When people find out that I am a born and raised New York City girl, they usually give me a skeptical look and ask, “So, how again did you end up in farming?” If they don’t ask, it’s a safe bet that they will try to take advantage of my presumed ignorance of agriculture.
The truth is that I left the City at 16 and have been on the sustainable agriculture path ever since. As a junior in high school, I spent a semester at an environmental education school in Maine that had a diversified crop and livestock farm. Besides attending classes, all students worked on the farm. We planted vegetables, weeded fields, and harvested crops; we milked cows, collected eggs, and slaughtered chickens; we turned compost, built fences, and chopped wood. Once the semester ended, I returned to the farm as part of the summer farm crew for the following six summers.
It was there that I learned the land ethic that underpins my approach to farming.
A land ethic is an approach to land use that is based on stewardship and participation rather than exploitation and destruction. Aldo Leopold developed the concept of a “land ethic” in his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac. Leopold believed that a community includes not only people but also the soil, water, plants, and animals – the land – on which the community depends.
Extending the boundaries of community to include the land implies a different relationship with it. The land is no longer just a resource to be developed for economic purposes; it becomes a resource to be stewarded over the long-term. Long-term stewardship requires a much more detailed knowledge of a piece of land, its cycles, and its attributes. That knowledge comes from regular interaction with, observation of, and dependence on land.
A land ethic also assumes a moral responsibility to take care of the land in a way that provides both for the human community – through, for example, food and energy production – and the natural community. The natural community needs good soil and water management so that plants and animals can thrive. Neglecting those needs is equivalent to shirking a responsibility to take care of one’s own.
When I was in Maine, I worked for a farmer, Mark Albee, who embodied the land ethic. It was a deliberate and holistic approach to management that was based on the physical and climatic characteristics of the place when considering what to grow, when to grow it, and how to grow it. We followed organic methods in vegetable production and raised cows, chickens, and turkeys on pastures in a rotation that involved moving the animals at least once, if not twice, a day. It was a very intensive form of management that required constant tweaking based on current conditions and anticipating the needs of the plants and animals.
Mark’s land ethic went further to include the concept of scale. If humans have a moral responsibility to steward the land, and if good stewardship requires a deep knowledge of a piece of land, then one person should manage only as much land as he or she can know well. Bad management can stem from a lack of knowledge due to just having too much of it.
In the months leading up to the decision to leave D.C. and move to Italy, I went to visit Mark and his wife, Ingrid, for some guidance on the impending move. At the end of a long discussion about the farm, Mark matter-of-factly noted, “Well, if you decide not to take care of it, then you should pass it on to someone who will.” In other words, keeping the land but not taking care of it was not an option – for the good of the land. It was fine to decide that I couldn’t take care of the land, but in that case, I should sell it or rent it to someone who could take care of it. All that I had left to do was to find out if I could take care of it.
I’ve spent much of my time since I arrived two years ago building a relationship with this piece of land and listening to what it says about what it needs and what it can do. What grows well here? When does it rain? How does the water flow, and how should it flow? How is the soil doing, and what does the soil need? When is the right time to till the soil? When is the best time to harvest each crop? What is the best crop rotation? When and where are there natural pastures for the animals?
The land replies with answers it communicates through healthy crops or healthy weeds, soil that is easily tilled or that is hard as a rock and can’t be tilled, water that does or doesn’t drain, animals that happily stay in their paddocks or that break through fences. And day by day, I build my own land ethic tied to this place.