Voting Now Open for 2015 SFA Annual Conference Topics

Ten of the session topics at this year’s Annual Conference were chosen by you, SFA’s members and supporters, using an online application that allowed you to vote for your favorite topics as well as submit your own. The top vote-getting topic, Root Cellaring, was a standing-room-only session led by root cellar builders Jerry Ford and Greg Reynolds as well as the esteemed John Fisher-Merrit, who dazzled the attendees with the details of his affordable yet highly customized root cellar that has significantly enhanced his farm’s revenue stream.

With this year’s SFA Annual Conference fresh in your minds, it’s time to start thinking to our next annual gathering, set for Feb. 14, 2015, again at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph.

We have opened voting for the 2015 Annual Conference session topics – click this link to begin voting. The more votes we tabulate, the more accurately we can tailor the session schedule around your wishes. One thing we hear a lot during an after the Conference is, “there were so many good sessions I had a hard time choosing.” If there was a session you missed in 2014 but still are interested in, be sure to input that topic into the website. Some of the topics already submitted include:

  • SFA_AC_Cover crops and soil health
  • Fencing
  • Integrating crops and livestock
  • Hogs on pasture
  • Root cellaring
  • Agroforestry
  • New crops
  • Season extension
  • Seed saving
  • Grazing for beginners

Make your voice heard – submit your own ideas and vote early and often.

Also, photo galleries from both the 2014 Annual Conference and inaugural Midwest Soil Health Summit are available on each conference’s homepage. Check them out!

Conference Updates: Roundtables at Soil Health Summit, Friday Night Social Before Annual Conference, and More

Jason Walker

Jason Walker

By Jason Walker • SFA Communications & Membership Coordinator

SFA’s two conferences, the Annual Conference and the Midwest Soil Health Summit, are rapidly approaching. If you haven’t registered, though, don’t worry – registration for both is still available. Click here to register for the Annual Conference, set for Feb. 8 in St. Joseph; and click here to register for the Midwest Soil Health Summit, set for Feb. 19-20 in Alexandria.

As the schedules for both are currently being finalized, we do have some fun and interesting updates for you. Here are a few:

  • The Midwest Soil Health Summit will feature Roundtable Discussions with speakers Gabe Brown, Richard Bieber, Wendy Taheri, Jay Fuhrer and Ryan Stockwell, as well as with the farmers from our Producer Panel. These informal sessions are just what they sound like – a way for attendees to interact one-on-one with the expert farmers and researchers leading the Summit. This is also in addition to the Friday night social time, which will focus on farmer-to-farmer networking.
  • For those attending the Midwest Soil Health Summit, please be aware that Arrowwood Resort is holding a block of rooms until Jan. 19 for MSHS attendees. After Jan. 19, they will release the rooms to the general public – rooms will still be priced at the special MSHS rate but there’s no guarantee of room availability. For questions or to reserve a room, call Arrowwood at 320.762.1124.
  • Remember the Friday night social from past SFA Annual Conferences? It’s coming back in 2014! This year, all conference attendees and their families are invited to our free Friday Evening Social & Musical Jam, “How Farmers Do Minnesota Winters,” set for 7-10 p.m. Feb. 7 at Minnesota Street Market, 27 W Minnesota St, St. Joseph. Let’s have some fun getting to know one another with music and conversation. Bring your instrument and voice – food will be available for purchase from the market. Then, feel free to continue the dialogue and explore downtown St. Joe after 10 p.m.
  • The SFA Leaders Breakfast, where we present our yearly awards and hear a special “State of SFA” address from Executive Director John Mesko, is returning the morning of the SFA Annual Conference. The breakfast, set for 7:30 a.m. Feb. 8 in the Gorecki Center at the College of Saint Benedict, costs just $12.50 for conference-goers to attend. To register or learn more, click here.
  • Speaking of SFA Awards, the deadline for nominations is quickly approaching. Get your nominations for SFA Farmer Emeritus and Distinguished Service Awards to Mary Hanks by Jan. 17. More information and a downloadable nomination form are available here.
  • There are a few Annual Conference volunteer spots still left. All volunteers get a free SFA T-shirt. Register here or contact Volunteer Coordinator Gretchen Boyum at or 218-535-1567.

Also, it was great to see many of you at the Minnesota Organic Conference this weekend in St. Cloud. Mary Hanks, Meg Moynihan and crew put on another stellar event. Thanks to all who stopped by the SFA booth and said hello, like SFA members Doreen Devoy-Hulgan, Steve Niedzwiecki, Jim Chamberlin, Lisa Baker, Chris Kudrna, Elizabeth Millard, Karla Pankow, Mathew Nix, and Dave and Karen Baker. We’ll see you soon at the Annual Conference and Midwest Soil Health Summit!

SFA Seeking Farmer Emeritus, Distinguished Service Award Nominees

SFA is accepting nominations for the 2014 Farmer Emeritus and Distinguished Service awards, to be honored at the Leaders Breakfast at the SFA Annual Conference on Sat., Feb. 8, 2014, at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn.

The Farmer Emeritus award will be given to a farmer or farm family, currently farming or retired, that has dedicated many years to the advancement of sustainable farming in Minnesota.

The SFA Distinguished Service Award is for a farmer or non-farmer who has shown a high level of dedication, commitment, service and perseverance to supporting sustainable agriculture in Minnesota.

Email nominations to or mail to Mary Hanks, 10500 295th St W, Northfield, MN 55057. The deadline for nominations is Jan. 17, 2014.

Click here to download the SFA Awards Nomination Form.

Past winners and more information is available on our SFA Awards page. 

From the Executive Director: Sustainable? YES!

By John Mesko

John Mesko

John Mesko

Do we really believe sustainable agriculture, focused on building up its resources (soil, animals, people), is sustainable? Do we really believe industrial agriculture is not sustainable?

I do. And if you do, I would encourage you to behave as if you really believe it. By definition, we should be confident in our assessment of the future of agriculture. In so doing, I trust we will not be contributing to the kind of misunderstandings and “us vs. them” mentality that has led to the current perception in mainstream ag media and university extension about sustainable agriculture.

Case in point: I recently read a blog post entitled “Sustainable?” at MN Farm Guide which made a number of condescending and disparaging remarks about practitioners of sustainable agriculture.

The blog belongs to Dr. George Rehm, a former University of MN Extension Specialist and currently Director of Discovery Farms Minnesota. Conveniently however, Dr. Rehm, does not claim authorship of this particular blog post. In this case, he says he’s found a “guest blogger,” a Mr. Lay Zee Jones, to go negative on sustainable agriculture.

Despite attempts to reach Dr, Rehm, in hopes of getting some clarification of his, er, Mr. Jones’ intent prior to writing this response, I’ve been unable to contact him.

But as it pertains to our work here at SFA, this post is a tangible reflection of the impact our movement is having. If sustainable agriculture weren’t viable, there’d be no need for anyone to waste the time to write a post like this. It’s also a wake-up call. The post reflects the impression the author, the publisher, some (not all) within the University of Minnesota, and some within the conventional agriculture world in general have of sustainable agriculture and sustainable farmers. According to Mr. Jones, sustainable farmers:

  • Are lazy
  • Spend free time playing video games
  • Smoke marijuana
  • Are naïve
  • Aren’t “real” farmers

If this is what conventional agriculture thinks of sustainable farmers, we need to convince them otherwise.

Speaking specifically for Sustainable Farming Association, and generally for the whole of sustainable agriculture, we are not a club of like-minded folks who really don’t have a prayer of making a difference in agriculture.

The premise of sustainable agriculture is founded on understanding the short- and long-term effects of everything we do in the environment. It’s working with natural systems and processes to build up the resources at our disposal; not attempting to subdue nature with the latest technology. We know it works, and we believe industrial agriculture practices are unsustainable. We should be doing everything we can to be approachable, kind, considerate, respectful and welcoming to everyone who asks politely, or condescendingly, about whether our brand of agriculture is viable.

Mr. Jones questions the ability of sustainable agriculture methods to produce enough food. Let’s not shrink from that, but let’s not fail to challenge the “Feed the World” mentality underlying the question.

Every concerned citizen should be asking industrial agriculture to explain how antibiotic resistance is a sustainable. Let’s continue asking what the plan is to resolve the situation going on in Des Moines, Iowa, and places along the Mississippi River, where agriculture has added so many nitrates to the watershed that cities must spend thousands of dollars a day to purify their drinking water.

However, lets not be snarky or unprofessional. That won’t get us anywhere. We live in an overstuffed media environment with great temptation to create “buzz,” or “Ag Buzz,” as the case may be. If a post or news story isn’t catchy, or a little shocking, it probably won’t get read. But we are talking food, farming and the future we are building for the next generation, not discussing the latest music video.
We will continue to point out the flaws we see in conventional agriculture practices, but we will not hyperbolize, exaggerate, or personally attack anyone or any group of people.

With that in mind, here are some rules of engagement for everyone, but especially the sustainable agriculture community for this important discussion:

1. We are all farmers, and all people. Commit to treating each other with respect. Disagreement is normal in this world. Fighting and anger is not. Don’t fall into the trap.

2. Be the leader. Let’s set the tone for this discussion. Even when you are attacked, don’t spiral down with the attacker. Take the high road wherever you can. Invite them to join you there. If they choose not to, just keep walking.

3. Know your facts. Don’t just “pile on” when you see a news story about how bad industrial agriculture is. Get the facts. The temptation toward over sensationalizing a controversial news story is often too hard for the media.

4. Be ready to give an answer for what you believe about food and farming. Come to the SFA Annual Conference on Feb. 8, or the Midwest Soil Health Summit on Feb 19-20 to learn more about sustainable agriculture.

5. Get some help. Join a group; Be a part of the movement.

6. Be inviting. Don’t put up walls. You’ve got the answers to many of the problems in agriculture!

Let’s get beyond name-calling and “us vs. them.” That’s what we are doing at Sustainable Farming Association. Will you join us?

John Mesko is the Executive Director of Sustainable Farming Association, a farmer-to-farmer network dedicated to advancing sustainable agriculture practices, rural communities and local foods. In addition to Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics from Purdue University, he held several agronomy positions with Dow Agrosciences, served as a County Extension Director with Purdue, and with his wife and two daughters operates a grass-fed beef operation. He can be reached at or 763-260-0209.

SFA Annual Conference’s Member-Driven Session Schedule Announced

SFA_AC_We’ve been saying all along that our upcoming Annual Conference, “Back to Our Roots,” is all about the Minnesota sustainable farming community – and we mean it. We got lots of response to our survey on what sessions you all wanted, and we’ve designed the content of the conference primarily around that very thing. Then we took recommendations from association board directors and chapter leaders on what they thought was needed. And, finally, we are including sessions driven by our ongoing projects. This has resulted in an intense schedule of 20 sessions, most of which will be “discussion format” – led by a couple of experts, but focusing on the wisdom and needs of the community.

Here’s a roster of the sessions as they stand now. First are the topics resulting from the survey in their ranked order, then the Culinary Track, followed by the leadership ideas, and finally the project-driven topics. For a complete detailed schedule, visit our Annual Conference homepage.

Survey-Generated Sessions

#1 – Root Cellars: John Fisher-Merritt, master of sustainable root cellaring, will be joined by Greg Reynolds, Riverbend Farm, and Jerry Ford, Living Song Farm. John has been running Food Farms winter storage for many years, while Greg and Jerry have recently installed two very different cellars. Come with your experiences and questions to share.

#2 – Integrating Perennial Cropping Systems: With a focus on farm-scale permaculture and agroforestry, Jim Chamberlin, SFA board president, and Tyler Carlson of Early Roots Farm ask, “Can we design and manage agricultural systems with the resilience, stability, and diversity of nature and still have production agriculture?”  Join them for this captivating discussion.

#3 – Weed Control Strategies: Gary Brever, Ploughshare Farm, is co-hosting this topic with Al Sterner and Jean Peterson, Goodness Grows, and Paul Schmidt, Sunfresh Foods – three very diverse farms.  Bring your techniques and ideas to share.

#4 – Innovative Cover Cropping/#5 – Integrating Crop & Livestock Production: Obviously, these related topics are all the buzz, and will be covered in sessions hosted by SFA’s own Kent Solberg and a host of soil health and livestock specialists.

#6 – Seed Saving: Greg Reynolds, who is also heading up the annual Seed Swap, will bring us the latest in the cultivation of your own seed stock in this lecture-format presentation.

#7 – “Don’t Fence Me In” Fencing Showdown: Kent Solberg, SFA’s Grazing and Livestock Specialist, hosts graziers and livestock pros who will lead a discussion on all those techniques for keeping the animals where you want them. Bring your ideas and examples.

#8 – Season Extension: Join Sue Wika and Tom Prieve, Paradox Farm, for an open discussion of season extension techniques.

#9 – New Crops: Quinoa, Nettles, Amaranth, etc.: This one ties in with our New Crops Project, so we’re glad it scored in the top 10 on the survey. It will feature field reports and an open forum on these emerging specialty crops.

#10 Soil Health – Row Crop Production: How can we increase the vitality of soil in our row crop fields with such techniques as intensive rotation, cover crops, mycorrhizal fungi and more?

Culinary Track

Mary Jane Miller, Chef, Recipe Consultant and Chef Wrangler for MN Garlic Festival, once again leads this popular feature of the conference. Here are a few of the things she has in mind:

  • Cheese, Wine and Beer Pairing Smackdown: Chefs, artisan cheesemakers, brewers, and vintners will show off their favorite pairing, and YOU get to vote on the winners (and taste the results!)
  • Minnesota Fish: With “The Fish Guys”
  • Cooking Grassfed Beef: With Thousand Hills Cattle Company

And more to be announced soon.

Association Board, Staff and Chapter Leadership Recommendations

Artisan Cheese: Anne Borgendale, cheese buyer for Linden Hills Food Co-op, presents a delicious – yes, there will be samples! – discussion on the state of fine cheese in Minnesota. This will tie directly in to a “Cheese, Wine & Beer Pairing Smackdown” in the Culinary Sessions.

Planting & Harvesting Calendars: Eric Ament hosts a confabulation on how to streamline “this year’s plan” going into the growing season so that it saves time, with techniques to also save your back.

Project-Driven Topics

Farm Transitions Portfolio Session: As part of our collaboration with Renewing the Countryside on the “Planning for Your Farm’s Future” project, this workshop will help farmers put together a binder with information that can help you pass on the farm. You’ll explore how to tell the story of your land, and you’ll actually start to write pieces for your portfolio.

Keep Cattle In Minnesota: A joint project with Natural Resource Conservation Service, this session is part of a series of events with the goal to sustain the beef and dairy industries in Minnesota while protecting our vast environmental resources. Wayne Monsen of Minnesota Dept. of Ag teams up with Kent Solberg to present information on resources for farmers who have or want cattle as part of their operations, and they’ll be looking for your feedback.

Adjust 2015 – When the Reality Doesn’t Match the Business Plan: A follow-up to last year’s popular open forum on making adjustments when things aren’t quite working out on the farm, this session will bring us together to increase our knowledge and awareness, as we continue to build a beginning farmer education program with an emphasis on realistic and flexible business plans.

Chapter Resources: SFA’s Network Coordinator, Jerry Ford, rolls out the Chapter Resources Program, which will help each of our chapters to become even more active and vibrant.  Intended for chapter leaders and interested members, the session will introduce you to this new program, and Jerry will be looking for your input. Plus the Friday night social events, kids programming and all those vendors and exhibitors.