In his new book, Neil Hamilton lets the land speak for itself

The Back Forty (From “The Land Remains”)

Who speaks for the land in Iowa? Mostly, the loudest voices come from large, powerful agricultural interests who see the land as a resource to exploit while paying little more than lip service to the notion of conserving and protecting the land for future generations.

But in a new book by retired Drake Law Professor Neil Hamilton, the land speaks for itself.

Throughout “The Land Remains,” a tract of Adams County farmland where Hamilton grew up, “The Back Forty,” talks about its history and chronicles the many changes in agriculture and public policy that have shaped its existence.

“For much of these thousands of years my only company was the animals and birds, the reptiles and others who found their homes nestled in my grasses or burrowed into my soils. Periodically, the tranquillity they found would be interrupted by the footsteps of humans, ”The Back Forty recalls in its first appearance in Hamilton’s book.

As someone who has interviewed the Cedar River a couple of times, I’m a big fan of The Back Forty.

Wrapped around the land’s reflections are Hamilton’s experiences as a farm kid, landowner, policy advocate and agricultural law professor. He is one of the state’s clearest, most experienced voices on agricultural policies and the pressing need for improved environmental stewardship. His book is a sweeping recounting of conservation efforts, controversies and failures that have shaped the land and the state’s serious environmental problems.

Anyone who cares about these issues should grab a copy.

“I’d like to figure out a way to get it into every public school and public library in the state. You know, we’ll work on that, ”Hamilton told me in an interview.

Be careful, the Farm Bureau and its legislative allies might dub the book “obscene.”

One portion of Hamilton’s book caught my eye. He writes about the late 1980s, after the farm crisis spawned a series of conservation policies encouraging farmers to take land out of production. The Iowa Legislature nearly altered the course of environmental protection.

In 1987, the Democratically-controlled Legislature approved the Groundwater Protection Act. Among the provisions in the comprehensive legislation was a fee on pesticide dealers and applicator registrations and a tax on nitrogen fertilizer. The money collected funded the groundbreaking Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which educated farmers on environmentally friendly practices. Corporations that sold fertilizer and the inputs for unsustainable farming were not pleased.

In 1989, the Legislature approved a bill that would have created the state office of environmental advocate, which would represent the public interest in regulatory or legal proceedings where the state’s air, land and water are threatened. The Iowa Academy of Sciences would play a leading role in selecting finalists for the job.

“Iowa is not a land that’s full of beautiful mountains, but it’s a land with an environment that needs protection,” state Rep. Paul Johnson, D-Decorah, said during the House debate before the bill was approved 61-33, according to coverage in The Gazette.

It passed the Senate 31-13 and was derided by opponents.

“You want to create something that has a far-reaching effect throughout government,” said Republican Sen. Jack Rife, R-Moscow, according to The Gazette. “I’m telling you this person can shut down major road projects, major construction projects.”

A state agency, not controlled by ag interests, with the power to stand up for the environment? That would have been something.

But it was not to be. Gov. Terry Branstad vetoed the legislation.

“We had a state statute that was going to actually create an entity that would represent an eroded field right or a polluted river,” Hamilton said. “Branstad vetoed it and said that, you know, we didn’t need this ‘cops and robbers’ approach towards environmental protection and that environmental laws we had were adequate, and the agencies were up to the job of enforcing them. And of course, of course, 30 years later, none of that proved true. ”

In 2017, the Republican-controlled Legislature eliminated funding for the Leopold Center, arguing the center had fulfilled its mission to make farming sustainable. You can’t make this stuff up. The state’s environmental regulatory structure is now completely controlled by farming interests, not environmental advocates.

“So there were these different periods in time where we could have made different choices, but we didn’t, OK. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make different choices today, ”Hamilton said.

Neil Hamilton

Hamilton contends that if we had the political will, we could take steps to protect Iowa’s land and water, such as requiring basic practices such as stream buffers and a long list of other proven measures. Instead, we seek voluntary compliance and pay farmers to do the right thing.

Farm groups oppose selling or donating land for conservation, arguing it deprives young farmers a chance to buy land. Hamilton both donated part of his family’s farm for conservation and sold a portion to a young farming neighbor.

Aldo Leopold, wrote “The Land Ethic” back in the 40s. He says, you know, if the farmer will only do conservation with an outstretched hand, and only do it because the public pays him to do it. Well, then we can never expect conservation to actually work very well, ”Hamilton said.

“There is no sense of obligation that goes with it. Our education does not include any sense of obligation or responsibility. And so instead, you know, we do as little as we’re required and expect to pay me for the rest of it, ”Hamilton said.

Fortunately, advocates such as Hamilton, who is working on a second book, are still speaking for the land. But we all need to raise our voices.

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