Regenerative Agriculture in Rural Towns Is All About Community
In order to make any positive changes to farming practices, it’s crucial to start dialogue with your neighbors.
It’s early, maybe 6 a.m. I’ve just been seated at a local roadside diner. The booth seats are clad in red leather and most of the boots are muddy. Damp rain jackets hang by the door. Wool shirts are tucked into pants held in place by suspenders. The smell of bacon permeates the air. NPR plays softly in the background. It's about the coffee for me, but maybe I will have some food. Outside the partially fogged window, steam rises from the warming earth. It’s chilly in the morning all year. A lovely expanse of bright green fields rolls down along the hillside. I couldn’t ask for a more picturesque, pastoral view.
For a few seasons now, I have traveled back and forth between Upstate New York and Vermont, keeping bees. Their lives are my life. I revolve around them. I’m not sure where the potatoes I am about to eat have come from, nor the bacon, but that’s not really the point. Obviously, food comes from many places. Insane though it may seem, if you have ever done any farming, very little of our daily consumables in the continental U.S. actually come from local land. That said, in this specific area of the “North Country,” as many like to call it, farms do still exist.
My Dream to Bring Regenerative Farming Practices to Rural New York
A few bites into my five-dollar plate of eggs and potatoes, I begin to notice the conversation going on around me. It is early June. The cornfields are very wet. Old farmers sit comfortably, jackets slowly drying from the electric heat, talking in that slow cadence of a person who has relaxed into their trade. “Knee-high by the Fourth of July” is often a dream around these parts. They say that summer is late this year. Rain has slowed growth and bogged down the machines. I think of my own land. In 2018, I closed on 100 acres in the Adirondack State Park. I bought this tract to prevent the last large field within town limits from being planted with GMO corn. I will not admit this fact to my dining companions.
The property was clear-cut about 25 years ago and is now a tangled mess of saplings and logging ruts. Beavers traverse it with an industry that puts all the local humans to shame. It is most commonly used as a playground for four-wheelers and deer poaching by the neighbors. I both love and hate this about it. “My land” would have made a decent cornfield, though this year it would be wet like all the others. I often wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. My dream is to establish a combination meadow and forest sanctuary modeled after a food forest for humans, but designed solely for pollinators. After all, who says that we are biologically more important? Black locust, basswood, willow and sumac parade across the foreground of my mind. Fields are for dandelion, milkweed, clovers and trefoil. Fruit trees are popular with locals of all kinds, but they cannot take over the landscape completely. The forest wetlands must survive. I’m hoping this project can support both the local, native bees and my managed, imported honeybees.
Regenerative Farming Is About Balancing the Needs of the Land and People
Navigating land use in a small, rural town can be tricky. Pure conservation isn’t the answer, but compromise can help. Rotational grazing increases nutrition for livestock, which in turn improves the soil, reduces energy outputs in husbandry and supports pollinators. Leaving wild space at the edge of mono-crop planting preserves critical habitat that keeps bees alive. But all of these things are more work and less money. Even a swale of a few feet will shave dollars off the crop. Rotational grazing is more labor that many farmers can’t afford. Fencing costs money. Seeds cost money. Labor costs money. And change is hard. Here I am, having breakfast in a town where more than half the windows on Main Street are boarded up, and I want to start a conversation about environmentalism? I want to talk about what the earth needs? What the bees need? When the people don’t have enough food? Well, yes. I’m not suggesting we outlaw the use of barns, or conventional dairy, anytime soon, but I still want to talk about it. In Vermont. In New York. In Canada. Everywhere that food grows, this conversation. Please.
If you really think about it, does hauling the poop to the field and the grass to the barn make sense? If I had to choose a single regenerative agriculture practice that I believe could make a long-term difference to the health of agricultural ecosystems in upstate New York, I would choose rotational grazing. Let’s free the cows from their barns, bring the poop to the fields, and feed the bees and the earth and the people all at once. Do it for the plants. For the farmers and their stock. For the diners. For the bees.
Starting a Dialogue as an Outsider Is Challenging
The Adirondacks are home to a fascinating enclave of progressive farmers, young and old, working to restore sustainable practices for food production and land stewardship. It is a wonderful movement to be a part of, but many of us are not from here. Government programs have the power to provide grants that bring the food to the people who grow it, and their neighbors. But how can I engage people in the conversations that need to happen when I am still an outsider?
The grocery store in the town where I live went out of business, so now folks drive 20 minutes on the highway to the closest Hannaford, or they shop for food at the dollar store. Meanwhile, fields overflow with rich abundance that many of the locals can’t afford. Most of the chances I actually get to talk about these issues happen in the auto shop or at the gas pump. I stand shoulder to shoulder with families who have lived in this area for generations. I ash my cigarette on the same concrete floor as them. We share a water supply. Who am I to say they should do something different? I find that the closer I get with them, and the more I listen, the more I find we have in common.
I keep bees on about 12 farms within a 30-minute drive of the aforementioned diner. During some seasons, the local farmers plant hay and cover crops that please me. Other times, they don’t. Did you know that the tongues of honeybees are not long enough to reach the nectar inside a red clover blossom? Something as simple as allowing cows to graze on the fresh green land instead of feeding them hay in the barn, or planting white clover instead of red, could make or break my season as a beekeeper. But how will anyone know that unless I befriend the folks who poach deer on my land?
Change Requires Communication—Even When It Comes to Farming
The politics of this area, and many like it, are difficult. People want different things. They prioritize their own needs over the needs of the land and community, and who can blame them? Life must go on. I am four years into this project and I’ve accomplished very little. The land is still not cleared, and money is tight to even keep it in my possession. But for every challenge, there is a success. A neighbor heard my truck straining to escape from the quagmire that is my driveway. He pulled me out, I gave him honey and now we are friends.
Each basic human interaction, every beer at the local watering hole, brings me one step closer to sharing what I came here to share. I’ve never loved the term “permaculture.” It’s created quite the buzz, and yet it neglects to mention many generations of wisdom built into agriculture in most areas of the world. Intelligent, respectful and practical land use is a major priority for me. I would like to have coffee with the corn farmers before heading home to my bees. I would like to listen as much as I speak. I would like us all to live past 2023. We are in this together. We are survivor stock.