A recent conversation with my neighbour demonstrated how farmers can view the relationship between agriculture and nature in different ways. We encountered each other along a fence line between our farms. My neighbour asked if I’d like my side of the fence line “cleaned up.”
I thanked my neighbour for his offer, but declined. I said I was committed to conserving, enhancing even, the fence lines on our farm. The moment of silence that followed was for me indicative of the chasm that can exist between farmers who may regard Nature as secondary to their agricultural pursuits, and those for whom Nature’s biodiverse wild spaces are an adjunct to, even necessity of, truly sustainable agriculture.
Perhaps my neighbour regards fence lines as impediments to his farming practices, maybe even his crop yield. Or, maybe he viewed the tangle of “brush” as unruly. Whatever was on his mind, I know he meant well and I appreciated his kindness. But to me, the “brush” has names: shrubs such as ninebark, honeysuckle and highbush cranberry; vines including moonseed, wild clematis, wild grape and Virginia creeper; and maple, elm and basswood saplings that one day will replace the parent trees around them.
With their accompanying assortment of wild flowers and grasses, fence lines form richly biodiverse ecosystems that are habitat for many species of birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects. They are a community of flora and fauna that I believe, far from being an obstacle to sustainable farming, are part of its very foundation in the valuable ecological services they provide. A growing body of scientific research supports this view.
But therein lies the rub. Many farmers are not, in the main, farming in what I would call an ecologically sustainable manner. They rely on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, chemical pesticides and other conventional inputs and practices to ensure good crop yields and an efficient and financially viable farming enterprise. My father did the same on the farm I grew up on in Perth County.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? “Nothing” would be my quick response. Because all of us at some time have innocently bought into systems that may not be designed with our long-term best interests in mind. Often, it’s the corporate advocates of such systems who stand to profit the most.
Agriculture is no different. Many farmers, just like my father did in his day, have become – well, captive to – a farming regimen that is ultimately destructive of the soil, the biodiverse natural environment on which so much of farming depends, and robust rural communities that offer lifestyles that, in themselves, would otherwise be attractive to many, including youth.
Their primary motivation seems to be to squeeze every ounce of productive capacity from their farms. If something like a fence line gets in the way, then it should be bulldozed, or if it’s a wetland, drained. If one thinks purely in terms of the system of farming to which they subscribe, who can blame them?
But will such a system preserve the land on which agriculture and a sustainable food supply ultimately depend? Does it guarantee truly healthy food? Can it carry us into a food-secure future? Increasingly, concerns are being raised in response to these and related questions.
That alternatives to the predominant industrial agricultural paradigm are gaining in credence and popularity is, I believe, hopeful. One which I’m excited about is “regenerative” agriculture (RA).
RA is an approach to food and farming systems that rejects pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and claims to regenerate topsoil, enhance biodiversity, improve water cycles, enhance ecosystem services, increase resilience to climate fluctuation and strengthen the health and vitality of farming communities.
RA is based on applied research and thinking that integrates organic farming, permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, keyline design and holistic management. On a regenerative farm, biological production and ecological structure grow more complex over time. Yields increase while external inputs decrease.
On-farm biodiversity, in the form of fence lines, hedgerows, grasslands, wetlands, and other “living structures” are essential in this scenario. In many respects, RA is not unlike the kind of farming practiced by our ancestors generations ago and some Indigenous peoples before them.
If the claims of RA enthusiasts are true, they should be good news to farmers generally. Of course, they need to be tested. The U.S.-based Rodale Institute is a good source of unfolding research and information on the topic:https://rodaleinstitute.org
Some may dismiss this vision of a shift away from mainstream farming methods as naïve and romantic. If it were merely a matter of going back to the past, I would agree. But it’s not. It’s a vision of going forward to the past, of utilizing what worked well on the mixed family farm of yesteryear and all that’s good about modern technology in a way that respects Mother Earth.
Indian physicist, philosopher, environmental activist and farmer, Vandana Shiva, was once asked whether such a radical shift could actually be achieved. Her response: Of course it can. If we created the industrial model of farming that dominates the world today, we can replace it with something built on the foundation of real, long-term sustainability. We need only muster the political will.◊