SA Newsletter Sept 2001

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter Header

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletters Archive

College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences
Volume 9, Issue 9 – September 2001

Do you have a story you would like featured in the Sustainable Agriculture newsletter? Send your submission to and we’ll consider adding it to an upcoming newsletter.

Environmental 'tinkering' in Farm Bill won't solve pollution problems

By K. William Easter, University of Minnesota economist

Soil erosion and nutrient pollution of our water resources by agriculture are growing concerns.

Many people would argue that the Farm Bill should address these concerns so we get more out of all the money we pour into agricultural subsidies. But developing an effective strategy as part of a Farm Bill will not be easy.

Previous Farm Bills have encouraged the expansion of erosive crops. Attempts to mitigate the resulting environmental problems have relied on Best Management Practices for these crops and on land retirement. This approach has not proven to be sufficient.

For example, University of Minnesota soil scientist Gyles Randall says in 30 years he's never seen as much soil erosion in south central and southeastern Minnesota as he has in the last few years. Randall goes on to question whether the corn-soybean crop production system as we know it today is sustainable.

Randall says substantial changes in federal farm policy, cropping systems and use of crops produced on farms will need to occur to sustain a healthy environment and rural community.

We must move away from intensive corn-soybean rotations to more diversified cropping systems if we're serious about reducing nitrate and phosphorus pollution of the Minnesota River by 40 percent. This was a publicly stated goal advanced several years ago. More than conservation tillage, grass waterways and careful application of fertilizer nutrients are needed.

Including alfalfa in the cropping system would reduce nitrate pollution. We know nitrate discharge from tile drains is much lower when alfalfa is grown, compared to corn and soybeans. In addition, alfalfa provides a year-round soil cover that prevents soil erosion. The downside is that alfalfa is not as profitable as corn or soybeans and is not supported in the present government program.

Phosphorus pollution could be significantly reduced with changes in farming practices and amounts of fertilizer or manure applied. However, changing farming practices may mean no row crops close to water bodies. In addition, it may require new methods to encourage farmers to prevent soil and phosphorus loss. One such method might be tradable phosphorus pollution permits.

It is clear that we need more than environmental tinkering with the Farm Bill if we want to significantly reduce nutrient pollution from agriculture. Top-down approaches in past Farm Bills have had only limited success in reducing pollution. What we need are changes that give farmers incentives to switch to more sustainable cropping systems.

(William Easter is a professor in the Department of Applied Economics and may be reached at 612-625-7728).

Member survey shows SFA promotes networking, communication

By Christine Vatovec

The Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota (SFA) was founded in 1988 by farmers interested in creating a network for sharing information about sustainable practices and systems. The organization's founders had experiences with sustainable agricultural practices and formed this network to share knowledge, talk about creative solutions for problems in agriculture and to encourage one another to implement these new ideas.

Today, the organization has more than 500 members in 12 Minnesota chapters. This past spring, the SFA conducted a member survey to determine the progress of the organization's current programs. Results of the survey show that the SFA is highly effective in promoting networking and communication among farmers.

Eighty percent of respondents were farmers; the remaining 20 percent were non-farmers who support the mission of the organization. The average amount of time people have been SFA members is six years, and ranges from one to 13 years.

The average amount of time respondents have been farming is 21.5 years. Eighty-four percent of farmers are sole proprietors of their farms. The average farm size is 188 acres, ranging from one-third of an acre to 1,200 acres.

Ninety-one percent of farmers reported joining the SFA to support sustainable farming practices, followed by meeting people with similar interests and utilizing SFA programs to improve practices. Ninety percent of members said their expectations of the SFA are being met in total or in part, 72 percent have suggested the SFA to a friend, and 50 percent said they experienced quality of life improvement on their farm as a result of SFA membership.

Eighty-one percent of respondents have attended field days, and 59 percent of attendees said they changed or are considering changing their practices based on what they learned at SFA field days.

A list of new field day topic suggestions was generated through the survey and will help direct future field day planning. For more information or a complete report of the 2001 SFA survey results, contact DeEtta Bilek, SFA of Minnesota, 20415 Co Rd 2, Aldrich MN 56434. Phone (218) 445-5475, fax (218)-445-5673. E-mail, or visit the web at

MISA Information Exchange looking for advisory committee members

The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) Information Exchange Program is beginning a new biennium of activities, and is seeking members for its 2001-2003 advisory committee. The Information Exchange program develops educational materials on sustainable agriculture. It also maintains a web site that serves as an information clearinghouse on sustainable agriculture (

Advisory committee members serve for a two-year term. The advisory committee is co-chaired by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and MISA board of directors. Committee members will be chosen to represent diverse stakeholders in Minnesota agriculture--agricultural producers, state agencies, the sustainable agriculture community, researchers and Extension educators from the University of Minnesota, and others.

The advisory committee helps MISA staff generate topics for new publications, and identify strategies to address the information needs for each topic. Committee members may also help MISA staff find reviewers for publications, review and evaluate publications and promote and distribute the publications at events in their region.

The greatest time involvement is in the first six months of planning. There are few in-person meetings. Most of the work is handled by telephone and e-mail. Committee members' travel expenses are covered. If you're interested in serving on this committee, know of someone who may be, or if you would like more information, please contact Beth Nelson, associate program director, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, 411 Borlaug Hall, 1991 Buford Circle, Saint Paul, MN 55108. Phone (612) 625-8217 or (800) 909-6472, e-mail

The Information Exchange program is funded by the Minnesota State Legislature via a contract with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program. Materials are produced in cooperation with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

'The New American Farmer' book features 50 farmer stories

Driven by economics, concerns about the environment or a yearning for a more satisfying lifestyle, farmers and ranchers across the United States have embraced new approaches to agriculture. They raise beef cattle, dairy cows, hogs and poultry using pasture-based systems that reduce the cost of production in a more humane environment.

They produce grain in innovative rotations with other crops to break insect pest cycles and reduce pesticide use. And they grow fruit and vegetables, employing earth-friendly techniques to build the soil, then sell their products at farm stands and markets for premium prices to an appreciative public.

Fifty of their stories are captured in a book just published by USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. The New American Farmer, a collection of in-depth interviews with farmers and ranchers, describes diverse operations around the country and details the effects of those systems on farm profitability, quality of life, rural communities and the environment.

There's something in the collection for everyone. From a banana producer in Hawaii to a potato farmer in Maine--and almost every state and commodity in between--the producers featured in The New American Farmer are meeting their financial, stewardship and lifestyle goals.

The book includes two Minnesota farmers. They are Mary Doerr, a farmer from Kenyon, Minn., who has an on-farm bed and breakfast and makes goat cheese, and Carmen Fernholz, a farmer from Madison, Minn., who raises swine and organic crops.

"We have increased our sales by becoming more intensive and successful in our practices," says Jim Crawford, a Hustontown, Penn., vegetable producer whose New Morning Farm is also profiled in the book. "We're not depleting soil; we're building up the resources, which is very important to us."

"Our basic herd health is excellent," says Peggy Sechrist, a Fredericksburg, Texas, cattle rancher who is also featured. "Our vet feels that our pasture management is the most important factor."

To reprint profiles in newspapers or magazines, go to For a free review copy of the $10 book or the $5 CD-ROM, call (301) 504-5230. Since 1988, SARE--funded and administered by USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES--has advanced farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities.

Lack of local food in farm country 'starves' local economies, report says

Condensed from The Land Stewardship Letter, April/May/June 2001.

A lack of locally produced food in a seven-county area of southeast Minnesota means that both farmers and consumers take an economic hit, according to a report from the nonprofit Community Design Center. However, the report lists dozens of southeast Minnesota farms that make money by focusing on local production and consumption of food. The farms sell directly to consumers through meat lockers and other businesses.

A free copy of the report, Finding Food in Farm Country: The economics of food and farming in Southeast Minnesota, is available from Dellane Webster at the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. Contact her at (800) 657-3843, or via e-mail at

Calendar of events, 2001

These events are sponsored by numerous organizations. More information is available on MISA's web site:

Sept. 15. Solar Kiln Wood Drying, Backus, Minn. Call (218) 894-5196.

Sept. 28-29. Forest Ecology-Stewardship Workshop, Wolf Ridge (North Shore of Lake Superior). Call (800) 523-2733.

Sept. 29. Eighth Annual Country Living Field Day, Carroll County, Ohio, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (330) 627-4310.

Oct. 19-21. Women Sustaining Environment Sustaining Women, a conference to explore the evolving role of women in environmental issues and education, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn. Call (651) 962-5723, e-mail or see

Oct. 20. Climate Change-Greenhouse Warming, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Central Lakes College Campus, Staples, Minn. Includes several speakers and exhibit booths of vendors of renewable resource products and organizations working for the environment. Contact Lynda Converse at (320) 594-2456,

What we're about

This newsletter is supported by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA). It's also supported by the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCRSARE) Professional Development Program (PDP), and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). MISA is a partnership between the Sustainer's Coalition and the University of Minnesota College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences (COAFES).

Send story ideas to the editor: Jack Sperbeck, 405 Coffey Hall, 1420 Eckles Ave., University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, (612) 625-1794, fax (612) 625-2207, e- mail: Other editorial board members: Helene Murray, (612) 625-0220,; and Bill Wilcke, (612) 625-8205, Please send address changes directly to: Bill Wilcke, Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering, 1390 Eckles Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108.

Also check MISA's home page at

Our mission statement: To help bring people together to influence the future of agriculture and rural communities to achieve socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable farms and communities.

To stimulate thinking and discussion about sustainability, we try to present items that reflect different points of view. This being the case, we aren't promoting and don't necessarily agree with everything we publish.

The University of Minnesota is committed to the policy that all persons shall have equal access to its programs, facilities, and employment without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status, or sexual orientation.