The Ocean View from John Sanderson’s Farm

Once again, we’re talking about the connections between farming and the oceans (see here for a nascent discussion on the Farm Bill and oceans) but this time we’re looking back to a classic 1966 paper from forest ecology, The View from John Sanderson’s Farm. The article documents the changing uses of a small New England farm from the 17th century wilderness to the mid 20th century third growth pine forest, arguing that much of the changes are driven by factors far outside of the farmers’ control or sphere of knowledge. For example, John Sanderson’s growing farm holdings fairly quickly collapsed in the mid 19th century, probably due to competition from midwest farms, whose markets were opened up by the Erie Canal. Years later, white pine–which opportunistically invades cleared fields–became a major crop to make boxes and containers for goods going back to the midwest. This encouraged early 20th century foresters to invest heavily in replanting white pine (which was virtually useless by the time the crop matured in the 1960’s as cardboard and plastic packaging had come along). The author, Hugh Raup, claimed that this tale points to the problem of holding land sacred, as he argued environmentalists of the time were doing. Rather, Raup argues what is important is people’s changing attitudes and needs towards the products of the land, and because of slow forest growth rates, these will change much more rapidly than the forest itself.

So what’s the connection to oceans? Clearly, by growth and reproductive rates, some fish are like crops and some are like forests. I think the deeper connection here is in the difference between holding an entity (such as the ocean) sacred vs. valuing the relationship between different user groups and that entity. At the same time, Raup’s work has been criticized for promoting an over-reliance on instantaneous market forces and anticipated future technology changes without focusing on the long-term ecological picture. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine the kind of complete substitution that has gone on with forest products to occur with fish products (maybe groundfish will be totally valueless in the future because some low-cost environmentally friendly farmed clones are produced, but I doubt it). Indeed, while we have historically substituted one species for another as the first stock became depleted (e.g., Pauly’s “Fishing Down Marine Foodwebs“) the original stock would still be valuable if it returned (you can bet I’d be eating abalone ceviche big time if they were still around in big numbers), unlike the white pine that are no longer used for egg cartons and the like. This places the onus of management on making a flexible structure that can respond to changing attitudes and needs without sacrificing long-term conservation. A nice recent critique of John Sanderson’s farm appears here–offering as an alternative Harvard Forest’s new “Wildlands and Woodlands” proposal which aims to have both protected and working lands providing services to people with a diversity of attitudes and needs. This model, borne out of 300 years of experience in New England forest, may be the type of strategy we need now to think about for oceans.

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One Response to The Ocean View from John Sanderson’s Farm

  1. […] here in the classic forest ecology paper, “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm” (discussed here) which talks about the changing use of a New England farm being driven by changing human attitudes […]

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