When Nature Bites the Hand That Tills It

Tyler Carlson farms near “Gopher Prairie,” the fictional setting for Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel, Main Street. In the book, Lewis, who grew up in the real Gopher Prairie, otherwise known as Sauk Centre, used biting satire to poke fun at small town life. On this summer day, Carlson is finding the havoc burrowing rodents are raising in his part of central Minnesota less than amusing.

“Some of the vision of this farm is really trying to make agriculture work alongside wildlife and wild ecosystems,” he says to me while examining a three-foot-tall white pine tree that’s listing to one side in a pasture, its roots gnawed off by gophers. “But wildlife are pests in certain instances.”

That’s a harsh reality for someone who studied restoration ecology in college before moving onto this 200-acre farm in 2012 to launch an operation that includes practices like “silvopasturing” — a system combining tree production with rotational grazing of livestock. Carlson saw silvopasturing as an economically viable way to re-build soil, combat climate change, contribute to cleaner water, and support wildlife and pollinator habitat.

Six years later, the 32-year-old farmer is still committed to producing ecosystem services on Early Boots Farm, but reality checks like root-chomping rodents have tamped down his enthusiasm a bit, prompting him to readjust how he reaches his environmental goals while staying economically viable. Carlson has accepted the fact that farming with nature utilizing the principals of diversity, biology and interdependence—rather than attempting to bring it to heel with iron, oil and chemistry—means exposing oneself to a world that can be pretty unforgiving. This is the reality of being an “ecological agrarian,” someone who is unwilling to separate a working farm from a working ecosystem. Image

As I show in my new book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, ecological agrarians are using everything from managed rotational grazing and cocktail mixes of cover crops to the integration of native perennials and annual row crops to blend the wild and the domesticated on agricultural landscapes.

Ideally, these wildly successful farms strike a balance that provides practical benefits to the farmer while countering the negative repercussions of industrialized agriculture: dirty water, eroded soil, loss of wildlife habitat and greenhouse gas emissions. A healthy soil ecosystem, for example, not only sequesters carbon but allows farmers to better manage precipitation while providing free fertility for crops.

Ecological agrarians trust that a healthy ecosystem will eventually produce a healthy working farm. Some may argue that by placing their trust in the ways of the wild, farmers are abdicating control over their own destiny in a way that’s no better (or is worse) than allowing human-centered technology to call the shots. But during my 30 years as an agricultural journalist who has interviewed a wide range of farmers, I have observed that ecological agrarians are continuously on the lookout for a better way—the opposite of being passive recipients of whatever life tosses their way. When a corn and soybean operation is reliant on petroleum-based inputs and technology developed in a biotech firm’s laboratories, events far from the land determine that farmer’s destiny. War in the Middle East can disrupt the flow of oil; yet one more consolidation in the biotechnology sector can limit the availability of affordable seed. But building a healthy, functional ecosystem starts and ends with a farm’s local terra-firma, literally from beneath the ground up.

Tyler Carlson and his partner Kate Droske have modified their silvopasturing system and made it, if not exactly ecologically pristine, at least a benefit to the environment. And the forage being produced by building their soil health between the rows of surviving trees is good enough to consistently produce quality beef, which is important economically.

And on a farm where the borders between the wild and the tame are porous, opportunities for making mid-course adjustments abound. If injecting a little bit of woodland into a domesticated pasture doesn’t pan out, why not reverse polarity?

At one point, Carlson leads me over a fence to an existing stand of bur oak, ash, ironwood, elm and aspen on a hill that slopes down to a pond. Invasive buckthorn has been set back considerably with the help of a chain-saw (Carlson has also thinned out bigger trees to let in more sunlight). In glade-like spots between trees, red clover and orchard grass Carlson had seeded are making use of the solar energy. For the past few years, this woodland has been a part of his rotational grazing system. Grazing among the trees isn’t as productive as running cattle through open pastures, but it is a low-impact way of attaining ecological goals in a financially viable manner. The cattle have a cool place to graze during hot weather while they help control buckthorn. Opening up the woodland hasn’t just benefited forages—recently Carlson noticed oak seedlings sprouting; in 2012, there were few oaks under 75-years-old here.

This woodlot has been abused and neglected for over a century. But through the introduction of innovative farming practices that involve disturbance and rest, it is being revived as a key ecological component of a working landscape. Transplanting a little nature into tame pastures has been surprisingly difficult, but reversing things and introducing domesticated beasts into an unruly corner of the farm is paying off. When the wild bites back, it doesn’t always hold a grudge.

“It shows that if you let it, nature can be pretty forgiving,” says the farmer as he makes his way among the trees in the dappled sunlight.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.

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