Editor’s Note: “Burning Questions” takes an in-depth look at the hot-button issues facing today’s farmers. The ideas expressed here are not the opinions of Hobby Farms, but of individual farmers and food advocates rooted in the local-food movement. If you have thoughts or opinions about what is expressed here, please contribute them in the comments below. We want to hear from you, too!
Most Americans live in blissful ignorance of where their food comes from. I was one of them until People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) woke me up during an informational session at my college. I’ve always been an animal lover, so it didn’t take much to push me over the edge to become a card-carrying animal-rights activist. I spent the next nine years as a vegetarian, then a vegan, and even attempted to become a raw foodist. Then I hit a wall.
My health was seriously messed up, and I consulted three natural healers, who all told me I needed the enzymes from animal protein to help my body absorb nutrients. My prescription was to start eating meat again. Reluctantly, I obeyed. But it was terribly difficult to find sustainably raised and humanely harvested meat where I lived.
I found an unlikely place to reacquaint me with the natural food chain while I contemplated these matters: a wildlife rehabilitation clinic. As a volunteer feeder, I would prepare whole, dead, frozen, thawed rodents and birds to raptors. I had to cut a slit in the belly of a mouse, or crack the sternum on small birds, squeeze the guts out, and place the dead animal in the rehab cage of a bald eagle, a great-horned owl, a Harris’ hawk, a Cooper’s hawk, a barn owl and other impressive birds of prey. In that process, I saw first-hand that this is what predators do—they eat meat. I was learning what I had never been taught through experience and had refused to believe: I am a predator, too.
It took me quite awhile to come around to the idea that hunters have any right to kill wildlife. As I learned more about population dynamics and carrying capacity, I began to understand that the natural balance of things is out of whack. In our country, it started going awry at least 200 years ago, when we took away the top predators through indiscriminate hunting and trapping, introduced exotic and invasive species, and fragmented most of the wild new world into cultivated land or cities.
I have slowly come to see how the same weapon that caused our troubles can also be used as a tool for health. Hunting can heal many of these wounds we’ve inflicted on our environment and our relationship with the Earth, and so can sustainable small farms. We have to accept our role as top predator with wisdom and discretion.
Roughly 1.2 billion acres of land, or about half of the land in the U.S., is used for agricultural purposes. Small farms make up approximately 91 percent of this land. With sound management techniques, it makes sense that private landowners can meet several needs by allowing restricted hunting on their property—habitat renewal, outdoor recreation, spiritual reconnection, and a chance to provide a healthy protein source to grow more healthy people.
It also makes sense for a farmer to charge a fee for hunting on their land. This is a price set by the landowner and varies with terrain and demand for leases. States set the bag limits and issue hunting licenses. You can do your own type of inventory by setting out motion-sensor cameras (“trail cams”). Resources are available through public and private entities to help farmers understand how to manage their land for maximum wildlife benefit, as well as sustainable production. Start with your state department of fish and wildlife.
If you’re a landowner just beginning to consider opening up your property to hunters, here are some points to consider that have been keys for successful hunting leases in Texas and Kentucky:
- There is little public land with free access.
- The trespass laws must be strictly enforced.
- A large number of wildlife must be present in the area.
This is just the starting point, but also a very important consideration is whether you personally want to manage the people on your property. Do you have the time and skills to make it worthwhile for yourself?
Providing access to hunting grounds might not be enough. Hunting and conservation education is also a great need. There is a generational, gender, socio-economic and cultural divide between hunters and the rest of us. Either you grew up with it or you didn’t. If you are a hunter, consider mentoring a beginner. Many adults I talk with say they wish someone had taught them how to hunt, to empower them, to teach respect, to connect with the great outdoors, and to practice survival skills. Maybe our lives don’t depend on it, but in some ways, maybe they actually do.