Agronomic Arrogance

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When a U professor took the microphone after last Sunday’s screening of Troubled Waters to accuse two southeast Minnesota dairy farmers of basically poisoning their own well, it was a rude reminder of the wide chasm that still separates the sustainable ag community and the U of M. That’s too bad: because if the film makes anything clear, it’s that only through the teamwork of farmers, eaters, policy makers and yes, scientists, will we really make inroads into solving ag-related water pollution problems.

During the panel discussion that followed the 4:30 showing of the film, a professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate emerged from the audience to answer a question about whether wood chip bioreactors do indeed take nitrogen out of field runoff (it turns out they do, according to the scientist). While he had everyone’s attention, the good professor went on to comment about the situation of Arlene and LaVerne Nelson, who are featured in the film.

As was described in this blog previously, the Nelsons, who farm in southeast Minnesota’s Winona County, seem to have done everything right when it comes to keeping excess nutrients out of water. They are certified organic and utilize rotationally grazed pastures and diverse cropping mixes to provide feed for their cow herd. In fact, they haven’t used nitrogen fertilizer since the mid-1990s. But two years ago they were forced to drill a new well because of extremely high nitrate-nitrogen readings.

“That’s one thing you can’t control, is the water vein,” Arlene Nelson told me soon after they drilled the well.

One scene in the film shows an aerial view of the Nelson farm: its pastures and hay fields are surrounded by the neighbors’ fields of corn, a crop that is highly dependent on nitrogen fertilizer. The film presented the Nelsons’ story to make the point that nutrient runoff is not just a problem that affects the Gulf of Mexico “way” downstream—it’s a local problem as well.

The fact is nitrate-nitrogen moves within the soil and in water in very mysterious ways—in many cases the farm that produces excess amounts of the chemical is not the one that suffers from well contamination. Indeed, scientists have long been perplexed at how high nitrate-nitrogen levels can vary significantly in wells literally yards apart. It can be very difficult to predict the chemical’s movements, particularly in groundwater, which also has a mind of its own. It is, as they often say, something that requires “more study.”

But sometimes conclusions are reached before all the facts are in. The U scientist told the panel and the movie audience that the Nelsons likely “misapplied manure” close to the barn, and that’s why they ended up with a contaminated well.

The panel moderator, U of M regents professor Peter Reich, defended the Nelsons by saying in fact we don’t know how the Nelsons manage their manure, so it wasn’t fair to make such charges in public. That’s an understatement. The Nelsons utilize managed rotational grazing to distribute manure evenly across the landscape in a manner that grasses can use up sustainably. Their diverse rotations also help protect the land in a manner that keeps runoff to a minimum. As research at the U of M itself shows, a farming system based on such diverse systems can reduce nitrogen contamination significantly.

But recognizing these facts would mean admitting that a farming system based on monocultures of row crops like corn leaks nitrogen like a bucketful of bullets. Maybe it’s easier to pick on one individual operation that’s practicing this mysterious thing called “sustainable farming” than to question an entire system of agriculture.

This dismissive attitude toward farmers who are bucking the status quo has created a lot of tension between University experts and the sustainable ag community over the years. Sometimes that can be a creative tension, like back in 1988 when LSP organized a meeting in the southeast Minnesota community of Lewiston to discuss sustainable agriculture. The meeting started off with a farmer panel, which proved to be an inspiring testament to what innovative practices producers were already undertaking to balance profitable food production with environmental sustainability.

The next speaker was an official from the U of M’S Extension Service. This speaker had been billed as someone who would talk about what the U could offer in terms of sustainable agriculture research. To put it diplomatically, the Extension Service speaker didn’t play too well, as he made it clear his program had little to offer farmers who were looking for alternatives to the corn-bean feedlot machine.

But the Extension official’s uninspiring talk had a surprising effect on the farmers gathered: it fired them up in a “we’ll show them” kind of way. After the official left, those farmers began discussions to create a farmer-to-farmer network for sharing information on sustainable agriculture. That network formed the seed for what is now the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota.

Over the years various “experts” representing agricultural research, education, policy and business have either ignored the sustainable ag community or treated it with downright derision and hostility. We’re still seeing that, as the recent flap over Troubled Waters shows.

Meanwhile, a growing group of farmers have been quietly sharing information, ignoring the experts and developing and adopting creative ways for producing and marketing sustainable raised foods. The MDA’s announcement last month that the number of certified organic farms in Minnesota increased 42 percent between 2000 and 2008 (organic acreage in the state increased 88 percent during that same period) shows this is a truly sustainable trend in the making.

But we can only take such homegrown innovation so far. Farmers can’t afford to experiment endlessly on the land that provides them day-to-day sustenance. If we are to make sustainable farming systems more the norm such a public good deserves to be, we are going to need the consistent buy-in from trained scientists. That’s where the labs, experiment stations and classrooms of the public land grant system come into the picture.

Despite the overall tension that exists between sustainable farmers and the U of M, we have some great examples over the years of groups and individuals from both “sides” reaching out and working together. The grazing research at the U of M’s West Central Research and Outreach Center and the organic cropping work at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center are just two examples. Take a look at the recent issue of the MDA’s Greenbook to see even more exciting examples of what happens when farmers and researchers collaborate.

And Thursday’s announcement that U of M economist Robert King is leading up a $1.2 million Minnesota Department of Agriculture study (funded by the USDA) on the financial costs associated with transitioning from traditional to organic farming could be another exciting example of researchers and farmers working together. The study will involve, among others, around 80 farmers and 71 instructors in the state colleges and universities system’s Farm Business Management Education program. It doesn’t get any more collaborative than that.

In almost every example of a scientist working with a farmer, the collaboration started with the academic admitting that maybe there was a problem or two with the way things are currently being done in agriculture. After all, why research alternatives if everything is fine and dandy with the way things are? As it turns out, the attempted censorship of Troubled Waters resulted from an inability to admit there are problems with planting over 95 percent of our agricultural landscape to one or two crops.

Another important ingredient in such relationships is the willingness for both sides to listen. Unfortunately, last Sunday’s uninformed comment about “misapplied manure” probably closed a whole lot of ears.

2 Responses to “Agronomic Arrogance”

  1. Bob

    This piece hits the nail on the head. Sustainable and organic farmers not only have been under served by the University but all too often treated with disrespect. This has led to much of the research and outreach on sustainable ag being done on a farmer-to-farmer basis and often facilitated by the Land Stewardship Project and the Sustainable Farming Association. Despite the U’s unwillingness to get serious about making an institutional commitment to meeting the needs of sustainable and organic agriculture growth in the area has been tremendous. With the U’s help this growth could increase even more dramatically. That would mean more prosperous farms, more vibrant rural communities and more locally produced healthy foods. It would also mean upsetting some of the U’s corporate backers.

  2. Joe Agronomist

    Their arrogance isn’t necessarily related to the type of agriculture they support but due to the fact that they are experts in a very tiny sliver of ag. Most really have a poor overall understanding of farming. Even many of the Extension faculty act like it is beneath them to directly answer question.