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?

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