From the Archives, Summer 1995: The Land Connection

By Judy Green

Photo: Bill Webber

Photo: Bill Webber

Agriculture is a fundamental part of our vision for Eco Village at Ithaca. One of the most exciting aspects of our project is that we have the opportunity to keep a spectacu­larly beautiful piece of Tompkins County farmland in production.

The master site plan preserves most of our 176 acres as open space and minimizes the encroachment of housing and roadways onto our prime agricultural soils. But protecting farmland is only the beginning. Our plan is to develop an ecologically sound, economically viable farm business, or businesses, which will provide food for the village, keep land and soils productive, and provide a decent livelihood for one or more farming households. In the long run, agriculture and other land based activities may become the foundation of a truly sustainable, community-centered economy. In the meantime, the Agriculture and Land-Use Committee has suggested a set of working goals to help the Eco Village community make decisions about agriculture and land use issues.

The role of animals

Since many of us in Eco Village are vegetarians, the question of the place of farm animals in our community is a sensitive one. Many of us feel that animals have important contributions to make in an integrated, ecologically sound and community-oriented farming system. For one thing, they would provide our community with the highest quality, humanely raised milk, dairy products, meat, eggs, and wool, and possibly provide income for some of us.

For another, grazing animals such as cows or sheep would make productive and aesthetically pleasing use of our grass­lands resources. A well managed pasture system is, after all, one of the most environmentally friendly and beautiful forms of agriculture! Pigs and chickens can make good use of kitchen scraps, crop residues, and weeds, returning valuable nutrients in the form of meat and manure. And animals can also provide pest management and other services, for example weeder geese, chickens in orchards, pigs for garden tillage and compost-turning, goats for shrub and poison ivy control, horses for draft work and recreation.

But perhaps the most important role of animals is teaching us, and our children, about the interdependence and sacredness of all living things, and about responsibility, love, companionship, nurturing, birth, vitality, sickness and death. It is inevitable that loving and caring for animals also involves taking responsibility for their deaths in certain situations. Just how much of that responsibility we ought to take on is a question with which our community still needs to grapple.

The Agriculture Committee did conduct a survey of First Residents Group households to see, among other things, how much interest there is in consuming meat and dairy products. Based on the responses of 17 households, we estimate that the entire neighborhood of thirty households would need one milk cow, 40 laying hens, 400 broilers (meat chickens), and two pigs each year. The demand for beef is only about 160 pounds per year, far less than the weight of one steer. These results raise an interesting ethical question: Is it preferable to take the lives of 400 chickens each year or one steer? Or, as some will argue, why do either? One thing is clear, though. Determining the most appropriate roles for farm animals in Eco Village is going to be an ongoing discussion for quite a long time.

In the meantime, our chief challenge may be economic: How can we create a system which provides both affordable food for the residents and a fair return for the farmers? Part of the answer will be patience -allowing for the farming operations to grow and expand as Eco Village grows. Part of the answer will be flexibility -encouraging farming households to tap into other marketing opportunities outside of Eco Village in order to piece together a livelihood. And part of the answer may be in educating ourselves about the true cost of producing high quality food in an environmentally and socially-responsible way, resolving to pay the price even if it means compromising on some other aspect of our “standard of living.” After all, discovering and making commitments to a sustainable life-style is the essence of the journey we’ve begun here at Eco Village.