When the temperature drops down below 20º often the last thing you want to do is leave the house. But if late winter brings a sudden dump of snowfall along with a crystal clear blue sky and full sunshine maybe outside is exactly where you ought to be. With a new pair of Oboz hiking boots to test out I grabbed my snowshoes to walk a steep section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail that leads to Gibraltar Rock State Nature Area. The short hike overlooks the farm fields and wetlands along the shores of the Wisconsin River and beautifully illustrates the proximal relationship between public and private land.
In recent weeks I’ve been particularly housebound working on a long writing project for the Sand County Foundation (SCF) . The nonprofit, dedicated to the legacy of the great naturalist Aldo Leopold, had commissioned from me a lengthy essay series on the key components of the conservation philosophy called the Land Ethic. In the hopes instilling the moral principles of environmental protection the SCF works with the managers of private land, ranchers and farmers, to encourage soil health, improve water quality, protect endangered species and establish a farm to table system of producing food that is both nutritious and sustainable. The project required a lot of long days in front of the computer, many hours on the phone conducting interviews and weeks of compiling detailed information on the concept of regenerative agriculture. I really needed to get outside.
Several months of research have left me a bit geeked-out by the systems of growing food and the relationship between people and the land. Modern farmers are doing remarkable things to restore balance to the natural world. By planting cover crops and using no-till methods of cultivation land managers are keeping soil disturbance to a minimum. This prevents erosion while giving a boost to the microbial processes that draw carbon out of the atmosphere as a natural function of photosynthesis. With more carbon the soil is better able to retain water and sustain life. Healthy soil that is rich with organic matter and has deep root systems tends to hang on to its vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. These naturally occurring fertilizers are often washed away when using conventional methods of agriculture. Farm runoff is one of the primary contributors to surface water contamination that regularly pollutes rivers and streams. Excess nutrients in water can cause blooms of algae and micro-organisms that result in the killing of fish and the spread of disease among humans.
Regenerative agriculture allows soil to rest and recover between planting rotations. A similar method of selectively managing pastures encourages soil health by moving cows around to different fields so that the land is less heavily impacted by an excess of grazing or too much manure. This method actually requires fewer inputs of commercial fertilizers, improves the diversity of native plant and animal species (especially pollinators) and assures the quality of the water that makes it into nearby lakes and rivers. After so many years of advocating for the protection of public land, national parks, national forests, etc…I never really thought about the importance of protecting private land or the impact of the environmental stewards who are our nation’s farmers.
From the top of Gibraltar Rock I could see the processes of regenerative agriculture as part of one big natural landscape. My recent reporting project gave the view from here a different perspective and the walk up new meaning. Farm fields directly adjacent to public land for recreational use sequester carbon and protect streams from runoff contamination. Properly managed private land cannot only provide food for consumers but it can also create habitat for a variety of different animal species including fox, badgers and wolves. They create clean waterways where fish can thrive and support populations of wild birds like bald eagles, osprey and sandhill cranes. Even with a blanket of fresh snow I could clearly observe the interaction between farmers and the land because I knew what to look for. And as the ice of winter slowly melts in the coming spring I know that the water will make its way into the Wisconsin River and from there to the Mississippi River and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. Somehow the knowledge of these natural processes made the world seem so much bigger but at the time much smaller, more fragile, more vulnerable and precious and even more in need of protection.
Like blood in the veins and arteries of the human body, the flow of water connects communities across North America. As meat, fruit and vegetables make the long journey by truck over the interstate highway system to our dinner plates I think its important to know where that food comes from, how it was grown and who made that growing possible. Did the farming methods regenerate the soil? Was the surface water contaminated with excess fertilizers? Did the growers earn a living wage? Were they treated fairly?
As I made my way down the snowy trail back to my car these were the things that I wondered about. On this hike to a scenic overlook of farm fields and wetlands along the shores of the Wisconsin River I could see not just this rural landscape but the long and winding path of life on this planet as one enormous integrated system.
“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” ~ Aldo Leopold
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