On March 3rd, the day before one of my favorite days of the year (the only day of the year that’s an imperative—March Forth!), I drove to the coast of North Carolina to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of my dear friends, Suzanne Thompson. Suzanne is the lab manager for the Piehler Lab, where I worked for five consecutive summers—from my sophomore year in high school to my sophomore year in college.
I’ve written a bit about the Piehler Lab before—it’s where it all started for me in terms of thinking about what I’d like to be when I grow up. The Piehler Lab studies microbial ecology and biogeochemistry focusing on coastal land-water ecosystems—think estuaries and wetlands and how humans impact those environments. This work helped me form my views about the world and what place I’d like to take within it. While I’m not continuing on in the sciences, small, sustainable—insert your favorite buzzwords: organic (although I hesitate to use this one), local, etc.—farming plays a crucial part in land-water interfaces on a general ecosystem level. Hypothetically, ecosystems such as wetlands have less nutrient loads to process from farms that don’t use harmful chemicals. However, this is debatable and as there is such a large range of practices in small farming, it’s hard to say for sure if farming “organically” is necessarily better for the environment.
Author’s sidenote: An article by Hansen et. al. (in Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 2001) called “Approaches to assess the environmental impact of organic farming with particular regard to Denmark” is helpful for gaining an understanding of the environmental impacts of organic farming. Although the article is a bit outdated and based in Denmark, it’s a good base and agrees that “in general, the risk of harmful environmental effects is lower with organic than with conventional farming methods, though not necessarily so.”
As a future small farmer, I’ll be continually assessing how my own farming practices are affecting the health of the environment around me. As a current farm hand, being thoughtful about the environmental impact of the farms that I’m working on will help me to have a better farm in the future.
In attendance at Suzanne’s birthday party were neighbors, family members, and colleagues from the science world. Oftentimes, explaining to people that I’m considering becoming a farmer confuses them—why would I go to a liberal arts university to become a farmer? Instead, among the scientists that partially raised me, the responses were encouraging. For those who know me best farming seems like the obvious career path—they understand the connection that I see so clearly—between humans and their environment, and how food is at the intersection of the two.
Laura Stephenson is an environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she focused in environmental and community health. She is currently working as a farm hand at a small, sustainable farm in Person County, North Carolina called Forty North Farm. In April, she’ll be working full-time at another small, organic farm outside of Hillsborough, North Carolina called Maple Spring Gardens. Laura writes the Farming and the Local Food Scene series about her experiences with local farms and farmers around the Piedmont area of North Carolina.