Bird Watching

5 ways the earth stays

The land defines the shape of your farm, it is the well of fertility that produces your crops and livestock, and it is the foundation of your family’s future. Beyond these values, the land is the basis of our survival and the source of our most important human stories. Everyone who farms has a story — your land has a story too.

My book, The Land Remains: A Midwestern Perspective on Our Past and Future, published in April by Ice Cube Press, was born out of two years of writing, a product of our pandemic lockdown and restrictions on the normal movement of life. In many ways, however, the story of the book grew out of growing up on our farm in southwest Iowa and a 40-year career as a professor of agricultural law.

The retreat and the time to reflect allowed me to realize how intimately my life was connected to the land, physically, legally and emotionally. I detail five ways in which land remains key to the past, present and future history of agriculture.

How land is key

First, the land remains in our stories and in our stories. Where is your land, how and by whom was it acquired — and how did you become the owner?

The answers to these questions help define your life and shape your land. And they’re rich in detail: perhaps tragic stories from the 1930s or, better yet, the exciting lessons learned from years of experimentation, new technologies, and learning about farming and prosperity. The answers to these questions and the stories they weave explain how your land is linked to your heritage and explain your emotional ties to it.

Second, the land remains in our wealth and economic success. You know well the productivity of your land and how you impact its fertility. The way it works for you – and you for it – produces crops and income, making your farm viable. I’ve worked for years on ‘sustainable agriculture’ and the many things it can mean, but it’s clear that for agriculture to be ecologically and socially sustainable, farms must also be economically successful.

One of the hallmarks of farming is how often all economic “success” is plowed back into the land, using it as a storehouse of wealth – financially and physically, passed down through your family.

Third, one of the most remarkable ways the earth endures is its resilience. We all hope to live forever although none of us do, but the earth can live forever. It had been there for eons before we arrived and it will remain long after we are gone, reflecting the power and vitality of nature.

Yes, there are ways to abuse the earth by letting soils erode or damaging its health, but there are many steps we can take to conserve soil and protect the earth’s potential. In the book, I suggest that we need to spend more time listening to the earth and thinking about what it needs. This suggestion may seem strange to people who are not involved in agriculture, but I believe you know what it means to listen to your land.

He will be here after you, and in many ways his condition will be a portrait of your stewardship.

A fourth way the earth remains is in the actions we can take to make the protection of nature permanent. Most likely, your land has a special place or unique feature, such as a grassland hill, winding stream, wetland, or oak savannah. These features may have existed for decades protected by your ancestors or they may be ones you created, so you can enjoy bird watching and the beauty of nature.

What will happen to these places when you are no longer there to protect them? There are many legal tools available to permanently protect land, either by working with state conservation agencies or private organizations.

Over 20 years ago, my wife and I donated part of my great-grandfather’s original home to Adams County to be preserved as a prairie open to the public. . We have worked with a land trust, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and this action continues to give us great pride and satisfaction.

If you are driving US Highway 34 between Corning and Creston, Iowa, look for the sign for Hamilton Prairie. Anyone who owns land has the opportunity to consider whether a form of permanent protection such as a conservation easement is appropriate for the land. If you take action, I promise it will be one of the most rewarding actions you’ve ever taken.

The fifth and final way the earth dwells is in our families and in our heritage. You have probably thought about what will happen to your land. Should it be sold or passed on? If you have children, their needs and plans will undoubtedly play a major role in your decisions.


Neil D. Hamilton

Hamilton family, circa 1964.

The transmission of land in families is a subject on which many books have been written. As I tell it, our farm survived only because my grandmother bequeathed a larger share to my father, who had returned to Iowa to farm with her, and she demanded that his five siblings sell it to her. their shares. Her action was unusual in the 1950s and even today, but it showed that she understood that treating her children equally was not the same as fairly.

A few years ago we sold the last part of the farm to a young neighbor so that he could start farming and become a landowner. We are proud to have sold him the farm and have no regrets, because we realize that if America is going to have new young farmers and landowners, those who own the land today will have to make room for them.

My challenge to you is to listen to the earth and consider how your actions will determine how the earth will remain.


Neil D. Hamilton is Professor Emeritus of Law and Director Emeritus of the Center for Agricultural Law at Drake University School of Law in Des Moines, Iowa. He retired in 2019 after 36 years at the helm of the centre.

He lives with his wife, Khanh, on a 10-acre vegetable farm in Sunstead, near Waukee, Iowa, and grew up on a 200-acre farm in Adams County, where his family began farming in 1872. He has a BS from Iowa. State University in Forestry and Economics, and a JD from the University of Iowa. He has taught agricultural law for 38 years and is past president of the American Agricultural Law Association. He has written numerous books and articles for farmers and lawyers, including the nationally award-winning book What Farmers Need to Know About Environmental Law (1990).

The Land Remains, published by Ice Cube Press, is available on