Burning Question: How Do You Balance Farming and Ecology?

When it comes to protecting your land’s natural resources, is it really about balance or more about tipping the scales?

by Karen Lanier

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!

An inspiring conversation with one of my 7th grade students went something like this:

“Ms. Lanier! I know what I want my science project to be!”

“Oh, really?”

“I’m going to create a riparian buffer and restore the stream ecology on my grandmother’s farm. She raises cattle on about 500 acres, and they are polluting the stream and eroding the bank.”

“Oh, really?”

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“Yeah, and I’m going to create a floating wetland, too, so our pond will filter out the excess nutrients.”

“OK, wow. Let me know how I can help.”

How many of you reading this even know what “riparian” means (hint: it’s along a stream bank), or know what a floating wetland is (hint: it’s basically a man-made island that provides wildlife habitat and improves water quality)?

Thanks to a land-based school curriculum, along with outreach programs from universities, extension offices and environmental education organizations, 13-year-olds like this one can speak the language of restorative ecology. He is applying for grants and has already calculated the cost of moving fences farther from streams and stabilizing the soil by planting a food forest. He comes to me daily, sharing his progress and asking for more literature to take home. Now his grandmother is learning about impervious surfaces and stormwater runoff, too. Generational gaps are narrowing, and ancestral wisdom of the land is collaborating with scientific understanding on how to manage farms for long-term ecological stability. This gives me hope for the future.

Thinking about my own education regarding farmland restoration, I witnessed and documented the difference that one reforestation project in Brazil is making, at Instituto Terra. A decade of replanting the Atlantic tropical forest on what was a degraded and barren ranch has stimulated the economy and refreshed the environment. Streams that had dried up now flow again, wildlife returned, tourism is increasing, and environmental education programs attract school children and train new conservation technicians in field ecology.

Considering the balance of income and ecological restoration, profitability can support the work, but it doesn’t necessarily make us better stewards of the land. Most of the truly land-conscious farmers I know have spent time in third world countries, where they learned how to live within their means. They returned from the Peace Corps, mission trips, studying abroad or WWOOFing. Overwhelmed and perplexed when facing the vast aisles in the average American supermarket, one thought rises to the surface: What a waste of resources.

The new generation of agroecologists refuses to accrue debt and buy massive machinery to grow commodities. They are downsizing the industrial ideas of farming and choosing to grow subsistence crops in urban farms and community gardens. They welcome families into their CSAs, share tools and host potlucks—not so different than the way their great-grandparents did things.

Back at school, my students discussed an article entitled “A Village That Planted Its Rain and Watershed” from the book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster. In a Rajasthan desert, Laxman Singh and his nongovenmental organization, Gram Vikas Navyak Mandal Laporiya (GVNML), pushed the idea of shaping the land to maximize rainwater harvesting. He designed earthen tanks that worked with the landscape to slow the sparse rainflow and let it hydrate their crops, trees and animals. The community eventually rallied to support Singh’s methods and enforced rules for cutting down native trees. The punishment fits the crime: Plant another tree, write an apology, and pay 11 pounds of grain. The semi-arid village of Laporiya has sprung to life it is a model for permaculture and land stewardship, not because of more rain, but because of more efficient use of the land and the water.

Farms are places to restore ecology. When systems flourish, they provide a surplus. When needs are met, energy is made available. The question is not about striking a balance. If we tend carefully to our resources, the scales will be tipped in favor of all life on earth.

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