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Do we really want to connect with the countryside any more?

A View From the Edge

Anyone who lives in the city, any city, or large town thinks of the countryside as a peaceful place to go to unwind, to breathe the fresh air, for long spring and summer walks and recreation. In fall it is to watch the changing leaves. In winter enjoying the snow and winter sports. All year long, people seek out country farm market stands as a connection to nature.

There is a growing problem: All those people enjoying the countryside, all those people skiing or snowboarding, all those fall foliage spotters, all those bird watchers, and indeed, all those businesses reliant upon countryside visitors every weekend… not one of them fights for the true keepers of the countryside’s vast acreage: farmers and ranchers.

In Switzerland they have long seen the economic and tourist benefit of the Alps and alpine valleys being beautiful, with traditional Heidi-like farming, cows’ bells clanging, and green grass replaced by ski-able snow in winter. They support this pastoral scene with government tax breaks for farmers that surpass what we dole out to farmers by about 65% per farm. The strange end result has been that all the time farming knowledge and livestock management has improved and when applied to the Swiss antiquated open pasture practices, their productivity has always stayed ahead of intensive farming practices. Maybe the animals prefer the open air as well. In fact, in the early 70’s, a referendum forced all the chicken farmers to abandon battery practices (caged animals, laying an egg a day, never walking, never touching another animal). The chicken farmers were certain this was the end of all affordable eggs and chicken. Within 2 months of being placed outside, free-range, they were laying more eggs, had fewer deaths and illness and, in fact, laid more eggs. Seems it was the improvements in foodstuffs and chicken care that was beneficial, not the cages they had been kept in.

Over a decade ago Britain too decided that the balance of benefit to the economy must favor the farmer and countryside. Over there, Ag Ministers labeled the farmers “the Keepers Of The Countryside” and came up with new promises in farming subsidies. Gone was dime one for intensive farming practices, which produce cheap meat, butter, eggs, and milk by factory means, replaced by subsidies for farmers who re-plant traditional hedgerows, re-stack stone walls, and “look after the land.” New subsidies are pegged to acreage not density of animals per acre (a practice that once led to keeping animals in cages and feeding them high protein foodstuff).  Four decades ago, people bemoaned the loss of paths along canals, historically maintained by farmers who grazed sheep there. Also gone were bucolic country walks, bared by landlords’ “Do Not Cross” tape, soon replaced by “Sold” to a developer. In short the emotional impact had been measurable on the people of Britain. And then the economic impact also became measurable: inns closed, antique shops bust, restaurants empty, town budgets destroyed, property values plummeting, tourist sites standing vacant, and, certainly not least, the big hotel chains had to lobby Parliament to intervene.

So, the little guy and the big buy stood and spoke together: protect our asset, the countryside. Who better to do that than the guy who always has? Who better qualified than the farmer or rancher. In a Magna Carta-like moment for the countryside, Britain changed priorities. Maybe we should wake up and follow Britain and Switzerland before it’s too late here as well or do we need an asphalt jungle coast to coast to tell us how much we loved – and once depended on – open ranch and farmland?


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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