If ever there was a shining example of a smart public investment in our food and farming future, Minnesota’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program is it.
This program has been an important driver of sustainable (and conventional) farming innovations in the state for almost a quarter-century. Farmers who qualify for these competitive grants are able to do the kind of on-farm research that they would normally never have the resources to undertake. They then report those results in the widely-read and popular Greenbook, which helps get that information to farmers across the state and even across the country.
A typical Greenbook provides summaries of practical, on-farm studies of everything from the basics — improving quality of forages in grazing systems and establishing cover crops — to the more exotic — using solar energy to heat soil in high tunnel vegetable production.
This is the kind of practical research you won’t see featured in scientific journals, but will see replicated on farms throughout the state.
“This is a good incubator for good ideas in agriculture,” says Dennis Johnson, a retired U of M dairy scientist who did cutting edge work on grazing systems while at the West Central Research and Outreach Center.
Josh and Cindy Van Der Pol recently traveled to the Minnesota Capitol to talk to legislators about how their sustainable ag grant “helped us develop into what our farm is today,” as they put it. In the late 1990s, the Van Der Pols used their grant to research how they could lengthen their sow farrowing season using deep-straw systems and other low cost, non-confinement methods. As a result of that research, the Van Der Pols’ Pastures A’ Plenty Farm in Kerkhoven now supports two families and supplies natural pork directly to eaters in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. Their latest innovative step is the construction of a farrowing building with a geothermal cooling system.
“We’re a pretty successful farm and part of that reason is because the sustainable ag grants and the Greenbook helped good ideas get shared,” says Josh.
This kind of practical research is particularly critical at a time when farmers are seeking ways to profitably diversify crop rotations to improve soil health while reducing erosion and a reliance on chemical inputs. The most recent Greenbook features examples of farms that are, for example, using livestock to make soil-friendly cover crops financially viable.
The agrichemical industry isn’t going to fund that kind of research — it’s not good for their business but is good for the economy and environment in our rural communities. In other words, it’s a public good.
But here’s the problem: the nationally respected Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grants Program has been the victim of an extremely uneven funding cycle over the years. In 2009, for example, annual funding went from $160,000 to $100,000, plus then-Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the second year of funding. This almost decimated the initiative’s ability to provide even the most basic grants.
In 2011 the Legislature continued this inequity when it passed language that only “allowed” MDA Commissioner Dave Frederickson to spend up to $100,000 annually on the program — no actual funding was mandated. The bottom line: the MDA’s sustainable agriculture initiative has no real commitment in solid funding. In the MDA’s current proposed budget to the Minnesota Legislature, it continues this unfairness toward sustainable agriculture for the upcoming two-year budget cycle.
Sustainable agriculture deserves its fair share of permanent funding like the rest of agriculture gets, and that hard money needs to be provided by the Legislature this session. Our lawmakers will be deciding what sectors of agriculture will get permanent funding in the agriculture appropriations bill during the next few weeks.
Now is the time to tell them to dedicate $280,000 per year for the upcoming two-year budget cycle for the Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program and Greenbook. Organic and sustainable agriculture makes up a significant and growing portion of our state’s farming sector and deserves fairness.
Paul Sobocinski farms in Wabasso and is a Land Stewardship Project organizer.