Will MDA Gut Environmentally Friendly Farming?

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As you read this, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) is taking significant steps that may lead to the dismantling of one of the most effective sustainable and organic agriculture programs in the nation. This program has been a leader in advancing farming that protects Minnesota’s environment. The MDA’s proposed undercutting of this program is deeply troubling on a couple of levels, not the least of which is that such a move could reduce the already small amount of resources devoted to organic and sustainable agriculture. But just as disturbing is the manner in which this proposed “reorganization” is taking place: behind closed doors without the input of the groups or individuals who helped make this program possible in the first place. It’s time to send a message to our Agriculture Commissioner and Governor and let them know that gutting an innovative state program is bad for farmers, consumers and the environment.

First some background: At a time when governmental agencies and land grant institutions such as Extension are biased in favor of the tired old industrialized model of agriculture, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program has been a shining light of innovation. Known as ESAP for short, this initiative was established in 1987 to help Minnesota farmers who are seeking environmentally friendly, profitable alternatives. The program has delivered as promised—everything from water quality to the healthfulness of our food has been improved by this innovative program. It would be hard to find a sustainable farmer in this state who hasn’t been involved with ESAP and its dedicated staff in some way.

Among other things, the ESAP program is responsible for making grants to farmers for on-farm research into innovative sustainable ag practices. The results of the research are then published annually in the highly respected Greenbook. The Greenbook is pored over by farmers, researchers, students and policymakers in Minnesota and elsewhere, even internationally. This hands-on, grassroots type of research has facilitated farmer-to-farmer education and helped farmers move towards more sustainable farming practices.

By all measures, this is an extremely successful initiative that has managed to accomplish a lot despite criticisms from commodity organizations and inordinate budget cuts.

But MDA Commissioner Gene Hugoson has proposed a reorganization that could be a serious threat to the MDA’s sustainable agriculture work. Specifically, the proposal calls for dismantling the Agricultural Resources Management and Development Division and dispersing the staff and responsibilities of this division to several other divisions. The mission of this key division is “to support the development of an agriculture that is profitable and environmentally sound,” according to the MDA’s website. ESAP is housed in this division.

The MDA is defending this reorganization by saying it will make things more streamlined and efficient. Department officials also say no jobs will be cut as a result of this reorganization. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s commitment to sustainable and organic agriculture will not change, they argue. Such programs as the cost-share initiative and the Greenbook will continue, they maintain.

But the reality is if this reorganization goes forward, a cohesive group of key staff will be separated. When farmers seek out help with sustainable agriculture, they go to ESAP, where they know they will find a collection of experts who are committed 100 percent to sustainable production systems. How will the Greenbook come together each year when sustainable ag staffers are working in different divisions?

Dismantling a division and spreading its staffers throughout the MDA is a little like breaking up a college football team and placing its players with that school’s basketball, track, baseball, swimming and wrestling programs. Administrators can still claim to support football because practitioners of that sport reside on campus, but in reality that school no longer has a football program.

A cynic would say that MDA officials know this, and are playing a clever game of musical chairs to hide their real intent: eliminate the work done by ESAP while giving lip service to this kind of agriculture. By not eliminating any jobs, the MDA makes this more palatable to the public and gets to keep making public relations hay out of the fact that it supports farmers looking for help adopting sustainable and organic systems. And believe me, the great work of ESAP has generated plenty of deservedly good PR over the years.

That positive PR is needed in light of the state government’s otherwise poor record when it comes to supporting environmentally friendly farming. In fact, dismantling ESAP is part of a pattern of undermining or underserving key programs that enable Minnesota’s citizens to protect and enhance the environment. Commissioner Hugoson’s office has led the attack on citizen environmental review of large-scale factory farms, successfully weakening this bedrock policy of Minnesota’s environmental protection framework. In their quest to let nothing stand in the way of large-scale industrial livestock production, Hugoson and Governor Tim Pawlenty have repeatedly attacked the rights of townships to protect the environment in their communities. Through a lot of hard work and good organizing, MEP members have been key in keeping this bedrock principle of local democracy intact in Minnesota.

Attacks on sustainable agriculture and rural environmental protection have increased in recent years as boosters of large-scale industrialized agribusiness have been forced to realize that sustainable farming is here to stay. They aren’t laughing anymore. Now they see sustainable and organic agriculture and the citizens who support such systems as threats. Breaking up the MDA’s sustainable ag team is a way of undermining the state’s work in this area without appearing to do so. In theory, such a strategy keeps agribusiness happy without upsetting the public too much.

One hint that Commissioner Gene Hugoson and other officials at the MDA don’t have the best interest of the sustainable agriculture community in mind is the secrecy with which they’ve carried out the planning of this proposal. No members of the public have been consulted. No sustainable farming or organic consumer groups were asked to participate in meetings. None of the individual farmers who have worked so hard to make sustainable agriculture a reality in this state were asked for input.

Word of this proposed reorganization started spreading throughout the sustainable agriculture community last week. When farmers and other members of the public contacted the MDA to express their concern, one of the initial reactions from officials there was: “How did you hear about this?”

A more appropriate response for a taxpayer-funded agency would be: “What are your concerns and how can we address them?” If dismantling the Agricultural Resources Management and Development Division is such a good idea, then why all the hush-hush?

Now that the cat’s out of the bag, it is possible to stop this proposal. It’s time for farmers, consumers and anyone who cares about a clean environment, family farming and healthy food in this state to let Commissioner Hugoson and Gov. Tim Pawlenty know this is not acceptable. Click here for details on how to make your voice heard.

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