Burritos, Bacon & Bills

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A package of bills that could greatly enhance sustainable and organic agriculture in Minnesota face key tests on Tuesday in the Senate. On that day, the Senate Agriculture and Veterans Budget and Policy Division Commitee will hear all four bills, and the Senate Higher Education Budget and Policy Division Committee will hear two of them. A lot of people are watching the progress of these initiatives closely: farmers, environmentalists, consumers, ag scientists, organic processors, natural foods co-ops and chefs. But another major player is also taking a keen interest in seeing this legislation pass: Chipotle Mexican Grill. In fact, an executive from Chipotle’s Minnesota headquarters will be on hand for at least one of the hearings to testify. This should be a signal to legislators that sustainable/organic agriculture has arrived as a serious economic player in this state.

The bills in question would support sustainable/organic ag research and outreach at both the University of Minnesota and the state Agriculture Department:

• Senate File 1027/ House File 844: The “Minnesota Grows Organic” initiative provides $1.1 million dollars annually to the University of Minnesota for organic research and outreach.

• Senate File 1026/ House File 845: This would provide the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture $150,000 a year for sustainable livestock outreach and research.

• Senate File 1038/ House File 710: The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Energy and Sustainable Ag Grant Program would be funded at $250,000 a year for two years under this legislation.

• Senate File 1039/ House File 846: The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s organic cost share program would be funded at $275,000 a year for two years in the House and $160,000 in the Senate.

This is a key time in the legislative life span of these bills; click here to find out how best to support their passage.

Why is a national fast food resaurant chain interested is this package of legislation? Chipotle buys its pork from farmers who are raising hogs using cutting-edge sustainable techniques such as deep-straw bedding and pasture systems. The majority of this pork is being produced by farmers for Niman Ranch, a company that requires hogs to be raised with no antibiotics and on a vegetarian diet. Niman hogs must also be raised in humane conditions—no concrete-floored confinement systems, for example. I’ve been on several farms in Minnesota and Iowa that raise hogs for Niman and the production standards are quite impressive. When Niman says it wants its hogs grown without antibiotics and in free-range conditions, it means it. It also requires its cuts of pork to pass a stringent “taste-test” standard, and I know of top hog producers who have flunked.

Buying pork from Niman Ranch is part of Chipotle’s “Food With Integrity” program, an initiative that is striving to source everything from beans and sour cream to chicken and pork from farmers who are using sustainable systems of production.

Over 60 of Niman Ranch’s farmers, many of them Land Stewardship Project members, are right here in Minnesota. Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota would like to get even more of their pork from farms in this state, but they know there is a limited supply right now.

Research and real farm experience is showing that sustainable pork production systems are not only good for the land, but can be profitable. However, switching from conventional confinement pork production to a system where pigs are allowed to run free and antibiotics are not an option is a major management/facility adjustment for a farmer. Our research, education and input infrastructure is set up to support confinement livestock production, and so any farmer who switches gears is starting out at a major disadvantage.

But the natural pork market can no longer be ignored. Chipotle will open its 600th restaurant sometime this spring, and sales of sustainably-raised meat such as pork are growing significantly in natural foods co-ops as well as mainstream supermarkets. Plus, the demand for swine systems that don’t threaten water and air quality with multi-million gallon manure lagoons is making deep-straw bedding and pasture production more attractive all the time. A public investment in sustainable and organic ag now will allow consumers to support a cleaner environment with their food dollars in the future. It’s an example of public policy and the free market working together to produce multiple benefits.

The Minnesota Legislature recognized that in 1998 when it funded an alternative swine facility and faculty position at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris. That facility has gained national attention and helped a lot of farmers who were making a transition. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a drop in the chore bucket when compared to all of the resources devoted to researching and promoting conventional confinement systems. The demand for sustainably-raised food far outstrips the supply. Farmers have shown they can raise this kind of food, but they can’t afford to do all of the experimenting required for adoption of innovative systems on their own. More research and outreach related to sustainable livestock and crop production is needed in this state.

Chipotle recognizes that and has been willing to stick with sustainable swine producers even when supplies were short. The restaurant seems committed to proving that “food with integrity” is also food with a profit. The way that food is produced also generates public goods such as clean water and more wealth for family farm-based rural communities. Public goods require a little public policy kick-start. And this package of bills now making its way through the Minnesota Legislature is an excellent way to prime the pump.

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