My ancestors came to the Midwest after the war between the states. My great grandfather moved from Culpeper County, Virginia to Fremont County, Iowa in the 1870's. Across the Blue Ridge Mountains from Culpeper is an area known as the Shennandoah Valley.
At the time of the war, the valley was the garden spot of the country. Food production in the area was coveted by both combatants because of both the quantity and variety.
During the war my great grandfather crossed the valley several times as part of the Stonewall Brigade. General Jackson used his troops to tie up several elements of the Northern Army when they should have been fighting in other places. Not only was the agricultural production crucial, but the proximity to the nation's capital made occupation of the valley strategically important.
I have traveled in the Shennandoah Valley twice. The most recent time was in the summer of 1996. It is an area rich in tradition and full of historic sights. It is no longer a major agricultural region. There are a few fields of grain and some apple orchards. Confinement poultry production is the major production enterprise. However, it appears that the most important thing now growing there is houses.
The question that probably comes to mind is why things have changed so much in the last 135 years. The soil is still as fertile. The rainfall is still adequate to produce most major crops. Crop varieties are infinitely better now that in the nineteenth century. Human resources are still capable of managing farm production.
As I see it, two factors have diminished the role of agriculture. The first is that the fields are small and the topography is uneven. That makes large scale grain production difficult. It is hard to utilize modern farm equipment economically where farms and fields are small.
The second is that the proximity to the Baltimore-Washington D.C. metropolitan area makes the land more valuable for housing than for agricultural production. As the land available for development close to the cities is used up, the possibility of living 50-100 miles from the city center becomes more feasible.
As I speculate on the future of farming in Eastern Nebraska, I see striking similarities with what has happened in the Shennandoah Valley. Our area has deep, fertile soil. While the rainfall is not as reliable as it is in Virginia, with modern production technology, yields are normally good. Certainly the history of farming in the tier of counties along Nebraska's eastern border indicates that continued production is possible.
The down side is that most of the land in the area is highly erodible and has considerable slope. If not farmed on the contour, the soil washes badly. Terraces reduce erosion, but they divide the land into small fields. If turn rows are farmed around the edges of the fields, the rows quickly become ditches. Six row planters are the norm. Twelve row planters can be used with a lot of compromises. Anything larger than 12 rows is almost out of the question.
Similarly, 20 foot bean heads and eight row corn heads are the maximum. Anything larger results in grain left in the field. As machinery technology advances and implements continue to get wider, it will become impossible to take advantage of economies of scale in our tiny fields. In tough times, when grain prices are already below cost, we will not be able to compete with farmers who can use larger equipment.
Proximity to the Omaha-Lincoln metropolitan area makes land desirable for development. With today's highways, I am less than 30 minutes from downtown Omaha. Lincoln is only 50 minutes away. Zoning will keep the land agricultural only as long as the economics are feasible. One of the reasons I have been on the county planning commission for the last 24 years is that I hope to have a voice in how the development proceeds.
It has been fun farming in Cass County. It is nice to grow a crop without the hassle and expense of irrigation. It is exciting to see the technology of no-till tame the slopes and maintain yield levels. Being close to the cities has advantages in terms of cultural activities and employment opportunities.
When I was growing up, my dad foresaw that someday the highway between Omaha and our home would be lined with houses. He died 27 years ago. His prediction is now close to coming true. I am glad that I had the opportunity to farm the land where I was raised. I can see the handwriting on the wall that the next generation will not be so fortunate.
Copyright 2001 by Smith Ag Inc., 12200 24th St., Plattsmouth, NE 68048-7802