Conservationist and ecologist Aldo Leopold published his pivotal essay Land Ethic in 1949. Central to this essay is a call for honoring our moral responsibility to the natural world, by caring not only about ourselves, but also the land, and the inseparable relationships between them. Land Ethic demands thinking and action beyond our own immediate interests and benefits, and encompasses both our human, as well as plant and animal communities found throughout earth’s soils, lands, skies, and waters. It’s also important to note that long before Leopold’s essay, there were indigenous communities with ecological knowledge systems based in stewardship and respect for the natural world.
Over 70 years later, Leopold’s message still rings true and is more important than ever as Alaska faces continued environmental threats, climate change, increased land development, and industry growth in natural resource development, including agriculture. Alaska ranks first in the nation for new farm growth – fortunately most of these farmers are under 10 acres, making them nimble enough to implement conservation efforts. Many farmers are proving that it’s possible both to feed Alaskans with small, sustainable agriculture and to protect what we love: our land and water.
I moved to Homer 11 years ago to learn more about small-scale sustainable agriculture, spending my first four years on Ohlson Mountain working on a sustainable farm near Homer. Here I learned first-hand what an Alaskan land ethic looked like in action. I made deep connections to the food we were growing, the community we were growing it for, and the land, water, and microbes that provided the canvas for the farm.
Most industrialized farms use petroleum-based agrochemicals to temporarily improve crop yields, creating a system that dries out soils, leading to a reduction of beneficial organisms and resulting in toxic run-off into waterways. At the farm I worked at, located within the salmon-bearing Twitter Creek watershed, we utilized soil amendments like fishmeal, spent brewery grains, composted chicken litter and farm scraps, and seaweed to improve the soils. We prepared the land with methods, like broad-forking, that didn’t disrupt the immense colonies of microbes beneath the surface. The farm also utilized water-saving techniques like drip tape irrigation and row covers, all actions aimed toward minimal impact on our land, waters, and salmon habitat.
On the community side of the equation, this farm is a proponent of alternative food sales routes that keep dollars local, selling through the farmers market, CSA, and Alaska Food Hub, as well as stocking our regional grocery store with local products. Like many of our local growers, the farm often participates in social equity initiatives like donating to the Food Pantry and free and discounted produce shares for those in need. Each of these actions support an ethic of community care by creating more resilience and security while growing and selling food in an environmentally sustainable way.
As Alaska’s agricultural sector grows, it’s vital that we keep this Land & Community Ethic at the heart of all we do, to protect our irreplaceable landscapes and wildlife, while building productive farms, healthy communities, and resilient economies.