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Column: Investing in Minnesota's next generation of farms and farmers

By JULIAN THIES, Macalester College

ST. PAUL — While the agricultural sector has been strong economically, ecological costs of over-tilling, excess fertilizer and other modern practices are adding up. The land of 10,000 lakes struggles with sediment build up and other pollutants in waterways partly due to unsustainable farming practices.

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As environmental advocates and consumers push for a more sustainable food system, it is imperative that farmers adapt to the evolving paradigm of sustainable food and agricultural production.

While there will always be a push for more small-scale, organic farming, it’s just a small part of the solution. To ensure traditional family farmers continue making a living while protecting the land and water, they need to be involved in shaping future practices. Some progressive large-scale growers have already embarked on a number of systems that will curb erosion, fertilizer runoff and pollution from pesticides. These range from higher precision equipment that only sprays fertilizers where needed to more grassland buffer strips.

Another proposal that has a chance to sustain farming for the long term in Minnesota is the Forever Green Initiative, currently fighting for funding in the 2014 budget bill.

It will provide $1.4 million in funding for the University of Minnesota Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management (CINRAM) to continue research and implementation of a cover crop that is hardy for Minnesota’s winter climate, which could provide numerous benefits to the farm ecosystem.

Minnesota’s harsh winters take their toll on the land, with winds and precipitation eroding tons of soil. Winter crops can provide a level of protection by better holding soil together. They can also serve as livestock feed, which decreases reliance on other sources. Winter crop advancements in other states have also provided farmers a second income-generating commodity crop.

Winter crops will improve water quality by allowing water to infiltrate the soil and keep nutrients in our fields. Summer crops will be more productive because winter crops enhance soil quality. There are a number of questions that must still be worked out, such as which type of winter crop would work best in Minnesota and what’s best economically for producers?

The implementation of new techniques and technologies to support farmers is paramount to reversing trends of pollution and soil degradation in Minnesota.

A second idea, which it appears didn’t get much traction this session, will help develop a sustainable agriculture bachelor’s degree program at the University of Minnesota Morris.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, almost 55 percent of Minnesota farmers are between the ages of 45 and 64; only percent are below the age of 35. Approximately 50 percent of Minnesota’s farmers will retire in the next 20 years, possibly leaving the industry with an inadequate number of food producers. That could mean more intense practices to squeeze higher yields with less labor. Or it could provide an opportunity for a wave of new farmers to be more sustainable.

Unless we provide current farmers and a new generation of growers guidance and a chance for a family sustaining career with sustainable agricultural practices, they’ll likely continue with systems that made money in the past.

This essay is part of a continuing collaboration between Minnesota 2020 and Macalester College’s Geography Department and its students.