which occurs as a result among the reasons certainly are differences in human competence. and ambition the workings of economic systems of various kinds greed. I think would be a factor the impact of government tax and agriculture policies has a bearing on it and I wouldn't undersell the role of luck. Good luck or bad luck. The American Lutheran Church, three years ago adopted a statement on the land called God's giving the land Gods giving are carrying a part of that in the biblical analysis section is a very good summary. I think of the biblical intention about land and let me read this paragraph to you land is given to meet human needs but it also becomes an arena for human breeds the desire to control more land is seductive. We wish to Grassland and become Lord over it as though it were our own demesne domain rather than holding it tenderly and tentatively as the Lord's gift in trust land greed brings judgment and their biblical citations for each of these summary statements land greed brings judgement Injustice flows from the coveting of land. The poor are especially vulnerable and in traditional societies, the landless are usually The land tenure policy of Jubilee seeks to reduce excesses. The land is periodically rested and every 50th year. The land is returned to the errors of those originally assigned to manage. It Jesus uses this Jubilee image of new beginnings as a sign of the new age he brings. No, I don't intend to analyze the reasons for concentration and farm land ownership into fewer hands in our society. I do wish in the few minutes. I have to present an argument for resisting the trend. As a matter of the greatest social interest for us all. My understanding of the Homestead Act of the 19th century is that it was a vehicle chosen for the deliberate shaping of social Fabric in our Young Nation. It certainly had the result of settling vast reaches of this continent by Yeoman farmers owner-operators who became self-sufficient entrepreneurs who formed and nurtured countless rural communities and who not incidentally. Fed, the growing cities and all of the population of one nation and eventually many millions in other nations as well. But another fruit of the Homestead Act was that through it. We were implementing a deliberate National policy about land tenure. By that legislation we decided essentially two things first that agricultural land in this country would be held privately. Not publicly. The second thing that legislation essentially decided was and I think this is even more important we decided that us Farmland would be held by the many and not by the few. I argue therefore that the Homestead Act was a decision in public policy in favor of the smaller landholder and against a landed gentry in favor of many modest-sized operations and against a plantation system. We did have that in parts of the nation in the Old South particularly. It was a decision against what is called latifundio in Latin America and Latin America is a good place to look if you want to see the results of another kind of system of land tenure a bad system in my judgment. Indeed one could argue that every revolution in Latin America today. If not in the entire planet since World War II has as a center as a central cause the inequitable control of the land by the few. By some measures we have already surpassed many Latin American Societies in concentration of Farmland hours is held today by approximately 3% of the population. We are particularly upset about that because we are no longer a basically agrarian society. It does not seem to us to be a matter of basic Justice since most Americans don't need to or care to own farmland. But I'm concerned that the concentration Trend not go any farther. I think we have taken it quite far enough and my reasons are ones of Broad Social good but I want to mention three other reason these are arguments about the self-interest of us all we all I contend have a stake in keeping the control of agricultural land as dispersed as possible. First reason dispersed ownership and management of Farmland what we have usually termed the family farm structure of agriculture. Offers the best chance that the land will be preserved for future Generations stewarded carefully built up over the long-term not used up in the short term. I grew up among farmers in Northern Iowa. And I first learned the word stewardship from them and it was not applied to the money given for the mission support of the church. It was applied to the land because they saw themselves as stewards of the earth. And that's where I first learned that term second reason is dispersed ownership and cultivating of the land is a more efficient way of making the land productive or so. It seems to me at least when one talks about operations of moderate size and I'll tell you what, I mean by that in the midwest. I think that means gross sales at least in fairly decent years for agriculture gross sales of 100,000 to $250,000. Annually, I would call that a moderate-sized operation those operations have proven to be more efficient than larger operations, which tend to get you into hired labor in part. That's because owner operator fan. Play members are willing to give more of themselves. And yes, I think work for a lower hourly wage. Most of our family farms in the Upper Midwest are big enough already to be efficient. They are not in trouble because of inefficiency of scale in the production of food, but because of high credit costs and low commodity prices and I think some public policies that artificially reward bigness or expansion. We all in society have an interest in resisting the trend toward concentration in farm land ownership dispersed ownership in cultivation of the land is a more efficient way of making the land productive then are very large Holdings the third and final one is without a dispersed ownership of farmland and a resulting population-based living from the land schools and libraries and health care and churches. Alril institutions are eroded or starve to death. It is good for the United States as a whole that non urban communities lots of them survive and prosper as quality places to live. As a city dweller now, I know how important it is to stop moving rural jobless people to the cities to compete with the urban jobless who are already there. There are other values sustained by the structure of dispersed ownership of farmland and what we have called the family farm system the sharing of work as a total family unit the ability to keep a large measure of control over one's life and work situation the opportunity to identify immediately with the product of one's labor. But the three values I have outlined serve the interests of all of us not just those engaged in farming. They are sufficient reason I think for all of us to see continuation of that pattern to resist any more concentration in land ownership. I believe dispersed control is in the long-term social interest of everyone. Now a brief final word on how we seek together to achieve that goal of keeping farm land ownership dispersed. What are the policy implications for us? Well, I've already said we should seek to remove some of those policies that have negative impact on it. Let's eat 2, I think or have the result of encouraging growth and farm size and we should support those policies which have a positive impact on dispersed ownership of land. I take it the free enterprise system alone if left to its own devices, we don't really have it. So it's hard to measure because we don't have a public interest Free Enterprise in this country and agriculture or in many other things. But even if we had a totally free enterprise system in agriculture, I think the trend toward increased concentration would continue and I don't think that's in the good social the social good interest of any of us, I take it that the homestead act itself was an intervention in pure free-market economics. It was designed to disperse people over the land in what was it that time dude is a reasonable size operation. I would agree that those 40 acre or 160 acre Parcels today in the midwest are not enough land. We can debate what is enough maybe in the discussion time. But let me suggest one policy change that we could at least debate in this society and perhaps come to on and I think a state-by-state basis not a federal basis. I'm talking about the graduated property tax. I think that might be a modern-day social equivalent of the Jubilee idea in the Old Testament where every 50 years there was a way of intervening into the land tenure system and setting it back into some kind of balance. Biblical Scholars argue whether the Jubilee Provisions were ever implemented. I don't think that's the important point. I think the important point is that the idea was there that something had to be done or left to the natural human Community outcomes you someday have almost all of the land held by maybe 14 families, which is what has been the case in El Salvador 85% of the land Farmland held by 14 family. I think such a proposal as a graduated property tax ought to be debated among us as a policy option, which would not prohibit anybody from owning as much land as she or he wished but it would put a penalty a tax penalty on the ownership of land Beyond a certain level which would be determined perhaps on a county-by-county basis as adequate. For a reasonable return in a farming operation and if you want more land than that, okay, but you're going to have to pay more tax dollars per acre beyond that level. It's similar course to the idea of a graduated income tax and I Think It's the Kinda policy option. We ought to be looking at a new kind of creative intervention into the system as or business as usual incidentally. I first heard about the graduated land tax idea from a North Dakota and Byron dorgan whom the people of North Dakota have sent to the federal Congress. I think for two terms maybe a third now, I think when Byron was was Tax Commissioner of North Dakota he was talking about it legislation was introduced. It didn't go anywhere but the debate at least began in this state and I think that's a reminder to all of us and other parts of the country that very often North Dakota leads the way and socially Progressive legislation whether it's talking about a state-owned banker estate on elevator system or the populist movement of the early. A century or whatever. Let me just conclude by saying that I think the writer of Isaiah 5 chapter 5 was right the joining of field to field. Forever and ever has one extreme result and that is that you alone are left in the land and there are a lot of empty dwellings as that chapter goes on to say that are perfectly good dwellings, but nobody lives in them anymore. And I think as Isaiah 5 also says that is a prescription for wool for wool upon any people