April 13, 2017

Fighting the great land grab

Loka Ashwood

By Mary Catherine Gaston

Raised on a family farm, Loka Ashwood now battles their disappearance

The story Loka Ashwood tells of the transformation of the rural farming community where she grew up is a sad—and, sadly, familiar—one to many who hold happy memories of childhoods spent in similar places. Though her story is set in west central Illinois, the changes she describes are not unlike those seen in rural areas throughout the U.S. during the last half century. It’s a story of a transformation that not only disturbs Ashwood but also drives her to delve into the issues behind the decline.

An assistant professor in Auburn’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Ashwood grew up in a place where five generations of her family have farmed, the first arriving there from England in the early 1800s. Her parents’ generation raised hogs, cattle and row crops, and along with many other farm kids, Ashwood completed kindergarten through twelfth grade in the local, single-building, public school. She graduated in a class of 21.

In addition to a “superb” education, growing up in the community of 550 residents offered her other benefits, like the freedom to cut through the fields to her grandparents’ home any time she wished. It’s an upbringing she recalls joyfully, but with a melancholy undertone to which many can likely relate. As small farms began to disappear from her home county, so did institutions that depended on those farms—excellent local public schools, for instance. Hers closed years ago, and students from her community now take long bus rides to school in a larger, neighboring town.

Ashwood was a journalism undergrad at Northwestern University on Chicago’s northern edge—the university itself more than 35 times the size of her hometown—when she first became interested in what was behind the changes she was seeing each time she made it home to the farm. Her first real exposure to the roots of this revolution came while interning for the syndicated television program “U.S. Farm Report.”

“I became really interested in the structural issues that were leading to the decline of family farms in this country,” she says. “I wanted to know, why are these farms—and communities—perpetually declining, and what can we do about it?”

Search for the cause

Back on campus, her interest led her to a history professor with expertise in similar transitions taking place throughout Europe and South America, and he encouraged her to study Ireland. She began studying under him, and before she knew it, she was on a quest that would land her on the Emerald Isle, working toward a master’s degree—which she received in 2009—at the National University of Ireland in Galway and researching the causes and effects of failing family farms.

Back in the States, compelled by her new-found determinationto make a difference in rural communities like her own, Ashwood worked briefly with a nonprofit, formulating action plans to help revitalize dying downtowns and rural communities. But she wanted to do more—like teach, write and help others figure out how to remain in farming and save their sacred places. So back to school she went, this time to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to complete her Ph.D. She completed that degree in May 2015 and headed straight to The Plains.

“A long, winding road has led me here,” she says with a laugh. “But seriously, [this transformation] is sickening if you’re from rural America and you care about its future, and I do.”

Ashwood still believes, as she did when she set out, that there’s something distastefully and dangerously un-American about an America without its small family farms and vibrant rural communities.

That is why her research, writing and teaching are aimed largely at answering those questions she’s been asking all along: Why are small family farms disappearing from the American landscape? What effect is their disappearance having on rural communities? And, how can we turn this trend around for the benefit of the nation as a whole?

Loss of farmland

One such development she’s looking at is the accumulation of American farmland by large corporations, a movement that’s been dubbed “the largest land grab ever” in the Midwest. In one recent sale alone in her home state, a New York Stock Exchange firm purchased 8,500-plus acres. Though the farmland holdings add stability to the firms’ portfolios—a good thing for stockholders—researchers like Ashwood are not certain the changes in ownership will be positive in the long run for farmers and rural communities.

“We are curious to know how the new ownership structures will impact those small-scale farmers who, for example, might be looking to rent or purchase smaller acreages,” she says, adding that the concern is whether the trend will put actual farmers out of the farmland market all together.

Though it’s a new topic for Ashwood, this research, now in its infancy, is not entirely different from her recent work on Right-to-Farm laws. Originally intended to help farmers remain in business in the face of urban sprawl, the laws, which exist in every state, may actually be making it more difficult for small farms to operate.

“We don’t just want to identify the problems with current laws,” she says. “We want to offer solutions to those problems, and we’ll be doing outreach to help people know what their laws consist of and how to take action to improve them.”

While answering such questions is a huge task, it’s an important one, says Auburn rural sociology Professor Emeritus Conner Bailey. As significant as the research is, Bailey says he is most impressed with the researcher herself—someone Auburn’s College of Agriculture is lucky to have on board.

“Dr. Ashwood is a farm girl who graduated from the nation’s top program in her field,” he says. “She brings a rare combination of brilliance and passion to her work as a researcher and as a teacher, and we are fortunate to have her in our college and department.”

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