Thursday, August 27, 2009

What to Keep and What to Change: More Searching for Solutions

a shot of the lake at dawn. There is often mist on August mornings

How do we begin to transform prairie agriculture to foster a healthy relationship between grassland ecosystems and the human economies that depend on them?

Deciding what to keep and what to change as you try to improve any human structure or system is never easy. On the old farm we share with two other families, the keep or change question comes up every time we try to fix something in the cookhouse, plant a tree, or salvage posts from a fence no longer useful.

Last weekend I was prying some weathered pine boards off the old corral to use them in a wood shed I am making to store firewood for our cabin. It was a good corral, probably held cattle for fifty winters or more, and I found myself wondering if it was a mistake to be taking it apart. We don’t keep cattle and work with a neighbour to graze our pasture, but, you never know, some day I might want to have a way to corral animals. Still, I wanted to finish my woodshed so I kept tearing the pine slabs off. Alternately swearing and marvelling at the small nails that seemed to grip the boards better than their larger counterparts, I started to think about the other man who nailed it together a long time ago to shelter his cattle, feeding them with hay from our east fields.

When he wanted to sell his cattle, did they go to a feedlot for several months of fattening before being slaughtered and processed at a meat packer? The facilities might have been smaller and nearer to home back then, and perhaps the cattle received no hormones and fewer antibiotics, but they were likely finished on a diet of grain the way most market cattle are today. Fifty years ago, this model was relatively new but today it is in full control of the grazing economy that to a great degree determines how we treat grassland ecosystems.

When you go to a supermarket for ground beef or buy a burger at a fast food joint, your purchasing power connects you to a massive processing and marketing system that is run by a handful of corporations for the benefit of shareholders. On the other side of that meat industry mountain there are the men and women trying to make a living raising cattle on the pastures that host the remaining populations of North America’s grassland birds. Most of these people are on the land because they love it; they do their best to make a decent income without compromising the natural ecosystems and species at risk on their holdings. But the multi-national corporations that ultimately bring products from their animals to market do not share those interests. They do all they can to make sure that they price they pay to cattlemen is as low as possible, without considering the consequences on farm families, farm communities, and the natural ecosystems they depend upon.

A year after we bought our farm we found out that the previous owners had been forced to sell because of debt that became unserviceable in the face of the BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis)crisis driving cattle prices even lower than usual. As sad and disconcerting as it was to learn that we had in a sense gained from their misfortune, I know too that in a larger sense the system that produced the BSE crisis and then used it as another way to keep beef prices low has had us all—producers and consumers alike—snared in its net for a long time.

a flight of cormorants heading to the lake

Monday, August 24, 2009

Groping for alternatives--more on the search for solutions

Selaginella densa (little club moss) growing on native mixed-grass prairie

Craig Larson, who lives (and writes a couple of fine blogs: Haskap Wine and Native Shores) on a farm in the Swan River Valley, Manitoba, and raises hay, lamas, and haskap berries, sent me an email about the three questions I left at the end of the last post.

He said “No one has so much as given me the time of day when it comes to thinking alternatively to my procedures here - I'm seen as an oddity just being organic. My local extension officer won't even talk to me when we meet.” Craig went on to describe the provincial government’s offers to help him market his haskap berries and said that they assume they have better ways “to access agri-industry so that I can become wealthy (the latest marketing seminary to be put on by Manitoba is entitled 'Show Me The Money' - gag). It's all marketing...smoke and mirrors.” He closed by saying, “Personally I think that an independant system needs to be started by people who will not compromise - but then you get ideological types in there as well and the next thing is that everyone is held hostage to principles again.”

There’s a lot to think about in the experience of any one person trying to grow food in ways that conserve some of the natural values of the farm. Often their troubles begin when they engage with the government and non-government agencies that either try to help farmers grow and sell their produce or minimize environmental degradation caused by intensive land use.

I wonder if the problem, though, is not the agencies and programs, which after all are trying to help reduce the chaos and mop up some of the mess, but something larger at work. Craig’s word “independent” may be important here. Cattle producers depend upon, are at the mercy of, an industrialized beef-fattening, slaughter and processing system that most of them would not choose if they had a choice. The two or three large corporations running that system are not evil; they are just doing what corporations do—maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. We can’t expect them to do otherwise, any more than we’d expect a wolf to give up killing for a living. It is a big system, though, and it holds all the cards—including government approval and support—so any independent alternative would have to grow slowly over a long time frame.

photo by Karen Herriot

Who has the incentive to undertake such a big task? I can think of at least three elements that would have to come together to transform or circumvent the existing system of growing food in grassland ecosystems: farmers and ranchers who to varying degrees would like to make a reasonable profit and produce healthy food without having to draw down the ecological resources of their land; consumers who to varying degrees would like to be able to buy healthy food grown in ways that conserve the ecological resources of the land; and naturalists, scientists, and nature advocates who want to conserve and restore grassland ecosystems.

Together, these three interests are going to have to grope for new and better ways of bringing food to our tables, with some help from more visionary NGOs, but not likely from any institution or agency that is caught up in the mainstream of agriculture and economic growth. Driven by honourable goals, we will likely get impatient and justify less than honourable means to get there and that will take us down some blind alleys. In the end, if any progress is made it will be through patience and ensuring that the means we use are congruent with and worthy of our vision of restoring and conserving the integrity of the prairie and its natural biodiversity.

The model on this journey is Wes Jackson and his Land Institute in Kansas. Wes is in it for the long haul as he searches for permaculture that will work in growing perennial and sustainable grassland crops. Anyone trying to use grazing in ways that will conserve and restore healthy grassland ecosystems has to adopt the same moral, patient, and uncompromising vision.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ok, we know some of the problems—how about some solutions?

Large, complex environmental issues like the degradation of grassland ecosystems can’t be solved overnight or by tinkering with land use practices and government policy. The forces at play are powerful and entrenched favouring the status quo. Governments don’t seem very interested in passing legislation to stop landowners from ploughing native grass; no one has yet found a practical way to restore large pieces of native grassland; and most economic policy affecting grassland is still aimed at maximizing yields of agricultural produce, driving prices down, and exporting to foreign markets.

Meanwhile, any talk of sustainability or stewardship eventually runs up against two realities: one, grain farmers and cattle producers are already being squeezed between high input costs and low farmgate prices, and two, any stewardship practices adopted by farmers or ranchers, whether they increase costs or not, cannot be compensated for or even recognized within the marketing systems available.

To even begin the discussion of what might help our long-suffering grassland ecosystems, then, we have to look for ways to help producers with that cost-price squeeze and bring stewardship practices into the value of the food they produce and sell.

Over the next few posts, I hope to discuss ideas and possibilities, but I am making this up as I go along and would welcome any thoughts from others. Here are some questions to consider from the beginning (please email me your thoughts at

1. How do we provide farmers and ranchers with alternatives that compensate them for stewardship practices (fostering habitat, protecting watersheds and species at risk, etc.)

2. Selling direct to consumers at farmers markets or at the farm gate is already being done, but this is a miniscule portion of the agriculture being conducted in grassland regions and many producers who do sell their own produce are still dependant on the dysfunctional “agri-food” industry that gets their products to more consumers. For example, people who sell their own grass-finished beef to a few enlightened city people, still end up selling most of their livestock into the big system that drives prices downwards and depends on unsustainable and unhealthy practices, including intensive grain feeding, hormones and antibiotics. How do we offer an alternative so that they can concentrate on looking after the land and growing healthy animals instead of having to do the marketing themselves?

3. What happens when producers try to develop their own alternatives to the big system and fail? For example Natural Valley Farms at Wolesley and Neudorf? What can be learned from them?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Re-introducing the black-footed ferret to Grasslands National Park

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

On October 2nd, Parks Canada will release around 40 black-footed ferrets into the prairie dog colonies in Grasslands National Park, implementing the recovery strategy for the black-footed ferret devised by the national recovery team and published earlier this year. The last wild ferret seen in Canada was in 1937 near Climax, Saskatchewan, and the species has been listed as extirpated by the federal government.

Everyone seems very excited to hear about the re-introduction of the ferret. Its always good news to hear that an extirpated animal is being given a second chance. And it is especially important in any ecosystem to have healthy populations of predators. I know some of the biologists on the recovery team and trust their judgement, yet can't help wondering if this is not the best way to proceed.

One of my concerns is that the area of appropriate habitat for the ferret is too small and limited for this to be characterized as a re-introduction that restores proper functioning to an ecosystem. Part of the quality of healthy grassland is an expansiveness that allows any species to shift and move as the habitat changes over time in any one place. But grassland today doesn’t always function that way—particularly when you look at something like the ferret. It has to have black-tailed prairie dogs but the area of prairie dogs in Canada is restricted to a very small zone in and around the national park. It’s one thing to re-introduce swift foxes all across Canada’s southern plains or to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone. In those cases there is ample habitat outside the parks, supporting the prey for those predators. Introducing the predator then can genuinely be said to help make it a fully functioning ecosystem.

I don’t think we can say the same about ferrets introduced into a geographically isolated prairie dog community that is 1000 hectares and not expanding appreciably.
Of course, if it works and the ferrets somehow make the prairie dog colonies more vigorous and their range expands too and the ferrets are able to survive on Richardson’s ground squirrels, and other species at risk are not being harmed by the re-introduction, then it might all be worth the effort. But it is an expensive gamble. What if the ferrets become inbred or die from plague or are eaten by great horned owls and other predators? Are they going to start dusting prairie dog burrows with deltamethrin and culling Great horned owls? And what will deltamethrin do to the burrowing owls who nest in the prairie dog towns? If the numbers of ferrets get too low will they keep supplementing with more captive bred animals? How far do we go with this? And why spend so much effort on something that doesn’t really have a chance to expand beyond this one small area?

There are many other larger and more immediate problems in our grassland ecology that are not getting enough attention. It is a matter of triage: instead of trying to manage critical habitat for an animal that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, why don’t we focus on securing and protecting critical habitat for the animals that are still breeding in the wild but struggling to maintain their populations? No one can tell me how many black-footed ferrets we once had in Canada—but we know that only 20 years ago we had thousands of Greater Sage Grouse and today we have a couple hundred. No, it doesn’t have to be either/or but let’s face it—resources are shrinking, from both government and private agencies, so we have to make wise choices.

I guess I am wondering too if this kind of high profile re-introduction is going to take the place of real grassland restoration and conservation. Is this is the right way to bring our grassland back to health?

Are we turning Grasslands National Park into a kind of living museum of what the grassland used to be, instead of using funds and resources to help the grassland in and around the park attract and support the best possible biodiversity on its own? Wouldn’t it be better to be working on the landscape community and ecosystem level rather than on one species that perhaps was never that common in Canada? We could use that Federal money to secure and protect the last Sage Grouse habitat in Alberta and Saskatchewan, or to keep oil and gas development out of the Sage grouse habitat, or to expand the park boundaries or work with neighbouring landowners to restore land to native grasses.

What it comes down to is this—does re-introducing a single species into a small patch of very limited habitat advance the overall effort to conserve and restore the mixed-grass prairie? Is it a wise use of limited resources?

Or is it about showcasing conservation to say, “here, look, we are making progress, doing good things with endangered species, bringing them back to their native habitat.” While all around the park, we are losing the quality and quantity of grassland habitat in general and many species at risk appear to be on their way out the door. Twenty years from now when those species are gone, will the solution be to do the same thing and bring them back with management-intensive re-introductions in small pieces of protected habitat? In place of wild, self-sustaining populations breeding and migrating as free species will we be happy with captive-bred ferrets, grouse and owls that we show to the tourists as examples of what native grassland creatures once looked like?

Are we managing for healthy and diverse grassland ecosystems or presiding over the degradation of grassland from wild, functioning ecosystem to human-managed living museum?

Advocates of this kind of species-introduction might defend the expense and effort by saying that it will bring a lot of attention to the park, which in turn will help people to see the need for grassland conservation.

This kind of thinking always sounds reasonable, partly because it is the familiar form of rationalization we use everyday to justify the moral compromises we make in our own lives. But whenever we justify less than worthy means by pointing to honourable ends we are participating in the ultimate erosion of the very good we want to uphold. If we care about our native grasslands and the species that depend upon it, we must ensure that the way we act and the choices we make today are in every way worthy of our long-term goals of conservation and restoration.

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