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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Beyond Organic

Farming with salmon, coyotes, and wolves

by Daniel Imhoff

In recent years, the organic farming movement has mushroomed into a $4 billion-a-year industry. Large organic growers now produce multi-thousand-acre monocrops of cotton, rice, and vegetables, and the industry expects its 20 percent annual growth rate to continue for at least ten more years.

This has attracted the attention of agribusiness, which tried last year to weaken the definition of organic to include food that has been bioengineered, irradiated, or grown with sewage sludge. Now a countereffort by small growers argues for a definition that goes beyond eliminating chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"Conserving habitat for endangered species and using water responsibly are concerns that aren't yet addressed by organic certification," says Warren Weber, whose Star Route Farm is one of California's oldest organic enterprises. These goals are explicit, however, in the Salmon Safe program of the Oregon-based Pacific Rivers Council. "Agricultural runoff is a critical polluter of salmon habitat in the Northwest," says program director Dan Kent. "We knew that changing farming practices could drastically reduce that." In the program's first year, 40 Northwest farms totaling 10,000 acres have been certified.

Salmon Safe farmers reduce runoff into spawning grounds mainly by planting cover crops like clover, beans, and rye between seasons and in fallow fields, as well as by establishing buffer strips along creeks, streams, and river banks. (Flowering cover crops also attract insects that help keep pests in check.) While most organic-certification programs recommend cover-cropping, they don't require it. On the other hand, not all Salmon Safe farms are organic; many are vineyards that use some chemicals. "We really struggled with whether a farmer had to be perfect or not," says Kent. "But no matter what we did, there was still going to be agriculture in salmon watersheds. So we tried to include a wide variety of farms in the program." Salmon Safe's goal is not to supersede organic certification, but to highlight the connection between food production and wildlife preservation.

That link was first made in 1990 by Earth Island Institute's successful Dolphin Safe Tuna certification. Earth Island subsequently launched a Turtle Safe Shrimp program, which requires shrimpers to release endangered turtles and other nontarget species unharmed.

In Montana and Idaho, the Growers' Wool Cooperative has started a Predator Friendly Wool certification program that seeks coexistence with native predators rather than their elimination. Participating ranchers protect their sheep from coyotes, mountain lions, wolves, and bears using nonlethal methods such as enclosed pastures or guard animals like llamas, dogs, and burros. The Predator Friendly Wool eco-label brings a premium to ranchers selling wool or value-added products like blankets and sheepskins.

"The coyote and wolf are part of what makes this region so special," says Becky Weed, a Predator Friendly cofounder who keeps 180 ewes on 160 acres. "If I have to kill all the native species to ranch, then I ought to quit. There are better ways to ranch, and ranching is a hell of a lot better than subdivisions."

A similar effort in Arizona and New Mexico teams cattle ranchers with Defenders of Wildlife to introduce Wolf Country Beef. Participants allow the recolonization of the nearly extinct Mexican wolf on their private lands; any losses due to predation are reimbursed by Defenders. Thus far, more than 70,000 acres of ranch land is covered by the program.

We can all cheer the success of the organic revolution, but simply eliminating chemical fertilizers and pesticides is not the last word in farming; it's just the beginning.


Daniel Imhoff writes frequently about agriculture and environmental design.

You can find information on Turtle Safe Shrimp from www.earthisland.org, (800) 859-SAVE. For Predator Friendly Wool products, call (406) 374-9858; for Salmon Safe, (503) 294-0786; for Wolf Country Beef, (520) 578-9334.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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