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Idea challenges familiar ag production

July 11, 2009
Kylie Saari — Staff Writer

FAIRMONT - A sea of corn and soy stretches across Minnesota, gradually changing to oceans of wheat to make up the bulk of grain commodities grown in the world's most fertile soil. America's farmers feed the world.

But maybe they shouldn't.

That is the idea behind Frederick Kirschenmann's paper "Feed the Village First," which was presented Friday at Red Rock Center for the Arts by the executive director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, Donna Hines.

Kirschenmann argues that societies throughout history traded excess goods - saving enough for what the communities needed before selling anything - and growing or producing nearly everything needed locally. The result was healthy economies, healthy soil, and healthy communities.

The paper says industrial farming kills the soil with chemical additives and a lack of crop rotations, and endangers the world communities it grows for by creating a dependency on foreign goods instead of using aid funding to teach communities how to sustain themselves.

The answer, according to the NPSAS is to go back to the way things were. But getting there is a tangled web, woven by years of policy and subsidy.

Hines believes by encouraging local food, supporting farm subsidies to farmers who grow more than corn and beans, and giving incentives to grocers and restaurants to serve food grown nearby, the landscape of farming can be changed, and perhaps, saved.

Kirschenmann's paper uses the Anasazi Indians to illustrate its point.

The tribe, found in the desert Southwest, supported more than 100,000 people, producing 40 bushels per acre of dryland corn around 1,000 AD. Now the region is capable of producing only 14 bushels per acre, supporting less than 15,000.

Kirschenmann points to overproduction and soil degradation as key to the demise of productivity in the region.

Southern Minnesota has not been immune to crop specialization by farmers.

Wanda Johnson, a local resident who came to the presentation because "she likes to eat," said she remembers her father growing peas, sorghum, sugar beets, flax and more right in this area, rotating the crops to keep the soil healthy.

In fact, a single farmer planted an average of seven crops per year in the 1930s, according Rural Advantage president Linda Meschke. The current average is 1.7 crops.

Argument has been made by major producers that corn and soybeans grow well in this region, so why put in the energy and time forcing something else out of the soil? This is essentially the theory of comparative advantage.

Hines says when the soil is healthy, many plants will grow easily. Even corn and soybeans wouldn't grow well without the fertilizer and pesticides added to the fields, she said.

"You don't have to be organic-certified to grow these other crops," Meschke said. "What you are trying to do is improve the soil health overall. In reality, we have some of the most productive soil in the world. We are very fortunate. That is part of the problem in other countries; they don't have the soil and rainfall. That doesn't mean they can't grow things, they just can't grow things with the same intensity."

Meschke said farmers' response to the idea of diversification and localization has really varied based on the age of the farmer.

"It seems like if the farmer is over 50 years old they have a positive nostalgic connection to these other crops," she said. "Farmers under 30 are bored with corn and soybeans and welcome and new challenge. In between age 30 and 50, they like to take easy street."

Ultimately, however, it is the Farm Bill that determines the landscape of the farms, Meschke said. Farmers grow what they get subsidies for.

"If the farm bill required we had a pine tree in the middle of every field, we would have a pine tree in the middle of every field," she said.

Even so, it is the consumer who drives the economy, according to Hines. And the drive the NPSAS is going for will change the way the United States handles foreign food-aid policy.

"Your producers will produce what you are asking for," she said. "It is not going to happen just here in Fairmont, it has got to be a national occurrence. When people start expecting certain things to stay locally and be served locally, and be able to by them locally, when that happens it will start taking things off the international market. It will require we start teaching these other countries to provide for themselves. It is a nice thing; it is sustainable for them as well."

Kirschenmann's paper stresses that the Feed the Village economy is not opposed to trade in principle:

"It is also important to recognize that taking a state against the development of a global economy does not necessarily mean that one is anti-trade or "protectionist," or that one has a callous disregard for the world's hungry and homeless," it states. The author continues, "International and inter-tribal trade is as old as human history .... But the interesting thing about the trade policies of these indigenous people is that they insisted on meeting the needs of the village first. Trade was based on surplus production."

That trade be based on surplus is the guiding principle for the NPSAS and it is one they hope will become more and more familiar with time.

"It was always this mindset that American grows for the world," Meschke said. "We need to shift that thinking to feed our local communities, not just literally, but mentally and socially and environmentally. Those are the pieces we are missing in our current production system."



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