Ensuring the land's increase

The intertwined relationship of land, harvest, and bounty have always had special meaning to peoples everywhere, often celebrated in story and song. That remains particularly true for Americans, perhaps because of the very abundance of their vast continental nation stretching between two oceans and beyond. What youngster who has ever read Margaret Mitchell's stirring novel of Civil War America, ''Gone With the Wind,'' can ever forget Tara plantation owner Gerald O'Hara, standing out in the rich fields, telling his daughter Scarlett the importance and preciousness of the land, the soil, and its increase?

In a sense, then, it is fitting that at this time of the year when Americans take annual stock of their blessings they give special attention to the nation's land, and the extent to which it is producing its increase, as well as being conserved for future generations.

America's major agricultural crops continue to multiply bountifully, enough so that the US has become the residual supplier of world food needs. During the past five years alone, farm productivity grew five times faster than industrial productivity. But at the same time, there are concerns that farm productivity - the growth in yields - may be leveling off, prompting one expert to conclude that ''the mechanical and fertilizer 'revolutions' seem to be about over, at least in terms of their productivity effects.''

Americans need not despair, however. The very ingenuity and hard work that has made US farmland the breadbasket of the world can be brought into play to ensure that such concerns are turned to advantage - by finding the needed breakthroughs in seed technology, or using land, mechanization, labor,and soil to even better gain than is currently the case.

Take the issue of ''disappearing'' rural farmland, for example, where acres once given over to crops and timber are being divided into tracts and sold as housing sites.

As noted in an article in yesterday's Monitor, rural land can be saved for future agricultural purposes through such innovative legal steps as cluster zoning, requiring homes in a rural area to be located together in order to leave most acreage for cropland; land trusts, where purchasers buy up large units of land and preserve most for farming purposes; and timber cooperatives, which manage fragmented timberlands. To such ventures can of course be added wise zoning laws by local governments, as well as contractual restrictions on land purchased by non-Americans to guarantee farmland use if needed. Currently, something on the order of 7.8 million acres of US agricultural land (0.6 percent of the total of privately held farmland) is owned by foreign investors. That amount is growing.

Finally, a word about soil erosion. The US Soil Conservation Service now estimates the annual topsoil loss at 6.4 billion tons. Such waste - for that it is - need not be tolerated. The Reagan administration and the states must take steps to ensure that farmers are aware of and practice conservation measures protecting the nation's vital topsoil. The administration, to its credit, is already working on legislation that would have that effect.

In an age of computer technology, jet aircraft, and four- and six-lane freeways slashing the very breadth of the continent, management and care of the land entrusted to all Americans by their forebears become more crucial than ever. As that land is protected and nurtured, and Americans are alert to their opportunities - and world food responsibilities - it will be truly found that ''the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.''

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