Go-Back Land: Restoring Abandoned Farmland and Sustaining Farm Towns

Oct 21, 2014
Mark Brunson

Rural-to-urban flight and farmland abandonment are often associated with the Dust Bowl era. Yet rural depopulation has continued for decades in parts of the U.S. due to global economic forces, disparate opportunity between rural and urban counties, and the lack of affordable access to water. Where agricultural productivity is high or predictable, rural emigrants have been able to sell their farms before leaving. In more marginal areas, farms may be abandoned. This trend is likely to intensify in coming years due to climate change, aquifer drawdown, social disruption caused by energy booms, and increasing competition for scarce water from burgeoning metropolitan areas.

This case asks students to consider how remaining residents and government officials can address issues associated with “go-back land” – abandoned farmland left to “go back” to a more unmanaged state. It is designed in three tiers so that instructors can use some or all of the case depending on time constraints. Students act as members of a local community task force to recommend policy mechanisms that might restore and conserve ecosystem integrity and protect rural community cohesion in an area undergoing agricultural land abandonment. While set in Utah, it can be adapted to other affected regions such as the Great Plains, elsewhere in the Intermountain West, or the Appalachians.

Farmlands provide ecosystem services that benefit local communities and the broader society. After abandonment, some services decline while others may become available. Students use an ecosystem service framework to weigh alternative outcomes for the land. Simultaneously they consider social and economic consequences of those outcomes, attempting to balance social system and ecosystem goals. To do so, they must consider successional dynamics of rangelands and of rural communities, the role of environmental and socioeconomic forces beyond local control, and issues of temporal and spatial scale.

Estimated time frame: 
SES learning goals: 
  • Understand the structure and behavior of socio-environmental systems
  • Consider the importance of scale and context in addressing socio-environmental problems
  • Co-develop research questions and conceptual models in inter- or trans-disciplinary teams
  • Find, analyze, and synthesize existing data, concepts, or methods
Share: Facebook Icon Twitter Icon Linked Icon