Global temperatures are rising. Ice sheets are shrinking. Sea levels are rising. Weather is becoming more and more extreme.
A recent federal report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that climate change is rapidly affecting the natural environment, negatively impacting agriculture, energy production, land and water resources, transportation, and human welfare. In the face of this looming global threat, it can be easy to feel helpless. What can one person do to stem such a tide?
As Janis Steele and Brooks McCutchen of Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple Farm in Heath have shown — a lot.
There are no orchards on their land. Instead, they harvest sap from a wild forest of about 5,000 trees. For Steele and McCutchen, making syrup this way is an answer to economic and environmental problems that make large farming operations increasingly unsustainable. In order to survive in today’s agricultural market, McCutchen says many farmers are forced to over-harvest their land — damaging the soil, leading to ecological collapse and declining native biodiversity. By allowing their forest to self-regulate, the farmers cut down on overhead costs, which helps them stay afloat financially and keeps their land healthy.
It’s a simple philosophy that works.
The farm has been in existence for two decades. But more than a sustainable farming technique, their approach is a means of environmental advocacy.
In 2014, Steele and McCutchen founded a nonprofit called Island Reach as a way to extend their influence and help others facing similar challenges. During a typical year, they split their time between Heath and Vanuatu, an archipelago in the South Pacific comprising about 80 islands, where they impart their sustainable environmental practices to local fishermen. There, economic pressure drives over-fishing, which has led to ecological collapse and declining yields. In correlation, seasons are less predictable; certain species of fish have gone missing.
They’re two vastly different environments with similar environmental challenges.
Lying on the eastern frontier of the Coral Sea, the archipelago is home to vast biological riches — from coral reefs to mangroves and rain forests. Steele and McCutchen selected Vanuatu and its resources as a way to combat global climate change.
Through Island Reach, which includes experienced local conservationists, McCutchen and Steele host environmentally forward classes and work closely with the community to teach the sustainable farming techniques they refined in Heath. According to McCutchen, the solution to the economic and environmental problems faced by the fishermen starts with making the ecosystem healthy again. Sometimes, that means replanting reefs with tougher species of coral than those destroyed. Once the environment is healthy again, it maintains itself — just like their maple trees.
As a happy byproduct, the reef produces greater fishing yields.
Yes — climate change is a big problem, and it’s going to take a lot more than a few people to make any sort of substantial change. But, McCutchen and Steele have shown that one or two people can make a difference — imagine what an entire nation moved by a singular purpose could do.