Farm Scales: weighing biodiversity, ecosystem services, and economic resiliency

The public would do well to be interested in the scale of farms because scale is a prime component of complexity.  Complexity is built from biological, environmental, and economic measures, namely biodiversity, ecosystem services, and economic resiliency.

Pivot irrigation in Israel creates a field as big as a small town.

Field sizes have grown enormously since the advent of the combine tractor. This single pivot irrigation circle in Israel dwarfs the neighboring village.

The biodiversity of the small farm is related to its field / field-margin inter-relationship.  Ten 5 acre fields surrounded by hedgerows are, by necessity, more diverse than a single 50 acre field similarly surrounded.  Not only is the absolute mass of diversity in any biological kingdom greater in the more intricate example, but the reach into the field of the beneficial creatures (insects, birds, etc) who reside in the margin systems is biologically determined, meaning finite.  A praying mantis will only fly so far to eat other bugs, no matter the size of the field beside her.

The ecological functioning(a.k.a. ecosystem services) , such as the clean flow of wind and water, are also impacted by scale.  The wind shadow effect of a well maintained windbreak or hedgerow style field margin either peters out, over a large field, or accumulates, over a series of small fields.  The Danes have shown their own hedgerow belt to slow the wind speed across that portion of their country by 5 to 10 miles per hour compared to the un-hedged portion.

hedgerows and field margins in britain

Field margin systems, like these hedgerows in England, create both economic and ecological buffers.

In southwestern England, flower farmers use smaller fields with taller windbreaks to the same effect, lowering their windspeed and raising the spring ground level air temperatures enough to advance the blooming of their bulbs by a market-worthy margin.

As for the economic diversity, consider here Vandana Shiva’s concept of shadow acres.  If those smaller fields are ringed with the biomass used to make furniture and tools, mend fences, and thatch roofs, then that town has a greater economic resiliency to stay afloat if/when one of their primary crops fails for a year or two.  When a field is enlarged to 50 acres, those biomass resources must be found elsewhere.

That 50 acre field will be assessed for yield (which measures the return of the single crop), but yield calculations overlook the true former output of the land (as output measures the total abundance, both of the target crop and of the other sundries obtained from the same land).  In order to truly assess the value of the less complex single large field, the acres elsewhere that now provide what had been gathered from the margins must be included, and well as the new economic vulnerability of the formerly resilient community.

So yes, scale matters.  Small really is more beautiful, and the more visually literate we become, the more we are able to understand why.  It won’t be as simple as a one size fits all: appropriately small in New England and appropriately small in Nebraska won’t be the same measure, but they will both take into consideration the biodiversity, ecosystem services, and potential economic resiliency of their region’s complex landscape mosaic.

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8 Responses to Farm Scales: weighing biodiversity, ecosystem services, and economic resiliency

  1. i love your blog, i have it in my rss reader and always like new things coming up from it.

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