Greenbook Regrets

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I talked to a  southern Minnesota crop farmer last night who was pretty upset over the gutting  MDA’s sustainable ag program received at the hands of the Legislature and the Governor this spring. I’m guessing a lot of folks were reminded of the damage done when they got notice last week that the 20th anniversary edition of the Greenbook is now available.

If ever there was a shining example of tax money being wisely invested in our food and farming future, the Greenbook is it. As we’ve reported here before, the Greenbook provides an annual synopsis of how farmers and others spend money received through the MDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program.

This program has been a major driver of sustainable, and conventional, farming innovations in the state over the past two decades. Farmers who qualify for these grants are able to do the kind of on-farm research that they would normally never have the resources to undertake.

The 2009 Greenbook provides summaries of practical, on-farm studies of everything from the basics (improving quality of forages in grazing systems and establishing cover crops) to the more exotic (introducing cold-hardy Kiwifruit to Minnesota and using solar energy to heat soil in high tunnel vegetable production).

This particular southern Minnesota farmer had used the grant program to work with U of M scientists and others on researching various varieties of wheat. The study, which is summarized on pages 34-27 of Greenbook 2005,  looked at how these varieties performed in the field, as well as in the flour mill and kitchen.

Small grains like wheat and oats have all but disappeared from southern Minnesota fields, but crop farmers who are trying to build soil and break up pest cycles with fewer or no chemicals feel they are integral to a rotation. It’s telling that the USDA’s Risk Management Agency helped fund this research because, well, it could potentially help reduce financial risk on the farm.

This kind of practical research is important not only to certified organic farmers (and consumers who eat bread and other grain-based products), but conventional producers who are finding chemical-intensive, monocultural crop production has its limits. It’s become clear in recent years that sometimes another crop or two in the rotation is needed to maintain yields. U of M research has shown that organic methods such as plugging a third crop into the typical corn-soybean rotation can increase yields and cut costs in conventional systems.

I’m sorry, but the agrichemical industry isn’t going to fund that kind of research—it’s not good for business and goes against its mantra that any farming system not based on high dosages of pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers is dooming billions to starvation. In case you doubt how key agriculture is to the bottom line of the DuPonts, Monsantos and Dows of the world, check out this Associated Press “silver lining” business article that came out last week. According to the article, farmers’ use of chemicals is helping keep afloat an industry reeling from an economy so dire that the general consumer is cutting back on purchases of bug spray and crabgrass killer.

It should be pointed out that even though the MDA’s  Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program underwent an almost 70 percent reduction in overall funding, it’s not dead yet. The MDA will begin accepting proposals for the next round of grants in mid-September.

But look for a much diminished body of on-farm sustainable ag research in future years, and a Greenbook that’s a shadow of its former self. The negative repercussions will be evident on the land, in our communities and even in grocery aisles, thanks to a lot of shortsightedness on the part of folks in power.

“They’re going to regret it someday,” I told that southern Minnesota crop farmer last night, referring to the severe cuts. He gently corrected me: “We are going to regret it.”

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