February 11, 2007

Sustaining Rural America: Information, Conservation and Grazing

Last week, the meeting of the University of Wisconsin's board meeting for the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems was all about sustainability. How to preserve the land, preserve farm income and put consumers in touch with a greater variety of fresh, local food. And I was glad to meet people who are already thinking about this hard, because changing our food system is going to be a first order priority when it comes time to prepare for the coming energy crunch, as James Howard Kunstler explains here:

2. We have to produce food differently. The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy. ...

Two hot topics when the 2007 Farm Bill came up at the meeting were the ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas) information service and CSP (the Conservation Security Program), both programs that can benefit farmers who don't qualify for the federal funds paid out to neighbors growing commodity staple crops. In other words, they help exactly the sorts of farmers whose knowledge, work and experience are going to be crucial to future food security when the day comes that oil isn't cheap. I followed up with some of the participants so you could hear directly from some of the people at the forefront of this issue.

So first, knowledge. The typical U.S. farm today is run on a schedule of seeding, spraying and harvest determined in advance by the one-stop seed, livestock, feed, fertilizer, pesticide, and end-product distributor the farmer contracts with. Sterile conditions are maintained either by dousing everything with pesticide or fumigant or pumping the animals full of high-powered antibiotic cocktails. Because many head of animals or many acres are maintained, attention to detail is lost, along with low- or no-chemical methods of land maintenance, pest management and disease control. It's painstaking knowledge to rebuild, but yes, there's a government service designed to help the process along.

The ATTRA program, which has operated since 2002 on a $2.5 million budget, is a federally contracted service that provides free information about sustainable agriculture to farmers and anyone else who wants it. Last year, they responded to around 35,000 information and technical reporting requests, and had 2.6 million unique visitors to their website, who altogether made 673,000 publication downloads. If you want to raise goats, grow herbs, set up an anaerobic digestor on your property for biogas production, or run just about any type of sustainable farming operation, ATTRA either has information ready to go or a research specialist who can prepare a report that serves your needs.

In the 2007 budget, ATTRA received no funding. Not only have congressional Democrats have declared in their continuing budget resolution that they're wiping out all earmarks and just giving agencies an undifferentiated allocation, but the $2.5 million that would normally go to fund ATTRA has been removed from the rural business budget. I could tell you how much of a concern it should be that this shoestring service may be cut altogether, but then, I'd be speaking secondhand. So:

ATTRA provides information that's available to everyone. It's not oriented to commodity payments, or special sectors or groups, it's information that's available to everybody, all farmers, and they can use it to improve their farming operations. Information, knowledge, is key, it's power. It can empower anybody who chooses to use it. And it's a very inexpensive program that has a lot of bang for the buck.

You go to any of the nonprofits involved with sustainable, organic agriculture, they will be using ATTRA materials in a lot of their educational programs. The Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference and the Organic University, if there's one single source of information they use the most, it's ATTRA publications. And I've been using them, I run an organic tree fruit growers network, and that's a key source of information on organic and sustainable tree fruit production. ... It's providing information that's empowering to all, all farmers, all people.

- Deirdre Birmingham, coordinator for the Upper Midwest Organic Tree Fruit Growers Network

Programs like ATTRA demonstrate the dawning urgency among policy makers that agriculture needs to transition towards sustainability. Yet within legislators' growing recognition that Something Needs To Be Done lies another problem, one that goes beyond their willingness (or not) to help farmers make the switch: They think that they can find the answer by expanding exactly the sort of commodity farming that's likely to become a first casualty of sustainable restructuring of industrial agriculture, and certainly a first casualty of severe oil price shocks or shortages. They think that burning a land and labor-intensive crop that takes a lot of petroleum-based inputs to produce, corn in the form of ethanol, is going to fix the petrochemical issue. One of the farmers on the CIAS board explained the effects of commodity cropping and the present high demand for corn as an input for ethanol production, like this:

Basically, the argument I was making is as follows: If you look at the raw cost of growing most commodities, like corn and beans, - and this is right off the University of Illinois web page about the cost of growing corn in Illinois, but it applies to Wisconsin as well, and you look at the yields that they're getting on that land - right now, if the price of corn is about $3, it's about a break-even activity. And the only way those guys make any profit is because they get government payments. So real cost is about equal to real market price, for raising corn. The commodity payments allow them to make some money. That's figuring in about $100, in this Illinois study, per acre for land rent.

At $100 per acre land rent, a grazer or somebody in animal agriculture can afford to compete for rent of that land. And my point in there was that if the price of corn starts going up, instead of making their profit from the government through these payments, they're making profit on a higher price of corn. For instance, today, I think corn futures are around $4. Right now, they're at a break even point, they can't make any money, so every dollar per bushel more, they'll just get it as profit. And so if they're breaking even today, if the price of corn goes to $4, they'll make $100 per acre more. So they will be able to afford more land rent. Therefore, they'll bid up the land rent price.

So right now, they can afford to pay $100 bucks. In the future, if they reckon that corn prices are going to stay at $4 or higher even, with all this ethanol demand, they'll be able to pay more. And basically what it means is that for a grazer or some other animal agriculture guy, it's a competition for the use of land. And so to the extent that a grazer rents land, or an organic producer rents land, they're going to be disadvantaged. They're going to have to pay more for land and frankly, the prices that animal agriculture people are getting for their end product won't support it.

And so, on a macro level, what's going to happen over time is that animal agriculture will be disadvantaged from the supply standpoint, that is, from the land standpoint. In addition, animal agriculture is still largely based on corn and soybeans as a feed source. As the price of corn goes up in this ethanol program, the price of corn and beans is going to go up for livestock producers, as well. There could be a rise in meat and poultry prices, if we're just looking at the United States. But we so readily import those products these days, because we have no rules against it, we have no country of origin labeling, so people really don't know where they're getting their meat and poultry products from. What could happen is that animal agriculture and organic people are disadvantaged on the cost side. They're paying more for land and they're paying more for feedstuffs. And they can't raise their price, because on the top side, the big players that are importing commodity foods, and now organic foods, can go overseas to buy it.

In the long run, what's going to happen, is that our country will become a producer of corn and reduce the production of meat and organic products. And I see it as a bad thing.

Q: You were saying that you'd seen some impacts from this on the environment in your area?

Well, sure. I live in a country that has Highly Erodable Land. And that, I say in caps, because NRCS grades land in those kinds of words. Highly Erodable Land means that it's a 10-15% slope of a certain soil type. And when it's covered up with pasture or tilled along contours, and so forth, it saves that soil loss.

Theoretically, you can use no-till practices and greatly reduce soil loss. But in practice, what I've seen in our county is that no-till, where you alternate corn and beans, loosens soil. Operators fail to maintain waterways. You get erosion. I have pictures of farms that I have gone to NRCS with and they say, 'Yeah, we know it's happening, but it's very difficult because we don't have enough money for compliance.' So basically, they don't go out and stop these practices and we're losing soil. And when I talk to the Fish and Wildlife guys, and they say we're starting to go backwards on stream quality.

And I live in the watershed that is held up as the jewel of soil erosion control, the Coon Creek Watershed, in Vernon County. But we're seeing a lot of these little farms that had strip cropping just give up and rent their land out to row [cropping] guys. These guys are using no-till, which is an approved practice, but they're not using it with care. And so we're losing soil.

Q: Could you talk briefly about what strip cropping is?

By strip cropping, in our part of the world, that means alternating cover crops, like hay or a small grain crop, with a row crop like corn or soybeans on the countour, and the contours typically in our part of the world are 50-60 feet wide. And what you do with contour farming is you retain water in the covered strips, and you impede water flow in the contour planted row crop strips. Basically, you're impeding the flow of water. Water flowing picks soil up with it and takes it down off the hills and down into the streams and by having these contour strips, you impede that flow, so therefore you impede that loss of soil.

- Jim Munsch, Deer Run Farm

Munsch highlights some of the land use issues Kunstler alluded to, not only physical degradation, but allocation. A great deal of cropland now goes towards growing things that people don't eat directly, much of it going straight to the food processing industry or to feed confined livestock, and ethanol production only expands the problem. A dairy farmer expanded on the topic while telling about his experiences in the CSP program, the first green payments program to reward existing on-farm conservation.

I do have a contract, [with the Conservation Security Program,] and I think the first thing I should mention is that we're on a grazing farm. So it lends itself very well, this program, to grazing. And the gist of the program is to pay farmers for the conservation work that they have already done, additionally, for any improvements or enhancements to conservation that they would do in ensuing years. Has it been working well? You know, I think the intent of it is good. There's been some disappointment in getting into the program, especially with the grazing networks. Problem being that they have to have soil samples for their entire farm in order to reach a tier that they would accept into the program. There's tier I, II and III. If you don't have the soil samples from your farm that were taken the previous year, you're automatically in tier I, which is, I guess in most cases, it doesn't make the cut for funding. So they're left out in the cold, even though they're doing a pretty good job of conservation on their farms.

Once you're in the program, though, I think it has some real merit. It pays you a base price for what you're already doing, but more importantly, there are the things you agree to do in the contract. And these are enhancements that pay incentives, like wildlife management and some of the other things that are important. That's fine.

It takes a lot of effort to get through the whole contract, to get approved and everything, and then it takes some effort to be compliant with the program you signed up for and then the enhancements that you intend to do. The difficulty I related with the folks here today is in the funding aspect that it isn't fully funded. Even though we have a contract with the federal government, funding has come through at 40% of what the contract suggested that it would be, because the budget doesn't have the money in it now. But the expectation is that you continue with the enhancements and with the work that you're doing. That's fine, I think we should do it anyhow.

But the funding part would be a disappointment, as it stands now, if that's what you were going to do. If you were doing it for the money part, that would certainly be a disappointment.

Q: You were saying earlier that some of the more substantial funding was for improvements as opposed to existing work?

That's right. I think it's weighed more toward that. The real incentives, and if there's a dollar value in it, it's in what you intend to do, what you have to gear up to do. And usually the things you gear up to do, you know there's a cost to you, you know, you have to do something, take some land out of production. For instance, if it's Meadowlark habitat, or there was American Woodcock habitat, there are things that you had to do and there's an expense to that. But, on the other hand, they paid you a little more, they made it more worthwhile for that to happen.

I think it's a real good program. And again, as a grazer, I'm skeptical about program payments. ... Because grazers aren't in any of the commodity programs. They don't grow corn, they don't grow soybeans, so they aren't getting any corn or soybean payments. This is a good way to level the field, per se. There's been some resistance to getting into grazing, just because some folks are hooked on commodity payments, you know, and 'I cannot turn my farm into pastureland, because I get X amount of dollars every year for growing corn, so why should I convert it into pastureland?' So that takes that away, there's some real incentive to go to grazing.

And when I speak, I speak from the aspect of a grazer, more than anything. I don't speak for commodity farmers, because they're enrolled in [CSP], too, and I don't know what their experience has been.

Q: Some people in the meeting brought up "the grazing story," as something that they want legislators and people thinking about food policy to hear. What is the grazing story?

The grazing story, when we talk about sustainability and what meets sustainability, you know, grazing runs itself. So, what sustainability? Sustainability of the farm, of rural communities, of our way of production. Grazing limits the expense of inputs, and why do I say that? The essence of grazing is letting the cattle go out there and harvest their own feed for at least 50% of the year. That's a huge savings right there. And because we have permanent pastures, the idea of planting and plowing and tilling, the money and energy that goes into seeding things down, is eliminated. So that's it.

As you get into it, there's the manure management issue. Cattle are on pasture 50% of the year, 50% of the manure is left out on the pasture. So you're really producing a product without a whole lot of materials, at least for half the year. So we aren't moving the manure, we aren't moving a whole lot of feed.

So one person said, and I think this aptly describes what grazing is about, 'Cattle were meant to go out and graze, they're a movable object, they're mobile, that's why they have four legs. And plants, they're rooted in the ground. So for all the years of evolution, they were rooted in the ground, they were meant to stay there. And it's only in the last 50 years that we've turned it around, where we've tied our cow up and we've moved the feed.' Exactly the opposite, perhaps, of what nature intended.

And there was some economic logic to that as we developed that system, with silos and stored feed, and there was a point where that did make economic sense, where you could make some profit. But as expenses rise and the costs of buildings and machinery rise, certainly the cost of our product, milk, hasn't risen. And that goes for beef as well. So it just makes sense that we go full circle, and we go back, revisiting where we began and looking at the aspect of grazing. And this isn't something we invented. This is something that the most efficient producers of milk in the world, the ones that want to compete with us and the ones that can compete with us, the ones where we're keeping their dairy products out of this country with tariffs, are the ones that graze. It's not coincidental that they graze. They're low cost producers because of it. So we should really be taking a lesson from these countries [New Zealand, Ireland, etc.] that are trying to get their low cost product into here, it shouldn't be tariffs and keeping them out, it should be finding out why they're low cost producers. And invariably, you're going to find out they're grass-based.

- Joe Tomandl, dairy farmer and Conservation Security Program participant

If we're going to have a sustainable energy future, sustainable food systems, this is where it's at: The day-in, day-out work of figuring out how to manage working land so that balance is preserved between wild habitat, soil health and human nutrition.

Natasha is currently an intern with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, an organization dedicated to outreach and education in sustainable agriculture and food systems issues. The opinions expressed in this post are her own and are not representations on behalf of MFAI. For regular legislative alerts about food sustainability issues, sign up with the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

Posted by natasha at February 11, 2007 02:17 PM | Agriculture | TrackBack(2) | Technorati links |