The Farmer as Natural Resource Professional

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Kent Solberg was born, as he puts it, “With a heart for the land.” And in the most recent LSP podcast (episode 57), the central Minnesota farmer wears his heart on the sleeve of his work shirt. Is there anything more enjoyable than chatting with someone who’s found a way to combine a love for the land with a way to make a living on that land?

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” I’ll never forget first reading those lines in A Sand County Almanac. At last, here was someone who understood those of us in farm country that saw that wild corner in the back forty for what it was: a piece of land that had already reached its potential, and wasn’t just future corn ground.

Aldo Leopold believed that here in the Midwest working farmland could not only protect our natural resources, but improve them. He saw the woodlot, stream bank, pasture and cornfield as all part of an integrated whole.

Kent Solberg feels the same way, even though he comes out of a profession that is still struggling with this concept. Solberg grew up in the Twin Cities and from an early age loved the outdoors and the natural environment. When he was a kid he thought the best way to live that passion was to farm. But at the time there were few opportunities for a city slicker to get into farming; programs like LSP’s Farm Beginnings didn’t exist yet.

So, he got a master’s degree in wildlife management and worked several years for various state and federal agencies in the Midwest. He worked on wildlife refuges and saw how setting land aside and keeping it from being used for economic gain could not only help wildlife thrive, but provided all sorts of other ecological services such as clean water.

But this is the Midwest, and the vast majority of our rural land is in the hands of private landowners—namely farmers. Here in Minnesota alone, we have 29.5 million acres classified as agricultural, which is 58 percent of the state’s total land area. Are those agricultural areas to be just sacrifice zones as far as the environment is concerned? Should we just rely on refuges, parks, wilderness areas and even Conservation Reserve Program acres to provide islands of ecological health? The problem with that, as any natural resource professional knows, is that it creates isolated regions where, for example, all the wildlife in an area must escape to. These can become population sinks as predators, disease and bad weather take their toll. The other problem with the “ecological island” concept is that it makes our farms pretty dreary places to work and live.

Through his work, Solberg began running into farmers who were using sustainable production methods on private land to produce food (and a living) as well as environmental benefits. He was particularly intrigued by farmers who were raising livestock on rotationally grazed pastures. These pastures were producing a good livelihood, but were also leaving room for grassland species such as bobolinks, as well as game birds like pheasants. In addition, the pastures were protecting the soil year-round and reducing runoff into waterways, producing good aquatic habitat for fish and other critters. Solberg was also impressed that these farmers were doing all of this at a relatively low cost.

About a decade ago, the professional wildlifer began raising beef on grass part-time. In 2003, he went whole hog, so to speak, and bought a farm in Wadena County. His family now produces milk, pork and eggs on carefully managed, rotationally grazed pastures. Kent Solberg has finally answered the call of farming. There’s no uniform to wear and no civil service pay grade, but in a way, it’s not a huge career shift. Even though he’s not managing a wildlife refuge, the farmer still sees himself as a natural resource professional—the real estate he’s now managing is just on a more intimate scale. And Solberg knows enough about ecology to realize that what he does on his own farm is having impacts on a larger landscape level as well. After all, a tributary to the Mississippi runs through his property.

But just as important to the long-term sustainability of this operation, Solberg is generating economic activity as well as ecological activity. He feels he’s able to produce wholesale milk at a competitive cost with his grazing system. He’s selling eggs and pork direct to consumers, and he can’t keep up with the demand for these natural products. Kent’s passion for the outdoors is rivaled only by his delight that he’s producing food that consumers are demanding.

And it’s that demand for sustainably-produced food that will make it financially viable for farms like this to nurture nature in the long term. If you like wildlife, you should find a way to support farms like this. As Solberg says in the podcast, otter, woodcock, grouse, waterfowl, cranes, bluebirds and raptors all make the farm home. And that’s very important to him. This farm as natural habitat is living proof that one can produce food while enhancing the environment.

Solberg says that natural resource professionals are starting to come around on the “working lands conservation” concept as they increasingly see firsthand how farmers can balance production and conservation. It doesn’t hurt that science is starting to back up this idea with some solid research results. Even state and federal government is beginning to see that farmland and wildland shouldn’t be two unrelated entities locked away in their own separate boxes. The 2008 Farm Bill, while highly flawed, did provide some key resources for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), an initiative that is nothing short of revolutionary in its support for farming that benefits the environment (check out LSP’s latest CSP fact sheet here).

Perhaps what’s the most exciting recent development is that consumers are recognizing the connections between sustainable farming, their own health, healthy economics, and the health of the land, and are encouraging such interactions with their food dollar. Hunting ducks on Sunday and buying your pork chops at Walmart on Monday are two acts doomed to contradiction—kind of like driving a Hummer to a meeting on global warming.

When you talk to someone as passionate about life as Kent Solberg, you soon realize all of this—making a living, improving the land, feeding people—would mean little if it wasn’t fun, if it didn’t add to his quality of life. We can’t expect farmers to do this just because it’s good for society; the last thing the world needs is one more job that’s become duty-bound drudgery. But just listen to him list all the wildlife he can see in a typical day on the farm and that concern is put to rest. Kent’s no martyr.

“To hear the honking of the geese or the rattle of the cranes in the distance or at sunrise when we’re going out to get the cows in the morning really just makes it much more enjoyable,” Kent told me. “It’s part of the thrill of getting up in the morning.”

Here’s to hoping that the spread of Kent Solberg’s type of farming will result in a more thrilling world for all of us who cannot live without Leopold’s “wild things.”

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