I live in one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots (#36, actually), and if we’re friends, there’s a good chance you do too. The North American Coastal Plain, which stretches from northern Mexico all the way up to southeastern Massachusetts, has 1,816 unique endemic plant species including the venus fly trap, 51 endemic bird species, 114 endemic mammal species, 57 endemic amphibian species, and 51 endemic freshwater fish species. These endemic species can only be found in this ecosystem. It houses the largest estuary in North America. 85.5 % of the hotspot’s land area has experienced land-use conversion to agriculture or urbanization. Historically, much of the coastal plain was open woodland, savannah and scrubland. These ecosystems have a natural fire regime that requires burning every 1-3 years. A common misconception is that Indigenous Americans imposed this on the ecosystems, but we’ve come to understand that much of the diversity is dependent on these fire regimes; they are natural. Another common misconception is that because of the extent of land conversion and the dominance of familiar human- associated species, it is not very biodiverse. In fact, these ecosystems can have as many as 50 plant species per 1 square meter plot. Few other ecosystems can boast that fine-scale biodiversity. It’s easy to think the grass is greener elsewhere if we never take the time to play in our own grass. If you are planning some eco-tourism, consider exploring our local biodiversity. You might just fall in love with where you live
I grew up Mennonite, in a house shared by my parents and grandparents in Maryland. My mother’s father was the minister of our church; my father’s father a retired dairy farmer in Nebraska. Many people will have a preconceived notion of what it is to be Mennonite – and I will likely disappoint them. I grew up in a modern household, yes with electricity and (gasp!) a TV. The greatest legacy that the church left with me is a strong moral imperative to care for those who are less fortunate than I am, and a strong ethic for caring for this earth that we have collectively inherited. I identified early in life that food is the most direct medium by which most people in the modern world interact with the natural environment on a daily basis. It is the only place where we pay directly for services that are provided to us by the soil. And in a more tactile sense, I still love the smell of freshly cut hay; the rich smell of cows and milk and manure that bring me back to childhood excursions around the dairy. So, I have ventured into agriculture. My father at times has seemed chagrined to see me returning to a career and lifestyle that he worked hard to leave; and at other times eager to share with me his experiences and memories from a coming-of-age on the farm.
I am not a farmer, though most of my career choices have had me doing research on farms. Farming is a hard and very risky business. The profitability of an entire year’s worth of work can be determined by the whims of the weather during a few short weeks. Even if a farmer isn’t exporting on the international market, the global market can compete at home and make a family business that has been operating for generations unprofitable. Aside from financial risk, farming is one of the professions with the highest rate of on-the-job injury because of the long hours of work and heavy equipment it requires. I was once loading squash into a bin that was being hauled on the front of a tractor; as I was leaning over the side to put an armload of squash in the bin, the operator accidently knocked his controls causing the pneumatics to buck and knock me backwards with bruised ribs. All in all, I have avoided farming because the risks scare me. It is often the case that farm workers are underinsured and do not have comparable worker protection that other corporate jobs offer. I have tremendous respect for the people who take on this challenge.
Unfortunately, our ecosystems are deeply threatened by our global civilization. Much of this threat comes from land-use conversion and degradation. Many people blame agriculture, and the ethical imperative to fix the societal-scale environmental problems are foisted onto the shoulders of the already burdened farmer. This is a trap. The farmer needs to make a living just like everyone else. We should not hold them responsible for our own excessive consumption. But this does not mean that farmers are not responsible for their own decisions on how to manage their land. We are all responsible, together. And so, we must solve the problem together.
I think of farming as one of the few places where everyday people can make a very significant positive impact on a global problem, and this brings me hope. Farms can function as intact ecosystems. In many ways we know how to do this already. The question that I spend my time studying is how we can get farms to function as intact ecosystems and still meet the needs of our global civilization? We will need to create markets that do not currently exist; create novel production systems; find synergies between ecological processes and human needs; and create an economic space where transitioning to these new methods is not risky for the farmer, but just makes good business sense. I believe this is possible. Nothing here is unprecedented; a decade ago few people carried a small personal computer in their pockets. Now virtually everyone has a smart-phone. I hope that in just a few decades people will take it for granted that much of our food comes from perennial systems. For now, there is a lot of work to do to make this possible.
This is my personal website, where I will share my exploration, perspectives, and research projects as they pertain to agriculture and ecology. Thanks for stopping by!