Pepper-and-salt stewardship

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by Brian Devore | March 20, 2009 • In a recent television interview, Scott County farmer Heidi Morlock made a nice argument for why diverse farming operations cannot separate out so-called “productive” and “non-productive” land. It’s all part of a whole on a sustainable farm, something the 2008 changes in the Green Acres program don’t acknowledge. It’s not a new idea: Aldo Leopold wrote about it 70 years ago.

“Doesn’t conservation imply a certain interspersion of land-uses, a certain pepper-and-salt pattern in the warp and woof of the land-use fabric?” Leopold asked in his seminal 1939 essay, “The Farmer as a Conservationist.” Leopold’s writings and field work were steeped in the philosophy that the health of the land in rural areas is best served when food production and “wild areas” exist side-by-side on the same farm, rather than as separate entities performing seemingly unrelated tasks.

In his essay, Leopold eloquently describes how woodlands, meadows, sloughs and wetlands—those odd corners where ecological services quietly go about their business—can coexist with corn, pasture and other farming enterprises. Wilderness areas, national forests and wildlife refuges are important. But as Dana and Laura Jackson point out in The Farm as Natural Habitat, too often people see their presence as an excuse to sacrifice ecological health on good farmland — “farm the best and preserve the rest.”

The result of this mental separation on a landscape scale is pristine preserves such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on one end of the spectrum, and industrial agriculture sacrifice regions such as the Corn Belt on the other end. On an individual farm scale, it often means gradual elimination of residual habitat fragments on the assumption that displaced wildlife can simply take up residence on public land somewhere else.

An integration of the tamed and the wild not only makes economic sense by saving soil and protecting water quality, for example, but it provides a certain “wholeness” that is so critical to the overall success of a farm. Wrote Leopold: “No one censures a man who loses his leg in an accident, or who was born with only four fingers, but we should look askance at a man who amputated a natural part on the grounds that some other part is more profitable.”

In the decades since, it has become clear that Leopold was right in more ways than one. The sustainable agriculture movement is based on the idea that all aspects of a successful farm—from its soil, croplands and pastures to its woodlands and sloughs—are part of a healthy whole. Farmers and scientists are realizing that an agricultural operation too far removed from its biological roots is more vulnerable to disease, pests and uncooperative weather.

Leopold was writing in a different era, when industrial agriculture and agroecological thinking were both in their infancy. But recent research and real-farm experience has proven him right in more ways than one.

Environmentalists are now aware that creating islands of natural areas is not sustainable in the long term. Waterfowl benefit from state and federal wildlife refuges to be sure, but when migrating they rely on the food and shelter present in the potholes and sloughs found on farms across the Midwest. A protected waterway may be safe from having factory waste dumped straight into it, but what about the non-point runoff from all the farms present in the surrounding watershed?

In places like the Midwest, working lands conservation is more than a nice concept—it’s a necessity in a region where vast tracts of publicly owned land are few and far between. In Iowa, almost 89 percent of the land area is farmed. Even in a state like Minnesota, with its vast timberlands and lake country in the north and east, 29.5 million acres is classified as agricultural (predominately in the south and west), which is 58 percent of the state’s total. Nationally, privately-owned croplands, pastures and rangeland make up about half of the terrestrial surface area, and are managed by just 2 percent of the population.

‘Sparing’ vs. ‘wild’
Some scientists have characterized the two ends of this spectrum as “land sparing” and “wildlife-friendly farming.” Writing in the September 2008 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, scientists from the Australian National University and Stanford University provide an extensive description of these two ways of managing the landscape.

In “land sparing,” land is farmed intensively — large-scale monocultural operations are used to produce high yields. In theory, sacrificing these farmlands for food, and increasingly fuel, production, makes it possible to set up nature reserves separate from the farmland on land that normally could not produce high yields of crops or livestock. Usually these reserves are owned or somehow managed by the government, since they do not produce the kind of income private landowners need. Or, in the case of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the government pays the landowner not to farm the land.

“Wildlife friendly farming” is characterized by interconnecting patches of native vegetation scattered throughout the landscape and a high level of spatial heterogeneity—in other words, a diversity of crops in a range of small fields, retaining habitat features within the fields like buffer strips or scattered trees and habitat features along streams, travel lanes or field borders.

The scientists writing in Frontiers point out that “wildlife-friendly farming” may or may not be undertaken to help wildlife. In the end it not only benefits various critters, but also provides numerous side ecological services like “bug banks” for pollination and cleaner water. Native prairie plants may provide nesting cover for pheasants, but they also provide year-round protection for the soil and trap greenhouse gases.

The downside to the wildlife friendly operation is it normally takes more land to produce the same amount of food. But as we’ve reported in this blog before, many long-standing assumptions about sustainable farming methods being inherently low-yielding are being challenged. And research conducted by the Land Stewardship Project as part of the Multiple Benefits of Agriculture initiative, for example, is showing that diverse farming systems can produce numerous public goods besides food—flood protection, carbon sequestration, renewable energy and more vibrant rural communities, among other things.

A major downside to land sparing is that it tends to produce environmental problems and costs—excessive runoff, destruction of infrastructure, loss of pollinators, etc.—on the land that’s being intensively farmed. Sometimes those off-site impacts extend to downstream areas and overwhelm the habitat and recreational benefits provided by protected public land.

A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study in southern Minnesota found that although CRP land provided key nesting and wintering habitat for pheasants, those benefits were offset by the loss of small grains, pasture and hay ground—important sources of habitat in farm country. This loss came from increased plantings of row crops like corn and soybeans, which are poor sources of wildlife habitat, according to the study, which was published in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Field Ornithology.

In fact, for every hectare of CRP added to the pheasant range during the study period (1974 to 1997), 3.1 hectares of alternative reproductive habitat like small grains, pasture and hay ground was lost. The result was that in fact some parts of the study area actually had fewer pheasants after CRP was established in the region (CRP was first implemented in 1986). The researchers who did this study acknowledge that a lot has changed since 1997; for one thing, CRP plantings now include more seedings of native grasses and legumes, making better habitat for pheasants and other wildlife. But the intensification of the non-CRP landscape has only increased in the past dozen years, and there’s even less hay, pasture and small grains than before in southern Minnesota.

“We suggest that a more balanced evaluation of the Farm Bill effects on wildlife is needed, including consideration of commodity provisions that apparently are driving declines in small grains, pasture, and hay land…,” conclude the authors of the Journal of Field Ornithology study.

It’s not only federal policy that can have a negative impact on wild farming. As the Green Acres debate has shown, calling such natural corners of a farm “non-productive” in the state of Minnesota could have devastating consequences for the environment, as well as farmers whose tax status could be affected.

The Frontiers in Ecology paper points out that, not surprisingly, wildlife friendly farming is likely to occur in “complex topography.” Translation: land that’s too hilly or otherwise rough to farm intensively with large machinery. That describes southeast Minnesota’s bluff country, for example. And land sparing agriculture is intensifying in places like central Iowa and southwest Minnesota, where flat fields and deep soils make industrial ag possible. But this isn’t an all or none proposition. Intensive row-cropping still takes place in the driftless region, and diversified “wild” farming can be found in corners of Corn Country.

As wildlife biologist Tex Hawkins told me recently, “Every farm, even flatland farms, can have a nice back forty where the farmer has done a little bit of habitat improvement.”

In other words, every farm should be able to make room for a little spicing up of the wild variety.

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