The Land We Belong To Is Grand


New at Reason: The rural west is depopulating. Ron Bailey says let my people go.


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  1. fy, good point re: conservation trusts.

    But I think your assumption that most farmers don’t take subsidies is wrong. Small farmers do take the money to continue money-losing farms, but the amount they take adds up to a fraction of what giant Agribusiness concerns rake in.

  2. So, Joe, since this is an area you know about, what percentage of his or her annual costs is from subsidies?

  3. So, Joe, since this is an area you know about, what percentage of his or her annual costs is from subsidies?

  4. um…little help here?

  5. Joe, re: “But I think your assumption that most farmers don’t take subsidies is wrong.”

    Bailey says in his article, “Sixty percent of all farmers and ranchers get no subsidies at all.” So while I may be wrong, it wasn’t an assumption. Well, except that I’m assuming Bailey is quoting correct figures! 🙂

    But thanks for recognizing my point. The Nature Conservancy and the like provide the answers for libertarians who love nature, like myself (sinister predators and all!!).

  6. Most farmers don’t collect anything, and 80% of those who do recieve about $1000 each. This is not a large percentage of total farming operating costs. The subsidies make a difference on the margins, and for a few specific crops, but they don’t have massive impacts – certainly not enough of an impact to significantly impact demographics.

    Rural areas on the Great Plains will continue to lose population because these are not attractive places to live, just like inner-city urban areas will lose population. Suburban and rural areas in attractive locations (think mountain West or anyplace in the South) or will gain population in the coming decades, at an accelerating pace, as location becomes less important for employment.

    For farming data, see –

  7. Maybe we can encourage Mongols to immigrate to the Great Plains. It’s got to be better there than in the Gobi Desert….

  8. That’s a horrid idea, anon. Didn’t you see the South Park episode where the Mongols tried to pillage South Park? Think of the resources that could be spent on more productive uses than walling up places like Omaha to protect them from rampaging hordes…

  9. Attractive inner city locations are gaining population too, PLC. (You didn’t think I’d just let that go, did you?)

  10. Charles WT,

    Heh-heh, thanks for that! Though actually, I have no idea if industrial hemp has all the potential so frequently claimed or if that’s just a smokescreen. But you’ll find most of us here would say legalize it and let the market decide!

  11. Another ‘off the deep end’ piece by Ron. This time it’s; I’d like to advocate a libertarian solution but I think the bigger government idea is more practical. Bailey needs to stick to genetic engineering of find a new venue to publish his tripe.

  12. re: Buffalo Commons

    Wouldn’t a more “market-based” solution be to have the government buy out the current, subsidized owners and then re-sell the land through an auction, with the caveat that no owner of the land will ever receive a subsidy again? It seems an auction would be the only way to ensure the land is sold at its market price and used for its highest and best use, be that as a nature preserve, suburb, or farm. Plus, it wouldn’t be in public ownership, which would almost certainly be a continuing drain on taxpayers and, perhaps, the environment as well. Furthermore, the sale could off-set some of the costs of the buy-outs.

  13. Warren,

    I believe what he’s saying is, “I’d like the *ideal* libertarian solution, but it’s not too politically feasable, so here’s a solution that might be workable that is still *more* libertarian than the status quo.”

    Or something like that.

  14. The area has been depopulating since homesteading ended. 160 acres was never an economically functional size. Those that leave sell or rent their land when they leave. Honestly, I do not see what the problem is.

    The best solution to the ‘problem’ is to eliminate agriculture subsidies and let the market shake things out. The idea of a Buffalo commons is another bloated, wasteful, counterproductive government program. This area has suffered from enough of these already.


  15. It’s always good to see the numbers showing how farm subsidies flow mainly to large corporations, but I don’t really see how this ties into the column’s thesis.

    Otherwise, nice piece.

  16. “Of course, anti-smoking activists are worried that without the quotas, tobacco prices will fall steeply, encouraging people to succumb to the demon weed…”

    Bwahaha… Sorry, I know Bailey’s not actually making this argument, of course, but I always get a big kick out of it.

    So if you want the math… a cig weighs a little less than a gram, (ignore the fact that a big part of that weight is paper, filter and crap); $2/pound is an insanely high market price for domestic tobacco, and foreign stuff is even cheaper. Using those numbers, the tobacco in a pack of cigarettes costs MO or RJR about 8 cents, and the real figure probably isn’t half that. So yeah, a quota buyout is gonna have a huuuuge effect on smoking.

  17. If the land is so worthless that you basicly have to pay people to live on it and work it, then a “Buffalo Commons” sounds like a good idea. Returning it to native tribes might be nice too.

  18. Rural areas all over the place have been depopulating for at least a generation now. There are no jobs in rural areas. We are no longer an agrarian society – technology in agriculture has allowed for much higher productivity, so it doesn’t require nearly as many human resources to farm the same amount of land.

    We are an information society. Information jobs are located in or near urban centers.

  19. I sympathize with Ron’s search for “intermediate solutions” (my phrase, not his). Normally I’m all for part-way measures if they’re steps in the right direction.

    But all of his measures seem to involve either giving land to the feds or paying people money to do or not do something. Both are just invitations for more problems.

    Farm subsidies are one place where I say government should just be downsized outright, because the half-way solutions that I’ve seen are just open invitations for more government meddling.

    The only sort of “compromise” solution I could see is gradual phasing-out of farm subsidies: Cut it by 25% each year (25% of the base year, not 25% of each subsequent year, otherwise it’s just exponential decay that never quite reaches zero). Anything else, paying people “one last time” with conditions on what they do in the future, or giving land to the feds, just seems a bad idea.

    But, given the number of US Senators from the regions in question, this is highly unlikely. God bless “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body”. (Who gave it that title anyway? How do we know that there isn’t some other country with a really kick-ass legislative body? For all I know the Japanese upper house might be a council of sages. Or maybe the Swiss have it down cold. I’ve never checked, so how do I know ours is the very best out there?)

  20. Coming out of Kansas, I can tell you that the ag interests have zero notion that anything could ever be different than it was 50 years ago. Ag lobbyists in Kansas and the Dakotas work really hard to keep small, uncompetitive, and poor farmers on their lands, and work equally hard to keep recreationalists, hunters, and land trusts out. It’s a classic case of repeatedly hitting your head against the wall hoping something gives.

  21. thoreau, your proposal would pretty much eliminate the value of the the land (unless it happened to be close enough to a city to become a suburb). When that happens, the owner stops paying taxes, and the government eventually comes to own it through the tax title process. All you’ve done is add layers of legal and administrative actions between A and B.

  22. Joe-

    I guess in principle I don’t mind if the land becomes public. It depends on what public land is. Will it just be a big stretch of open land that nobody else has laid claim to, so it’s public by default until somebody finds a use for it and stakes a claim to it by working the land? Or will it become part of some big “project” that requires lots of spending?

    If the former, then public ownership seems pretty harmless, and I suppose that buying out the farmers is a politically feasible way of ending the farm subsidy, and the public ownership is just a way to get them off the land so they don’t come running back for more subsidies later.

    I’ve heard elsewhere about demands that the feds entice people to return to rural America, as more people seek work in large urban areas. I guess the “heartland” isn’t really so interested in smaller government after all, or at least it isn’t electing politicians who are interested in smaller government.

  23. Can states devolve back into territories? Can congressional districts disappear due to lack of population?

  24. Anon @ 12:21
    Not sure about states devolving to territories, but districts can and do disappear. It’ll just happen as part of the decennial post-census redistricting.

  25. Joe, you ignore the possibility that another private interest might be interested in buying the land before things get to the title process. Who would want land with no productive value? If there’s really potential for a Buffalo Commons, well then quite possibly the Nature Conservancy would be interested! Anyway, we’ll never know if the land is kept artificially expensive. And I wonder about this about Ron’s plan: if most farmers don’t receive subsidies, isn’t logical to figure that those are the farmers who would take the buyout and the subsidies would continue at the same level as now?

  26. Can states devolve back into territories? Can congressional districts disappear due to lack of population?

    Presumably it’s possible, but it can’t happen without the state’s consent: states can’t be deprived of Senate representation without their consent. Also, every state is guaranteed at least one representative.

  27. If the price is right, I’d be willing to buy Montana.

  28. Buffalo Commons sounds like a great name for the mother of all shopping malls.

  29. ^Yeah, with little carts selling Sabres and Bills jerseys.

  30. I can’t believe you people call yourselves libertarians! There is a 100% market solution to this problem that requires no gov’t intervention.

    First, read Discover Magazine’s “Anything Into Oil” article from May. It describes a new process used by big agribiz to convert food processing waste in saleable petroluem that competes with dinosaur-oil profitably. The process works great with wet turkey guts, but would work much better wiht dry biomass.

    Where am I going with this? The problem with agriculture on the great plains is that the weather is too variable for market crops. But the weather’s just fine for native prarie grasses. If farmers just let their land go back to prarie and mowed it regularly, they’d produce lots of biomass – at least 10 oer more tons per acre, probably a lot more – I’ve seen figures of 25 plus tons pre acre for actively managed praries. With no need to fertilizer or pesticides.

    If farmer co-ops own the plants that convert the biomass into oil, they profit enourmously. And as co-op members, they get a natural non-governmental form of crop insurance as well.

    So let’s see – this gets rid of ag subsidies, keeps land in production and the plains settled, produces renewable fuel that displaces middle eastern imports, and returns the land to a nearly wild state too boot.

    We just need people with the vision to push this idea. Any libertarians out there want to get on board?

  31. “So let’s see – this gets rid of ag subsidies, keeps land in production and the plains settled, produces renewable fuel that displaces middle eastern imports, and returns the land to a nearly wild state too boot.”

    Sounds good, but where would the Food Court go?

  32. At the Cabella’s – if the plan works as it should, they’ll be one in every other great plains county before you know it.

  33. EMAIL:
    DATE: 12/21/2003 04:41:41
    A person never tells you anything until contradicted.

  34. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/19/2004 03:19:09
    There is no end to the adventures we can have if we seek them with our eyes wide open.

  35. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/19/2004 10:53:17
    Nothing’s far when one wants to get there.

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