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
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.