A Progressive Movement for Conservation

What do we mean when we talk about conservation? Are we speaking about values? resources? biodiversity? cultural norms?

Often, I find that the language about food (and specifically, farming) turns into language about America, its past and its future. We talk about conservation, but the terms become slippery and it’s not clear what meanings are being communicated.

For example, I recently saw a bumper sticker that said: “EAT BEEF… the West wasn’t won on salad.”

Ultimately, that’s a statement that seems to be about conservation. It’s about preserving a kind of American spirit through dietary choices that communicate strength, masculinity, and fortitude. The salad, here, is coded as wimpy or girly; it’s not the fuel one needs for conquering or “winning” the West (or anything else).

It’s interested to consider, though, what is being won in the West. We’re talking about land. Specifically, we’re talking about consuming land, about expanding into new territory, extracting resources, and evicting that land’s prior inhabitants. Is this really, then, a model of conservation?

Land conservation is about learning how to do more with the land that you have, using practices that allow for the continued extraction of resources for generations to come. The model of continued expansion allows for sloppiness when it comes to resource conservation. If we can also get more, why be careful with what we have?

Of course, it’s not fair to read that attitude onto all of meat eating, but it does seem that the current model of raising and slaughtering livestock in this country is entirely environmentally unsustainable (from the perspective of land usage, water usage, grain/soy consumption, etc…). At it precisely the current model of livestock production that is pushing this message. While this is now a bumper sticker on the cars of individual consumers, the slogan was coined by the North Dakota Beef Council in 1990.

The “other side” also uses language of conservation in ways that bear examination. While doing my usual scan of my favorite food blogs, I came across a short film about the Peconic Land Trust’s Farms for the Future Initiative and was really struck by what seemed to be talk of a very different kind of conservation.

The Trust works to help new farmers find conservation land in Long Island and the short film, called “Growing Farmers,” features mini-biographies on a few of those farmers. So, the language of conservation has been established here as an environmental term. The goal is to keep farmland in production and to help sustain a local economy with environmentally-minded agriculture.

However, the language is also about conserving a lifestyle. These are new farmers, but the whole film opens with a lament over farming families losing their land. The tradition of farming is clearly established as an honest, hard-working profession and its loss is not just a loss to the environment. It is an emotional loss, as well.

The stories chosen highlight this emotional connection to farming and, I’d argue, the staunchly “American” values it carries. Chris Browder is the classic banker-turned-farmer story. He talks about the toxicity of his prior work environment and about the passion that he feels for the land. Alex Balsam and Ian Calder-Piedmonte talk about the sense of self-respect they derive from being farmers. They talk about the endlessness of the work, the long hours and the cyclical nature of the seasons, with pride. Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow emphasize the unexpectedness of their profession. They’re young, attractive women who worked in foreign policy, but they talk about their desire to really do something and the fact that they found that sense of fulfillment in farming.

That’s a running theme- the quest for meaning, the talk of “doing something real.” In this film, then, conservation is also about a kind of return to an older America (perhaps just as imagined as the virility/masculinity in the America of the old West). These new farmers are talking about abandoning the hectic, fast-paced lifestyle of the city and moving to a slower, agrarian beat. They are turning away from a model of endless progress and, instead, trying to show the value in a more cyclical model.

Baldwin and Merrow drive this point home when they bring a group of children to their farm (another blog for another day… why is it the women who are shown bringing children to their farm?) and discuss the importance of passing this on to future generations. The seeds are saved, the land is conserved, the profession is preserved, the values remain.

 

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