The language of Ecological Goods and Services
Farmers and ranchers are entering a new era in agriculture that comes with a new set of public expectations. For their grandparents it may have been enough to simply grow food upon the land the best way they could, but today’s producers hear increasingly that they should not only grow a lot of food but that they must do it without impairing the land’s capacity to store carbon, foster biodiversity, and protect the health of the soil and water.
People who grow food make choices the same way the rest of us do. Sometimes we sacrifice our immediate needs for a long-term good, but most of the time we don’t; sometimes we justify paying a higher cost to protect something we value, but most of the time we want to keep our costs low and income high.
A writer who skates anywhere near the thin ice where he might be tempted to generalize about what a farmer is or is not, should or should not be, is asking to get wet. Farmers are as varied as the land they sow and the food they grow. And, even if you choose a subset of farmers, the closer you look the more you see diversity. One farmer who follows conservation practices might simply be reducing his tillage. Another might be receiving a small payment from a conservation agency to retain wetlands. And a third might be putting out bird nest boxes and restoring a field to native grasses. All are making a contribution one way or another.
Even the conventional versus organic comparison can be misleading. There are conventional farmers who use the latest GPS-guided implements, sprays, and methods but still find ways to leave habitat on the edges of their fields. And there are organic producers who level their hills and remove virtually all of the brush and sloughs on their land. Probably the safest thing to do is to look at the merits of each farmer and each farm and leave it there.