Nature and Environment

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In recent weeks, as the seasons turn from hot to cool, dry to wet, and the leaves both fade and explode into flaming Fall glory, my housemates and I spend more time indoors confronting each other instead of the Virginia wilderness.

Homesteading in the context of intentional community brings plenty of its own tangible, visceral adventures. Chasing neighborhood dogs away from our Muscovies, building composting toilets from scrap pallets, dumpster diving, and re-insulating an entire story of the house are easy and fun activities, compared to the ooey-gooey interpersonal dynamics that are the unspoken work of every intentional community.

Relationships are hard, and crafting healthy relationships is an art form. We have declared in word and deed that we are committed, not only to Appalachia and our dreams of living off grid, but also to consensus decision making, non-violent communication, friendship, honesty and accountability.

At the advent of the Apple-achian Project, we each took personality and conflict style tests, and agreed to certain procedures when inevitable dilemmas arise. This however, has not prevented miscommunication, misappropriation of tasks, budgeting hassles and an abundance of passive aggressive post-it notes. I believe this is the kind of work it takes to foment long-term happiness. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, we are all "Feelers." However we are all across the board with regards to conflict and communication styles, and love languages.

It is our diversity that is both our greatest strength and weakness. Sharing common goals, hippie proclivities, unbridled creativity, and a sense of the weird bonds us. Each person brings their own stories, and life-history, not to mention preferences ranging from mustard versus ketchup to sexuality.

This is the kind of adventuring I subscribe to long term. We may get into heated debates over leftovers, tree species, and household pets, yet through the discomfort we are also growing in intimacy and resiliency. The scariest part of community in the boonies is not the weather, the death of loved animals, manual labor, nor even tackling seemingly impossible infrastructure obstacles, but confronting yourself.
And I can't think of a better road to self-improvement than one paved with intentions and friendship.

When dealing with the Myers-Briggs types, navigating Perceiving versus Judging types has been our greatest difficulty. The tension between spontaneity and discipline makes for some tasty planning meetings. With regards to the Enneagram, and conflict styles- when the mood is upbeat, there is little to take note of. In trying times, however, we differ greatly. I retreat from conflict and defer to shame and shyness, while others may lean towards anger, fear, or a more outright expression of emotion. Our love languages are fun to notice in their variety- from physical touch to quality time, and have only been a source of joy.

While each person has to figure out for themselves what they want or need in a living and/or workspace, some useful tools the Apple-achian Project has made use of include:

1. The Myers Briggs Personality Test

2. The Enneagram

3. Love Languages

4. Conflict Styles Assessment

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



In my last blog post, I shared with you the importance of knowing the carnivores with whom you share your farm.  But there is another knowing that is important as well ~ knowing your place in the land community. So how do you see yourself in relationship to the land on which you farm? How you see yourself in that relationship determines how you farm and how you relate with all other life that shares your farmland with you.

Aldo Leopold, a forester, a farmer, a hunter, a philosopher, and father of wildlife conservation wrote of "The Land Ethic" in his renowned book The Sand County Almanac. Central to the land ethic is the community concept. These are his very words: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

When Leopold speaks of the community, he does not reserve that word for the human community alone, but for the larger community of life that goes beyond our species. When he speaks of his fellow-members, he does not point out only certain ones, but refers to all of them.

This way of knowing one’s place within the community of life is a far cry from the manner in which European settlers saw themselves in relationship to the new American continent. And as I discussed in my first blog detailing a historical perspective, their behaviors followed that perception of how they viewed themselves. Our generation is at a crossroads between these two perspectives of ourselves and our relationship to the land.

A major red flag will point out to the farmer where in this continuum he or she stands. The red flag ~ How do you look upon carnivores?  Again, Leopold’s words defining the Land Ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong where it does otherwise.”

That thing that Leopold refers to can be species, and those species can be carnivores. We know now through a great deal of research over the past fifty years that carnivores play a major role in preserving the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. They play that role by shepherding the lives of herbivores. Sheperding, a term used by scientists to describe how carnivores balance herbivore populations and thus keep them healthy and robust, and by doing so protect the “green life” of our planet from being devoured by them.

So as result, not having carnivores present on your farm would greatly affect the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. And one last thought regarding the word beauty that Leopold uses. He is not referring to physical attractiveness, but how the phenomenal life of the whole community works as a whole!

Leopold’s Land Ethic succinctly describes then the foundation for the future of farming on our continent: understanding our place in the land community and respecting the importance of all other members of this biotic community.

But nothing has been handed down to our generation from those who have come before us when it comes to our relationship to carnivores within the land ethic. It is a huge learning curve for us, as I mentioned in my first blog. So in my future blogs I will write more particularly about carnivores you experience on your farm, what affects your relationship with them, how you can change that relationship for the better, and the use of animal husbandry practices that work!

Until then, I encourage you to read The Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

Geri Vistein is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine. Read all of Geri's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



We have lived full time in the Sangre de Christo mountains for 18+ years full time. During that time, we have had more encounters with black bears than I can count. Our experience has taught us that they are good and respectful neighbors. We read about how they are so dangerous and to be avoided, but our experience has been the opposite.

If our human neighbors were as respectful and considerate as bears, this could be one of the best places ever to live. We do not believe our mountain has an official name, but most call it Bear Mountain. We hear the stories about how aggressive black bears can be, but we have not found that to be true. My comments on black bears do not come from any level of being a professional animal behaviorist but instead from personal experience.

Our Encounters with Bears

We read on social media a cute quip that said “anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; except bears, bears will kill you.” That doesn’t represent what we have observed about bears in our numerous encounters. We actually had a mother bear raise her cubs at our home, and even though we encountered her and her cubs on a regular basis, we had no unfavorable encounters. (See photo.)

She sat down once about 20 feet from us and used the contact to train her cubs. After about 20 minutes, we both parted ways without incident and her cubs were a little smarter. Another time, I opened the door to find a bear standing up at the storm door trying to see into the house. We were about 8 inches apart, nose to nose, and we were both surprised with only a flimsy pane of glass separating us. I closed the door and the bear ambled away. Had I become excited and yelled for the bear to go away, I’m not sure the outcome would have been the same. We have observed that they have poor eyesight and are curious animals.

It seems to me that many problems are human-initiated by people getting excited, moving fast, trying to get too close or by feeding the bears. These are highly intelligent animals that will take advantage of free food when possible. We can tell when a bear has been fed by other people as they will come closer to us and hang around looking for a hand out.

In short, they lose some of their natural caution around people, and when an incident happens, it is usually the bear that suffers the consequences. We had one bear that came to our house and performed various poses and then expected something to eat. It is not hard to see that someone was feeding the bear to get cute photos.

If bears do not perceive a threat, they sometimes will come closer due to their poor eyesight to see what or who you are. Screaming or yelling at the bear is not a good solution. For the most part, bears tend to avoid humans unless enticed into contact. We frequently have them around and are never even aware of their presence. We see tracks on the muddy road, scat or trees they have recently raked with their claws.

Don’t Feed the Bears

We can easily tell the ones that have been fed by humans as they seem to lack that natural fear that the wilder ones demonstrate. When we see skat in the road with undigested dog food, we know they are being fed and those are the ones we are highly cautious around. They are large and very powerful animals, and when they are intent on getting a free meal, they can accidentally injure someone.

I recall one woman who was feeding a bear regularly, and one day when she did not have any food with her, it stood up and put its paws on her shoulders and pushed her down. I have never heard of any game warden or wildlife department ever advocating feeding bears. In fact, they repeatedly warn against it, and still people ignore those warnings and feed bears, usually to the bears detriment. We have lived in close proximity to them for these many years by not feeding them and staying calm and maintaining a safe distance when we encounter them.

Stay Calm and Use Common Sense

We have observed that if you surprise them and they lower their head, shift from foot to foot or snap their jaws you are too close, so just slowly and calmly back away to give them space. You might be more prone to surprise them if you are wearing ear buds and being quiet. We always talk to them calmly and in a normal tone of voice when we come upon them. Once they realize we pose no threat, they usually just walk away and if not, we slowly back away and take a different route.

They have a very keen sense of smell and once they get a whiff of you, they will generally leave before you get to them. It is best to not surprise them in the first place, but when we do, we stay calm and ease a safe distance away. We have had bears walk up almost to us to satisfy their curiosity. It is pretty evident to us when a bear has more than curiosity on their mind and then you need to be prepared.

In the rare instance they close the gap on us, we hold our ground; running is not an option and you may have to stand and fight. If you have bear spray, that is probably a good time to have it handy. We do not carry bear spray as none of the bears we have encountered have been aggressive. Not to say we won’t one time find that one-in-a-hundred aggressive bear, but we’ll deal with that when or if it happens.

Encounters Happen in the Wild

Black bears diet is about 90 percent grass, berries, fruit or nuts. They also eat insects, which is evident when we see a rotten log torn apart or an ant hill dug up. They will also scavenge a carcass if they find one. When we see bear scat, it almost always has berries or seeds in it. We like living with the wild animals and by being sensible and calm, we are able to do so without serious danger.

We have encountered mountain lions unexpectedly and while they are predators, they too will move away given the chance. I can attest to that having suddenly been within 15 feet of one coiled on the ground, hissing with its ears laid back showing its yellow teeth. By staying calm and slowly giving it room, it suddenly bolted away. Animals do not want human encounters any more than we want them but when they happen if handled properly everyone can leave intact. While your instinct tells you to run, that is the absolute wrong thing to do. Staying calm will result in a more favorable outcome.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain experiences go to their blog.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


For dozens of reasons, it’s time to convene in America’s heartland a conference of farmers involved in Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Thanks to the artful community collaboration of 15 farm organizations* –  anchored by the Wisconsin Farmers Union –  just such a gathering will happen December 3-4, 2015, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin: The Midwest CSA Conference: Moving Forward Together.

Community cooperationTo understand the context and the importance of the conference, I spoke by phone with some of the key conveners: Dan Guenthner of Common Harvest Farm, Mike Racette of Spring Hill Community Farm, Sarah Lloyd of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, and Margaret Krome of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

From those conversations I gleaned a list of some of the meaningful topics that will for certain arise for discussion as CSA farmers gather. Here’s a sampler of some key topics that will arise:

CSA is a unique model and thus deserves it’s own special gathering every couple of years to refresh the vision.  Are CSA farms just a passing agrarian fantasy, or can they serve as enduring cornerstones for community and ecosystem renewal in our region and beyond?  CSA is continuing to evolve as a resilient model in an era of rapid change.

Historically CSA conferences have proven to be powerful tools for connection and collaboration. They are forums for farmers to come together, to debrief from the season just ending, to share their successes, their trials and their tribulations, and to get their batteries recharged. The Midwest CSA conference will offer a sanctuary for collective exploration of the dynamic business, societal and cultural elements that are part of community supported agriculture. It will also be an opportunity to take the pulse of the movement, and to recognize our common interests and challenges.

As evidenced this year by the California drought, the record-setting northwest fires, the extreme floods in the Carolinas and the onslaught of Hurricane Patricia on North America’s southwestern flank, climate change is an inescapable factor in all our lives. What is the role of CSA in reckoning with this hard reality?

Diet is a huge issue in America. Diseases like diabetes and obesity are epidemic. CSA has an important role to play in delivering fresh, healthy affordable food. It has evolved become an important delivery model. The diet issue only grows, and CSA helps to address it in a healthy manner.

As is well documented, America is on the cusp of a massive transfer of land as aging farmers retire. Any and all strategies for helping beginning farmers get started are, thus, of critical importance. CSA has so far been an important part of helping beginning farmers get started, and this dimension of it needs further engagement. The stewards of the land merit fair compensation.

Can community really support agriculture? Are the foundational visions and principles of the CSA movement still valid or relevant? What are the core principles and practices that make a CSA a CSA?

Emerging corporate and aggregator models often claim the label CSA, but do not necessarily involve community in any way other than as paying consumers. What is the significance of those models, and what is their impact on the movement?

How does CSA fit within the larger context of the industrialized food system and the burgeoning local food scene: the urban ag movement, food hubs, farmer’s markets, and the rise of the aggregators? For many people, the perception is that local food has arrived. But when you examine the facts, it’s clear that there’s a long way to go.

What is the vision for the CSA movement moving forward? And how do we get there?

* Midwest CSA Conference partners include the Wisconsin Farmers Union, the Iowa Farmers Union, Angelic Organics Learning Center, Badgerland Financial, The Chicagoland CSA Coalition-Band of Farmers, Biodynamic Association, Farm Commons, FairShare CSA Coalition, Iowa Farmers Union, Land Stewardship Project, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, Minnesota Farmers Union, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.

Photo by dhendrix73 courtesy of Creative Commons

Journalist Steven McFadden is the author of 15 nonfiction books dealing with the land and our lives upon it. He will offer a keynote talk at the Midwest CSA conference on the theme of his most recent book, Awakening Community Intelligence: CSA Farms as 21st Century Cornerstones. Links to all of his blog posts for MOTHER EARTH NEWS can be found here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Prairie Fest 

Over the final weekend in September, Wes Jackson and The Land Institute hosted farmers, environmental advocates, authors, academics and curious onlookers, like me, to Salina, Kansas. Since 1976, The Land Institute has researched, developed and advocated on the behalf of perennial polycultures for grain production. The Institute’s work resonates beyond Kansas to inform global conversations around soil preservation, carbon sequestration and agricultural runoff. After nearly four decades with the Land Institute, co-founder Wes Jackson will begin retiring duties in June of 2016, on his 80th birthday.       

It was fitting then for Wes Jackson to conclude the 2015 Prairie Festival with a Sunday morning call from the 90th Psalm, challenging listeners to “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Jackson’s oratory style favors tight, syllabic bunches which linger in stark contrast to the mile long view outside the Institute’s weathered barn in the Smokey Hills of north-central Kansas. Soil, Jackson argued in his address, time and again, is “as much of a nonrenewable resource as oil.” Each time, he paused, waiting for his point to germinate, but there really was no need, as he spoke to the conservation choir. Still, he preached.

Jackson first praised the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and that organization’s declaration of 2015 as the “Year of Soils,” but openly doubted whether such a push, however well-intentioned, would turn humanity’s multi-century tradition of soil degradation. For support, Jackson traced the long tradition of soil conservation through three canonical Western characters—Plato, Patrick Henry and George Washington—before highlighting Aldo Leopold’s partnership with the former Soil Conservation Service (now the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) in Wisconsin’s Coon Valley watershed conservation project.

Coon Valley, located in Southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, rises and falls, like much of that bioregion, in harsh grades where rivers and creeks have altered the exposed plateau. Intensively minded agriculturists, up until the 1930’s project, planted the Driftless region with little consideration of grade or erosion patterns. Ultimately, by working with the private landowners to conserve agriculture in the region, Coon Valley’s erosion rate decreased. The example of Coon Valley, for Jackson, demonstrates the value of reinstitutionalizing soil conservation concepts in agriculture.

Wuahob Prairie

The early fall sun climbed throughout Jackson’s message, warming, sweating, and eventually burning the necks and arms of those, like me, seated and standing along the barn’s periphery, but something of Jackson’s persona and rhetoric stayed the group. Never a false optimist, Jackson turned from the Coon Valley success story to speak of the dire state of soils in the Americas and worldwide. Even the shocking, reported statistics of soil loss, he argued, did not capture the scope of the crisis. Instead, when considering the soil, Jackson first compares the contemporary rate of erosion in light of the historical rates of erosion, but, then, more broadly, considers the geological background rate of erosion. Returning to the refrain, Jackson challenged the faithful to “number their days,” as the Psalm commands, to not only consider specifics, like the geological background rate of erosion, but to establish a geological worldview which originates soil health in geological events and the composition of soil in parent material.

Perhaps it was the sun that splayed my focus at this point in Jackson’s address; or, maybe, my lack of sleep from an evening spent under a full moon, within earshot of coyote yips and the replying bison and longhorn taunts had simply caught up. Whichever, I thought back to afternoon before, when an Institute tour guide missed the final tour of the Land Institute’s grounds, when none other than Wes Jackson arrived and addressed our group from a small bench. Jackson took a breath like the tour was second nature, but then, admitted, laughing, that he’d never given a tour of the facilities, so he’d just have to wing it.

Jackson began his tour with the Genesis images of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Jackson motioned to a slope of native prairie, and said, “We like to think of this as our tree of life.” He pointed down the slope, to cultivated fields of experimental perennial crops, collection bags wrapped around their seed heads. “That’s our Tree of Knowledge.” With a long pause, Wes looked deep into the already seeding prairie. Someone had raised identifications at the base of nearby grasses and flowers: Yucca glauca (Soapweed Yucca), Echinacea angustifolia (Narrow-leaved purple coneflower), Andropogon gerardi (Big bluestem), Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem), and numerous other tallgrass varieties. Turning his gaze back to our group, Jackson said, “The Genesis story has an angel of fire running Adam and Eve from Paradise. Here, at the Land Institute, in we’re asking that angel to sheathe that sword.”

Down in the cultivated plots, our group learned how numerous projects at the Land Institute hoped to study and, through genetic selection, produce viable, profitable perennial wheat, called Kernza, and feed sorghum. The goal, as Jackson had put it, was to reunite contemporary agricultural technologies with the life of the prairie--itself an ecological technology developed by our First Nations. If The Land Institute succeeds beyond Jackson’s tenure, the Great Plains will, once again, sequester large amounts of carbon and reduce soil runoff through the development of deep root networks and associated microbiotic communities. Rather than relying on large scale prairie restoration in the Plains, an arguably nostalgic conservation project, Jackson and The Land Institute hope to conserve the soil, like Leopold by institutionalizing ecological practice.

Jackson concluded the address of his last Prairie Festival as president of The Land Institute in that barn on Sunday calling, like a minister, for the end to bio-centric and bio-essential thought. For Jackson, the biological is but one part of a complex web of life, including myriad groups like minerals and elements, rather than defining life as biological organisms. Jackson said that we must reject the supremacy of the biosphere—biological organisms and the components that support them—and drop the term altogether, in favor of the ecosphere to understand the larger “engines of the earth” which comprise and drive life. Then, as the crowd clapped and cheered, Jackson turned from his lectern and the abstract goals with which he’d challenged them, peering in the direction of the same native prairie that we’d toured the day before. Held in his worldview and gaze, I imagine, was the sweet spot between Life and Knowledge that Jackson had spoken of on our happenstance meeting.

Photos by Helen Schnoes

Josh Brewer is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, who covers Renewable Energy, Green Homes, and Nutrition. Josh comes to Mother Earth News from Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains, Durham, North Carolina, and the splendid saunas of Upper Michigan’s Lake Superior shoreline.



With the world population ever growing we need to produce more food to nourish more and more hungry people.  But sadly much of the food currently being produced is just being wasted.  According to the USDA an estimated 31 percent of our food is wasted in the U.S. at the retail and consumer level alone - that's a shocking amount of food being produced but never being eaten! Food waste occurs at almost every level, from production to purchase, and can present itself in many different ways - everything from produce culls in the field for veggies that are the wrong size or shape, to transportation losses, to dented cans or unsold fresh produce in the grocery stores.

Of course along with the wasted food there are many resources wasted to grow food that will never ultimately be consumed, including water/fertilizer to grow the food, manpower to harvest, fossil fuels to transport, etc. According to USDA, food waste is the single largest component going into municipal landfills, and not only are our landfills being filled to capacity but they're also creating a shocking amount of greenhouse-building gasses. 

Legal Protection For Those Donating Food In Good Faith

Some groups such as grocery stores or farmers markets may be apprehensive about donating unsold edible food for fear they could be sued.  But the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects those acting in good faith who donate food.  As long as the donor has not acted negligently they are protected and are not held liable in the event of unforeseen illness associated with their donation.  So don't throw away that unsold produce or the cans of soup that didn't sell as well as you hoped they would - DONATE THEM!  You can read more about the Good Samaritan Act here

Donate food tomato

U.S. Food Waste Challenge

In 2013 the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency launched a program called U.S. Food Waste Challenge calling for a 50% reduction in food waste by the year 2030.  As stated on the USDA Website: "As part of the effort, the federal government will lead a new partnership with charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, the private sector and local, state and tribal governments to reduce food loss and waste"  Now there's a worthwhile program to get on board with!  You can find out more here —> USDA Food Waste Challenge.

Reducing Food Waste In Your Home

Yes, there are even consumer losses once food is purchased and brought home.  How many times have you had to throw away that last banana or the rest of that salad mix because it began to over ripen before your family could eat it? No one anticipates going to the grocery store to buy nutritious food for their family just to have it go to waste. But think of the money wasted to purchase food just to allow it to spoil and then be tossed in the garbage. But have heart, there's plenty each of us can do to help reduce food waste in our own homes:

Eat What You Buy  - That huge bag of potatoes may be on sale, but can all those potatoes really be eaten before they go bad?  To reduce food waste buy only what your family can reasonably eat while it's still fresh. Remember, it's not a bargain if you're just throwing it away.

Use Your Leftovers - Don't let that delicious roast or the rest of those green beans sit in the fridge until they become the beginnings of the next science-fair experiment.  Store your leftovers in glass jars so you can plainly see the food in the fridge needing to be eaten.  That way you can either enjoy those leftovers for lunch the next day or plan tomorrow's meal to incorporate those leftover items into a brand new meal and reduce waste at the same time.  Make shredded BBQ pork with that leftover pork roast & serve it on buns for a whole new twist on last night's pork roast supper.

What If It Goes Bad? - OK, it happens.  You buy fresh produce and then it ripens quicker than you thought it would, or the toddler only ate 1/2 of what you served her.  Don't throw away that 1/2 banana or those molded strawberries, toss them in the compost pile where nature can go to work creating that coveted black gold that helps your garden plants grow so well.


Bring It Home - If you enjoy a restaurant meal but are unable to finish the food served to you, bring that food home to enjoy for lunch tomorrow.  You don't even have to accept that bulky Styrofoam take-out container they push on you.  I often bring in my own lidded glass dish for my restaurant leftovers.  After I've eaten my fill I simply transfer the uneaten portion of my meal into my dish and snap the cover on.  Since my dish is made of microwavable glass I can warm my leftovers the next day and eat them from the same dish.  No Styrofoam to the landfill, no extra serving dishes to wash. Win/Win!

So you see, there are many quick and easy ways to reduce food waste in our own homes.  What are some of YOUR favorite ideas for reducing food waste?

This article was written by Tammy Taylor, owner of the Taylor-Made Homestead blog.  Tammy lives & works on a NE Texas ranch and writes about home cooking, gardening, food preservation, MIY, DIY and living as gently as possible on this big blue planet we call home.  You can visit her Homestead blog or follow her on Facebook or Pinterest.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Fawn under cover

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is charged with managing the deer population of New York State; a difficult task to say the least. In order to understand the magnitude of such a task, let’s try to compare how beef cattle and deer are managed.

Beef Farming

Most farmers know their business since it’s their livelihood and have a personal stake in their animals. Farmers must figure out basic numbers, like where and how many cows are out there; no problem there since cows can be easily counted inside a fence. More challenging is estimating the logistics of food. An inventory of pasturage and grain supplies must be accounted for in advance and made available to the herd. In other words, the number of cows must be properly aligned with the amount of food and vice versa.

Beef prices can serve as valuable information for a manager on whether or not production – in this case herd population – should be increased or decreased. The increase in price on beef may tell the producer that demand for beef is rising and increasing production may be worthwhile, depending on his costs. If he finds increasing production is worthwhile, next is the resource. Does he have enough pasture to increase herd size with? What about the price of grain for supplemental feeding? At some point, he may face a condition of diminishing returns; where the number of cows exceeds the carrying capacity of his pasture and grain supplies.

It can take a lifetime to know one’s land, its capabilities and limitations, let alone the cows themselves. Every farmer probably knows his hay fields and pastures like the back of his hand: where the wet spots are, the dry spots, the sweet spots for growing just about anything.

Deer and Cows: Both in Demand

Cows aren’t deer, and fields aren’t forests. I would argue that deer and forests are more complex and difficult to manage than the former. Deer do not exist within a fence, are more difficult to count, and their habits vary across a larger space. However, both cows and deer require food in order to increase in number or remain vigorous. In addition, they both share a strong demand by the American public.

There is no dispute that Americans consume a lot of beef, dairy, and leather products made from cows. In reaction to this, farmers have created innovative ways to manage their habitats to meet the requirements of their herd and ultimately the wishes of their customer. There is also no dispute that Americans demand deer. Although selling wild venison is illegal, millions of venison meals are consumed by both hunters and food pantries across the state and nation. More importantly, demand for deer is consumed in other ways; namely via the activity of recreational hunting and all the bells and whistles that go along with it.

Deer hunting – as Jim Sterba’s book, Nature Wars, and Al Cambronne’s book, Deerland, attest – is big business. Americans spend a lot of money chasing the whitetail, more so than any other animal in North America.

Managing Deer from Albany: A Long-Distance Challenge

However, as abundant as deer hunters may be, there seems to be no shortage of complaints about how deer are being managed by their state agencies. And to be fair, these state agencies are not entirely at fault either. Perhaps it’s the framework that deer are managed that is more at fault. Again, if we managed cows like deer, both farmers and the public that demand beef products would probably not be satisfied either. Some places would have too many cows, while others would have shortages.

Centralized wildlife management has a problem in managing wildlife on a local basis since they are not directly involved with the land in which wildlife occurs. No one knows their land better than the one who owns it; this is the same whether on a farm or in a forest. Simply stated, there seems to be a disconnect between wildlife population and habitat. Today, landowners can easily attest to whether they’re having a deer browse problem or not, if they know what to look for.

Imagine trying to increase or decrease cattle populations on a distant farm without knowing the supply of food there first. How many cows can it support? Even the economist Adam Smith would think this hand was much more invisible than anything he wrote about; the hand seems imaginary. For example, recently the NYS DEC developed a report forecasting the 2015 Deer Hunting Season. In it contained information about how the deer population – statewide – had been reduced in general by last year’s harsh winter. Some areas were affected more or less due to a variety of reasons.

If an area had experienced deer reductions, an increase in deer population was encouraged via less doe tags made available. For example, some of the southern Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley are listed as an area whose deer population should be “increased.” But, is there enough food to do that? Are there enough tree seedlings; herbs, forbs, shrub-layer, grasses, etc.?

Remember the beef farmer. DEC biologists believe that deer hunters in this region demand seeing more deer just as the beef farmer knows that demand for his beef may be high. What’s the difference? The beef farmer knows his supply source by staring at the pasture and grain reserves each day. He also has a more direct idea about demand for his cattle by taking a look at market prices.

The DEC biologist doesn’t know his supply (the food source) and has a rough idea about demand (desire to hunt; more on this to follow). The farmer has the ability to make quick judgements and adapt to scarcity in food sources. Drought can cause his pasture to grow slowly, leading to fewer cattle he can support. Demand may drop as indicated by lower prices. In reaction, he may have to reduce herd size.

Can the deer manager really know how bad the forest regeneration is behind your house? Can he know how many maple seedlings exist for browse or stand of sheltering hemlocks there are to survive winter?

Fern can indicate  deer overbrowsing

Managing Habitat (Supply) and Hunting (Demand)

First, the DEC cannot know its supply or food source since most of the land is not owned by them. Instead, tax-paying landowners own the majority of the forest and the majority of the food source for the state’s herd. In other words, New York State owns the deer herd, but not its food supply, or forest in this case. So, when DEC decides to increase receded deer populations in portions of the Catskills/Hudson Valley – like where I live – I have to wonder if they’re looking at the available food sources; they don’t exist.

To increase the deer population in such areas is to encourage more landowners to build more exclosure fences and kiss their forest regeneration goodbye. It’s difficult to grow anything in this area whether it’s vegetables, apple trees, sugar maple, or red oak.

Second, the DEC relies upon demand (for hunting deer) by indirect methods. The DEC does not know for sure how many deer there are. Deer numbers are estimated via last hunting season’s buck take. For instance, it is assumed that if fewer bucks are harvested during a season, then there must be less deer per square mile. I guess you could estimate the number of cows by how many are slaughtered, but there may be other factors going on: changes in food sources, economic changes, weather, etc. Perhaps it rained or snowed too much and hunters decided sleeping in was a better option to sitting in a stand. Who knows?

The DEC relies upon the Citizen Task Force to decide population trends. “Stakeholders” must be invited to the meeting and are selected by how much a party is deemed to be affected by deer. So, although you might not be affiliated with The Nature Conservancy, The Farm Bureau, or some hunting group, your woods or vegetable garden is still being affected by deer browsing. The task force is tasked with setting deer population goals. DEC then uses the task force’s recommendations to influence deer population by disseminating more or less antlerless tags.

Managing deer in this manner can be both politically charged and abusive of natural resources; especially upon forest regeneration, vegetable gardens, landscaping, and farms. Although the DEC is currently piloting a new program beyond the Citizen Task Force, it may still face challenges. The new program, according to Jeremy Hurst – NYS DEC Biologist – will reduce DEC’s legwork by forming aggregates of WMU’s (Wildlife Management Units). WMUs are designated areas that DEC has created throughout the state in order to manage wildlife.

Many Citizen Task Forces have not met to set deer numbers since the 1990s since finding 3rd party facilitators (normally Cornell Cooperative Extension) can be difficult. The new program will also include more forest impact assessment too. However, “stakeholders” will still be subjectively invited to meetings. If beef farmers had to rely upon a Citizen Task Force to control slaughter rates by people who have neither a stake in his land nor risk in his business, there might be a mismatch between pasture size and herd density too.

Food is scarce during winter

Searching for Solutions

So, what’s the solution? We may not agree on how deer should be managed, who owns them, how they can be hunted, etc. However, I hope we can gain awareness about the supply side of things or the habitat.

If NYS DEC is to continue to own wildlife, then they must figure out some way to encourage healthier habitats. Landowners that have direct access to deer on a local basis must first be approached. They represent the most local and knowledgeable people of the land they own. Metaphorically speaking, they own “the pasture” that the deer live upon. The new program beyond the Citizen Task Force seems to be moving more in the opposite direction by creating aggregates of WMUs. In other words, centralized wildlife management may not be the most efficient way to manage deer habitat since impacts occur on a local scale.

Perhaps landowners need more options to handle deer impacts or manage their forest to meet deer and other wildlife species. Forestry education that teaches the power of sunlight via good forest management in most people’s woodlands is a step in the right direction. Simply stated, if deer had more to eat in the woods, their impacts would be less.

The North American Model for Wildlife Conservation serves as the underlying model that state agencies follow in managing wildlife populations. However, the 7 core principles mainly focus on public ownership of wildlife and hunting thereof. However, the model fails to adequately address habitat. It fails to mention that unlike wildlife, habitat is owned by individuals and families that are truly paying for the state-owned resource that society benefits from. Whatever the remedy is, the habitat or the land will have to be paid more attention to in order to maintain forest health, local agriculture, and vigorous wildlife populations into the future. After all, how many farmers manage cows without discussing their land?

Deer may be “wild” but they are still an animal and one that has probably relied upon a modest amount of human hands in the forest for food and cover for millennia.

For more information, attend CFA’s event – The Growing Deer Debate – scheduled for Saturday, October 31st at Margaretville Central School from 9AM to 4PM. You can buy tickets online at Catskill Forest.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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