Cast a Mealtime Ballot for Conservation

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September is here, providing Minnesotans perhaps the best opportunity of the year to support good stewardship of the land. This is the time of the growing season when local farms producing fruits and vegetables are peaking with delicious results. Fall is when many farms that produce pork, beef and chickens using sustainable methods are doing their final slaughtering of the year. This is also the time when grass-based dairy producers are stockpiling forage so they can keep consumers supplied with dairy products during the frozen months.

If you are someone who cares about clean air and water, as well as wildlife habitat, what goes on in farm country all year ’round should be of critical interest to you. Wildlife refuges, forest preserves and wilderness areas provide a lot of ecological benefits, but they can’t do it alone. Farmers and ranchers own and manage 50 percent of the land in the U.S. In Minnesota, farmland makes up more than half of our landscape. As the book The Farm as Natural Habitat points out, in many areas what happens on working farmland has profound impacts on the quality of the environment. In effect, stewardship of 50 percent of our nation’s land is in the hands of less than 2 percent of our citizens. But through our food purchasing decisions, the other 98 percent of us can have a significant say in how that land is taken care of.

Tom Frantzen, a friend of mine who raises crops and livestock in northeast Iowa, puts it best: “When people make a buying choice they are casting a ballot for the type of food system they want. That sends a tremendously powerful message back to rural America about what sort of farming is valued.”

What sort of farming we value says a lot about what sort of land management we put at a premium. Grab the cheapest pork chops at the meat counter and sure enough you’ll walk out of the store with more cash in your pocket. But if that pork comes from a hog giant like Smithfield Foods, you’ll also be getting all of the hidden costs that comes with supporting factory farm production: polluted waterways, toxic air and decimated rural communities. Even when you choose organic tomatoes at the local co-op or grocery store, it’s important to look past the USDA certification seal and find out where those romas and beefsteaks came from. If those tomatoes were produced on a California farm, many of the environmental benefits of being chemical-free will be wiped out by all that extra fuel burned to bring them here. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, makes it clear that choosing organic isn’t enough—we must go local whenever possible.

In the Upper Midwest, it’s easiest to go local during late summer and early fall. Right now, there is no good reason for eating vegetables—organic or otherwise—imported from the West Coast. That struck me when I visited August Earth farm near Hutchinson recently. This is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organic produce enterprise owned and operated by Katy and Peter Hemberger. The Hembergers are a 20-something couple who got started farming a couple of years ago after taking the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course. They are actively debunking the myth that young people can’t get started in farming these days. They took me on a quick tour of their farm, showing off an ingenious system where they use pigs to till up and fertilize future garden plots. At one point, we stepped into a greenhouse that was bursting with several varieties of plump tomatoes. Almost two-dozen kinds of vegetables were ready to be harvested at August Earth that week. Who says Minnesota only raises corn and soybeans? The Hembergers told me they got into farming not only because they wanted to make a living on the land, but because they desired careers that allowed them to put their environmental ethic into practice every day.

Buying food from farmers like Peter and Katy allows you to put your environmental ethic into daily practice as well. Hit the local farmers’ market. Use the Food and Farm Connection to contact producers that are selling fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products and just about anything else that can be raised here. The Minnesota Grown Directory is also a great resource. Look for the Food Alliance Midwest seal at local grocery stores and co-ops. A Food Alliance seal not only certifies that the food was produced using environmentally sound, humane methods, but that it was raised locally.

It’s September—time to stuff the ballot box with fresh, local food that’s good for the taste buds AND the land.

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