The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s comprehensive recent series, “Danger Downstream,” did a terrific job describing the issues our rivers face as well as collecting various viewpoints from farmers, landowners, and others closely tied to our precious waterways.
I was especially excited to read the account of Dan Jenniges, the farmer whose conservation measures spearheaded by the Chippewa Ten Percent Project are leading to enhanced farm profitability; as anyone who has followed SFA during the past few years knows, we are intensely focused on soil health education and the innovative message that profitability and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. We even host a yearly Midwest Soil Health Summit to educate farmers and ag professionals on the various benefits of building soil health: higher yields, fewer chemical inputs, humane treatment of livestock, insurance against extreme weather, extra income streams, and cleaner water just to name a few.
We’ve boiled soil health down to five principles: Keep the soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, increase crop diversity, keep living roots in the soil, and integrate livestock. Farmers who adopt these methods make more money and create a sustainable environment for future generations. Those who raise cattle also produce humanely raised beef that is, due to the vast benefits of soil building, actually a net benefit for the environment.
It’s not hyperbole to say that farming using the five principles of soil health has the potential to positively revamp the corn-and-soybean model and improve our waters and our climate in the process. It’s a total win-win scenario.
Guys like Jenniges get it, and it’s frustrating when farmers like Wally Parkins don’t. As quoted in the article, Parkins says that because farms produce food and drive the local economy, his 5,300-acre operation is “more important than a little disruption to the planet.” While he’s right that farms produce food, it’s rarely positive to have one man own such a huge portion of a county. As anyone who studies rural sociology knows, small towns are being transformed as farms grow bigger and bigger, squeezing out smaller operations and leaving school districts and downtowns depleted as people move to where jobs exist.
Another farmer, Eric Zurn, expresses concern for his neighbors but says, “… if land around here sells for $4,000 per acre, why would I want to lose one ounce of it? I want the next generation to be here.” The next generation, however, will need clean water to drink, as do all the citizens who eat the food produced by these farms and all future generations of Minnesotans.
That high cost per acre is a serious problem in itself, too. The average age of a farmer in America is 57 and rising. Gaining access to land is so formidable that few have the wherewithal to enter farming unless they inherit land, and many who stand to inherit a farm have little interest in taking the job. We hear constantly from hard-working, driven people with farm skills who have sadly chosen other careers because their farm dreams are unaffordable. Another benefit of soil health education is that it promotes intensive grazing, which can help build a grass-fed beef or other livestock business on fewer acres. Indeed, Parkins’ 5,300 acres could easily support 12-15 farm families who use a grass-based livestock production model. Imagine the boost to a local economy from 12-15 families’ worth of kids in the schools, groceries at the store, and lunches in the Main Street Cafe!
Most Midwestern farmers are good people who adhere to a government-driven model that does not promote sustainability. Yet it’s time for farmers to wrest back control of the narrative and choose their legacy. Will they sacrifice the long-term health of rural communities and water, any state’s but especially Minnesota’s most critical resource? Or will they unite to build a legacy of clean water, sustainable farms, ethical animal husbandry and improving rural economies?
In 1972, the Clean Water Act put an end to industry’s practice of polluting with abandon and dumping waste into our rivers and lakes all in the name of profit. Why, over 40 years later, do we still allow farmers to do the same, particularly when profitable, sustainable alternatives exist?