Sunday, May 1, 2016

What are we trying to grow here?

I won't be surprised to get nasty comments in response to today's posting. I'm in well over my head and don't really know what I'm talking about, but I've never let that stop me before. Minnesota is has lost rural population due in significant part, I suspect, to farm consolidation (read "industrial farming") or conversion to other land uses. According to the preliminary reports from the 2012 agriculture census, "In Minnesota, there were 8 percent fewer farms in 2012 than five years earlier. The new report counts 74,537 Minnesota farms, compared with 80,992 farms in the 2007 report." Fewer farmers probably means fewer customers for rural centers and fewer students for local school systems. One example from Vermont, gives an indication of what may, or may not, yield some longer term unintended consequences.

corn field stubble and abandoned buildings
corn field stubble and abandoned buildings
Photo by J. Harrington

"Marie Audet and her family are at the forefront of dairy farming in Vermont. They operate a progressive, multi-generation farm with over 2,100 head. Blue Spruce Farm collects the methane gas from the farm ans [sic] is used to power generators that push enough electricity onto the grid for 300+ homes."
The reduction in green house gases is impressive as a percentage. How much dairy and meat contribute to our overall production of GHGs is in the midst of a current "conversation." I'm curious about the water quality impacts of the 2,100 head operation compared to what might result from 200 or so smaller dairy farms. There's apparently also a lot of questions about the cost and availability of non-GMO dairy feed. It seems to me that looking at sustainable and/or resilient and local (we can talk about that later) food systems probably involves much more complex trade-offs than I've envisioned,  read about or thought about. One of the reasons for that is that there are not enough conversations and interviews with real farmers. Dennis Anderson's column yesterday in the Star Tribune added some insight with the observation that "no till" requires less fossil fuel consumption than "conservation tillage." There's also a fascinating article in the current issue of Orion about the carbon capture potential of agricultural soils. Are we still best served with agricultural policies and farm bills that emphasize "cheap food" and commodity crops or do we need and want even more emphasis on the successful development of local food systems that provide healthy food with minimal environmental impacts? Are our legislators listening to us and our local farmers or just to the major agri-businesses of the world? How do we improve our conversations between our urban and rural food producers and those of us who represent their "markets?" What do we really want our local food systems to produce?

The Farmer

By W.D. Ehrhart

Each day I go into the fields
to see what is growing
and what remains to be done.
It is always the same thing: nothing
is growing, everything needs to be done.
Plow, harrow, disc, water, pray
till my bones ache and hands rub
blood-raw with honest labor—
all that grows is the slow
intransigent intensity of need.
I have sown my seed on soil
guaranteed by poverty to fail.
But I don’t complain—except
to passersby who ask me why
I work such barren earth.
They would not understand me
if I stooped to lift a rock
and hold it like a child, or laughed,
or told them it is their poverty
I labor to relieve. For them,
I complain. A farmer of dreams
knows how to pretend. A farmer of dreams
knows what it means to be patient.
Each day I go into the fields.


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