REVIEW: From Fork to Fork. . . to the Gulf of Mexico
By Laura Sayre

December 1, 2003: The Farm as Natural Habitat, as its editors explain in their Introduction, “is about the connection between the grocery list and the endangered species list” (2). While advocates of organic agriculture may feel they have enough to do connecting the grocery list to the farm in the minds of consumers, and environmental groups are more inclined to point out the deleterious effects of agriculture on wild species, the sixteen contributors to this collection argue that to acquiesce in a geographical division of labor between agricultural and natural areas is unnecessary and, in the long run, disastrous.

This is very much a book of the Upper Midwest, where the sense of living in an ‘Ecological Sacrifice Area,’ a ‘rural industrialized zone’ given over almost entirely to the (over-) production of two or three commodities is inescapably present, at least for those who know anything about the conditions of modern agriculture. There are a number of references to the “the zone of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, seven thousand square miles depleted of marine life because of excess nutrients [from chemical fertilizers and poorly managed, concentrated animal wastes] flowing down the Mississippi River from the Corn Belt,” and its not surprising that under these conditions even the best farmers feel embattled by the demands of environmentalists (17). Here wild species must scrape by on roadside verges, railroad rights of way, the occasional tiny patch of remnant grassland or woods, while the still-rich prairie soils are mined for corn, soybeans, and more corn.

The editors both understand this landscape as residents and remember what it was like to confront it as outsiders: Dana was a co-founder of The Land Institute in Kansas and is now associate director of the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota; her daughter Laura is an associate professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa and has clearly made a strong effort in her time there to apply the tools of conservation biology to the local landscape in her research and teaching. Such a perspective is sobering for those of us living in other parts of the country, because it forces us to realize not just how ecosystem effects pay no heed to regional boundaries (witness that dead zone in the Gulf) but also how food systems are just as fluid, just as irreverent. How does our trip to the supermarket in New Jersey contribute to the conversion of the Midwest into an ecological sacrifice area? What profound consequences would the recreation of truly local food systems have?

This is not a handbook for on-farm ecological restoration, although many examples are given of farming practices that can and do improve wildlife populations or offer other ecosystem services such as stream-bank stabilization and flood control. As a collection of essays, its message occasionally feels disjointed—one can’t help but wonder whether the Jacksons alone might have produced a more powerful exposition of the issues at stake—but on the other hand the variety of perspectives is interesting in itself. It’s nice to see an essay on “Nature and Farming in Britain,” outlining some of the agri-environmental policies being tried overseas, and the editors cite the example of the Wild Farm Alliance, a coalition of environmental activists and farming advocates founded in 2000, as a sign that a parallel movement may be gaining ground here at home.

Finally, this book is valuable for its reassertion of the eloquent value of the work of Aldo Leopold, the Iowa-born wildlife biologist whose Sand County Almanac, recounting his experiences restoring a run-down farm in Wisconsin, has become a founding document of conservation biology as well as a standard text for courses in environmental literature. The Jacksons’ book features a foreword by Aldo Leopold’s daughter Nina Leopold Bradley, essays by the executive director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the son of one of Leopold’s graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, and musings on a few of Leopold’s many trenchant observations about the possibilities for wild things to find homes in rural spaces.

Less well-known, perhaps, is the fact that Leopold attended Lawrenceville School, and spent a good part of his teens tramping the fields and woods of Mercer County, making journal entries of his findings and writing home to his family about what he discovered. On January 9, 1904, just two days after his arrival in New Jersey, he wrote:

I went north, across the country, about seven miles, and then circled back toward the west. Here every farm has a timber lot, sometimes fifteen or twenty acres, so it is a fine country for birds. It is about like Iowa high prairie, but the timber is more like the Michigan hardwood, the commonest trees being oak, beech, ash, hickory, chestnut, red cedar, and some elm. In some places, notably old orchards, young red cedars cover the ground. Nearly all the undergrowth in the woods is saplings and briars. There is little indiscriminate chopping of timber here.

The Farm as Natural Habitat is a fitting tribute to Leopold’s legacy, illustrating as it does the rich potential of even apparently drab or damaged places. Perhaps Leopold has something to teach us about the agroecological landscape of New Jersey, too.