Finding Common Ground

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From the middle of a mint farm in central Oregon, the fields stretch out in every direction, and the snow-topped Cascade mountain range looms ahead, enormous even at a distance. But I wasn’t taking in the vista, even though I rarely get to see such wild spaces at home in New York. Instead, my eyes were drawn to the ground, where tiny sprigs of mint were just peeking out, and mint farmer Bob Franke was showing me the water conservation system on Essex Farms.

“Water is a very precious commodity, so we’re always looking for ways to conserve it,” says Franke. He showed me the center-pivot irrigation system he installed on Essex Farms, a technology upgrade that reduced the farm’s water usage by 40 percent over the past decade. The bigger nozzles, low-pressure water flow, and the closeness of the nozzles to the ground means he uses less water, and less water is lost to evaporation.

Essex Farms is a three-hour drive from Portland, just east of the Cascades, in a high desert ecosystem where you’re more likely to see sagebrush than Sitka spruce. Water use in this part of Oregon is a delicate subject and has long been the source of tense conflict between environmental advocates and farmers. The two groups are often seen in direct opposition to each other — and not only on the topic of water.

I would say I fall into the first group: I’m a borderline obsessive environmentalist and an employee of the Rainforest Alliance, an environmental organization dedicated, in part, to conserving natural landscapes through sustainable agriculture. But I wonder, as I listen to Franke speak with such enthusiasm for the many water conservation methods he uses, what problems an environmentalist would have with such a conservation-focused mindset.

Conservation and Conservatism:
Two worlds, one ideology

In many ways, it seems that environmental organizations and farmers speak entirely different languages. As has been widely reported recently, words like “sustainable,” “climate-smart,” and even “environment” cause instant suspicion in many farming communities. In these regions, which tend to be politically conservative, these terms don’t resonate — they alienate. They’re shorthand for a green ideology that doesn’t sit well with a conservative group.

Take the term “climate change.” According to a 2013 survey among Idaho farmers, only 35 percent said that climate change was caused about equally by natural changes in the environment and human causes. 23 percent said climate change was mostly caused by natural changes, and 27 percent said there was not sufficient evidence to determine whether climate change was happening at all. Asking farmers what they think about climate change is a non-starter. But ask a farmer about the strange weather we’ve had in the past few years? You’ll get an earful.

Suggesting that sustainable agriculture could be a climate-change solution would get you lumped in with Elizabeth Warren’s lot. But, in fact, sustainability is a highly conservative concept, one based on working within the land’s natural budget and avoiding overdrawing limited resources.

Think of soil and water as deposits in a savings account. Withdrawing too much, too fast, is a recipe for eventual collapse. This isn’t news; farmers know this. As it happens, farmers who engage in conservation while farming can benefit in a multitude of ways — perhaps most notably, financially.

This is where Franke’s farm is a prime example. Essex Farms is on the cusp of achieving Rainforest Alliance certification, the second farm in the continental United States to do so. (The first, Albrecht Farms, is also a mint farm, about a three-hour drive from Essex Farms.) This was the purpose of my trip — to see what sustainable agriculture certification looked like, translated from the Rainforest Alliance’s typical tropical context to the high desert plateau of eastern Oregon.

Rainforest Alliance certification means farmers abide by a strict set of sustainability criteria. These run the gamut from biodiversity protection and soil conservation to water quality testing and respecting workers’ rights. So in addition to strict water conservation, Essex Farms also adheres to other sustainable agricultural practices to achieve certification — and to and keep it. The farm will undergo an audit every year to make sure it’s still sticking to the standard.

Here on Essex Farms, the appeal of a sustainability certification is less about protecting the environment and more about cost saving, quality control, and price stability. Essex and Albrecht Farms sought Rainforest Alliance certification not necessarily because they wanted to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods (which is the Rainforest Alliance’s mission). While Essex and Albrecht do tread more lightly on the earth because of their Rainforest Alliance certified farms (or, in Franke’s case, soon-to-be-certified), they’re also reaping financial gains for their work. As Kody Albrecht, who runs Albrecht Farms, succinctly put it: “We get a premium for certified product.” For Franke and Albrecht, sustainability is an added value.

Mint Matters

Franke and I walk along the side of the mint field through tall grass growing under a row of twisty juniper trees. This undeveloped section of land provides habitat to wildlife, required by the certification standard, though this wild patch was here before Essex Farms achieved certification. Out here, he tells me, you can see elk, deer, hawks, eagles, owls, and lots of “little critters” that scurry through the fields.

From the shade of the juniper trees, we look out over the mint, which, in late April, is just starting to pop up from the ground. Franke grows spearmint and peppermint, which go into tea mixes for export to Europe or are made into essential oils. But mint is planted in only about half his land—the rest is in hay and seed crops. The farm practices crop rotations to keep the soil healthy and as a form of pest control; apparently, pocket gophers, Essex Farms’ most troublesome pest, don’t like crop rotations.

As we talk, Franke describes Essex Farms’ different conservation strategies. The crop rotations, he says, conserve soil and prevent erosion. The center-pivot irrigation system conserves water. Using an integrated pest management system, which goes very light on pesticides and heavy on other, natural forms of pest control (beneficial mites to control for pest mites, keeping farm equipment clean to prevent the spread of a soil-borne fungus, crop rotations, etc.) saves on labor and time. Taken together, these conservation strategies equate to improved efficiency — fewer inputs, less labor. And, says Franke, “It saves us money, too.”

Running a farm in the U.S. is an expensive business. Both Franke and Albrecht told me about the multi-million dollar loans they’ve had to take out, and I saw for myself the $300,000 combine and the $180,000 tractors in the farm shop. It’s not a secret that farming is a hard game with slim margins, so every edge — sustainability certification included — gives farmers a boost.

High Stakes

All over the United States, farmers are dealing with the different effects of climate change, whether they call it climate change or crazy weather. While agriculture is the world’s second-greatest contributor to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, there’s also an opportunity for farms to be part of the solution.

Volatile weather patterns mean farms are going to have to adapt to a new reality, one where conservation initiatives take priority to keep farms financially solvent. The fact that Franke’s and Albrecht’s on-farm practices reduce their strain on the environment and their contributions to climate change makes me, the environmentalist, quite happy. That these conservative, conservation practices save on costs might make farmers, as a group and as businesspeople, happy too.

Let’s look at Franke’s and Albrecht’s crop rotations and no-till practices, for example. Soil is the biggest carbon sink on the planet, storing 75 percent of terrestrial carbon. Franke’s and Albrecht’s complex series of crop rotations and no-till farming practices store carbon in the soil for the long term. During harvest, organic matter is left in the field or composted, which reduces waste and saves on labor costs. It also enriches the soil without resorting to costly off-farm inputs, prevents erosion and run-off, produces a high-quality mint product, and reduces the farms’ greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also another source of revenue: On Essex Farms, excess compost is sold as an addition to common garden soil.

Every technique Franke and Albrecht demonstrated has dual benefits. Their conservation practices make economic sense, reducing inputs and saving costs, while resulting in a product that carries a price premium. And those conservation practices bring a multitude of environmental benefits that can sustain the property for the long term, while reducing the farms’ greenhouse gas emissions and contribution to climate change.

I came away thinking that perhaps environmental groups and farmers have more in common than they think. Climate change activism or long-term farm stability: It doesn’t matter which you think is more important. You can have both. When you clear away the coded language and perceptions, these two seemingly disparate groups have very similar underlying goals: A healthy environment will yield a healthy harvest, and sustainably managed land will produce for generations down the line. Recognizing the common ground these two groups share is an important step towards a more sustainable agricultural system.

Brittany Wienke is a writer and beekeeper based in Brooklyn, NY.

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