REVIEW: Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature
Meeting in the middle
Agriculture advocates and wild lands activists talk about how farm and nature can and must coexist in this follow-up to Farming with the Wild.

By Dana Jackson


Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature
Edited by Daniel Imhoff &
Jo Ann Baumgartner
2006; 252 pages
Watershed Media/Wild Farm Alliance
Distributed by University of
California Press

Posted May 11, 2007: Many sustainable agriculture activists have long been concerned about the fate of family farming. Not as many, however, have been concerned about the fate of wild nature at the hands of farming. Furthermore, those who are passionate about protecting wild nature have often been at odds with farmers passionate about protecting their crops and livestock from the impositions of wild nature.

Wendell Berry, the patron saint of family farming, has been impatient with wild lands advocates, seeing them as lacking respect for people who earn their living from the land. Dave Foreman and Reed Noss, forceful defenders of large carnivores and habitat protection, have offended family farmers and ranchers with what seems like blanket condemnation of their practices, particularly cattle grazing.

Yet, both sides know that farming and wildness must co-exist, however hard that is, and try to meet in a middle area called resource conservation.

It is appropriate that the first reading in Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature is a piece by Berry. He challenges both sides to work together against a common enemy: corporate totalitarianism. As Berry writes:

"I am a conservationist and a farmer, a wilderness advocate and an agrarian. I am in favor of the world’s wildness, not only because I like it, but also because I think it is necessary to the world’s life and to our own. For the same reason, I want to preserve the natural health and integrity of the world’s economic landscapes, which is to say that I want the world’s farmers, ranchers and foresters to live in stable, locally adapted, resource-preserving communities, and I want them to thrive."

Laura Jackson’s essay “The Farmer as Conservationist?” questions the ability of farmers to make decisions that result in resource conservation. As a biology teacher residing in the American Corn Belt, the “vast ecological wasteland of northern Iowa,” Jackson knows that neither farmer nor conservation biologist has any say in the design of the agricultural system and its impact on the landscape. The industrial system, she writes, “perpetuates the nostalgic myth of farmer heroism and responsibility for the land,” but agribusiness corporations and their government lackeys are the managers, and it is they who must take responsibility for the fate of farming and wild nature.

The editors of this book of essays are Dan Imhoff and Jo Ann Baumgartner, the president and executive director, respectively, of the Wild Farm Alliance, an organization founded in 2000 to “promote a healthy, viable agriculture that protects and restores wild nature.” They selected the pieces in this book to inspire advocates of both sustainable agriculture and wildness. Readers will recognize several acclaimed writers in the table of contents—Barbara Kingsolver, Rick Bass, Richard Manning, Michael Pollan and Gary Nabhan for example—who have permitted the reprinting of essays published in other places, which is a laudable kind of resource conservation in itself.

Only one-third of the essays are newly published in this book; three are written by members of the Wild Farm Alliance Board of Directors: Becky Weed, Dan Kent, and John Davis, as well as one by the executive director, Jo Ann Baumgartner.

In “Grassland Manifesto,” Montana sheep rancher Becky Weed declares, “It’s all about grass.” But the “art of grass farming and the wisdom of wild grasslands” that she sees as key to the fate of both farming and wild nature are being lost. Set against a background of the Bridger Mountains, which provide habitat linkages for wolverines and other threatened species between the Rocky Mountains to the south and the Canadian Rockies to the north, Becky’s ranch is “predator friendly.” The wolves, bears, and coyotes that call this area of Montana home are not killed on her organically certified Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company. In other writings, Weed has described techniques for co-existing with predators, but in this piece she describes a more serious threat to western ranching: the corn-bean-feedlot machine of the Midwest. Becky explores how a vision of grassland restoration could shut down the machine, but notes that corn ethanol could re-ignite it.

In “Evolution of an Ecolabel,” Dan Kent, executive director of Salmon Safe, tells how his organization tied together good farming and wildlife protection in the Pacific Northwest. To earn the Salmon Safe certification, growers have restored streamside native vegetation, managed irrigation more efficiently and employed other erosion control measures that made farms more productive while protecting wild salmon habitat. Most Salmon Safe certified land is in vineyards, and this label identifying wine producers as local land stewards boosts sales for vintners.

Jo Ann Baumgartner describes the “wilder farm consciousness” that is emerging among organic certifiers in her essay, “Making Organic Wild.” Even though the Organic Food Production Act enacted in 2002 stated that producers must initiate practices to support biodiversity, inspectors have largely ignored this mandate. Under Baumgartner’s leadership, the Wild Farm Alliance worked with the Independent Organic Inspector’s Association and later the National Organic Standards Board to develop a set of questions relating to biodiversity conservation for inspectors, and some certification agencies are beginning to use them. This essay provides examples of wilder organic farms and describes basic steps in planning for biodiversity conservation on an organic farm.

In “Rebuilding after Collapse,” John Davis bluntly states the thesis of his essay: “I believe forces largely beyond our control will continue wrecking the natural world, despite our defensive efforts, until the industrial economy collapses. We need to extend our efforts, to expand and durably protect natural areas and other parts of a whole Earth through cataclysms and beyond.” Though a familiar voice in the movement to preserve wild lands for biodiversity conservation, John is unfamiliar in the sustainable agriculture world. I would like to make this chapter an assigned reading to my colleagues, to shock us into serious discussion about farming and the fate of wild nature.

Dana Jackson works for Land Stewardship Project, is vice president of the Wild Farm Alliance and is the mother of Laura Jackson, whose essay appears in this book.