Moral Geography in High Plains History

By Opie, John | The Geographical Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Moral Geography in High Plains History


Opie, John, The Geographical Review


If my land has cried out against me, and its furrows have wept together; if I have eaten its yield without payment, and caused the death of its owners; let thorns grow instead of wheat, and foul weeds instead of barley.

- Job 31: 38-40

When farm bills came up for ritual debate in the U.S. Congress every five years, much rhetoric urged that funding be continued, in order to shore up the struggling family farm. The family farm was called the wellspring of American individualism, independence, and general goodness. For almost two centuries this article of faith has risen out of the mists of rural America. Over the last sixty years in particular, since the devastation of the 1930s Depression and Dust Bowl, Americans have legislated financial and institutional support to protect these iconic farmers. Federal action is only one response to farm problems, but it deserves special attention because it has the most far-ranging effects. Nowhere have federal safeguards been more visible than on the High, or Great, Plains. Comprehensive programs of federal price supports, low-cost loans, crop insurance, and agricultural extension directed billions of dollars to Plains people.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt reflected popular opinion when he was said to have "a romantic faith in the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent yeoman living in bucolic abundance" (Fite 1981, 52). The same sentiments would be repeated in the Family Farm Income Act of 1960: "[T]he system of independent family farms was the beginning and foundation of free enterprise in America. . . . [I]t is an ever-present source of strength for democratic processes and the American ideal" (Fite 1981, 133; see also Fite 1977). In 1998 A Time to Act, a study by the National Commission on Small Farms, reaffirmed that "small farms have been the foundation of our Nation" and spoke of "our nation's historical commitment to small farms" (USDA 1998). The commission pulled on national heartstrings by concluding that "the greatest thing that agriculture furnished this country is not food or fiber, but a set of children with a work ethic and a good set of values." However, the report also noted that "[a]t present, USDA does not emphasize the needs of small farms in its strategic plan." Its data showed that although 94 percent of America's farms were still small in 1998, they received only 41 percent of all farm receipts. A small farm was one with less than $250,000 gross annual receipts and that averaged a net cash income of $23,000. Of the nation's 2 million farms, only 122,810, all superlarge, received the majority of farm receipts. Two years earlier, in April 1996, President Bill Clinton had reluctantly signed a farm bill that effectively reversed a long history of financial aid for farms. The president spoke of farmers' vulnerability, the need for an adequate safety net, and continued investment in the historic infrastructure of rural America.

A CONDITIONAL MORAL GEOGRAPHY

This essay is not a tract on moral geography, if such a concept truly exists. Nor does it elaborate a version of environmental ethics. Instead, it examines the shifts and turns of American values, how they shaped public policy, and their various impacts on the Plains (Webb 1931; Gabriel 1956; Thompson 1995). The agricultural philosopher Gary Comstock describes the decision-making process as a "sense of direction we call practical wisdom." This involved pragmatic action, "knowing how to proceed" rather than "knowing that this is the only right answer" (Comstock 1987a, xxi). To this expediency we must add the detail of location. The philosopher David M. Smith has concluded that justice and sustainability are geographically and historically specific, "grounded in the lived experience of particular people in time and place as well as in the abstractions of philosophical debate" (Smith 1996, 20). As Americans we have historically designated some places, such as Yosemite (Solnit, Friedman, and Beardsley 1994), as good or heroic and other places, such as Love Canal (Colten and Skinner 1996), as evil or tragic. …

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