Conservatively counting the harvest

DSCF0021I rescued the biggest tomatoes from my patch the afternoon before the big frost. I picked the last few small zucchini, cucumbers and peppers. I count the boxes and compare the yield of my garden with past years, some of them better and some worse.

We have counted the bales of hay and estimated the bushels of wheat. We recount the lambs and tally up the calves. I’ve butchered the roosters and put them in the freezer.

It isn’t enough to simply add up what we’ve taken from the farm: the crops, the livestock and the forage. We also must measure what we’ve left for the future.

As we drove across the newly planted cover crops to check our attempt to improve a field of alfalfa, we noticed killdeer chicks everywhere. The young birds, practicing their flying skills, sprang up in flocks of ten and twenty. Their worried mothers tried their wounded bird trick and fretted over their careless offspring. Blackbirds flew up in great clouds. The thistle gall flies we introduced with the help of the county weed board have spread across the farm sending the thistle population plummeting. Our resident great blue heron flew up from the slough and sandhill cranes cooed overhead.

I missed the songs of meadowlarks ricocheting back and forth. I heard only a few over the summer, hardly the choir of the past. I could just about count the bumble bees in my flowers on two hands. I saw a single monarch butterfly all summer. The other butterflies that once visited my gardens have also disappeared. The only butterflies and caterpillars too numerous to count were the white cabbage loopers and their green babies in my cabbages, kale and broccoli. The number of ducks seems fewer than I remember. Even coots have been a rare sight.

It is not my imagination. Monarch butterfly and meadowlark numbers have been declining for over 20 years. Bumblebees are disappearing and no one knows for sure about all the other bees, wasps, moths and butterflies. Who counts the dung beetles and the earthworms?

Some practical minded, unsentimental, self-proclaimed pragmatists scoff at the demise of the birds and the bees. Such concern for tiny insect and bird members of our ecosystem is impractical, they maintain. Economics, yields per acre, and neat, weed free ditches are the measure by which we judge a good harvest. In the short term, they might be right.

A true conservative, however, understands that long term economic sustainability depends on the survival of things like honey bees, bumble bees, butterflies and birds. The continued health of an ecosystem as a whole depends on the survival of the parts. Bees and other pollinators are necessary for many crops to produce seeds and fruits. Insects keep other insects and unwanted plant species in check. Birds eat bugs and seeds. Predators keep rodents under control.

When we tally up our harvest, we need to dig in the soil, measure it’s organic matter, the beetles, the nematodes (more of them are good than bad), the earthworms and the grubs. We should count the meadowlarks, the flickers, the bobwhites and the killdeer. We must take note of the bumble and leaf cutter bees, the wasps, the butterflies and the moths.

We ignore this harvest at our own risk.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains