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Partnering with Agriculture for the Health of our Communities and our Environment

Mark Muller
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)

The difficulties facing the Minnesota farmer are well known. Commodity prices for corn, soybeans, wheat and hogs are below the cost of production. The number of farms in Minnesota is in continual decline and the remaining farms merge and expand. How does this impact the typical non-farming citizen of Minnesota? After all, our economy is much less dependent on agricultural production than in previous years. We continue to be blessed with an abundant food supply and a food system that can deliver fresh produce to Minnesota year round. Furthermore, agriculture is a major impairment of water quality. Wouldn’t the disappearance of agriculture result in a healthier landscape? Despite the smaller economic role agriculture has in Minnesota’s economy and our ability to get food from all over the world, farms still contribute significantly to our quality of life. Our lakes and rivers can only be as healthy as the landscape within the watershed. Well-managed farms not only serve as a filtration system for water but they also provide an alternative to suburban sprawl, which is also detrimental to water quality. Changing our relationship with agriculture – from a watershed liability that must be regulated to a source of benefits that should be embraced – is a difficult shift, particularly for the environmental community. However, we believe that this shift in thinking can provide greater long-term benefits to Minnesota communities.

Changing Agricultural Paradigms

The focus of a farmer’s endeavors is agricultural output. That is what keeps the farmer in business. But a farm may or may not produce a variety of other goods, particularly clean air and water. These benefits often go unrecognized, which has led to less of these goods being produced by the farmer and frequently results in conflict with the greater community. Resolving this conflict necessitates changing the connotation of the term “maximizing productivity.” Farms and woodlands are more than just sources of food and timber; they are also producers of environmental and social benefits. Some of the methods that promote the exchange of environmental and social benefits include increased consumer knowledge, cost-sharing and watershed partnerships.

Allowing Consumers to Choose Production Methods

When the typical consumer buys a package of ground beef, they know nothing about the practices to produce the meat, including where the cattle was raised, the methods of production or the feed or antibiotic inputs that went into the animal. This lack of knowledge has left producers with only one item to compete for – economic efficiency – without regard to environmental or social costs. Many farmers are uncomfortable with the heavy reliance on pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics and confined feeding operations and have sought alternatives. Some have implemented sustainable practices and continue to compete in conventional markets. Others have carved out a market share by labeling their products or creating cooperatives. Organic labels are the most well known, but others target specific interests such as location, chemical use, environmental benefits or treatment of animals.

Assisting Farmers with Environmental Stewardship

One of the greatest hindrances to increased on-farm environmental stewardship is the cost, whether it is the up-front cost of changing the farm’s infrastructure, a potential drop in yield, or increased overall risk from attempting a new practice. All of these can inhibit the incorporation of sustainable farming practices. Many government environmental programs use cost-sharing to promote wildlife habitat and reduce water quality impacts. Some organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited, have used private funds to increase wildlife habitat. Other initiatives rely on farmer recognition. Several agencies and organizations in Minnesota have developed the “River Friendly Farmer” program, which recognizes farmers for incorporating Best Management Practices. Programs such as these may not result in large-scale changes in the agricultural landscape, but can push conventional farmers toward more sustainable practices.

Working Together through Watershed Partnerships

Farmers, consumers and rural residents tend to have a surprisingly similar vision of what they would like rural Minnesota to look like. Everyone agrees with the concept of thriving rural communities that maintain healthy landscapes and clean water. However, in many communities that vision is not being created. Sometimes it is due to lack of knowledge or to callous actions, but more frequently it is due to economic forces much larger than the confines of the community. Watershed partnerships are developing across the country that bring the decision-making power back to the local level. Initiatives that have been successful get beyond the finger-pointing, and create working relationships between diverse stakeholders. Only with this network of support can farmers and other landowners produce benefits that are unrecognized in the global economic system.

What You Can Do

Although the methods of connecting with the agricultural community are numerous, actually making the contact can be difficult. Following are some ideas:

* Already a tactic of many co-op members, buy locally grown, sustainable foods. Look for opportunities to get to know farmers. Many community supported agriculture farms (CSAs) allow members to provide labor–a great way of seeing the methods of production firsthand. A directory of CSAs in Minnesota is available from the Land Stewardship Project at 612-653-0618.

* Get involved in organizations that promote urban-rural partnerships. Minnesota is blessed with two organizations that have done an excellent job promoting sustainable communities: the Land Stewardship Project (612-653-0618) and the Minnesota Project (651-645-6159).

* If you know a farmer that may be interested in participating in the River Friendly Farmer Program, contact Tim Wagar at the University Extension (507-280-2866).

We need local actions such as these to thwart the increased commoditization of our food system. Food, and the producers of our food, deserve much more respect than this system allows.

See Also: Arts: Animal Agriculture Arts: Organic Food

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