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The Role of Rangelands in Diversified Farming Systems: Innovations, Obstacles, and Opportunities in the USA

Nathan F Sayre, Department of Geography University of California-Berkeley
Liz Carlisle, Department of Geography University of California-Berkeley
Lynn Huntsinger, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management University of California-Berkeley
Gareth Fisher, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management University of California-Berkeley
Annie Shattuck, Department of Geography University of California-Berkeley

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-04790-170443

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Abstract

Discussions of diversified farming systems (DFS) rarely mention rangelands: the grasslands, shrublands, and savannas that make up roughly one-third of Earth’s ice-free terrestrial area, including some 312 million ha of the United States. Although ranching has been criticized by environmentalists for decades, it is probably the most ecologically sustainable segment of the U.S. meat industry, and it exemplifies many of the defining characteristics of DFS: it relies on the functional diversity of natural ecological processes of plant and animal (re)production at multiple scales, based on ecosystem services generated and regenerated on site rather than imported, often nonrenewable, inputs. Rangelands also provide other ecosystem services, including watershed, wildlife habitat, recreation, and tourism. Even where non-native or invasive plants have encroached on or replaced native species, rangelands retain unusually high levels of plant diversity compared with croplands or plantation forests. Innovations in management, marketing, incentives, and easement programs that augment ranch income, creative land tenure arrangements, and collaborations among ranchers all support diversification. Some obstacles include rapid landownership turnover, lack of accessible U.S. Department of Agriculture certified processing facilities, tenure uncertainty, fragmentation of rangelands, and low and variable income, especially relative to land costs. Taking advantage of rancher knowledge and stewardship, and aligning incentives with production of diverse goods and services, will support the sustainability of ranching and its associated public benefits. The creation of positive feedbacks between economic and ecological diversity should be the ultimate goal.

Key words

diversification, ecosystem services, ranching, rangelands
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087