Spotlight: Conserving Farmland in a W&W Landscape
A "Good Food" Vision for New England
By Brian Donahue
The Wildlands and Woodlands vision calls for 70% of New England to remain in forest. That could allow as much as 15% of the landscape (some 6 million acres) to revert to farmland—triple what we have now. Is that enough? Too much?
We acknowledged the importance of protecting farmland in the 2010 Wildlands & Woodlands report. But an expanded local food supply would mean cutting more trees.
Can we reconcile our farm and forest goals to achieve mutual success and a more sustainable New England landscape? A lot depends on which crops we grow.
A group of scholars from Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire have set out to create a New England 'Good Food' Vision 2060 (read summary here). Its assumptions embody its aspirations:
- A slow rate of population growth, with most of us remaining urban and suburban
- A healthier diet, following USDA and Harvard School of Public Health guidelines: fewer calories, less red meat, more fruits and vegetables
- Higher energy costs and serious efforts to reduce our carbon footprint
- "Sustainable" practices aimed at reducing the environmental impact of farming
- Expanded farm acreage that fits within the boundaries of vigorous forest conservation
The resulting landscape would resemble the early 20th century, when New England famers supplied urban consumers with products that were costly to ship long distances. Many of the same crops and strategies from the early 1900s would make sense today:
- We could grow almost all of our vegetables, and about half of our fruit, on about 1 million acres surrounding our cities. When grown in other parts of the country, these crops waste a great deal of water, energy and agricultural chemicals. Local production yields large benefits in freshness, utilizing recycled nutrients, and engaging more people with the food they eat.
- We could produce all our dairy and beef on about 4 million acres of well-managed grass in New England. Feeding grain to cattle is wasteful. New England’s climate and upland soils are good for pasture, producing healthier cows and milk with lower energy, fertilizer, and feed costs, and reviving an attractive pastoral landscape.
- We could produce all of our pork, poultry, and eggs outdoors on pasture, which is healthier, tastier, and more humane than raising these animals in confinement. We could grow only a modest portion of their feed grain, along with grain, beans, and oil crops for ourselves, but these are sensible, energy-dense crops to import.
New England farms could produce about half of our region’s food without sacrificing very much of our forests. By focusing on crops we can best grow at home while connecting with sustainable agriculture elsewhere, we have the chance to help create a healthier local and global food system.