Northern California farmer John Anderson is on the cutting edge of a new movement that seeks ways for farmers to incorporate stewardship practices into the daily pursuit of their livelihoods. Anderson and others believe it's a key survival strategy for small farmers, plus a way to get beyond bitter struggles with environmentalists.
would mean providing economic incentives for farmers to "grow
habitat," to use a current buzz phrase. Instead of following the
old advice to farmers to plant "fence line to fence line," Anderson
believes that 1 to 2 percent of a farm's total acreage can readily
be set aside for wildlife habitat, with wildlife corridors instead
of fence lines separating fields.
Anderson himself grows
habitat in every nook and cranny of his 400-acre farm, and along
every stream and ditch, it seems. That's hardly surprising, given
that Anderson makes his living growing native grass and plant seeds
for restoring damaged habitat.
On June 6, 2001, California
North Coast rancher and dairy farmer Ralph Grossi got up before an
obscure subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture and
sounded the major themes of this "eco-farming" movement. He told
the assembled legislators that it was time for the federal
government to recognize that through improved stewardship of the
land, farmers and private forest owners can provide not only food
and fiber, but also clean water, habitat for native wildlife and a
barrier against sprawling development.
"The price of farm
commodities has fallen in real terms for decades," Grossi went on
to say, "but the value society places on the environmental quality
farmers and foresters can provide is rising. The next farm bill
should be designed to help farmers provide environmental quality
and reward them when they do so."
Grossi, who also happens
to be the president of the American Farmland Trust, was supported
in his statement by a host of other farming organizations and a
who's who of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the
National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife.
The farm bill that came out of the Congress last year took a major
step in the direction advocated by Grossi and his allies. It
increased spending for conservation and stewardship programs by $17
billion. Significantly, it takes the first, halting steps to pay
farmers to integrate healthy conservation practices on working
Existing agriculture conservation programs--a
half-dozen of them were launched in the 1996 farm bill-- tend to
focus on marginal land, either with drainage problems, or simply
poor, unproductive soil. They also rely to a large extent on the
voluntary efforts of farmers.
Under the newest farm bill,
for the first time, farmers and ranchers will be paid for good
stewardship practices on working farms with good land. They will be
paid, as with some existing programs, on a per-acre basis, but the
hedgerows and breeding ponds they put in can go right alongside
crops, and they will receive compensation as well for taking steps
to curb chemical runoff, soil erosion, and the burning of
Under the new $3 billion Conservation
Security Program, farmers or ranchers will receive escalating rates
of per-acre compensation as they undertake increasingly rigorous
conservation programs. Congress has not yet authorized funding for
this program, but will likely take that up next year. When it does,
the Farmland Trust and its environmental allies can be expected to
lobby vigorously in its favor.
"In the end, this is the
kind of program that's going to save agriculture," says Chuck Bell,
who supervises the federal government's farm conservation programs
in California. "The voters are in urban areas, and they're
increasingly concerned about the environment. In the long run, the
best way for farmers to gain their support will be through
The fact is, many farmers share
the same environmental concerns as city folks. But farming
communities have been in many ways more directly impacted by the
environmental movement than have city dwellers, and some have long
viewed it as a threat to their livelihood and way of life--whether
they've experienced cutbacks in irrigation water or seen their
neighbor's farm sold off for conversion to wildlife
The eco-farming movement seeks to turn this
completely around by giving farmers the economic incentives to
become true stewards of their land. It’s no wonder so many
farmers are getting on board.