Farmers always have been best stewards of the land

Agassiz farmers, like all farmers, should be given the power to manage their land

I read with interest some letters to the editor attacking the farmers’ concerns with the overzealous application of the HADD, Harmful Alteration, Disruption and Destruction of Fish Habitat regulations.  When people in our free society such as these farmers, feel their livelihoods are threatened by injustice, they have every right to protest.

I was raised on a lowland farm in the Fraser Valley, my formal training was in Biological Sciences and I worked with farmers for over 40 years. I visited many thousands of farms in Western Canada during my career. From this experience, I learned that the vast majority of farmers are excellent stewards of their lands. Farming practices have improved above and beyond what the media and academics portray in their poorly informed and biased reports. I have never met a farmer, and I have met thousands, who feel entitled to harm the environment.  Yet, I have witnessed many city people who have caused environmental degradation as their ATV’s drive through spawning channels and seen snowmobiles chasing deer and other wildlife and I hear nothing from the academics. But farmers are easy targets who get little credit for the extensive work they do in preserving the environment.

The following is an example of how over zealous and ill-informed conservationist and academics hastened the extinction of the Alala bird on the Big Island of Hawaii by not listening to or cooperating with farmers. The Alala (the Hawaiian Crow) numbers were in decline for many years. The last nesting colony existed on McCandless Ranch on the south slope of the Mona Loa Volcano. The colony survived for many decades under the protection of the farmers. When conservationists discovered the colony, the conservationists wanted to study the colony at the farm. The McCandless owners allowed the study but stipulated that no one was to get closer than 100 feet from the nests and were not to remove any eggs. After a few years of study, the Alala numbers were again in decline. The McCandless owners discovered that contrary to their agreement with the conservationists, the people studying the colony collected eggs and set cameras within a few feet of the nests. The McCandless owners withdrew their cooperation and refused further research to be conducted at the farm. Unfortunately, protracted court battles on access to the colony finally broke the will of the farmers and an agreement to give access to the colony was reached. The last Alala in the wild were seen at the farm in 2002 and the Alala is now considered extinct in the wild.

Cynthia Salley, one of the owners of McCandless Ranch who tried to restrict access to the colony said the curious Alala used to seek her out when she made noise on ranch property.  “But we no longer have any, and it makes me very sad, because they’re wonderful, wonderful birds,” she said.

For years Salley argued that biologists should leave the Alala on McCandless Ranch alone, and said she believes scientists hastened the final collapse of the Alala population by disturbing the birds to do research, and by taking eggs from wild Alala nests for the captive breeding program.

“I’m not saying that this was a major cause — what I truly believe is that avian diseases are really the main cause of their demise — but you have a downhill slope, and the more they interfered, the steeper that slope got,” she said.  “We now realize we made mistakes.” said Jeff Burgett of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an interview in the Honolulu newspaper.

My next example is more encouraging. On Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, farmers are credited with saving the Kakerori, (Rarotonga Flycatcher) from extinction.  When the last of the Kakerori were discovered on their ancestral farms, three Rarotongan farm owner families felt they would have to give up their farms to the conservationists. But to the government’s credit, the government began to seek active landowner participation from the families.

“The landowners were suspicious at first,” said Anna Tiraa, the first support officer for the conservation area. “Government doesn’t have a great track record in terms of the way it’s communicated with landowners here.”

“Their first reaction was, well, if it’s a nature preserve, if it’s a conservation area, that means we can’t use it any more.”

In 1996, after a year of meetings and discussions, the farm families took over the project management and formed the conservation area committee. It was the first time the government had ever turned a project over to the farmers. Each of the three farm families chose two representatives to serve on a conservation area board of directors.

“We questioned it at the beginning. Why should we care about this little bird?” said Philomena Williams, current chair of the conservation area committee overseeing Takitumu. “Then we realized we could still farm our lands and save the bird too.”

The following is an example of how a farm family enhanced the environment on and around the farm. The Beaver Meadows farm on Vancouver Island is operated by the third generation Smith brothers. The Smiths have enhanced biodiversity and the environment on their farm by building streams, planting trees, and maintaining wildlife habitats. One major project is revitalizing the stream that runs through their farm, which, according to Edgar Smith, “was virtually a dying river when we started to enhance it 15 years ago.”

It now produces in excess of 300,000 salmon each year, due in large part to the fish hatchery the brothers operate on their property.  (see their website www.naturalpastures.com)

The brothers have also taken responsibility for the enhancement of the entire stream, not just the portion on their farmland. Edgar believes that giving the farmer these types of responsibilities makes sense.

“We have lived here every day, day in and day out, for generations,” he explains. “We know every inch of our forest, stream, ditches, the nests of the birds, where the eagles perch, and we know how to enhance and protect these resources.”

I have visited all three farms mentioned above and talked to the farmers and I always believed that they had a better sense of how to protect the environment and that of the areas around them than any academic.

When Al Gore told the Future Farmers of America several years ago at a meeting in Colorado that they should not plan to become farmers as we would be getting our food from third world countries, he was right on track.  (So much for the “100 mile diet”)

After the Klamath Oregon farmers and ranchers had to deal with dead cattle, horses, all kinds of wildlife and thousands of burned up crops when irrigation water was shut off without warning to 1,400 farms on April 6, 2001, to protect a Sucker Fish, they said they may never recover from this emotional and financial loss. They coined the phrase, “When the last salmon is gone, there will be no more salmon, but when the last farmer is gone, there will be no more food,”

Environmentalists, conservationists, academics must temper their harsh and most times unjustified and poorly informed attacks on farmers. They need to make more sincere attempts to understand the farmers’ concerns and situations.  I hope that the examples I have given will demonstrate that cooperation and understanding between all parties will serve the environment better than attacks, accusations, derision and threats by those academics who have strong biases that prejudice their commentaries against farmers.

Mike Yusko

Rosedale