What CapX2020 (& Bad Public Policy) Could Destroy

As LSP's latest action alert makes clear, the companies behind the CapX2020 high voltage line are trying to get away with not paying for the true value of the Minnesota farm operations they will be destroying. Unfortunately, the attitude that land which isn't sprouting industrial infrastructure or subdivisions is nothing more than cheap"wasted space" is prevalent among many corporations. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise us.

But allowing such a way of thinking to dominate public policy is incredibly shortsighted, especially at a time when it's becoming increasingly clear that production of food in our own backyard is an economic and environmental boon to our communities. The Minnesota Legislature could determine the fate of many ag operations sitting along CapX's route as early as Monday or Tuesday of next week. Lawmakers need to hear from anyone concerned about local food, family farms and sustainable land use.

No farming operation in the path of CapX2020 better represents the public goods provided by sustainable food production more than Cedar Summit Farm. As the folks at Cedar Summit have pointed out repeatedly during the battle over CapX, their certified organic, grass-based operation is not compatible with a high voltage line. The farmers will have to move, and they are not doing it voluntarily. CapX needs to admit that and compensate farms like Cedar Summit accordingly.

In some ways, the benefits that the owners of Cedar Summit—Dave and Florence Minar, along with their children—provide the local and wider community is incalculable. However, not paying them enough to relocate elsewhere in the region would be a devastating loss not only for the local food economy, but for the landscape and a generation of beginning farmers who look to the Minars as their model for how to balance profitability and ecological health.

The Minars have been having a positive impact on their community and the wider region for a long time. In the 2002 book, The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems and Ecosystems, I wrote about the Minars' pioneering work to reach out to consumers and their non-farming neighbors. At the time, they were just getting their on-farm milk processing enterprise off the ground (it's now thriving, as anyone who shops in the Twin Cities knows), and most of their direct-marketing was centered around meat. A lot has changed since then, but this family's commitment to the land and their community has not.

Below is an excerpt of what I wrote about the Minars over a decade ago. I find it particularly poignant given Dave's assertion in the last paragraph that, "We intend to stay here." Such an attitude shows that the Minars will not be moving voluntarily and that recreating Cedar Summit's magic elsewhere is a huge undertaking. It also shows why the Legislature needs to make it possible for the "buy the farm law" to treat operations like Cedar Summit as they deserve to be treated: valued members of the community with deeper roots and more to offer than the most powerful, lobbyist-packed energy company.

Why Do They Do It?

(From The Farm as Natural Habitat, 2002, Island Press)

In 1993, the Minars converted to grass-based livestock production and started making a serious foray into direct marketing for sustainably raised beef, pork, chickens and turkeys. In 2001, they broke ground on a milk processing facility right on their farm. They are hoping to use that facility to direct market their milk in the form of yogurt, cheese and other products.

They now sell pork, beef, chickens and turkeys to more than two hundred customers, who pay a premium price. Milk sales still make up most of their income, but by 2001 direct-to-consumer meat sales were about a quarter of their gross profits. The Minars are well known for their devotion to producing food in an environmentally sustainable manner. In 2000, they joined with area conservation agencies and nonprofits in a project to reclaim a highly eroded portion of Sand Creek, which winds its way through their farm.

The project is attempting to prove that low-cost methods using excavating equipment, logs, cattle and grass seeding can improve a stream bank cheaply and effectively. The project has some major implications. Sand Creek is one of the main sources of siltation in the heavily polluted Minnesota River. In addition, it's believed by an increasing number of ecologists and conservation technicians that low-cost methods of ecosystem reclamation are what are needed in farm country—methods that utilize the farm's own resources and tools.

I've been to the Minars' many times when their customers pick up meat from their walk-in freezer or attend an open house that features not only the farmers, but also the people who do the meat processing for them. The Minars consciously do not deliver any of their products. They want their customers to see their farm and meet their family, which includes five children. These customers, many of whom are recent immigrants from the Twin Cities, show their support for this kind of agriculture with their pocketbook. But they also provide verbal pats on the back and end up telling others about this wonderful source of family-farm meat.

Given their environmentally friendly reputation, I asked Dave if that pays off in their direct marketing. Even though they tout their eco-methods in brochures and sales material, Dave said in the end the thing most consumers are interested in is whether the meat is chemical and antibiotic-free (it is).

That the people Dave and Florence Minar sell sustainably raised meat to are first and foremost focused on their own health is understandable. After all, that's what has prompted many a hard look by farm families themselves over the years. But just as a case of the pesticide flu can be one of the factors that leads a farmer to look at the bigger agro-ecological picture, consumer concerns about food safety offer a teachable moment, a door into a wider understanding about the importance of supporting sustainable farming systems.

For example, the Minars are able to raise drug-free beef because the cattle are out on well-managed pastures where health problems related to confinement are not present. Those pastures keep contaminants out of the air and water, and recycle nutrients efficiently without the use of mega-manure lagoons. And the low capital costs of such a system allow a family like the Minars to live on the land and make a living from it.

Gaining the moral support of residents in the area is becoming more important to the Minars literally by the day. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, their home county, Scott, is the fastest growing in the sate. In fact, local government officials project that by 2010 Scott County will have 109,000 people living there—up from less than 60,000 in 1990. (Update: In fact, according to the latest U.S. Census figures, as of 2011 Scott County had a population of 132,556.) Subdivisions are sprouting all around the Minars' pastures. This concerns the family, but they aren't about to move.

In his typical laid-back way, Dave told me they see such growth as "bringing our customers close to us." And if those customers can associate agriculture with a direct source of food, as well as beauty (the Minars often don't have to provide directions to their place to even newcomers because their verdant pastures are so well known) and clean water, so much the better.

But it's not just about safe food, clean water, or scenic vistas. The Minar farm fits into a larger ecosystem that blends all of these factors and more. This ecosystem is many things to many people, but as far as Dave and Florence are concerned, at the core of it all is that it is their family's home.

"We intend to stay here, and part of it is having the animals out and not contributing to the smell and being a good neighbor," said Dave. "And if that means providing meat directly to consumers then that's part of it too."