Stewards of the Land

Posted in Blog, Farming on Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Who is responsible for caring for the ground under our feet? The short answer: all of us.

Stewards of the Land

THE WORD "STEWARDSHIP" IS NOT WELL UNDERSTOOD in modern America, but it's a word with a rich history in the western world. A steward, in medieval times, was someone who was tasked with caring for and managing an estate that did not belong to them. Their job was to consider how to make the very best use of the land — providing for the needs of the village or estate while preserving the health of the land itself.

In that sense of the word, we are all stewards of the land, with varying degrees of responsibility. We all have to make decisions about how to care for and manage these unique landscapes, whether it's your backyard or a 1,000-acre farm. Whether you're a lawmaker or agency staffer setting guidelines and best practices for land use, a farmer or landowner trying to responsibly manage your land, or a consumer making smart choices to reduce food waste and your travel impact, we all have a part to play. Both rural and urban citizens impact our natural environment. Did you know the pavement and people of Seattle and other cityscapes impact the health of our waters and Chinook salmon populations? Just as farmers think about how they can best steward their lands, urban dwellers must consider how they, too, impact the environment around them.

Though the principles of stewardship have evolved over centuries, they remain fundamentally tied to the notion of caretaking and sustainability. For roughly the past 40 years, policymakers in Washington have been rethinking approaches to climate stewardship, as our society faces unprecedented challenges such as climate change, population growth, and resource depletion. Conservation and resource management have become a priority among legislators, agency officials and staff. National policies such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act have attempted to protect our natural resources. Statewide programs and efforts such as the Climate Commitment Act were also passed in an effort to improve our state's natural resources. Whether it's the scrutiny over land management by our local farmers or the increased taxes paid by every state citizen, these policies impact everyone. Coupled with innovation and investment in green technologies, some policies have created resource management tools that have helped clean up our urban and rural spaces. Others, while well-intended, have the potential to make harmful impacts on the environment when implemented. This is why it is vital that legislators and government officials have a full understanding of real life implementation. This is where groups, such as our local conservation districts, have a vital role to play.

Policies grounded in voluntary stewardship trickle down through conservation districts in every county of the state. These district staff help translate those priorities and best practices to the individual farmers and landowners.

"Over half of Washington is privately owned," says Laura Meyer, who advises conservation districts on their outreach with landowners." Achieving state goals for climate and natural resources requires the partnership and insight of private landowners. That's why conservation districts are vital – their community-based teams develop relationships with landowners and make it easier and more affordable for them to steward farmland and the environment."

In defiance of the stereotypes, many farmers are often more conservation-minded than the average Washingtonian. Throughout the state, many farmers and landowners voluntarily make changes that significantly reduce their environmental impact. Techniques such as crop rotation and no-till not only enhance soil fertility and biodiversity but also reduce soil erosion and minimize the need for chemical inputs. By focusing on sustainable practices, farmers are producing more healthy food than ever, while preserving the integrity of the land.

"Advancements in soil health research and incentive-based programs have opened the door for farmers to grow food in more sustainable and climate-friendly ways," says Meyer. "Farmers have rapidly adopted practices like planting cover crops, which are noncash crops planted in between growing seasons when fields may otherwise be bare. Cover crops not only remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but they also add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, which is great for future planting."

Consumers, too, have a critical role in environmental stewardship. Making informed choices about the products we buy can lead to substantial environmental benefits. Opting for locally grown foods — which should be easy for those living in Washington, due to the huge variety and quantity of foods grown here — reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation in some cases. Additionally, reducing food waste through mindful purchasing and consumption can make a huge difference. Science has also shown that vehicle tire crumb has a devastating impact on local salmon populations. Choosing how you commute each day is a decision that impacts our state's environment. Every small decision, from choosing reusable bags to riding public transportation, contributes to a larger movement toward sustainability.

"For consumers looking for a sustainable choice, choose Washington-grown foods," says Meyer. "There are few places in the world and even within the U.S. where farmers produce the diversity of fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and dairy as they do right here in our state. We're incredibly lucky to have access to fresh food that is within a 100 mile radius."

Stewardship extends beyond merely managing resources; it embodies a deep sense of responsibility and care for our planet. Whether through sustainable farming, conscious consumerism and transportation, legislative action, or educational efforts, everyone can contribute to the stewardship of the environment. Stewardship doesn't just happen on the farm, it happens in your home every day with the choices you make.

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