Environment & Conservation

Thriving with Marginal Land

I was in a meeting with a university researcher when I first heard the term “Marginal Land” used to describe my farm. My interest was piqued. Marginal didn’t sound like an especially desirable thing to be. After several years of living here and fielding a persistent stream of questions, well-meaning suggestions, offers of sympathy, and generally condescending vibes about my land, it wasn’t hard for me to guess what it was about. It was probably about the flooding, the slope, the woods. You know, the kinds of land that corn and soybean farmers don’t want.

The Definition of Marginal Land

When I got home, I typed the phrase into my internet search bar. The term comes from the field of economics, from the Ricardian Theory of Rent that was developed in 1817. Ricardo uses the term to describe poor quality, unprofitable land; land that can’t grow enough crops to pay for its own rent. In modern times, the phrase is often used to describe land that isn’t well suited for industrial farming applications. According to an article published by Penn State, “Marginal land refers to cropland that is not used for profitable production of typical crops like corn, soybeans or wheat.” In a USDA definition of marginal pastureland, we find the specific attributes of poorly drained or seasonally flooded land, steep and highly erodible soils, and extremely droughty soils. I have also seen the term used to describe land that is contaminated or has lost significant topsoil to erosion.

My initial guess turned out to be spot-on: this farm has a floodplain, vernal pools, bogs, several kinds of highly erodible land, a steep slope, erosion, and fertility loss. An idea started to grow in my mind. Some of the best, most interesting, most productive parts of my land qualify as marginal.

Slender Nettle (Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis)

The Value of Marginal Land

Marginal lands are not well suited for large scale industry, but that does not mean they have no value. This is an important distinction, especially for land that is categorized as marginal for its natural features. Wetlands, for example, are an especially valuable type of ecosystem, teeming with biodiversity, supporting many endangered species, and performing a number of vital ecological functions. Nearly 86% of Indiana’s natural wetlands have already been drained to make room for human agriculture and settlements. Preserving the natural wetlands we have left is crucial for the health of our ecosystem and environment. But if people believe that preserving a wetland is a sacrifice, few people will be inclined to do so in the face of financial pressures and the need to produce food for a growing population. By re-shaping our view of these lands in a way that highlights their unique benefits for humanity, we can open the door to more wetland restorations.

Many farmers do not aspire to farm on an industrial scale. I’ve met urban farmers who are doing amazing things with just a couple of acres of land. My own farm is only ten acres in size, and I know many other small farmers and aspiring small farmers who want to work with specialty crops on a smaller scale. Grain and bean crops do have their place, but people can’t live on those foods alone. People need diverse diets full of vibrant fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Communities need fresh foods that are locally grown and locally consumed. Marginal lands can help to fill this need. With a little creativity and the right management, marginal lands can produce valuable harvests even as we work to restore them to peak ecological condition.

A creek overflows, creating flooded corn fields and road floods
A natural wetland, flooded by an overflowing creek

Thriving in the Floodplain

My farm includes 2.5 acres of river floodplain land. It used to be planted with corn, and judging from the one summer I observed it before I moved in, the corn wasn’t happy and the yield wasn’t good. The bare soil in between corn plants was highly vulnerable to erosion during our frequent flood cycles. But just because the land isn’t good for growing corn, soybeans, or wheat, does not mean it isn’t good for growing anything. There are, in fact, some wonderful crops that love to grow in river floodplains. Pecan trees are absolutely thriving on that land. Shellbark hickory trees are flourishing. Swamp white oak trees are thrilled to be there. Elderberries and highbush cranberries produced their first ripe berries this past summer. Medicinal goldenrods, fragrant wild mint, and multi-useful riparian grape showed up unannounced, but they brought food and wine, so I can’t complain. All of these crops are native perennials which require no soil disturbance, resulting in reduced erosion and maximized ecological benefits. In the case of a floodplain, the problem isn’t the land. The problem is the crop.

Sun Peeking Through The Trees

Thriving on the Slopes

My farm includes 1.83 acres of steep north-facing slope land. The inherent nature of slopes makes them highly erodible. Slopes shouldn’t be tilled, because loose topsoil washes away so easily. It’s difficult to drive machinery on steep slopes, making them poorly suited to large farm implements. My slope was already wooded, and I chose to work carefully around the established trees there, preserving them but enhancing the understory. This project is in its early stages, but is showing great potential. American Ginseng, one of the most profitable crops on this continent, prefers north-facing slopes. It’s too early to know if my little ginseng test patch will be successful, but I already know it’s a great place for native black raspberries, blackberries, beech nuts, hickory nuts, bur oak acorns, grapes, and more.

Slopes require hand management. Some corn and soy farmers are responsible for thousands of acres of land, and admittedly, I could never manage thousands of acres of wooded slope. I also don’t aspire to farm on that scale. The specialty crops I am able to grow on a smaller plot of land have a higher capacity for revenue per acre than grain crops farmed over much larger areas. The fact that I manage my farm by hand or with small equipment means that I haven’t had to take out any loans to buy expensive machinery. I have met many other farmers who are content to operate at a small scale, and many more aspiring farmers who dream of managing a few acres. Maybe we don’t need to solve the problem of how to scale this up to the multi-thousand acre farm. Maybe we just need to figure out how to connect eager farmers-to-be with some of these marginal hillsides.

Thriving in the Bog

Of all my land, the bogs are the most interesting to me. Many, many plants thrive in these rich environments. From pawpaw and persimmon trees to stinging nettles and spicebush, the creative farmer can squeeze in a huge variety of crops. Bogs are especially well suited to permaculture style farming, because they love to be densely packed with layers upon layers of diverse plants. Before humans started draining Indiana’s wetlands to make room for housing editions and more corn fields, a full 25% of Indiana’s land mass was wetland. Since there were originally 5.6 million acres of wetland here, a large portion of Indiana native plants are very well adapted to boggy soil, and actually prefer to live in wetland ecosystems such as bogs. Many native plants are wildly useful, and some even produce delicious, nutritious food crops. In my view, native plants are the crucial puzzle piece in making the most of naturally marginal land types.

Human-Created Marginal Land

All of the land types I have discussed so far are naturally made. Wetland ecosystems and slopes are simply features of the land’s topography. These land features co-evolved with plants and animals that thrive on them. They may not conform to Euro-centric standards of agriculture, but they are highly productive given the right crops. I believe that they are to be celebrated. The more difficult, less wonderful kinds of marginal land are man-made. The contaminated land, the over-farmed land, the eroded land, the infertile land. These kinds of land benefit from human intervention to restore their natural balance. The most significant man-made marginal condition that I contend with here is the erosion that likely resulted from agricultural practices through the past century or two.

Eroded soils respond very well to regenerative agriculture. The most common form of regenerative agriculture involves converting the land to permanent pasture with rotational grazing of livestock. This strategy is not just about manure, it’s about the pasture. The land needs biomass generated by lots of perennial plants in order to rebuild its topsoil. The manure from the rotating livestock helps to fertilize the pasture grass so that the land can produce more biomass through plants. The livestock also provide a pathway to income for farmers while the land is transitioning.

Livestock is a major commitment, and if that isn’t your thing, there are other ways to rebuild healthy soil through intentional agriculture. Cover crops, food forests, mulching, and composting are other great ways to help the land rebuild its topsoil. Large scale recovering land will benefit most from some form of perennial agriculture, such as a food forest or a native prairie. On a smaller scale, you could learn how to practice no-till gardening, try the lasagna method, and start a compost pile. Damaged land is not something to celebrate, but many kinds of damage can be healed. Eroded soils are filled with potential and opportunity for dedicated small-scale farmers willing to do the healing work. These types of marginal soils don’t have to stay marginal forever.

Small Farmers and Marginal Land

Me standing next to a 3 year old pecan tree

Small farmers and gardeners have the most flexibility in the crops we grow and the methods we use. We aren’t invested in highly-specialized machinery that only works on one kind of crop. We can afford to be agile, to learn our lands, and to farm them how they need to be farmed. Small farming was the way of our ancestors, and I think it could become the way of the future.

Resiliency comes from diverse agriculture producing locally-consumable crops in eco-friendly ways. From my viewpoint, we don’t need a more advanced kind of genetically engineered, genetically identical soybean in order to feed the world. We need oak trees, everywhere, and to re-learn how to eat the acorns. We need to reacquaint ourselves with native fruit and nut trees, and to integrate them into our daily lives. We need to pick dandelions, and eat them. I don’t believe in one big global solution. I believe in millions of community-sized solutions, leading to ever-greater manifestations of abundance. There is no plot of land too small to create positive change. What form might abundance take on your land?

Note: This article discusses edible and medicinal wild plants. Always do your own thorough research before touching, foraging or ingesting any plant that’s new to you. Identification mistakes can happen and so can allergies, interactions, and idiosyncratic reactions. Information presented in this article and elsewhere on this web site is for educational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any health conditions. View our full legal disclaimer here.

For Further Reading

Farming The Wetland
Farming the Woodland
The Food In The Forest
Whole Earth