At one of my first fires in Eastern Oregon working as a rangeland firefighter, I looked over my shoulder and saw a group of ranchers, recognizable by their hats and boots, hiking quickly up the mountain. As the flames raced through the sagebrush, the ranchers’ passion was obvious. Their drive reflected not only their desire to protect their livelihood and cattle, but also the innate care they feel for the land they graze and farm.
Yet ranchers and farmers who care for the land so passionately are often regarded by urban foodies and greenie activists as the foe of the Earth. That common misconception is the result of the inflammatory propaganda attacking farmers that has taken hold in mainstream media and on college campuses.
In falsely claiming farmers disregard water, land and wildlife, anti-farming activists ignore two simple truths. First, farm families live on and often own the very land they are accused of damaging. Second, many of these families have protected the land for generations and they intend for their farm to continue successfully for many years to come.
It should be made clear exactly how much farmers truly care for their land.
As director of Washington Policy Center’s new Initiative on Agriculture, I have the privilege to meet with hundreds of farmers and ranchers from around the state. Dairy farmers, orchardists, cattle ranchers, blueberry growers, mint farmers, vegetable producers, wheat farmers and more all have a story to tell about how they are committed to caring for the land.
Through my work, I met an orchardist who has implemented multiple strategies to conserve water, an organic vegetable grower who implements many of the same practices on his conventional acreage, and a dairy farmer who uses precision technology to apply no more chemical than is needed to his field.
I recently met with Eastern Washington cattle rancher Dick Coon, who fit the stereotype, boots and all. Yet he quickly debunked the urban vision of the country hick who exploits the land. This Washington rancher, like most I know, was knowledgeable about the problems facing the environment, well-educated on the best science for managing his land, and truly cared for every inch of his property.
For example, he wisely moves his cattle to new pasture every 24 to 48 hours, giving each field a rest while providing healthy and affordable food for his cattle. However, the cattle are not the only beneficiaries. By carefully monitoring grazing areas along stream banks, the fish also benefit.
His timed movement of cows near streams imitates the natural pattern of grazing by bison, elk and other hooved mammals that improve the ecological diversity of the streams.
Fish biologists have found that because of the cows’ managed presence along streams, the size and diversity of the fish within the stream running through this ranch was well above the average of non-grazed areas. As the rancher put it, “Cows are the best all-terrain range management vehicles available.”
A lifetime of working with farmers has shown me that farmers care more for the environment than any regulator, lawmaker or urban social activist ever will. Farmers do more than just talk about the problems facing the environment. Every day they live and work on their farms, caring for the environment, in the belief that the next generation, and then the next, will want to continue the family business, because the land, air, water and biodiversity remain intact.
The same is true of dairy farmers, orchardists, organic vegetable growers, wheat farmers, spearmint growers, hop farmers and the entire community of 36,000 farmers and ranchers in our state. Environmentalists in Seattle are not the only ones who care about protecting the earth. In fact, our state’s best environmentalists are the people who love, live with and work on the land every day.
Madi Clark is the agriculture research director for the Washington Policy Center.