Change Comes from the Ground Up

As the staff and member-leaders of the Land Stewardship Project conduct our organization’s work for stewardship and justice on the land, the central concept that keeps arising is “change comes from the ground up.” Whether the subject is farming practices, public policy or community vitality, thinking about positive change in this way is enormously helpful and a constant touchstone for LSP.

But what does the idea that “change comes from the ground up” actually mean for LSP? It means we must regularly engage in active listening and the kind of regular conversations that bring out our members' core values and the key issues they are concerned about. It also means joining forces, learning and taking action together, to harness the power of people and ideas for positive change.

One recent example of change from the ground up is LSP’s growing work in soil health. For a few years now, farmers from across the region have led a grassroots education and promotion effort to show how authentically improving soil health can increase the life and the productivity of the soil, improve a farm’s profitability, mend the land’s ability to store and clean water, and stably store carbon.

What’s more, one key element of improving soil health—farming systems that integrate continuous living cover with crops and livestock— can work for farms large and small, and even serve as an entry point for beginning farmers. That’s why LSP’s Jan. 12 meeting in Elgin, Minn., drew 130 farmers, and a similar meeting in St. Charles, Minn., on Jan. 27 drew another 50 — farmers see this as an exciting way to make their operations more resilient. And as farmers make changes on their own farms, they bring forward ideas for reducing some of the significant agriculture policy obstacles — like huge crop insurance subsidiesadoption of continuous living cover faces. These farmers have creative ideas for replacing bad policy with cost-effective, smart incentives, incentives that would increase the public good that comes from good farming.

Such thinking spills over into research and market development, too. If we need dramatically more cover on the land to build the soil’s health and prevent run-off and erosion, then let’s get the universities researching and developing new cover crops and forages (as well as markets for them) — which is exactly what the Forever Green initiative at the University of Minnesota is doing with crops like perennial wheat, or kernza.

The same dynamic can be seen across the span of LSP’s work over the years. Consider the leadership of LSP members on our Federal Farm Policy Committee—they were unsatisfied with the 1996 Farm Bill and thought LSP could win better farm policy for family farms and the care of the land. And they followed through, developing policy and building support for it, while helping lead the effort to win the passage of the Conservation Security Program (otherwise known as CSP — now the Conservation Stewardship Program) in the 2002 Farm Bill.

CSP is now the USDA’s largest conservation program, and the core ideas of LSP’s farmer-leaders are still evident in it: focus on supporting farmers to implement and maintain effective conservation systems on their working lands, and reward measurable positive outcomes rather than paying to fix problems. As LSP’s staff and current Federal Farm Policy Committee members focus on developing a better food and farm policy in the next Farm Bill, we are working the same way, emphasizing the ideas that LSP members have been sharing with us in large and small meetings in recent months.

Likewise, our work in partnership with Hope Community in the Phillips Neighborhood of South Minneapolis springs from listening sessions held by Hope leaders and meetings engaging LSP members over the past five years. Now “The Rose,” a 5,000-square-foot community garden, is being worked by people living in the community. It is a source of nutrition, education and connection, rising from the soil amid the apartments and shops of the city.

While that was going on in South Minneapolis, the citizens of Winona County themselves rose up to protect the land and their communities from the oil and gas industry’s attempt to strip-mine sand for hydrofracturing operations. County residents told LSP, “You must help us, we need LSP on this.” After a 17-month campaign led by LSP members, Winona County Commissioners did their job as responsible leaders of government. They listened to the people, and in November 2016 passed what the people wanted: the nation’s first known countywide ban on frac sand mining and development.

LSP is currently hip-deep, not in snow, but in the winter organizing season. From November through January, we’ve already held by my count 18 organizing meetings and winter workshops of various kinds, in which more than 900 members and supporters have participated. These gatherings have dug into a range of subjects: soil health, local control, the farm/kitchen/table connection, universal affordable healthcare, beginning farmers and U.S. farm policy, just to name a few. The gatherings have taken place in towns from St. Charles to St. Leo, Lewiston to Lamberton, and from Starbuck to Rushford.

More such meetings and workshops in Minnesota and Wisconsin are planned for February and March — just call the offices in Lewiston, Montevideo or Minneapolis to find out what’s going on, or check the calendar on our website. Another way to learn about the latest LSP events and resources is to subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter, the LIVE-WIRE.

Why get involved? Because change comes from the ground up, and you can be a part of it.

LSP executive director Mark Schultz can be contacted at 612-722-6377 or marks@landstewardshipproject.org.