Rural America is at a critical point — in the past, a vision of bucolic agrarianism; ahead, increasing industrialization and absentee land ownership that raises serious questions about its future. It’s also at the heart of many grand global challenges, ranging from climate change to racial justice. A Nebraska law professor will explore rural America’s challenges and opportunities as a 2021 Andrew Carnegie Fellow.
Jessica Shoemaker is only the second University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty member to receive the prestigious honor — and one of 26 nationwide this year. The award grants each recipient $200,000 over two years to complete a major project. Winners were chosen by a jury from a pool of over 300 nominees.
“I am thrilled that Professor Shoemaker and her work have been recognized by the Carnegie Foundation of New York,” said Richard Moberly, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law. “In so many ways, Professor Shoemaker’s work is directly tied to the college’s mission, but perhaps most importantly, her work will address critical issues facing our state and our country.”
Shoemaker’s project is titled “Remaking a Land of Opportunity: America’s Rural Future.”
“Modern agriculture is highly industrialized and increasingly characterized by concentrated, absentee land ownership. Many rural places face a crisis of depopulation, political alienation, environmental decline and racial injustice,” she said. “While 98% of farmlands are owned by people who are white, the people who work the low-wage, often dangerous agricultural sector jobs are overwhelmingly not white and more likely to live in segregated rural geographies of concentrated, persistent poverty. This project analyzes the overlooked role of property law — including our most fundamental land-tenure choices — in constructing these dynamics.”
Shoemaker grew up in Iowa, “always closely connected to and interested in farming and food and with a real sense of the importance of long-term connections to particular places that held meaning in my family,” she said.
“Those were really formative experiences, but I also always emphasize that I don’t think having this kind of rural pedigree is a prerequisite to caring about and having an interest in these rural landscapes. The past, present and future of the American countryside is right at the heart of so many of our grand global challenges, from climate change to racial justice.”
As current farmers age, up to half of American agricultural lands are expected to change hands in the next two decades, Shoemaker said. Current law strongly encourages existing, aging farmers to hold onto these lands until their death, and upon transfer, these lands now often go to absentee heirs or outside investors. Meanwhile, a crowd of emerging beginning farmers — farmers of color, in particular — seek to build smaller, more sustainable farming operations but are increasingly locked out of secure, affordable land access.
“These new farmers consistently cite lack of access to land as their most significant entry obstacle, and most existing policy efforts have only tinkered at the edges by encouraging a few discrete transactions within existing systems,” Shoemaker said. “After years of working to understand the problem, both on the ground and in the legal academy, this project marks a different path. Drawing on experiences of successful property-system reforms in context as diverse as housing justice movements in the American urban core, to the renegotiation of Indigenous property relationships in western Canada, this project ultimately unleashes the imaginations of scholars, lawyers, farmers and farm advocates to make a map for rebuilding rural places as the equitable, sustainable and diverse landscapes they can be.”
Shoemaker’s research focuses on how property law and land-tenure designs shape how we live together as communities and the ecological systems we live within. She has taught a range of courses related to property and land tenure, as well as Native American law and a seminar in energy and rural development.
Over the next two years of her Carnegie fellowship, Shoemaker plans:
- A book project that will combine legal scholarship with humanistic storytelling to make the case, simply, that property law choices are choices, and that alternative land-tenure designs and property law reforms exist that can better serve these overlooked people and places.
- An interdisciplinary research initiative: The Rural Reconciliation Project. This project is embryonic now but, with fellowship support, shows potential to grow into a sustainable, ongoing research collaboration with Shoemaker’s co-creator, law professor Anthony Schutz. The project seeks to bring together scholars across institutions and disciplines, as well as on-the-ground stakeholders, to pursue a new rural future and promote relationship repair across rural and urban divides. The project will soon include a regular seminar series, an expanded online and social-media presence, and a spring 2023 symposium for scholars and stakeholders.
- A new graduate-level course that she will develop and hopes to teach in spring 2023 for students of law, economics, sociology, political science, agronomy and other subjects. This teaching component will facilitate broader early-career interdisciplinary engagement at Nebraska and beyond on complex issues related to rural futures.
“The work I plan to do with my Carnegie Fellowship all flows from experiences I had in practice before becoming a professor, too, including at a farming-focused nonprofit with an early-career public-interest fellowship,” she said.
“The U.S. is really at a turning point when it comes to who owns agricultural land and, more broadly, what kind of rural communities we want to have, whether we will address racial injustice in our food system, and whether our collective environmental choices will be sufficient to preserve healthy landscapes for the future,” Shoemaker said. “I hope my work will highlight how critical and pressing these issues are and, at the same time, inspire some creativity and imagination about the kinds of futures we can build together.”