Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic

Note: Brian DeVore has a degree in agricultural journalism and wildlife biology from Iowa State University. He grew up on a crop and livestock farm in Cass County in southwestern Iowa and, while serving in the Peace Corps, managed a dairy cooperative in Lesotho. He was a contributor to the 2002 book,The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, and for the past 25 years has worked as an editor at the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota. His recent book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic was published in 2018 by University of Wisconsin Press. (https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/5621.htm)

The following essay is an excerpt from Wildly Successful Farming.

A Day on the Farm, a Night on the River

The idea for writing a book about farmers who refuse to separate the “ecological” and the “agronomic” was sparked by time I spent with the late Dan Specht. Before his tragic death in 2013 as a result of a haying accident, Dan had spent decades raising crops and livestock on a ridgetop farm overlooking the Mississippi River near McGregor in the Driftless Area of northeastern Iowa. That farm also “produced” ecological health, which was evidenced by the prodigious presence of grassland songbirds, pollinators, healthy soil, and clean water, among other things. He was recognized nationally as a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, and had even testified before a Congressional committee on why regenerative farming was a public good worth being supported by public policy.

On a summer day in 1999, I visited his farm in an attempt to put a human face on a highly complex story: how nutrient runoff from Midwestern crop fields was creating a hypoxic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to write an article about the role farmers like Dan Specht could play in mitigating the problem. Dan agreed to spend the day showing me some of the innovative farming methods he was using to tighten up his nutrient cycle—managed rotational grazing of cattle, cover cropping, diverse rotations—as long as I agreed to go fishing with him and Jeff Klinge, another farmer from the area, that evening.

While trolling the backwaters and talking with Dan and Jeff about everything from agricultural policy to water chemistry to geology, it became clear there was a direct connection between what took place up on the nearby hilltops and the results down on the bottomlands, all the way downstream to the Gulf. This excursion was part and parcel of the personal seminar Dan was giving me on farming, fishing, and fertilizer.

Dan and others like him are what I call “ecological agrarians”—farmers who understand Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology: “Everything is connected to everything else.”

Below is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of my book. I attempt to describe here how difficult it is, especially in the Midwest, to arrive at a worldview that a productive agriculture and a healthy ecosystem are not mutually exclusive.

The Land Ethic
Growing up on a 240-acre farm in southwestern Iowa during the 1970s, I considered farming and the natural world to be two very different animals. You raised corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle up on the DeVore hill, and wildlife thrived in those hidden, and somewhat mysterious, hollows down in the bottomland where a scrappy little stream called the 7-Mile cut a gash through our neighborhood. That belief was reinforced by the fact that the 1970s was witness to a “fencerow-to-fencerow” grain production explosion, when farmers were encouraged to farm every last acre in the name of “feeding the world.” Wildlife habitat was a luxury on “real” working farms. My home place succumbed to this thinking, but not nearly to the extent of other farms. My dad removed plenty of trees and a few brushy fencerows—more out of a need to see things neat and tidy than any desire to “feed the world.” He had hunted, fished, and trapped back in the day, but now he was a farmer, and his interaction with the land began and ended with how to wrest a living from it.

I had always preferred spending more time in the untamed bottoms of the 7-Mile than the domesticated tops of our farm, so when I went to college I studied fish and wildlife biology and journalism, thinking I was going to be the next Mark Trail, the outdoor writer of newspaper comic strip fame. My belief that farming and the natural world did not mix was reinforced early by a professor who was a big believer in the role wildlife refuges, parks, and other publicly owned natural areas could play in preserving remnants of nature. During a field course called “The Ecology of the Missouri Ozarks,” we drove by section after section of farmland so we could visit federal and state wildlife refuges, waterways that had been protected via the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and national forests.

At one point, we visited a Missouri lake that was inundated with boaters and swimmers on an early spring day. It was a cacophony of activity, and quite frankly, did not show American outdoor recreationists at their best. It was particularly jarring after spending several days in the more “natural” parts of the Ozarks.

“We need areas like this,” my professor explained as he slowly guided our college van through the crowds. “It’s like a safety valve that keeps people away from real nature.” By extension, farming the hell out of the best soils kept farmers away from those “natural areas” as well, I assumed. This would mark a common belief I ran into in subsequent years: it wasn’t just farmers who thought agriculture and the natural world did not mix, so did many ecologists and government natural resource professionals.

And during my college years in the early 1980s, farming and nature seemed more alienated from each other than ever. I wrote articles about studies showing that agrichemical contamination of Iowa’s drinking water wells was ubiquitous, while wildlife habitat was shrinking to all-time lows. I’m reminded of the first magazine story I tried to write as a student journalist. It was supposed to be about how farming could actually help wildlife. My first interview was with a well-known bird expert at Iowa State University. When I presented him with my thesis for the story, he said something along the lines of, “I’m not sure if there’s a story there. Farming does more harm than good to wildlife.” He then went on to talk about how harvesting corn with combines left the fields so denuded of grain that there wasn’t even anything left over for the wildlife to glean. I ended up doing the story anyway, but it was pretty lame—something about farmers planting wildlife-friendly windbreaks along fence lines sticks out in my head. To be sure, this was 1983 or so, and we had just come through the 1970s and its decimating fencerow-to- fencerow planting fever. That ornithologist was right to be pessimistic.

It turns out there was a very important human element to all this bad news that I missed at the time: as farms became less numerous and larger, environmental degradation increased. There were simply fewer people on the land to care if a pasture was plowed or a brushy fence line bulldozed. It turns out the fate of the family farmer isn’t just tied to the price of corn—there is a real connection to the health of the land as well.

Somewhere along the line, my view of agriculture’s relationship with nature changed. I’m sure it was a combination of things, but one experience stands out. One of the farmers who farmed on the bottomlands of the 7-Mile had hunted, fished, and trapped with my dad back when they were young. But this guy, perhaps because of his nearness to the creek, had never quite lost his interest in woods and streams. One day he told me about a book he had just read. “You might be interested in it,” he said nonchalantly. “It’s about this guy who kind of takes you through the seasons and describes our relationship with the land, things like that.”

That book was A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. Even though it had been written almost half a century before I picked it up, it set my brain on fire. I loved the descriptions of nature, and Leopold’s ability to observe one small aspect of the land and extrapolate it into a larger way of thinking. But what really drew me in was his idea of the “land ethic”—the idea that we have a moral responsibility to the land and its wild flora and fauna, that not every “cog and wheel” in nature must justify itself economically in order for us to give it permission to exist. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote Leopold. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

When I first read those words, I didn’t know enough about “biotas” or “ecosystems” to judge what land practices were preserving “integrity and stability.” All I knew was I didn’t like the cold feeling I got in my gut when I saw a stand of hardwoods bulldozed and burned, a creek straightened or a pasture plowed up and planted to corn. To be honest, when I was younger my opposition to such “land improvements” was rooted in self-interest. I remember when a neighboring farmer ripped out a brushy fencerow soon after he bought property in our neighborhood. My first thought was, “Well, I’ll have to find another place to hunt rabbits.”

But Leopold helped me begin observing the workings of the land less as a consumer of outdoor diversions and more as a member of a community, one that was much more interesting than I could have imagined. When we stop viewing land as mere property, the possibilities, for us as well as that land, are opened wide. Ironically, some of those possibilities are actually based in economics. For example, farmers in recent years are discovering that by ignoring all that “useless” soil biota and focusing exclusively on adding to their fields’ financial value with high-priced, artificial inputs like petroleum-based fertilizer, they are sacrificing the long-term viability of their land. That would not have surprised Leopold, who called it a false assumption that “the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.”

And I liked what Leopold said about how an all-encompassing ethic should apply not only to pristine wilderness areas but to where we live and work every day. When one considers such an ethic in terms of agriculture, the health of the land in rural areas is best served when food production and wild areas exist side-by-side, rather than as separate entities performing seemingly unrelated tasks. Such a way of looking at the world was highly appealing to a wildlife-loving farm kid who was living nowhere near a national park, wildlife refuge, or nature preserve. If I was to have any interaction with nature, it had to be in the pastures, crop fields and ditches that made up my agrarian world. Seeing my family’s 240 acres through Leopold’s eyes suddenly made that farm seem much larger and layered.

In his essay “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” Leopold eloquently described how woodlands, meadows, sloughs, and wetlands, those odd corners where ecological services quietly go about their business, can coexist with corn production, pasturing, and other farming enterprises. Wilderness areas, national forests, and wildlife refuges are important. But as Dana and Laura Jackson point out in a book I contributed to in 2002, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, too often people see their presence as an excuse to sacrifice a functioning ecosystem on good farmland: “Farm the best and preserve the rest.”

The result of this segregation on a landscape scale is pristine preserves such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on one end of the spectrum and ecological sacrifice zones such as the Corn Belt on the other end. On an individual farm scale, it often means gradual elimination of residual habitat fragments on the assumption that displaced wildlife can simply take up residence on public land somewhere else. The whole concept of wetland mitigation fits this mindset—in a state like Minnesota, highways, housing developments, and other such projects are allowed to displace a natural wetland as long as developers provide the means for a replacement marsh to be established elsewhere. It’s a nice idea, but ignores the concept that perhaps there was an important ecological reason that wetland was located in its original spot.

An integration of the tamed and the wild not only makes economic sense by saving soil and protecting water quality, for example, but it provides a certain “wholeness” that is so critical to the overall success of a farm. Wrote Leopold: “No one censures a man who loses his leg in an accident, or who was born with only four fingers, but we should look askance at a man who amputated a natural part on the grounds that some other part is more profitable.”
In the seven decades since Leopold wrote those words, it has become clear he was right in more ways than one. The sustainable agriculture movement is based on the idea that all aspects of a successful farm—from its soil, croplands, and pastures to its woodlands and sloughs—are part of a healthy whole. Farmers and scientists are realizing that an agricultural operation too far removed from its biological roots is more vulnerable to disease, pests, and uncooperative weather—in other words, it’s less resilient.

Leopold was writing in a different era, when industrial agriculture and agroecological thinking were both in their infancy. But recent research and real-farm experience have proven him right. Environmentalists are now aware that creating islands of natural areas is not sustainable in the long term. To be sure, waterfowl benefit from state and federal wildlife refuges, but when migrating they rely on the food and shelter present in the potholes and sloughs found on farms across the Midwest. A protected waterway may be safe from having factory waste dumped straight into it, but what about the non-point runoff from all the farms present in the surrounding watershed? It can be ecological death by a thousand hidden, and not so hidden, cuts.
In places like the Midwest, working lands conservation (of course, it could be argued that all lands “work” in terms of ecosystem services) is more than a nice concept—it’s a necessity in a region where vast tracts of publicly owned acres are few and far between. Pore over a map where shades of green indicate the percentage of land devoted to agricultural production, and you’ll see the midsection of America resembles the dominant clothing choice for a St. Patrick’s Day parade. In Iowa, almost 89 percent of the land area is farmed. Even in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, with their timberlands and lakes, 54 percent and 45 percent of the landscape, respectively, is in agriculture. Nationally, privately owned croplands, pastures, and rangeland make up about 40 percent of the terrestrial surface area, and are managed by just 2 percent of the population.

And a tiny subset of that 2 percent makes support of a functioning ecosystem a priority when producing food. But when one gets an opportunity to see such a philosophy in action, the psychological impacts can have an outsized effect. Soon after I went to work for the Land Stewardship Project in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to encounter numerous farmers, such as Dan Specht, who blended the natural world and their farming systems almost seamlessly. As I wrote in The Farm as Natural Habitat, some of these farmers were prompted to make major changes in their operations by health concerns (a well contaminated with agrichemicals), while others were triggered by economics (seeking a premium price in the organic market, for example).
I’ve always been fascinated by what prompts a farmer to make changes that are likely to invite the derision of others in the community, particularly other farmers. But the stories I find particularly intriguing are those of farmers who I call “ecological agrarians”—people who never really separated the natural world from food production. Sometimes they seemed to be born with this inability to disconnect the two. Other times, early life experiences forged this connection.

Wildly Successful Farming
No matter what the avenue or the timing, the result is, as Art “Tex” Hawkins refers to it, “wildly successful farms.” Hawkins is a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service watershed biologist who went on to start a sustainability initiative at Winona State University in Minnesota, and his late father, Art Sr., was one of Leopold’s first graduate students. The
younger Hawkins has worked closely with many of these farms that are blending nature and agriculture, helping them, for example, monitor the health of the ecosystem via bird identification. He sees them as the living embodiment of what good can come from refusing to separate the ecological from the agronomic.

I like the term “wildly successful,” partly because it’s a play on the title of a well-known farm magazine, Successful Farming. Just as a pop musician pines to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s long been acknowledged in the agricultural world that to have your farm featured in a magazine like Successful Farming is a sign that you’ve arrived. Farm magazines like this offer up lots of practical advice, but like their glossy counterparts in the suburbs and cities, they also have an aspirational component to them. “You too can be a successful farmer!” is the message their profiles and photographs convey.
Such success is measured by how many bushels are being produced on how many acres utilizing what kind of technology and inputs. However, there have always been groups of farmers who measure success based on how well their production systems interact with the land’s natural functions. When done right, these farms are able to succeed not only ecologically but financially and from a quality of life point of view. These are the wildly successful farms I refer to in the title of this book.

And we’re not just talking about farms that are homes to ducks and deer. “Wildness,” in this case, extends beneath the surface as well: healthy soil is perhaps the most diverse ecosystem on earth and maintaining its diversity to the point where natural systems can function has repercussions all the way up the food chain, to us. So, this book isn’t just about marshes and prairies—it’s about farms that give a variety of natural forces the opportunity to interact with human-driven forces in a positive way, literally from the ground up. Some of those interactions happen through a hands-off approach; others are more directed. Either way, thought and conscious decision-making must go into the process for it to be successful. This is, after all, for all intents and purposes the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by the actions of human beings.
This book tells the stories of farmers across the Midwest who are balancing agricultural productivity with a passion for all things wild. These farmers are utilizing a wide range of techniques and strategies, but they are united by a single philosophy, which is to approach working lands conservation as, to quote Leopold, “a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution.”

Whenever people read or hear about a farmer who is doing innovative things to balance food production with a healthy, functioning ecosystem, a natural response is, “Nice story, but what does it mean in the bigger picture?” In other words, are these examples fated to be feel good tales that have no real relevance when it comes to making our overall food and farming system more sustainable? I don’t think so. This book also describes how wildly successful farmers can have impacts beyond their field borders—all the way to research test plots and our supper tables. That said, I don’t want to mislead readers into thinking that this book is reporting on some sort of regenerative farming revolution that’s sweeping the U.S. Corn Belt. These stories are about farmers who are returning resiliency to their particular piece of the landscape. Given the catastrophic environmental threats our entire region faces, it can be difficult to accept the fact that wildly successful farming is an outlier.
But for now, it is—we will need to seek our optimism in the isolated, but powerful, examples profiled here. I’ve chosen to focus on the Midwest in this book because in many ways its landscape has been thoroughly reshaped by production agriculture to a greater extent than any other region in the country. If wildly successful farming can get a foothold in an area where, in some counties, 95 percent or more of the landscape is blanketed in either corn or soybeans during the growing season, then there’s hope for other places dominated by a version of the “Corn, Bean, Feedlot Machine,” as Montana rancher Becky Weed calls it. To use an agronomic metaphor, wildly successful farms are seeds and it remains to be seen whether society provides fertile soil—both in the marketplace and the public policy realm—for them to sprout the kind of growth that spreads widely.

`This is no shop manual on what that seedbed should look like, but I’ve included in these pages what I see as some of the common traits shared by farming operations that have in some way become wildly successful. Teamwork, cutting-edge science, curiosity, a willingness to ignore the conventional wisdom adhered to by peers, the ability to foresee (or at least weather) unintended consequences, and, of course, personal passion all play key roles. That’s a complex formula, one that makes creating a standard template for being wildly successful pretty much impossible. But when’s the last time something truly transformational came out of a neatly organized toolkit?