By Rose Delle Fave
“Why are you interested in this program?” It’s the question everyone asks at some point after we arrive for the first time at their farm. By now we all have well-rehearsed answers to deliver as we go around the circle and explain why each of us is here. At times this exercise can feel rather monotonous, but I have come to appreciate it. It helps me remember why I’m here and what I want to be doing.
My usual answer goes something like this: I didn’t know much of anything about agriculture before coming to Carleton. I joined the Farm Club on a whim, and volunteering on the Student Farm quickly became my happy place and a way for me to escape from the stress of life on campus. I loved getting my hands dirty, and I knew I wanted to learn more about farming and find ways to get more involved with it. And, being a prospective Political Science major, I wanted to find ways to connect my new passion with my existing interest in government. Heart of the Heartland seemed like the perfect first step towards all of those goals.
What interests me most in politics is the government’s relationship with the people. Do they trust it to act in their best interests, or do they feel like it is constantly working against them? Do they feel that their voice is heard and can make a difference in the policies that affect them most? The only way to know is to talk to people, to start conversations about the issues in their communities and just to listen. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Just like all the farmers we meet have the same question for me, I have a few of the same ones to ask of them: What do you think the future of farming looks like? If you could see one change in the government’s approach to agriculture, what would it be?
Almost every farmer I talk to mentions the Farm Bill in some way because it is the big thing on everyone’s mind right now. The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that goes through Congress once every five years, and it is responsible for such important policies as government subsidies, crop insurance, and food assistance programs. And it seems that everyone has an opinion on it.
The overwhelming sentiment among the farmers I have heard from is that the Farm Bill does too much to support huge conventional farmers and not enough to help smaller family farms, organic farms, and pretty much anyone else who doesn’t grow corn and soybeans. It doesn’t provide enough support for farmers looking to try something different in their practices, such as planting cover crops, even when those practices are shown to be much better for soil health and the environment. Pete, a dairy farmer we met with on Friday, said that he wishes the Farm Bill would crop insurance for his alfalfa, a crop he grows both as a cover and as an alternative to just using corn in his cow feed. Right now, crop insurance provided by the government only protects the corn in his fields. If he lost his alfalfa to pests or disease or any other reasons, he would lose all the money he put into it and have no way of getting it back.
I don’t think we should take away from corn and soy farmers. It wouldn’t be possible to support our population’s needs and demands without them, unless there were a massive overhaul of the country’s food systems. So much of our economy relies on the mass production of corn alone, from the ethanol we put in our gas tanks to feeding the livestock we raise for meat. And conventional farmers are not doing anything wrong. They are trying to make a living and be successful just like the rest of us, and we need them, too.
However, something does need to change. As we learned on Friday, the number of small dairy farms in the US is dropping rapidly as milk prices continue to drop and less and less farmers are able to support themselves. I could get into the economics of why we need more small family farms, but to me the real reason is this: when I was at the Goodhue County Fair, I saw something I had never seen before. A true community, consisting of multiple generations, full of friendly faces and people who all knew each other and supported one another; kids running around outside, lounging up against their cows, engaging with all the different animals and just being kids. It’s exactly what Marcus Irrthum told us — we need to protect farm families. We need to protect that way of life, that type of childhood.
The government could provide more subsidies and better crop insurance and healthcare options to small farms and beginning farmers instead of only thinking about big conventional agriculture. It sounds simple when you say it like that, but any such policy would face a huge uphill battle in Congress against legislators and lobbyists who support big ag. The government’s relationship with agriculture has been long and complicated; it won’t suddenly get any simpler just because we want it to.
On the other side of things, one tends to hear a lot about farmers who oppose new government regulations. It’s true that it’s often difficult to get farmers to change their practices, just as it is to get members of Congress to change theirs. But what about the ones that do? For example, Dave Legvold adopted water buffers on his farm years before there was a Minnesota law requiring them, simply because he recognized the need to protect water quality. Farmers are starting more and more to accept that taking care of the land is an essential part of their job, and they’re much more open-minded to the idea of protecting the environment. What if instead of restricting the bad practices, we started rewarding the good ones?
In some ways, this is already being done. Mr. Legvold was able to apply through a government conservation program to get funding towards his SoilWarrior, a strip tiller which has been proven to be much less harsh on the soil than conventional tillage practices. Now he is a huge advocate for strip tillage, and ETS, the company that makes SoilWarriors, often asks him to speak to new customers who are interested in the idea. In this way, when the government provided funding for one farmer who wanted to change his practices, a chain reaction ensued that is pushing many more people in the same direction.
People are happiest with their government when they feel like it is helping them. By rewarding good ideas and practices with funding or tax breaks or other such incentives, the government could have a positive impact on the lives of small farmers. It might be too idealistic to think that we can change our country’s policies towards big ag overnight. But in the meantime, we can focus on building and supporting new programs and grants that encourage experimentation and innovation, especially on a smaller scale. And, as always, we can get out and vote.