Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
Few figures loom as large in today’s sustainability movement as Aldo Leopold. A scientist, forester, and conservationist, he is best known as the author of A Sand County Almanac, which was published posthumously in 1949 and has since influenced a generation of environmental thinkers. He was among the first to pay careful attention to concepts like biodiversity and “wilderness,” which are woven tightly into our understanding of the environment.
Today, Leopold’s philosophy lives on not only through his published works, but also in the various programs of a nonprofit organization founded by his children in 1982 to honor his memory and to spread his values. Like its namesake, the Aldo Leopold Foundation, based in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is not afraid to tackle large and complicated issues connected to environmentalism, sustainability, and the relationship between humans and our natural environment.
The core work of the organization is caring for about 600 acres surrounding the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm. It’s no ordinary farm. Leopold, along with his wife Estella, purchased the spread for $8 an acre in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression drought and dust storms. Denuded of trees and topsoil, the once-working farm had by that time degenerated into little more than a windswept patch of sand. But for the Leopold family, it became a living laboratory for the theories of biodiversity and regeneration pioneered by their elder.
Over the course of many decades, the farm became what it is today—a rich and fertile plot of diverse trees and plantings. And this process of transformation is what is recorded in A Sand County Almanac.
Today, the farm serves not only as a living example of Leopold’s ideas, but also as a waystation for endangered species, one bead in a 12,000 acre bracelet of protected lands held by a range of public and private owners, all managed to protect critical breeding habitat for more than 150 bird species.
The organization also has a multi-pronged educational program, ranging from simple hands-on learning for landowners who wish to steward in more sustainable ways, to immersive course-work to train “Land Ethic Leaders,” as well as a body of curricula for teachers and other educators.
From the 1930s to today, the environmental movement has gone through many phases. In its early stages, much of the focus was on topics like industrial pollution, chemicals, and clean water and air while the conservation movement focused on preserving areas of “wilderness.” Such efforts are important, but Leopold’s ideas went further. His “land ethic” focused on the interconnections between the human and natural worlds. “The land ethic,” he wrote, “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Nothing expresses this interconnection quite as succinctly as agriculture, and today’s sustainable ag movement—particularly in developing nations—is perhaps best carrying Leopold’s work forward. He was early in his understanding that if we truly want to make the world a sustainable place, conservation and production must be tightly intertwined. “Bread and beauty grow best together,” he wrote in 1933. “The land [is] not only a food-factory, but an instrument for self-expression, on which each can play music to his own choosing.”
Organic Valley is committed to promoting environmental sustainability and is proud to support the Aldo Leopold Foundation in its work as good stewards of the land.