By Rob Riley
I grew up working on a farm and eating truly local food out of my grandmother’s sprawling garden. I love eating local food and knowing that when I do, I'm supporting a system – from my neighboring farmer to the town store. What I’m conflicted about—is it irritation or more envy? —is the "Eat More Kale" bumper sticker that seems to have convinced a huge number of people to eat more kale (or just put on a bumper sticker). But the sticker also implies that by eating more kale (and other local foods) we are keeping our regional economy going and maintaining traditional working lands.
Yes, farming is an essential and iconic part of the working landscape in the Northern Forest region, but most of our land is in forests, not in farms. What are we doing to celebrate and keep the forested part of our working landscape forested and working? The general population embraces the idea that eating more kale sustains local farms, but it doesn’t seem to be as popular to use forest products to support our local forests.
Over the past 100 years, New England has swung from 80% cleared land for agricultural use back to roughly 80% forested. Yet the obsession with local food means we’re focusing considerable financial, political and social energy on less than 20% of the land. Farms are highly visible and give us great views of forests, mountains, towns and rivers; they’re important, but the reality is that farms and forests together comprise our fabled working landscape, and our regional agricultural and forest economies are interconnected. And for quality of life we need both forests and fields to provide habitat, open space, clean air and water, recreational space and more.
We’ve somehow arrived at a time when significant investments support agriculture and the increase in value-added agricultural production and farmland conservation, with less regard for forests and the value of the forest products economy. Fields have become separated from forests.
We’ve got two different sets of values at work. When we consider how to support forest conservation, the traditional response is to “save it.” While the farm supporters “Eat more Kale,” the forest conservationists want us to “Hug a Tree.” It’s a telling comparison. The farm message is about stewardship, utilization and markets; the forest message is about preservation.
This needs to change. People need to understand that stewardship, high-value products and strong markets are complementary to traditional conservation and are critical tools for conserving our region’s forests. Further, most forestland owners need some economic return from their land to afford to keep it as forest. Every time you choose a product made from local forests—whether a toy or a toothpick, wood pellets or wall paneling—you are supporting the forested landscape
I applaud the local food movement and those who have invested in it. And I invite those investors to see the parallels in forests and forestry. We need to look at the infrastructure required to retool today’s forest economy to secure sustained and healthy forests, good forest jobs, and top quality forest products. As we sustain managed forests we value them for all the benefits they provide: clean water and air, carbon sequestration, meaningful work, recreation, fuel for heating, materials for building homes and furniture, toilet paper, habitat and more. Forests and farms are interrelated, and together they form the unique landscape across our region.
We should celebrate both parts of our working landscape. When we eat kale, we don’t lament that it was harvested. Instead, we appreciate the farmer and the land. We need to apply this thinking when we see a tree harvest or log truck and be grateful to the landowners who have kept their land forested, respectful to the foresters and loggers whose livelihoods will keep the forest productive for generations to come.
The next time kale is on the menu, also think about the table and chair, and the flooring and walls. These are made by people too—they just have a different story to tell.