“Frogs are an indicator species,” Jack Gray explains, leaning over a small, muddy pond to look for tadpoles.
Here on the 170-acre Winter Green Farm, 20 miles west of Eugene, Ore., Gray has raised cattle and grown vegetables and berries for 30 years.
It’s a sunny April day, but water pools in the pastures, evidence of the rains this part of Oregon is known for.
Gray is in his mid-50s and agile from decades of working outside. He built this pond to provide habitat for native amphibians, because bass in another pond were eating the red-legged frogs and Western pond turtles.
Cows graze in a field behind him; wind whispers through a stand of cattails, and two mallards lift off. Gray points out the calls of killdeer, flycatchers, and blackbirds. Up the hill a flock of sheep chomp on long grass. “They’re part of a controlled grazing to try to control reed canary grass, which is an invasive species,” Gray explains. “It tends to smother areas. It makes deserts almost.”
Gray, his wife, Mary Jo, and two other families co-own Winter Green Farm. They are committed to something Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance, calls “farming with the wild.”
The words “wild” and “farming” may seem at odds. In the last century, with the development of petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, farms were increasingly modeled on industry. “Fencerow to fencerow,” mono-crop farming emphasized high production and minimized the importance of biodiversity. Farmers ripped out vegetation, cut down forests, shot predators, and filled in wetlands and streams. Today, agriculture is a major cause of the habitat loss that puts endangered species at risk.
Practitioners of wild farming, also called conservation-based agriculture, seek to reverse industrial agriculture’s devastating effects on wildlife by adopting farming methods that support nature. They envision a landscape where farms meld into the environment and mimic the natural processes that surround them. If wild farming sounds like organic farming, that’s because both are based on a similar vision: that farms should be managed as natural systems. Most wild farmers employ organic practices, like nontoxic pest management, composting, and crop rotation, all of which encourage biodiversity.
However, farming with the wild goes a step beyond organic and looks at how farms can support nature and wildlife at the larger ecosystem or watershed level. For a farmer, that might mean planting native plants and hedgerows along the borders of fields to provide habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects, finding ways to accommodate fish and large carnivores, preventing genetically engineered organisms from interacting with native species, and networking with other farmers and agencies to create wildlife corridors that connect wilderness areas.
The Mountain Lion and the Lamb
Wild farms exist all over the country, from North Dakota’s grasslands to Florida’s marshes, and by their nature, they vary based on the farm and the geography. In the Bridger Mountains of Montana, at Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company, Becky Weed and Dave Tyler are committed to predator-friendly ranching. They use guard llamas, instead of guns, traps, or poison, to protect their cattle and sheep from coyotes, bears, mountain lions, wolves, and eagles. They take a risk with their non-lethal approach to predation and occasionally lose sheep, but they support a healthy ecosystem where predators control populations of their natural prey, like mice, rabbits, gophers, and deer. They also qualify for certification from Predator Friendly, an “ecolabel” that touts the sustainability of their products and helps ranchers get premium prices from conservation-minded customers.
In the arid Mimbres Valley of Southwestern New Mexico, at the No Cattle Company, Michael Alexander and Sharlene Grunerud grow fruit, vegetables, and flowers using an ancient Spanish “acequia” canal system for irrigation. They’ve installed bird perches and bat boxes on the sides of their fields, and the free-tail and big brown bats they attract feed on their worst insect pests: codling moths, cucumber beetles, and corn earworm moths. Alexander and Grunerud also see benefits from accommodating larger wildlife at their farm, like bears, foxes, mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes. The bears feed on fallen apples, eating the codling moth larvae inside, and the coyotes, as well as ravens and hawks, help control the population of pocket gophers.
The families and farm animals at Winter Green share their land with elk, deer, coyotes, beavers, possums, skunks, osprey, black-shouldered kites, red-tailed hawks, and other wildlife.
Winter Green Farm boasts certification from Salmon-Safe, an eco-organization that protects endangered wild salmon and steelhead habitat. Last summer Gray rebuilt a culvert on Evans Creek so that fish could swim through, and he’s installed fencing along Evans and Poodle creeks to keep cattle away from the waterways.
But farming with the wild is not only about protecting nature and ecosystems, says Baumgartner, who, along with other conservation-minded agricultural experts, founded the Wild Farm Alliance in 2000. Wild agriculture also benefits farmers. Planting native plants to attract beneficial insects can increase pollination of fruits and melons and protect farmers from the consequences of declining honeybee populations. Moving cattle every few days to mimic the actions of wild migratory grazers, a practice called management-intensive grazing, keeps cattle healthier and improves the land. Studies show that by restoring wetlands and waterways, farmers can reduce pesticide runoff and E. coli contamination on a farm by as much as 99 percent. Gray has implemented all of the above practices and says he sees the benefits in healthy soil, grass, cattle, and crops.
And in 2001, he and his fellow farmers planted a hedgerow, a narrow strip of trees, shrubs, ground cover, and vines bordering fields. Jude Hobbs, a horticulturist and permaculture expert who helped the farmers at Winter Green plant their 300-foot hedgerow, explains that hedgerows can create shade for waterways and provide wildlife habitat. Hedgerows also benefit farms; they can decrease wind damage, reduce soil erosion, attract pollinators, and provide extra income opportunities.
Wild farming always requires management—and compromises. Gray laughs as he talks about some of his problems with wild animals, particularly the crows that like to feast on his blueberries.
“We used these tapes in the fields that supposedly sound like the death song of a crow—horrendous squeals and stuff,” Gray says.“You’d come out and find them perched right on top of it.”
Gray also tried hanging Mylar tape and putting out huge balloons with eyes on them. But nothing distracted the crows from their favorite food. Finally he put netting over the blueberries and a mile of woven-wire fence to stop elk from eating the berries. He laments some of the trade-offs. “It changed the patterns of the elk. They’ll go elsewhere, where they used to cross at certain spots of certain streams. We loved to have the elk right outside our kitchen window.”
A Field of Weeds
Wild farmers face political and economic challenges that can be more formidable than crows and elk. Baumgartner and other wild-farming advocates have witnessed a shift away from conservation-based farming in the last five years, especially in the Salinas Valley of California, the top vegetable-producing region in the country, where the Wild Farm Alliance is based. In September 2006, bagged spinach grown in the valley was contaminated with E. coli, which sickened 205 people in 26 states and killed three. Cattle, feral pigs, and grazing deer were implicated, although the source of the outbreak was never found.
“There was this gunshot reaction of, ‘Let’s get rid of all wildlife and habitat on farms,’” Baumgartner says. Farmers throughout the Salinas Valley, under pressure from large buyers and suppliers, bulldozed trees and hedgerows, filled in ponds, and removed and trapped wildlife. The Wild Farm Alliance has worked overtime trying to educate farmers and certifiers about the benefits of wild farming and convince government officials to include conservation in food-safety legislation. The shift away from conservation was particularly distressing, because many more large conventional farms will need to transition to wild farming to reconnect the nation’s fragmented wildlife habitat. And it can be slow and difficult for farmers to learn new methods—even with government assistance.
Less than 50 miles from Winter Green Farm, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, farmer Clint Lindsey is adopting a number of conservation measures. Lindsey, 31, and his dad run A2R, an 870-acre farm near Corvallis. Two years ago, like the majority of farmers in the valley, they grew conventionally grown grass seed, a pesticide-and-fertilizer-intensive crop. Then the grass-seed market collapsed, a victim of the economy and the housing market.
A2R was on the brink of bankruptcy when Lindsey met a group of farmers who were testing the viability of growing edible crops in the valley for local markets. He and his dad decided to transition the majority of their acreage to organic grains, beans, and edible seeds.
A2R qualified for a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a department of the USDA, which invests millions of dollars of grant money each year in helping farmers support healthy ecosystems. The grant helped Lindsey and his dad replace chemical pesticides and fertilizers with a pungent-smelling compost tea made of liquefied fish, kelp, and compost. They also agreed to a number of other practices, including planting peas during the winter months to help fertilize the soil, curtail runoff, and attract beneficial insects.
Lindsey says it’s too early to tell whether the area will benefit the farm by attracting pollinators or pest-eating birds. But preserving the land helped A2R gain certification from The Food Alliance, an ecolabel that requires farmers to meet an extensive list of biodiversity and wildlife conservation requirements.
The challenges of transitioning are not just economic. Lindsey says his dad, who has grown conventional grass seed for 30 years, struggles to adjust psychologically to a style of agriculture that more closely resembles nature. “For a conventional farmer, these fields are a complete mess,” Lindsey says. “One of the biggest challenges is getting used to seeing a field full of weeds and figuring out what to do about it, because you can’t spray herbicide on it.”
A2R is at the beginning of a long journey to becoming a healthy ecosystem. Despite the challenges, Lindsey is enjoying the process. “It just became a heck of a lot more fun to farm. For a long time we’d been looking at ways to turn our farm from just a factory turning out grass seed into something that was a valuable asset to the community and to our family.”
A Wild Hope
Even in a nation dominated by giant mono-crop farms and animal feedlots, there are hopeful signs about the future of conservation-based agriculture. The acreage of farmland in conservation and wetlands-reserve programs jumped 20 percent between 1997 and 2007, and the 2008 Farm Bill further increased funding for conservation projects.
Since 2002 the government has studied the environmental impacts of NRCS agricultural conservation projects and found that wild farming makes a difference. For instance, stream improvements made by ranchers on private land in Montana increased the population of trout by 59 percent, and native vegetation buffers planted by farmers along the borders of fields dramatically increased the population of Northern bobwhites and several upland songbirds in 14 different states, according to the NRCS.
In its decade of existence, the small, nonprofit Wild Farm Alliance has been successful at getting conservation included in national organic standards and state and federal food safety legislation. But wild farming’s greatest hope may be the growth of local food networks, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture, as well as the emergence of third-party ecolabels. These movements connect farmers with consumers, enabling all of us to choose food grown in ways that protect and support wild nature.