Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Neil Hamilton is a professor emeritus of law at Drake University, and a board member of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Born and raised in Iowa, his new book The Land Remains: A Midwestern Perspective on Our Past and Future, asks us to change our sense of scale, and think from the land’s perspective.
Enjoy our conversation about the beginnings of American environmentalism, 4-H club, and the optimism he finds in the land trust movement, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I’d love to start by talking about your time directing the Drake University Agricultural Law Center. Can you just tell me a little bit about your position there? What’s the mission of the Center and what part of your work there do you think had the greatest impact?
Neil Hamilton: Sure. Well, I had the wonderful opportunity to help Drake develop its engagement in agricultural law and I was hired in 1983 to direct and develop the Agricultural Law Center, which I did actively for the next 36 years. We did a lot of different things, from organizing state and national conferences, lots of publications and research activities, and chairing commissions for the governor of Iowa and for the Department of Agriculture. But your question about what’s the most important thing we did – certainly it’s the students that came through and the careers that we helped launch and the doors that we were able to open. It’s so rewarding to see dozens of people from your classes over the decades now out in these amazing positions across, certainly across Iowa, and all across the nation.
DY: So it seems like The Land Remains is your attempt to weave your personal history in with the work that you did for so long at Drake. Could you tell me about your motivation for writing this book and why you felt like it was important to write something less academic, though still certainly informed by your academic career?
NH: You know, I’ve written dozens and dozens of law review articles and they’re fun to write, they’re wonderful professional contributions, you learn a lot and you’re able to incorporate them into your teaching and your scholarship. But at the end of the day, you know that only a couple dozen people at most may have read them. And then you write an op-ed in the local newspaper, and you reach thousands of people. And so part of the issue is kind of the audience you’re trying to reach and the message you’re trying to share and as I say in the book, I started this project on a number of different occasions over the years. The irony is that it was in large part because of the Covid-19 pandemic that the book finally emerged because it’s easy for us to always have great intentions, but then you travel here, you travel the area, pick up this speaking engagement or you get on that committee and then you find that you don’t have the time. When Covid came down, I said, you know, if I’m going to write this book, I need to sit down and write it. So I wrote every day for the next nine months or more, hundreds of pages and notes that kind of ultimately accumulated into the different passages. My motivation was to share a bunch of stories that I wanted to tell, and to create an opportunity for people to hear from the land and to think about the land in different ways. And I’m not done. I’ve pretty much completed the second volume that’s kind of a parallel, called The River Knows, that deals more contemporaneously with our land and water challenges and this one has this take you recognize a little bit more of a historical dimension.
DY: Just for readers who haven’t had a chance to see the book yet (I understand it’s being released Friday, April 22), I’m wondering if you could give a distilled version of the message you hope a reader would take away from the book.
NH: I think the message is that readers will have the opportunity to engage, perhaps differently with the land, to think about the role that it has played in our history as a nation as a foundation upon which we draw sustenance, but also confined recreation and satisfaction. There’s a lot of history and a lot of bright thinkers that have helped us think about the land relationship that humans have. A part of this book is narrated by the land. The “Back 40” is a major character and voice and that’s a part of the story because I think that people don’t have the opportunity to listen to hear the perspective of the land itself.
DY: Your relationship with the land goes back, obviously, to your upbringing. And I was really struck by a passage in the book when you talk about being enticed into studying forestry in college, around the same time that the environmental movement kicked off in earnest. So I’m just wondering, how did environmentalism reach your upbringing in the countryside?
NH: Well that’s interesting, because I think in an affirmative way – and actually using that terminology – it really wasn’t something that we spoke of in those ways until maybe the late 60s. It was when I was in high school that we began to have more recognition of environmentalism, and federal acts like the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, things like Earth Day. And we had this summer camp that I went to that was called the Trees for Tomorrow Environmental Education Center. My career in agriculture very much kind of mirrored or followed the development of environmentalism as a professional field of study. So even though we were farm kids, you know, and we lived on the land, and we were in 4-H and we talked about soil conservation. I don’t remember us actively talking about the environment or the land in those ways until college.
DY: I’m curious about whether those ethics of environmentalism jived well with your understanding of nature and of respecting nature, that the people around you acquired more organically.
NH: If you ask the question another way, if I would have driven around the countryside and asked the neighboring farmers or farm kids, have you ever read Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic?” I think most of them would have probably drawn a blank. But on the other hand, if you asked them about their relationship to the land or whether they thought that they were in a community with it, or that they had an appreciation for it, you know, there were certainly Leopoldian dimensions to what people did with and how they thought about the land. You don’t want to gloss over the fact that much of agriculture’s development as an industry has had a very dominating dimension. How do you plow the prairie or how do you subdue Mother Nature? How do you harness the earth? There’s a real utilitarian dimension to it, it wasn’t benign. But when you were following behind a team of horses, your relationship with the land was a little bit closer than when you were sitting in the seat of a 600 horsepower tractor and maybe haven’t stepped down on the soil all day. A lot of people would say that the best fertilizer for the soil is the footsteps of the owner. You know, that whole idea was certainly much more common at the scale and type of agriculture I knew as a boy growing up in the 60s than what you might hear today. That’s not to say that kids growing up on the farm today don’t have some connection to the soil and water, but it’s a much different scale and a sense of remove, I think.
DY: You wrote in a recent paper that the Cold War growth in agricultural exports and improved cropping technologies worked against and eventually overtook the soil conservation movement that wielded a lot of political power before 1950. How did your family farm react to the trends encouraging harmful practices like monocropping in the second half of the 20th century?
NH: Well, I can tell you exactly how they reacted. And I think to understand their reaction, you’d have to appreciate the fact that they didn’t necessarily see them as harmful. I mean, it’s common for people today to talk about industrial farming. But in terms of our farm, when I was a kid growing up, we were milking a few short horn cattle and also feeding beef cattle and raising pigs. We had oats, we had a pasture and hay fields, and a flock of chickens. When I was in 4-H in the early 60s, I had show calves for a couple of years, but then within a few years, we sold all the cattle, and the pigs had gone to town before that. The chickens we’d probably gotten rid of years before, and then we quit milking. We’d been hand milking four or five cows, which was an incredible amount of labor and not particularly efficient or productive or profitable. And so all the livestock left and all the land was plowed up and put into crops. Almost everything in our neighborhood eventually went under the plow. I was just down at the farm over the weekend, and I suppose there are a couple small beef cow herds somewhere within a five mile radius. But you know, as opposed to when I was a kid, we had hogs on almost every farm in the state. And certainly almost every neighbor I can think of had livestock. Everybody had cattle and pigs and that was part of the cycle. When I was a kid, in the summertime, we would work almost every day as hired laborers working on haying crews moving around the township, putting up hay for people. That kind of went away as technology changed. There’ve been lots of changes also just in terms of the population. There are so many fewer homesteads and families, and many of the people left are elderly. There are relatively few farm kids and certainly much smaller families in a typical situation.
DY: Do you think that you and your neighbors and your family members recognized these as broader trends while they were happening or did it just sort of feel like going with the flow?
NH: Oh, I think they recognize that they were being swept along. But you know, that period, the 50s and the 60s had a certain stability to them. Agriculture changed a great deal coming right out of World War II. And a lot of the people, you know, that either didn’t come back from the war or came back from the war didn’t want to farm so there was a fair amount of structural change taking place. The 50s and 60s was this period of stagnation from a structural standpoint. Then the technological changes began and there was more development of agrochemicals and larger scale equipment and so then, particularly in the 60s – and this is very Iowa specific – we moved to more commodity intensification. People became corn farmers and soybean farmers and there was a lot of consolidation.
DY: What movements and organizations give you hope in terms of soil conservation and sustainable agriculture today?
NH: In terms of sustainable agriculture and agriculture with the human face, in the book I reference the Practical Farmers of Iowa, which is a very traditional group in the sense of farmers that are diversified and looking at livestock and taking a holistic, sustainable approach towards farming. It’s not necessarily ideological, unless you think that caring for the land and your neighbors and your family is ideological. And so that’s one of the types of movements and you have parallel organizations in many states. Additionally, chapter eight deals a lot with the land trust movement. I’ve been on the board of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation for over 30 years and we’ve protected close to 200,000 acres of Iowa land permanently moving into public ownership. So now we have some of that under private deals, still privately owned, but under conservation easements, but the key there was working with these hundreds of landowners and families who own land, many of them agricultural families, who are interested in doing something to permanently preserve special features on their property. You know, a prairie, a wetland, an oak savanna or whatever the feature might be, or protecting it as agriculture, not seeing it turned into a hospital facility or housing. There are hundreds of land trusts around the country everywhere from relatively small ones, to ones that work on a larger scale like The Nature Conservancy or even a global scale, that do that type of work. And so they’re helping create a bridge between public values and private ownership.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.