Last Harvest

I’ve been reading a book called THE LAST HARVEST by Witold Rybcznski. It’s the story of the building of a new subdivision in rural Pennsylvania. Simply stated, Rybcznski follows the development of 90 acres of cornfield from idea to completion, but it’s more. In 200 pages THE LAST HARVEST tells the story of real estate development in America. What could be more relevant for our region?

We’re now closing in on a million souls strung along the I-85 Corridor through the piedmont. There are 250,000 more people in Spartanburg, Greenville, and Anderson counties than there were in 1980. Reading THE LAST HARVEST made me go back and track the short history of the place where we all live:

For 500 years this was Cherokee and Catawba territory, a vast hardwood forest punctuated by a few small settlements, especially on the western margins. These natives were farmers of corn, supplemented with hunting and gathering. Their way of life had changed little for centuries until the arrival of Europeans.

Since the 18th century the South Carolina piedmont was mostly defined by two modes of human industry-agriculture and textiles. Agriculture had sustained the natives and it also sustained the new immigrants. Scots-Irish flooded down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania replacing the natives or pushing them further west.

First the European farmers in the piedmont grew corn, some wheat, and vegetables. Later cotton, then peaches became the primary cash crops.

Textiles became a serious economic presence in the 1880s. It was our first major successful experiment in industrial capitalism. A new wave of northern immigrants from far away places like Rhode Island, Vermont, and New York brought the capitalist and mechanical know-how for opening mills on our creeks and rivers. That industry built around spinning and weaving cotton fiber brought great wealth to a few piedmont families and subsistence to many, many more. Mill culture organized our piedmont institutions from the top down. Millwork was a way of life for a hundred years.

Mills contributed to the decline in farming, as did soil loss, bad weather, and competing growers in other areas of the continent. The unpredictable yields of piedmont farming became economically marginalized. The crops disappeared, but many families held on to their gullied wasted land. Spindly hardwoods and pines became the new crop in the old cotton fields.

By the 1970s the mills were collapsing as well. Banking, insurance, education, health, and low wage service jobs in fast food and distribution were soon to become the hope for building a new culture in the shell of the old. In the 1980s and 1990s the old agricultural and textile landscapes were transformed by these new forces of change.

In Rybczynski’s book Pennsylvania farmers call selling out to the developers, “the last harvest.” They see the transfer of farmland to subdivisions as the final transaction. There’s a certain amount of irony in the phrase. There’s something comforting about farmland that you just don’t find in endless subdivisions. There’s a sense that somehow modern choices of living have diminished our quality of life.

We still have dramatic swaths of open land in the piedmont, but we are now on the cusp of dramatic change. We are on the verge of the last piedmont harvest, and it will not be without a price. We will either find a way to plan for dramatic growth, or we will sit by and watch open space that is now forest and remnant farm along I-85 consumed in the sprawl approaching from Charlotte to our north and Atlanta to our south.

I have a builder friend who always calls when I publish a column like this one and says, “John, let’s go to lunch this week and work on your phobias.” I don’t think the loss of open space is something we can reduce to economics or psychology. It’s my hope that we will come together as a region and decide at some point we don’t plan to be like Charlotte or Atlanta. We want to find a way to save some of the harvest so maybe it will not have to be our last.

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