Back during the days of the early Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder reflected that, “Our fathers used to say that the master’s eye is the best fertilizer.” Apparently by the time of Jesus it was already old knowledge that with proper attention agricultural land became more fertile and remained fertile, indefinitely. Some of the olive orchards and vineyards on which Pliny meditated are still under cultivation today. Ten thousand years ago, the land where my family grows grass and cattle grew bison, elk, camels, horses and giant ground sloths. There’s no evidence that, when managed properly, it is any less fertile today than it was then.
To keep our garden and our farm productive in the future, we only need to preserve the space and keep paying attention.
The Kansas Land Trust, like other land trusts around the world, helps preserve valuable land by placing it under “conservation easements.” The conservation easement is a contract permanently transferring the “development rights” for a piece of property to the land trust. That means the landowner can sell the property, but neither its current owner nor any future owner can develop or subdivide it, depending on the terms of the easement. In the meantime, the farmers pay taxes only on the agricultural value of the property, not its development value. The owner who donates the easement gets either a big tax deduction for the donation, or in some cases gets paid outright for the easement. The farm stays a farm. The open space stays open. The springs keep flowing and the grass keeps growing. The easement can even prescribe specific uses and practices. So we could make sure our pastures will always be pastures, at least as long as our current legal system survives.
Of course the work of raising livestock is physical and I won’t be able to do it indefinitely. As I write this, I’m recovering from a sprained knee sustained in an icy barnyard as I wrestled with a frozen bale of hay. I know that I will eventually have to give up manhandling young rams and chasing contrary cattle. Eventually, I suppose I’ll give up the livestock and concentrate on the vegetables. We might move to a smaller place. But we’ll try to leave this place in good condition for the next farmer. If we can afford it, maybe we’ll donate a conservation easement so Rancho Cappuccino can’t ever be subdivided. Maybe this farm can be a farm for a long time after we’re gone.
One of the best attributes of small-scale agriculture is its durability. If the fertility of the soil is protected and appropriate land is preserved from development, all over the world people can provide their own sustenance, locally, until the human population outstrips the local resources. And, if a society decides its human populations can be held within the capacities of local farms to feed them, then our small farms can be replicated into the future, until further notice.
I think that’s a very contagious idea.