Invisible Trajectories

writings: NO COWS ON THE LAWN

In modern low-density America, many once durable institutions of urban life have been transformed into movable temporary structures, and our relationship with agriculture has taken a similar turn. Food production seems to be a diminishing priority for urban America. Even the milk is leaving. In fact, 41% of it has already left.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the dairy industry in the Inland Empire has shrunk 80% within the last two years. No matter how cute the California cows are in television commercials for the California Dairy Industry, nobody wants cows standing next to their mini-mansions. Sadly, the dairy farm’s days are numbered. With developers offering between $400,000 and $500,000 an acre, the region’s dairy industry could disappear completely within five years.

This situation is not much different from the one sixty years ago on Long Island. Homebuilder William Levitt, who has since been dubbed the father of modern suburbia, would head out into the bean fields of Hempstead County to talk with farmers about buying a portion of their land on which to build new, mass-produced housing developments. The farmers would happily oblige, knowing full well that they could go out another five miles to buy more land on the periphery. This process of leapfrogging would go on to change the American landscape, and the built environment.

The quick, widespread transition from arable cropland to residential housing tract raises questions. With the expanding world population cutting the amount of grainland per person from 0.23 hectares in 1950 to 0.10 hectares in 2004, the cities of the Inland Empire might want to consider protecting some of the region’s food production. The rising cost of fossil fuels adds to cost of importing food and water from greater distances, but this is the system many of us are used to, regardless of its inefficiency.

The issue of moving farms is more complex than we believe. In Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America, Alan Berger points to data used by The American Farmland Trust that shows the U.S. is losing one million acres of farmland and open space each year due to urban expansion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes the same claim, but insists that urban sprawl has not been a threat to agricultural production since the only reduction has been in the production of certain specialty crops.

Large-scale corporate farming techniques have been associated with a range of problems, from soil erosion to groundwater depletion. The EPA blames farming practices for 70% of all pollution in the nation’s rivers and streams. That means 173,000 miles of waterways polluted by chemical runoff, silt and animal waste. The farmland we mostly see in the U.S. has been utilized for one purpose only, and is far from the bio-diverse communities found prior to human expansion.

The arguments become difficult to untangle. Is the displacement of agricultural land a natural process associated with human communities?