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Farming as if nature still mattered: a new book offers encouraging examples

Meet some ‘ecological agrarians,’ who’ve never separated the natural world from food production.

image of book coverOver in Gibbon, Minnesota, Martin and Loretta Jaus decided to take 11 acres of their dairy farm and restore it as wildlife habitat: trees, perennial grasses, small ponds for the comfort of frogs and doves. Without compromising their ability to graze cows, or otherwise undermining the profitability of their organic milk operation, they’ve created homes for an astonishing 200-plus bird species, some rare.

They’ve also made the farm financially resilient with a wider effort to restore soil health, using carefully managed planting and grazing practices. In 1989, at the end of a four-year drought, grasshoppers wrecked soybean and small-grain crops all around them, but left the Jaus farm largely alone. Plant diversity had made their fields tougher forage than the neighbors’ one-crop plantings; also, it raised the sugar content of their grains, and therefore the alcohol potential, to a point of toxicity in the hoppers’  guts.

Down in northwest Iowa, Jan Libbey and Tim Landgraf raise organic vegetables on 132 acres, some of it knobby terrain undesirable to your typical corn and soybean grower, who prefers the contours of a billiard table. They also raise chickens, which are pastured on clover planted as soil-enhancing cover; in return, the birds provide free fertilizer (and a second income stream from area consumers who choose them over the supermarket alternative).

Selling vegetables on the subscription-based model of community-supported agriculture (CSA), and also through wholesalers, Libbey and Landraf have not only made a good living along the way, but have reached a point where they can cut back production and take life a little easier, with more time to enjoy wildlife in the natural areas and wetlands they’ve restored.

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These farms are but two examples among many I visited this week via “Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic,” an intriguing and even inspiring book by Brian DeVore of Minneapolis that is hot off the University of Wisconsin Press. Against the backdrop of factory-style farming that dominates American agriculture, these accomplishments look rather like miracles  — or would, had they originated magically instead of through much hard, persistent, savvy and occasionally heretical work.

That kind of work deserves success but doesn’t always achieve it. So maybe there is a miracle after all in the financial results: Despite the relentless pressure for bigness, for automation, for bending natural forces to human will in the quest for bigger yields, DeVore’s exemplary resisters have been able to make good livings while producing food in earth-friendlier ways.

And not all of them are small-scale, organics-minded players on what might be called the fringe of U.S. food production. There is also Gabe Brown, who produces crops and cattle on 5,400 acres at the edge of Bismarck, North Dakota.

Through an innovative program of the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, Brown has dramatically raised the organic content, moisture retention and overall health of his soil with intensive cover plantings in the off-season and a tweaked version of rotational pasturing called “mob grazing” (smaller paddocks, larger animal concentrations, shorter durations at each site). DeVore writes:

There is a photo that has acquired almost legendary status in Burleigh County. It features one of Gabe Brown’s fields after 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. The picture shows no standing water on this low-lying field, even though plots on neighboring land are inundated. Brown has created a soil ecosystem that allows water to infiltrate quite efficiently. And unlike a field that’s been drained through artificial tiling—sending water at rocket speed through the profile and eventually downstream—Brown’s fields retain that moisture underground, meaning plants can access it during drier periods.

DeVore was shown the picture by Kristine Nichols, then a federal field scientist working on soil microbiology, who said her training held that no farmer could make a positive change in soil health within a lifetime, because the processes just took too long.

Now, science has established that the eminently reachable target of raising soil’s organic matter from 1 percent to 3 percent doubles its water-holding capacity, a fact you can bet I will keep in mind in adding compost to next year’s raised beds and sub-irrigated planters. (Might be my shot at re-opening the poultry issue with Sallie, too….)

Farm boy turned journalist

Brian DeVore
I can’t really think of anyone better to write this book than Brian DeVore, a farm boy turned journalist and someone I’ve known slightly for the last 20-some years through his work at the Land Stewardship Project. As we spoke about the book the other day I realized I hadn’t known much about his life and work before LSP. For example, I didn’t know if he had ever farmed as an adult, or wanted to.

I thought at one time I might want to farm, yes. I grew up on a 240-acre farm, a crop and livestock farm in southwest Iowa, and I finished high school in 1980 and thought I’d go to college for a couple years first. Just as I started college, though, the economic crisis in farming struck.

My dad said, “Here’s the thing. We’re OK financially, and if you want to farm I’ll help you get started. What I’m concerned about, I’m seeing farmers who are good operators and they’re going out of business. You would need a few years to get your feet underneath you anyway, and I’m afraid this situation is going to undermine you before you can get started.”So I thought, well, I’m not going to have anything to do with agriculture. I was a fish and wildlife biology major, and then I got a degree in agriculture journalism. And you could specialize, so I specialized in fish and wildlife  — I thought I was going to be an outdoor writer, like Mark Trail. But while I was Iowa State, there were all these reports coming out about how contaminated rural wells were, the wildlife habitat we were losing, and I started to see a connection between the number of farmers on the land and the environmental health of that land, both of them declining rapidly. So that drew my journalistic focus back to farming, with a new connection to my passion for wildlife and habitat health.

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A further awakening came during DeVore’s post-college stint as a writer for a slick, mainstream magazine called Farm Futures that was published for “some of the largest farmers in the country.” A strength of American farming, he says in the book, is farmers’ willingness to share information and work cooperatively, but now he encountered a “troubling trend”:

Some of these farmers were unwilling to be interviewed for stories about a particular innovative production or marketing technique they were using. “What’s in it for me?” was a version of the response I would get over the telephone. They expressed concern that sharing their “trade secrets” would put them at a competitive disadvantage with their neighbors—who they now saw as rivals—for land, market share, and profits. For someone who grew up in an era when farmers still got together to shell corn or bale hay communally, this was a real eye opener.

An increasing number of farmers were raising an increasingly undifferentiated product: corn and soybeans for the international grain trade, for example. When one was in a position to take advantage of a market opportunity that paid a little bit more—high-oil soybeans or extra-lean hogs, for example—the last thing they wanted was other farmers horning in on their financial success.

Within a few years he had moved on to LSP, a nonprofit devoted to promoting sustainable agriculture and fighting against various abuses in corporate, industrial-scale agribusiness; among other things, he produces the organization’s Land Stewardship Letter and its annual CSA directory of producers in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

The problem of scale

DeVore is careful in this book, as he was in our interview, to avoid any suggestion that this notion of “wildly successful farming”  — agriculture by “ecological agrarians … who never really separated the natural world from food production”  — presents any quick or easy fix for the practices so predominant now. After all, knowing it’s possible to make a good living on eight acres of organic vegetables may not turn the heads of many a mortgagee devoted to huge spreads in what a Montana rancher likes to call the “Corn, Bean, Feedlot Machine.”

But he did, in fact, find some practices that are readily scalable. Gabe Brown isn’t a particularly big farmer by North Dakota standards, DeVore points out, but turning 5,400 acres into floodproof cropland with lowered irrigation requirements could draw a crowd.

From my home state of Indiana, of all places, DeVore reports on a public-private partnership called the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, or CSSI, which has taken on the sad situation that maybe only 2 percent of U.S. farmers bother with the offseason cover plantings that retain soil and improve its health between crops.

In the early 2000s, he reports, about 20,000 acres of Hoosier cropland was cover cropped, and by 2013 the figure had risen to only about a half-million acres … before doubling in the next  three years to a million acres, or about 8 percent of total acreage:

As of this writing, no other Corn Belt state is even close to having that high a percentage of its land protected with cover crops. Indiana’s success has farmers, soil scientists, and environmentalists across the country excited about the potential CCSI holds as a national model for bringing our agricultural landscape back to life. Such a model is needed—despite all the buzz these days around providing continuous living cover for the land year-round, little progress has been made in getting a significant number of U.S. farmers to plant cover crops on a regular basis, making what has been accomplished in Indiana even more impressive.

Also encouraging, for those of us who like to eat sustainably produced food as well as for those who might want to raise it, is a kind of “reverse brain drain” that DeVore sees in a new generation of farmers who have come to the land from nonfarm backgrounds in life and education. Tim Landgraf, mentioned above, was a metallurgical engineer; Martin Jaus studied wildlife management and Loretta Jaus went to college in wildlife biology; Peter Allen abandoned his almost-Ph.D. in restoration ecology to try building a farm on a steep 220 acres in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley.

No official numbers are available, but interviews I’ve conducted over the past few decades show getting an agronomy or ag business degree from a land grant university—the traditional academic- based pathway into production agriculture—no longer monopolizes the way young people enter farming. A striking number of people are going into food production after receiving training and working in the fields of environmental science, wildlife biology, ecological restoration, and other areas related to protecting and studying the environment.

These are people who went into the field set on the belief that by working for a natural resource agency or an environmental nonprofit, they could help leave the land better than they found it. But somewhere along the way, they took an off-ramp and dived into a profession many environmentalists see as the antithesis to a healthy ecosystem: agriculture. When I ask them why, the answer is invariably a variation on a theme:

“I felt I could have a bigger impact on the ecological health of the land through farming.”

The value of these approaches, especially those aimed at improving soil health, can only rise “as the climate gets more extreme,” DeVore told me. “And I don’t say that lightly.”

We’ve had an incredible fall here, with these extreme rains  — and it’s heartbreaking, you know, to see somebody who’s spent all season trying to raise this good crop and the ground is so saturated they can’t get it out. Even with crop insurance, lots of  farmers will be asking, What can I do to deal with these extremes?