May 5, 2011

Understanding farm families: conservation on private lands

In a previous post, regarding the loss of CRP acres as corn prices soar, I commented that wildlife biologists were going to have to find new ways to work in this new paradigm--and that "Farm Bill biologists" might need to re-tool.  Some courses in ecotourism and entrepreneurism might be in order, as one example.

I do feel, strongly, that many conservation-minded urbanites don't understand farmers--especially the fact that their land purchase represents an investment, for which they need economic return.  Just like purchasing a store-front property at the mall.  Somehow, we forget that land is a private resource, and perhaps the confusion comes from that fact that wildlife on the land is a public resource.  The pairing of public/private can get tricky.

My Wildlife Ecology and Management course just finished their habitat management unit, in which we focus on Farm Bill programs.  There are no textbooks that cover the topic well, so I provide the students with a study guide.  In the study guide, as I did on my previous post, I discuss our pheasant research on CRP in eastern Nebraska--and the fact that within a few years, most of the land had been plowed back up for corn/soybeans.  But, I add this encouragement for students to consider:

"We should emphasize—these decisions are made by landowners who are supporting their families.  Every one of the landowners on our study site also liked wildlife, but when you can make more money by changing the way you do business, any sane person would make the same decision.  We shouldn’t expect anything else—farmers compared costs and benefits!  As wildlife biologists, we have to figure out how to do our job in this environment."

As an instructor in the era of texts and tweets, you're never quite sure if your ideas make it into the milieu of things that students continue to think about.  So, I enjoyed getting this spontaneous email today, from one of my students:

"I come from a farming background and I really appreciate the inclusion of this paragraph because it sees the issue from both standpoints.  Too often it seems farmers get bashed for not doing what is good for wildlife and the environment, but it doesn't mean we don't care, because I certainly do, it's just sometimes difficult to live that lifestyle and make enough of a profit when supporting a family."
I just hope that a couple of students with urban backgrounds also read that paragraph in the study guide twice!


  1. I like the idea of wildlife as a Public/Private partnership - there is lots of legal and social science related to public/private partnerships in other arenas and maybe there's a lode to be mined.
    On the economic value of farms - check out this article on the value of irrigation to a farmer and the state.

  2. I enjoy reading these thoughts. As a small acreage owner who took their handful of acres out of production (and therefore income), we can add a new twist to the considerations. The native species prairie we created, provided a new habitat for pheasants and other birds, but a twist this year is that the predators also moved in very close.

    Instead of simply watching those attracted to the prairie, now we have the issue of guarding our cats and small dog from a fox who created her den under one of our out buildings. The pheasants attracted her, but evidently, she finds our domesticated animals an easier hunt for her hungry brood. :(