On Monday, Feb. 26, a significant event will take place in western Minnesota. It’s a day-long conference, and it will be held at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Nothing special about that. The event will feature some great speakers from throughout the Midwest, as well as panel discussions involving local farmers and other citizens. Good stuff. But that alone doesn’t set this meeting apart from the thousands of other gatherings that take place in this part of the country during the frozen “meeting season.” It does have a great name going for it: “The Home Grown Economy: Foods from Local Farms as an Economic Development Tool.” But what really sets this gathering apart is its sponsor: U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, Chair of the House Agrculture Committee. That fact alone makes Feb. 26 a special day in rural Minnesota. It’s an important sign that agricultural movers and shakers are taking seriously the role farms, food and consumers can play in revitalizing our rural economies.
Who knows what solid initiative will come out of this conference? But that’s almost beside the point. The fact that a Congressional farm leader is putting it on makes it a success before the first cup of coffee is drunk or Powerpoint fired up. And it’s no small potatoes that Rep. Peterson is doing this at a time when a new Farm Bill is being debated in Washington. Groups like the Land Stewardship Project and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are saying it’s time for a Farm Bill that benefits more than a handful of mega-producers, that acknowledges the role local production and consumption of food can play in vibrant communities and healthier landscapes. The timing of this conference couldn’t be better.
The fact is that in the majority of our rural communities, farming and food production are no longer taken seriously as engines of the economy. There’s a lot of talk about adding value to corn with ethanol plants, large-scale livestock operations and other industrial systems, but there’s little focus these days on the entrepreneurial side of agriculture: the wealth farmers in the community can generate and maintain by producing food that’s consumed locally. Too often, county economic development directors go chasing smokestacks, and forget about the innovative, hard-working agriculturalists right in their own back yards. And too often those smokestacks they’ve chased generate a lot of sound and fury, but send all of the wealth to out-of-town investors.
Ethanol plants and large-scale industrialized livestock operations aren’t really acknowledgements of family farming’s role in a healthy economic environment. Rather, they are attempts to capitalize on a rural area’s ability to produce cheap raw commidities. And raw-commodity based ventures are heavily reliant on exporting the finished product to remain viable. Too often, the wealth connected with those ventures is also shipped out of the community.
Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of our commodity subsidy programs. Government policy has created the perception that food and fiber producers are too dependent on subsidies (and exports) to power Main Street. In our export-driven economy, corn raised in Renville County generates more financial activity at a port in Louisiana than on the Main Street of Olivia.
“It is a radical notion to have farmers be part of the food economy, and to use the food economy as part of rural economic development,” Ken Meter told me while I was working on an article on rural economic development for the Land Stewardship Letter. Meter and his Crossroads Resource Center do economic analyses of rural communities to determine how much wealth is being maintained locally in the current agricultural economy. It turns out not much, as you can see if you check out some of his reports on the Crossroads website.
Meter will be speaking Feb. 26. And so will someone who believes in the radical notion that farmers can be economic engines in rural communities: Rob Marqusee. He is the Rural Economic Development Director for Woodbury County, Iowa. During the past year or so, Marqusee has been the architect behind some groundbreaking policies that are attempting to utilize tax breaks, local foods and organic production as economic drivers. It remains to be seen what will come of these policies, but as Marqusee like to say, these initiatives “worked the day they were passed.” Because, like the conference in Morris, their mere presence is an indication that decision makers are ready to try something new.
Chances are you may not go to the Home Grown Economy conference on Feb. 26. But like a beautiful piece of wilderness the majority of us never visit physically, sometimes it’s enough to just know something exists.