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5 ways the land remains

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 provides the basis for our survival and is the source of our most important human stories. Anyone 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, grew from two years of writing, a product of our pandemic lockdown and restraints on life’s normal travels. In many ways, though, the book’s story grew out of a childhood on our southwest Iowa farm and a 40-year career as an agricultural law professor. 

Retirement and time to reflect brought the realization of how my life has been intimately tied to the land, physically, legally, and emotionally. I detail five ways the land remains key to the past, current, and future story of agriculture.

How the Land is Key

First, the land remains in our stories and in our histories. Where is your land located, how was it acquired and by whom — and how did you come to own it?

The answers to these questions help define your life and give shape to your land. And they are rich with details: perhaps tragic tales of the 1930s or, better, the exciting lessons drawn from years of experimentation, new technologies, and learning how to farm and thrive. The answers to these questions and the stories they weave explain how your land is tied to your heritage and explain your emotional connections 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. How well it performs for you — and you for it — yields the crops and income, making your farm viable. I worked for years on “sustainable agriculture” and the many things it can mean, but it is clear that for agriculture to be environmentally and socially sustainable, farms also need to be economically successful. 

One hallmark of agriculture is how often any economic “success” is reinvested in the land, using it as the storehouse of wealth — financially and physically, passed down through your family. 

Third, one of the most remarkable ways the land remains is through its resilience. We all hope to live forever though none of us will, but the land can live forever. It was here 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 we can abuse the land by letting the soils erode or by damaging its health, but there are many actions we can take to conserve the soil and protect the land’s potential. In the book I suggest we need to spend more time listening to the land and thinking about what it needs. This suggestion may strike people not involved in farming as odd, but I believe you know what it means to listen to your land. 

It will be here after you, and in many ways its condition will be the portrait of your stewardship.

A fourth way the land remains is in actions we can take to make protecting nature permanent. Most likely your land has a special place or unique feature, such as a prairie hillside, a meandering stream, a wetland, or an oak savanna. These features may have existed for decades protected by your ancestors or they may be ones you created, so you could enjoy bird-watching and the beauty of nature. 

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

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

If you drive U.S. Highway 34 between Corning and Creston, Iowa, look for the sign for Hamilton Prairie. Anyone who owns land has the opportunity to consider if some form of permanent protection like a conservation easement is right for the land. If you act, I promise it will be one of the most rewarding actions you ever take. 

The fifth and final way the land remains is in our families and in our legacy. No doubt you have been thinking about what will happen to your land. Should you sell it or pass it on? If you have children, their needs and plans will no doubt play a major part in your decisions.

Neil D. Hamilton

Hamilton family, circa 1964.

How land is passed along in families is a subject about which many books have been written. As I relate, our farm survived only because my grandmother willed a larger share to my father, who had returned to Iowa to farm with her, and she required his five siblings to sell their shares to him. Her action was unusual in the 1950s and even today, but it showed she understood treating her children equally was not the same as fairly. 

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

My challenge to you is to listen to the land and think about how your actions will determine how the land remains.


Neil D. Hamilton is emeritus professor of law and emeritus director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa. He retired in 2019 after 36 years leading the center.

He lives with his wife, Khanh, on a 10-acre market farm, 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 B.S. from Iowa State University in forestry and economics, and a J.D. from the University of Iowa. He 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 at

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