For nearly a decade, California farmer Jack LaPant was the target of an investigation and prosecution by the United States Army, who alleged that LaPant violated the Clean Water Act by growing a wheat crop to feed his cattle. Earlier this year, LaPant was able to settle the case to get the Army out of his hair, but the settlement required him to give the Army more than $1 million in money and land value. This, despite the fact that the government never proved a single allegation in court.
Most of us today take for granted that we’ll be able to get the food we want when we go to the grocery store or our favorite restaurant. But the reality is that a safe, plentiful, and affordable food supply depends on people like Jack LaPant—a fact we should never forget.
Fewer Americans make their living in agriculture these days, which means more workers can devote their time and energy to other productive pursuits.
Modern farming produces substantial food surplus, which is an essential condition for an economy to diversify and grow. Less than 2 percent of the American population is now engaged in producing the food that nourishes the rest of us, thanks in large part to mechanization, technological advances, improved land and crop management practices, and other welcome innovations.
But let’s be clear: despite those advances, farming is still demanding, difficult work, and we should be thankful for those who make it their mission to feed the rest of us. Further, it is no coincidence that free economies produce the greatest food surplus. Centrally planned economies tend to produce famine. It is necessary that those few who do farm have their property and economic rights protected. If they aren’t safeguarded, we will all pay the price alongside them.
Jack LaPant decided 45 years ago to leave his steady power company job and take up farming. Since LaPant had no personal or family background in agriculture, this was an unusual career move, to say the least.
He moved his family from Oakland to a remote valley in the Sierras and learned to work the land. Over the decades, he built a living for himself and his children, while contributing to the food supply that sustains the rest of us. Then he found himself at odds with the US government.
The concern in LaPant’s case goes beyond the effects on the farm operations themselves. Heavy-handed and ruinous regulation at the hands of our nation’s military is a threat to the food surplus that we depend upon as part of the foundation of our modern life.
Remember that more than 98 percent of us have the freedom to do whatever our talents and opportunities allow because of the less than 2 percent of Americans who produce the food that the rest of us need. That imbalance marks a radical difference from the rest of the world—globally, about 60 percent of the population is dedicated to farming. In many less-developed countries, that’s not because farming is the path people choose—it’s because they have no choice at all if they don’t want to starve.
This is why it’s so nonsensical that American farmers today should need permission from our military to grow crops and raise livestock. Farming requires specialized knowledge of particular land and weather, which change from season to season and year to year. Every farmer deals with different conditions and needs the flexibility to do what works. Jack LaPant, even with 45 years of experience behind him, still invests a lot of his time in learning everything he can about the specific ground he farms. That unique knowledge makes a difference in how he approaches his agricultural enterprise. His specific knowledge and expertise about his land and local climate are the foundation of his success.
For the Army, it is quite the opposite. It can never have the same insight and understanding of the particularized conditions of land in a country as vast and geographically varied as the United States. For the Army, with its one way of doing things, there can be only one set of rules, one best way to do everything. That’s how armies work: with uniformity at the expense of individual initiative and freedom. It works for defeating other nations’ armies, but it will never work to produce food surplus.
The abuse the LaPant family and others have endured is unconscionable. It must not be allowed to continue. A nation that requires its farmers to get permission from its army to grow food will not long enjoy food surplus, or the freedom that surplus makes possible.
Harming farmers’ ability to produce food surplus harms all of us. They need the freedom to farm so the rest of us can have the freedom not to farm.