A Big Week for Sustainable/Organic Ag at the Capitol

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It’s going to be a big week at the capitol for sustainable and organic farming. Not only are two sustainable ag hearings scheduled, but various bills related to supporting environmentally-friendly farming will be introduced. It’s important that sustainable and organic agriculture receive financial and moral support in Saint Paul, particularly at a time when the Minnesota Department of Agriculture may still be considering undermining one of the most inovative and successful “green” farming programs in the country. The reception sustainable and organic farming receives at the capitol during the next few days could set the stage for what kind of support our state government and land grant institutions provide this type of agriculture long into the future.

Here’s what’s happening:

• On Monday, Feb. 12 and Wednesday, Feb. 14, Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, Chair of the Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee, will hold hearings on sustainable agriculture. The Monday hearing is at 2:15 p.m.; on Wednesday it’s at 8 a.m. On both days the hearings will be held in the basement hearing room of the State Office Building. The Monday hearing will focus on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program (ESAP). Members of Minnesota’s Organic Advisory Task Force will present their recommendations for stregthening this program. Also on Monday, there will be an overview of the work of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the U of M. The testimony Wednesday will center around the importance of organics to Minnesota’s economy, communities and the land. There will also be testimony on the capacity of the University of Minnesota to conduct research and outreach related to organics.

• At Monday’s hearing, a bill authored by Rep. Aaron Peterson (H.F. 710) will be heard by Rep. Otremba’s committee. This bill would provide $250,000 a year for ESAP’s highly regarded farm demonstration program. Some of that money would also help fund the publication of the program’s popular and well-respected Greenbook.

• On Wednesday, at least two bills will be heard by the committee related to sustainable and organic agriculture research and outreach.

This is exciting, and it’s looking like there’s real momentum behind pro-sustainable ag legislation getting passed this session. But all the debate that will swirl around these hearings and proposed bills is important for another reason: it sends an important message to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture that now is not the time to weaken programs that support sustainable and organic agriculture. In fact, if anything, we should be making such initiatives stronger than ever.

As I reported last fall, MDA Commissioner Gene Hugoson has proposed a reorganization that could be a serious threat to the MDA’s nationally recognized sustainable and organic agriculture work. Specifically, the proposal calls for dismantling the Agricultural Resources Management and Development Division and dispersing the staff and responsibilities of this division to several other divisions. The mission of this key division is “to support the development of an agriculture that is profitable and environmentally sound,” according to the MDA’s website. ESAP is housed in this division.

Among other things, the ESAP program is responsible for making grants to farmers for on-farm research into innovative sustainable ag practices. The results of the research are then published annually in the Greenbook. The Greenbook is pored over by farmers, researchers, students and policymakers in Minnesota and elsewhere, even internationally. This hands-on, grassroots type of research has facilitated farmer-to-farmer education and helped farmers move towards more sustainable farming practices.

By all measures, ESAP is an extremely successful initiative that has managed to accomplish a lot despite criticisms from commodity organizations and inordinate budget cuts.

After news of the proposed reorganization broke in October, farmers, environmentalists, consumers and the sustainable/organic ag community in general contacted the offices of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Commissioner Hugoson demanding that the division’s staff be kept intact. A letter from the Land Stewardship Project and 15 other Minnesota farm and environmental organizations was sent to Gov. Pawlenty requesting that the proposed reorganization be stopped, and that the organic and sustainable ag community be consulted on any future moves to make major changes to ESAP.

At a meeting of the Organic Advisory Task Force in late fall, Hugoson announced that the planned reorganization had been put on hold indefinitely. During the meeting, the Commissioner expressed surprise at how much of a public outcry there was over the proposal.

It is important that he and the Governor understand that the public supports not only keeping ESAP intact, but strengthening it further so that it can better serve one of the fastest growing and most exciting sectors of our farm and food system. The proposed reorganization could very well be picked up again once the 2007 Legislature closes shop for the year. This is the time to send a clear message to decision makers in Saint Paul, and the upcoming hearings offer a perfect forum for getting that message out. Support for sustainable and organic farming at the capitol will also make it clear that the U of M needs additional funding so that it has the resources to pursue research, education and outreach in this area of agriculture.

If you can’t attend the hearings, then contact your legislators and let them know the importance of supporting initiatives that facilitate enviromentally-friendly farming. To keep tabs on how certain pieces of legislation are progressing, see the Land Stewardship Project’s website for action alerts and press releases.

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