HOW NATURAL?

            We're in the throes of our Polyface Intensive Discovery Seminars which are 2-day, 6-meal dawn-to-dusk learning sessions here at Polyface.  We had our first cohort Monday and Tuesday, with 12 people from foreign countries.  Fascinating and wonderful group.

             One farmer was from Washington State, where elk have been encouraged by radical environmentalists for some time.  This farm raises grass-finished cattle; I've been there and they do a great job.  Their pastures are way better than average both in volume and quality.  So guess where the elk go?

             You got it.  The elk expense on this one farm is $60,000 per year.  This farmer could hardly say the word "elk" without spitting.  When I told her similar efforts in Virginia have germinated a relocated herd just 100 miles south of us, she said we'd better get busy right now and try to eliminate their spread because they will destroy a good farm.

             We know elk were here 500 years ago.  Repopulating their full range sounds sweet and innocent to many folks.  Unlike deer, they tear down electric fences and their size means they eat copious amounts of forage.  On our farm, we must harvest about 20 deer per year just to keep the population compatible.

             Elk are far bigger, more destructive, and some would argue, much easier domesticated.  Or at least, more willing to inject themselves closer into the human arena than a deer.  At any rate, this kind of real farmer assessment needs to be appreciated for its credibility and impact.

             Yes, there were elk here.  But cities weren't here.  Or Starbucks,  Or the mall, or roads or cars or computers.  My problem with the going back to pre-European crowd is that they're pretty selective about what we're going back to.  They drive their cars to a rally to repopulate the countryside with wolves or elk or whatever.

             The truth is that the nature of nature has changed.  The nature of our nature; the nature of our context is different.  A herd of 7 million bison tearing across the soccer field during a game would be pretty disruptive.  Certainly I want to be as natural as possible, but I also appreciate that you can't go back comprehensively.  We're not giving up our roads, phones, and electric lines.  We have to appreciate that some ancient things are compatible and some aren't. 

             I'll tell you what; how about we go back before the Internal Revenue Service?  That changed a lot of things, including the viability of an elk-populated farmscape.  Or if we bring back the elk, how about open season on hunting?  If you want them on your place, don't hunt them; feed them instead.  Fragile chicken shelters, electric fencing and a host of lightweight mobile infrastructure we use on our farm simply doesn't fit with all the nuances of a pre-modern era.  The problem is that many people who enjoy being labeled "naturalists" lobby for laws and policies and efforts that actually militate against pastured livestock viability.  Therein lies a great disconnect, and one I try to close every day.

             We all know things don't happen in isolation.  Something as ecology-altering as re-introducing elk has ramifications far more numerous than just elk.  We need to think about unintended consequences on both the biological and industrial side of the farming equation.

             Do you want to see elk in Virginia?