In a flight over Virginia shortly after the Blizzard of 2016, there’s something I noticed.
First, it’s beautiful. I’ve generally noticed that before, though there’s really nothing that can capture the mono-chromatic sunrise unfolding in front of me from my smudged 8×12 inch window. As the sun rises over the rippling horizon, it slowly illuminates each valley—from ridge to trough.
The ridges are long, unending gray strips of forested land. Here’s the second thing I noticed. With few exceptions, the mountain ridge-tops are completely covered with forestland for mile after mile. The white patches of snow outline the sparse farmland nestled between those massive ridges.
As the sun scoops down into these valleys and brings to light those white patches, I’m reminded of a sustainability class in college—and my wife’s hometown.
Long before I met my wife, who’s from the German town of Bernkastel-Keus, I studied the agricultural sustainability of the Meinz river-valley. A feeder into the Rhine, the Meinz river is a world-famous wine valley—Gewürztraminer, Riesling, etc.
The region has kept its valleys fertile and sustainably harvested through a strict practice of keeping mountain ridges forested. It’s the same method I watch come to light on my early morning fly-over leaving DC.
In the Meinz, the integrity of every hilltop is maintained for several reasons. Structurally, the roots anchor the soil down, keeping it from ever blowing away a la Dustbowl of 1930s America.
In addition to keeping it in place, the trees automatically fertilize the valleys below. Insects, fungi and bacteria turn leaf litter accumulated in the forests above to detritus material rich in phosphorus, nitrates and a host of micronutrients. Rains and snowmelt slowly bring those nutrients down to the valleys below in a constant stream.
Though it seems to make so much sense to leave hilltops well enough alone—and it’s not easy to farm hilltops anyway—it’s not obvious. There are places across the world where these tenets of ridge-and-valley sustainability are ignored.
For example, below is one idyllic photo of a Tuscan farm doing just the opposite. While it’s ostensibly beautiful, hilltop after hilltop is opened to the risk of de-nutrition and soil loss.
While keeping hilltops and mountaintops forested may seem to be a waste of arable land, it may save farmers money in the long run. Agricultural expenditures on fertilizers such as urea (nitrates and phosphates) are huge inputs. The constant stream of nutrients from uphill woodlands decreases the need for expenses on those fertilizers.
Both the beauty of the alternating ridges and valleys and the odd link to sustainable farming practices struck me on that flight. I’ve never seen another place in the world that was so adherent to the practice, and was happy to see that it’ll keep both the forest and the farmland for generations to come.