Deadline for a Strengthened Sustainable Ag Grants Program Announced

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The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) announced yesterday that it will award up to $250,000 in 2014 for on-farm sustainable agriculture research or demonstration projects. That funding amount is good news: it marks a $150,000 increase from previous years.

The Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program has supported farming innovations in the state for almost a quarter-century. Farmers who qualify for these competitive grants are able to do the kind of on-farm research that they would normally never have the resources to undertake. They then report those results in the widely-read and popular Greenbook, which helps get that information to farmers across the state and even across the country.

A typical Greenbook provides summaries of practical, on-farm studies on everything from the basics — improving quality of forages in grazing systems and establishing diverse rotations — to the more exotic — using solar energy to heat soil in high tunnel vegetable production. The demonstration program’s support of practical cover cropping techniques alone has become incredibly valuable as the need to protect and build soil health becomes increasingly evident. This is the kind of practical research you won’t see featured in scientific journals, but will see replicated on farms around the state.

But the nationally respected Sustainable Ag Demonstration Grants Program has been the victim of an extremely uneven funding cycle over the years. In 2009, for example, annual funding went from $160,000 to $100,000. To top it off, then-Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the second year of funding. This almost decimated the initiative’s ability to provide even basic grants.

In 2011 the Legislature continued this inequity when it passed language that only “allowed” MDA Commissioner Dave Frederickson to spend up to $100,000 annually on the program — no actual funding was mandated. The bottom line: the MDA’s sustainable agriculture initiative has no real commitment in solid funding.

That’s why, during the 2013 session of the Minnesota Legislature, the Land Stewardship Project was asking for $281,000 per year for the Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program. The House of Representatives did provide $190,000 in annual hard funding for the program, but it was removed in the conference committee process. By the time the final bill was passed on to Governor Mark Dayton, the legislation that funded the Agriculture Growth, Research and Innovation (AGRI) Program contained no solid revenue source for the Sustainable Ag Demonstration Program.

So yesterday’s announcement that there will be $250,000 in funding available represents a welcome infusion of resources for the state’s innovative farmers and researchers. Given recent reports of excessive nitrogen run-off and extreme erosion events, the need for sustainable farming innovations is greater than ever. It will be exciting to see what practical, creative ideas will spring forth in coming years as a result of this increased funding.

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