Eco-farmers seek to grow habitat as well as crops

  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.

Ultimately, it 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 farms.

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 agricultural waste.

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 conservation practices."

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 habitat.

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.

Tim Holt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is an environmental writer who lives in the Mount Shasta region of Northern California.

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