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?

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?”

“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.

Read more here.