Human impact

January 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Across the street they have been pushing the ground around into all sorts of piles and slopes for the past month or so. Big machines with their big noises. Now a crane stands tall against Colorado’s almost-always-blue sky. Apparently a church is going to be built there, though I won’t live here by the time it sees completion.

There is something in me that rebels against seeing landscapes so restructured. It feels innately wrong to push dirt around to make the land roll, or level, where it hadn’t been previously. Human impact. That’s what they call it, and though I know over the stretch of years nature has seen her share of change – I grew up where the Wisconsin Glacier moved, after all – still I am hesitant about the changes humankind likes to make.

And yet, I want to be a farmer. Farming, which is one of our most fundamental ways of disrupting nature, of putting our human desires and motives and needs into a landscape.

Am I a walking contradiction?

The answer, actually, is yes – sometimes – but perhaps not as much, on this issue, as I might first seem.

Here is the thing. There is farming with human profit (almost? always?) solely in mind. And then there is farming with ecology (and, particularly, soil health) in mind. While profit should remain important, in the kind of farming I want to do, it won’t be so important as to allow for ecological compromise. Profit must come within practices that respect and are guided by nature.

There is a nonprofit in California, just south of Santa Cruz, that I discovered in my early learning-about-sustainable-agriculture years. Wild Farm Alliance is dedicated to promoting farming that embraces the wild, or what is called “wild farming.” The organization operates on the idea that farming and wilderness need not be mutually exclusive – though it seems, at first glance, that they can’t help but be, and the recurring conflicts between farmers/ranchers and environmentalists only further such a conclusion.

But why shouldn’t they come alongside each other? Certainly a farm isn’t going to be an untouched wilderness, but neither need a farm be devoid of everything other than fencerow-to-fencerow crops and directly profitable commodities. I find it a beautiful challenge to consider how to integrate what nature wants to do within my plot of land and my region’s watershed, and my goals as a farmer.

Several years ago I had the fun of spending a week on Martin and Loretta Jaus’ Holstein dairy farm in Gibbon, MN. Martin and Loretta are former wildlife biologists who’ve got a good grasp this wild farming concept. They have bluebird boxes on fence posts across their property. They have a an area set aside for a pond and wetlands. They have wild and native grasses in their pastures and ditches. Wildflowers turn up their faces and trees line the long lane. This farm is not only profitable, but diverse and alive. A pleasure to see, and wander through. It is not wilderness, but it most definitely has elements of the wild.

And do you know? Some of these things that seem as though they detract from profit – such as land set aside as opposed to being planted with corn and soybeans, thus reducing bushels harvested – actually benefit the farm. By providing natural habitat for beneficial insects, farmers can better keep pests under control without the use of strong pesticides. When a field contains a healthy mix of grasses and forbs, most ideally native varieties, the soil becomes healthier – better able to hold water and nutrients and maintain aggregate structure, thus avoiding erosion issues. By rotating areas that will be allowed to run “wild” for a few years, the farmer grants that land rest and time to revive itself. Topsoil is rebuilt rather than lost. These are not always immediate, $$$-in-the-bank profits, but they offer long-term benefits that contribute to a more sustainable farm and a more sustainable world.

And I must add – with my own personal penchant for beauty – that farms incorporating wild nature make for scenic countrysides. This is a great happiness on its own, but if we want to get into monetary matters, an aesthetically pleasing stretch of land has the potential to increase property values and/or tourism in the area. Which makes for a better economy. Right?

So. I suppose there will be, still, some land getting pushed around on my farm. But I hope it is done with a great respect for what nature has already made happen, an awareness of my own small importance, and an openness to look around at what I might see, and learn – and how I might adjust my actions accordingly.

This isn’t a post meant to judge. We all do what we have to do in certain situations, for a job or a family or some other reason. We operate on what we know, have been taught, and believe. And I admit I haven’t a clue what it means to be in landscaping or construction, or to have to actually support my family based on the way I run my farm (yet). I only know how I react to certain things, and I want to know why, and I want to see what I might do instead of, or in response to, these things – and how it all turns out.

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