Money Well Spent

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Earlier this week I received in the mail a nice, dense example of tax money put to good use: the 2008 edition of the Greenbook. It’s written for farmers, but anyone who believes innovative farming systems are a public good worth supporting with public funds would appreciate it.

For almost two decades, this annual Minnesota Department of Agriculture publication has reported on the results of the Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program. This is an MDA initiative where individuals and groups can apply for funding to conduct on-farm research or do demonstrations of new techniques. Since 1989, over 263 grants have been awarded, for a grand total of $2,813,416.

Everything from cover crops to rotational grazing to deep-straw swine production has been featured in the Greenbook over the years. Grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, permaculture, beef, pork, sheep, biofuel —you name it, the Greenbook has reported on some innovative way of raising it. The reports are usually written by the farmers and others who receive the grants, and so the information is presented in a user-friendly manner—farmers can literally take these results and run, or, in some cases, run away. That’s what’s great about the Greenbook, when something bombs, it’s reported on as well; there’s no sugar-coating the results to please a corporate funder.

The impact of this book and the research projects it reports on goes far beyond the number of grant projects completed. These farmers and the researchers that work with them hold field days, field individual inquiries on their results, and yes, report it all in the Greenbook. It also reaches the media. I can always tell when the new Greenbook is out—stories featuring innovative sustainable farmers begin popping up in the ag press. One agricultural journalist told me she literally goes through the publication page-by-page looking for story ideas. There’s nothing like a front page story in Agri News to give an alternative farming system credibility.

In some ways, the Greenbook is a who’s-who of sustainable agriculture. The usual sustainable farming pioneers such as southwest Minnesota producer Carmen Fernholz seem to pop up perennially in its pages. But the Greenbook also features farmers who are just getting started, or who in many ways would be considered “conventional” producers. These latter farmers are the most interesting, in my opinion. They represent an exciting subgroup that is utilizing MDA funds to push out into new, sometimes uncomfortable territory.

The Greenbook and the research it reports on also represents a key building block of sustainable agriculture: farmers learn best from other farmers. It’s what groups like LSP, the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society are built upon. It’s gratifying to see a state agency recognize the power of such a learning model. It’s also why supporters of sustainable agriculture get so upset when there’s talk of undermining the Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program. In a land of top-down industrialized agriculture where farmers are expected to march to the tune of the “experts,” the Greenbook is a nice little alternative dance step.

As it happens, on Thursday I stopped by the farm of Andy Hart, a crop producer who’s research with cover crops has been featured in the Greenbook many times. This year’s edition (page 31) features Hart’s work with aerial seeding—using a helicopter to plant rye into growing row crops like soybeans. Once the row crops are harvested, the rye is well established, providing protection from soil erosion from fall until next spring. The rye also keeps nitrogen from wandering too far from the field, which is important from a water quality standpoint. There is also research showing that cover crops may sequester a significant amount of carbon.

Cover cropping needs to become even more common in the Midwest if we are to maintain any kind of sustainable row=cropping system. In general, Hart—he raises canning crops like sweet corn and peas, as well as field corn and soybeans—has had good luck with cover cropping. But he’s also had years when it rained too much at seeding time; one year it was too windy to use the helicopter at all. All of that is reported in the Greenbook, where other farmers can see the successes, as well as the challenges, associated with cover crops.

“There’s a tremendous amount of soil saved,” Hart told me, adding that there’s few acres on his farm north of Rochester that are not considered highly erodible. “We do have problems in the area with nitrates in the groundwater, and we’re trying to be efficient with the nitrogen we have.”

Perhaps the best news is that the old “farmers learn from farmers” pedagogy is working in Andy’s case as well. The idea for aerial seeding of cover crops came from an innovative farmer in western Minnesota. And now some of Hart’s neighbors are planting cover crops, some using a helicopter, others using more traditional land-based methods. They’ve used Hart’s experience as inspiration, but they’re also putting their own creative twists on cover cropping. For example, some that raise beef cattle are using the rye and other cover crops as forage—a great way to make a land-friendly system pay off economically.

While reading the latest Greenbook, I thought of Dave Serfling, a pioneer in sustainable farming who was taken from us all too soon by an auto accident in 2006. Serfling’s Fillmore County crop and livestock operation was featured in the Greenbook several years ago, and he represented farming at its most creative. He loved turning his problem-solving skills to figuring out how to make a living on the land in a way that was good for his family as well as the environment. I attended many field days at Dave’s place, and had the opportunity to interview him more than once. In 2001, while testifying before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on working lands, he summed up perfectly the philosophy that goes into something like the Greenbook:

“You have over one million creative farmer minds out there in the country. If you tell them the environmental results that you want and give them financial incentive to achieve them, they will find a way to deliver.”

If you’re one of those creative farmers interested in experimenting and don’t want to take on all that risk by yourself, consider applying for a Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant. The deadline for the next round of applications is Jan. 16. If you’re just a city slicker who likes to know when your tax money has become an investment in a more positive future, check out the Greenbook online.

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