“Eating is an agricultural act.” – Wendell Berry
As you fly over the Midwest, you can look down on the seemingly endless patchwork of plots that make up much of our country. From the air, it’s striking how organized, clean, and antiseptic the nation’s farms look – almost more like factories than farmlands.
Humans have been farming for 10,000 years, but few of us have to think much about agriculture these days. Ninety percent of colonial Americans made their living in agriculture. Today less than two percent of us are farmers. Thus many people don’t think much about how farming has changed in the last 200 years.
For most of human history, farmers had no choice but to care for the health of the soil and ecosystems to some extent. Compost, manure, conservative tilling practices, crop rotation, beneficiary insects, and other natural allies were farmers’ only ways of ensuring healthy crops. But in the last century, petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides enabled farmers to buy fertility in bottles.
Today many consumers are concerned about the dangers of fertilizers and pesticides to human health. But one factor is often ignored: they and the “sterile” farming methods they’ve engendered have been disastrous to wildlife and ecosystems.
Today agriculture is the single biggest cause of habitat loss and endangered species. In the last century farmers across the nation have ripped out vegetation, cut down forests, eradicated insects, shot and killed predators, and filled in wetlands and streams. Wilderness is something increasingly contained in designated areas, not something tolerated on the farms and ranches that make up 40 percent of our nation.
Does it have to be this way? Can we protect the health of ecosystems and grow enough food to feed the world? Can we combine the unpredictable, fertile disorder of the wilderness with our craving for predictable, high-yield agriculture? Can farms be wilder?
I’ve been grappling with these questions for an article assignment over the last month, and in the process learning much about conservation and agriculture. I’ve gotten to talk to many interesting people on the subject and have been pouring over the writings of Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, and other thinkers, who’ve challenged notions of wild and tame.
I’ll share more about my article after it’s published. In the meantime, I thought you may like to know how you can support farmers who are protecting ecosystems, wildlife, and natural areas. A handful of eco-labels help consumers purchase food grown on farms that protect biodiversity. Some people call these labels “beyond organic”. If you don’t see them at your grocery store, consider asking the owner or manager to stock food certified by these organizations.
The Food Alliance launched its certification program in 1998 to designate producers and processors dedicated to social and environmental responsibility. To gain certification, farmers and ranchers must:
- Conserve soil and water resources
- Protect biodiversity and wildlife habitat
- Provide safe and fair working conditions
- Practice integrated pest management to minimize pesticide use and toxicity
- Continually improve practices
To find Food Alliance Certified farms, ranches, processors, and distributors in your area, click here.
Salmon Safe certifies vineyards, ranches, and farms on the West Coast that are protecting endangered wild salmon and steelhead habitat. They require growers to:
- Restore and protect waterways and wetlands
- Prevent stream bank erosion and control sediment
- Minimize the use of pesticides and contaminants
- Keep livestock out of waterways
Rudolf Steiner developed the concept of Biodynamic agriculture in 1924 in Germany, envisioning the farm as “a self-contained and self-sustaining organism”. In 1928 Demeter was formed in Europe to codify Steiner’s farming principles. Demeter requires farms and ranches to:
- Avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers
- Utilize compost and cover crops
- Set aside a minimum of 10% of total acreage for biodiversity
You can find a list of some Biodynamic farms here.
You can find out more about all of these eco-labels and look up any that you see in the grocery store to make sure you can trust their claims at Consumer Reports’ greenerchoices.org.