Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Discussion: Can Economic and Environmental Sustainability Live in Harmony on the Farm?

June 03, 2014 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

Environmentalists say that modern farming practices are destroying natural resources, specifically soil quality and clean water supplies. Some farmers fight back by either downplaying the farming practices’ environmental impact or by highlighting industry driven solutions they’re participating in.

This doesn’t have to be an adversarial process. Farmers and environmentalists both deeply care about the land and water, but they come at the issue from differing cultural and economic perspectives.

So what’s the way forward for more sustainable agricultural -- economically and environmentally?

How do we collaborate to provide guidance for a new generation of farmers?

Join the discussion from 8:00-9:30 today with Mark Schultz from the Land Stewardship Project, a farm and rural organization, and members of the Sustainable Farming Association.


Post your comments or questions in the box below, scroll down to see the ongoing conversation, and use "refresh" to see new comments.

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  • Rachel says:

    June 3, 2014 at 6:41 am

    Good morning! Mark, John & Kent will be joining our discussion at 8 to lend their expertise and answer any questions. If you’re here early, don’t hesitate to jump in with a question or comment.

  • John Mesko says:

    June 3, 2014 at 7:34 am

    I’m John Mesko, Executive Director of Sustainable Farming Association, a grass-fed beef producer, and an adjunct Environmental Science professor at the University of Northwestern, St. Paul.  I worked in industrial agriculture for many years including 6 years with the biotech arm of Dow Chemical. 

    The Sustainable Farming Association was an outgrowth of the early work of the Land Stewardship Project in the early 1990s.  LSP realized the importance of a separate organization that would focus on developing and maintaining a Farmer-to-Farmer Network for the purpose of addressing sustainable agriculture and the impact of agriculture on the environment in general.

    I’m glad to be a part of today’s conversation.

    • Rachel says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:10 am

      Many of our readers have raised concerns about water quality in the past. Could you speak to the impact that fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides have on MN’s lakes and rivers? What practices or sustainable strategies are Minnesota farmers using that help protect our water resources?

      • Kent Solberg says:

        June 3, 2014 at 8:50 am

        We have and are seeing both direct and indirect impact of fertilizers and pesticides on water quality.  Some of the direct impacts include phosphate loading that can trigger algae blooms in surface waters.  In recent years the focus has been on practices such as buffer strips and fertilizer management.  Buffer strips can help, but if not used in conjunction with fertility management the buffers can become saturated with phosphorous and additional applications are no longer buffered from the stream or lake.  Precision agriculture has really caught on with row crop producers.  This has had a large impact on fertilizer application and management as far as getting the inputs where needed the most.  We are now learning about the close link between certain soil fungi and phosphorous availability to plants.  We are learning there are agronomic practices that can be utilized to either promote these fungi or suppress phosphorous uptake.  When soil microbes are suppressed by certain ag. practices phosphorous is not available to the crop and in some soil types phosphorous has been over applied so that there is something available for the crop.  Typically a combination of practices that include no-till, cover crops and a diverse crop rotation can go a long way to promote these fungi and can lead to a reduced need for phosphorous applications in row crops. 

        Indirect impacts to surface water quality are related to the impact of certain chemical applications and their impact to soil microbes.  Anhydrous ammonia has been a low cost nitrogen source for crop production.  However, it can also have a detrimental impact on soil life.  Soil microbes build soil structure.  Good soil aggregate structure has a direct bearing on the amount of rainfall that is captured and stored in the soil vs. running off.  Runoff carries nitrogen and phosphorous down the hill to the nearest lake or stream.  A number of farmers are now implementing a combination of methods designed to promote soil health and soil aggregate structure including cover crops, diversifying their crop rotation beyond corn and soybeans, building perennial crops such as grass and legume hay crops into their rotation, utilizing minimal till and even integrating livestock onto their row crop acres.  Typically we see the best results through a combination of these methods.  The big side benefit to utilizing these tools is that most producers see a substantial reduction in input costs and higher profitability within a few years of implementing these practices.

  • Mark Schultz says:

    June 3, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Looking forward to today’s Tuesday Talk!  There has been much progress over recent years in expanding sustainable food and farming systems, but clearly much more remains to be done.  Major obstacles and challenges exist that will prevent sustainable farming and local/regional food systems from becoming the norm—dealing with them will be crucial to our success.  I’m the Associate Director and Director of Programs at the Land Stewardship Project, which works on both the on-farm and community-based end of things, and for larger structural or systemic change to advance the long-term care of the land, sustainable agriculture, and healthy communities.

    • Rachel says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:11 am

      Mark, what would you say is the most pressing concern that your organization is working on right now?

      • Mark Schultz says:

        June 3, 2014 at 8:32 am

        A lot of what drives our ability to advance family farm sustainable agriculture and local/regional food systems and racial and economic equity in agriculture are large, structural or policy issues.  For example, if the trade policies currently being negotiated (Trans Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) are ratified, there will be huge unwarranted and damaging impacts on the growth of sustainable agriculture and food systems.  A key element here is so-called “regulatory coherence” which among other things would allow multinational corporations to sue local governments for implementing such good policies as local foods procurement for schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.—or for passing strong local ordinances to rein in factory farms or frac sand mines.  The all-out push by President Obama for fast-track authority in order to avoid debate and publicity about these pro-corporate trade policies is exactly the opposite of what people need, which is participation in the decisions that affect their lives.

        Other major issues to address which LSP is working on include reform to excessive crop subsidies that drive the consolidation of land into fewer hands and restrict land access to people who want to farm; and health care reform that works for everyone in the state, no exceptions.

  • Kent Solberg says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Good morning.  As a bit of background, I am the Livestock and Grazing Specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association.  I am also a farmer.  We have a grass based livestock operation featuring dairy, hogs and laying hens.  Our livestock move across the pastures in a planned rotation that capitalizes on the natural instincts of each species to complement the others and promote soil health.

    There are ways to move forward economically and environmentally toward a more sustainable agricultural landscape.  We have a growing number of producers who are utilizing the tools and techniques that can move us forward toward a healthier agricultural landscape.  We are seeing more interest from producers in adopting these tool and techniques.  Several workshops I was involved in over the winter had greater than anticipated participation by producers wanting to learn more.  However, farming is a high risk, capital intensive venture.  Most have hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars at invested in their farms.  When one has this amount of capital invested you naturally want to see it working for you.  This naturally and understandably would make one cautious about changes.  And, by nature, many farmers tend to be cautious about change.  Just as in other businesses, economics is a big driver of change.  Fortunately, we now have a number of farmers not only utilizing many of the tools and techniques that can bring substantial changes to the landscape, but they are also willing to share what they have learned with other producers and thus help them minimize the risk in making those changes.  These producers experiences plus the increasing volume of information and focus on soil health in the main stream ag. press is helping producers feel comfortable in making changes.  It will take time.  But I feel there is progress.


    • Rachel says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:19 am

      Kent, For some of our readers who are passionate about sustainability, but less knowledgeable about farming practices, could you speak to some of the major concerns with soil health and what tools and practices are making a difference?

      • Kent Solberg says:

        June 3, 2014 at 9:19 am

        When we speak about soil health we are talking about soil function.  Function is the ability to capture and store water.  It is also the ability to cycle nutrients.  Maybe you recall studying the water, nitrogen and carbon cycles in high school or college.  The soil ecosystem is a major player in each of those cycles.  Healthy soils team with live.  It has been said that there are more microbes in a handful of healthy soils that there are people on the face of the plant.  Agriculture is the dominate human use of the landscape.  How we conduct our farming practices has a direct bearing on the cycles mentioned above.  Tillage disturbs the home or habitat of most soil microbes.  By reducing tillage we help keep their home intact.  Soil microbes prefer temperatures in the 70’s like we do.  If the soil is bare, temperatures can soar to over 100 degrees on sunny summer days.  Keeping the soil surface covered or shaded keeps it cool and comfortable for the microbes.  We can do this with perennial crops, such as hay and well managed pastures.  We can do it with cover crops.  Even adding a simple cover crop such as cereal rye to a corn and bean rotation can have a dramatic impact on soil health.  Diversity in our cropping systems builds diversity in soil microbe populations.  When we move beyond a simple corn and soybean rotation to one that includes representative of all major crop types (warm season grasses such as corn, sorghum, and millet; warm season broad leaves such as sunflowers and soybeans; cool season grasses such as wheat and oats; and cool season broad leaves such clover and field peas) we begin to add diversity.  Farmers are getting quite creative in building diversity in their rotation.  Some are no longer planting mono-cultures of crops.  Instead they are planting field peas with oats, Crimson clover and hybrid brassicas under corn,  cereal rye under soybeans and so on.  Bringing livestock back onto crop ground is also growing in popularity.  Economics has been a big driver here.  Stored feed costs are the livestock producers single greatest expense.  Anything that can reduce that helps the bank ledger.  Putting cattle on a corn field after harvest to glean any dropped grain and eat the remaining portions of the corn plant can help reduce feed and manure handling costs.  There is also something microbial going on that helps benefit soil health.  Rumenant livestock, like cattle, are walking vats of microbes.  When we get them out on the landscape under a carefully managed system it can be healing to the land.  Planned grazing of pasture acreage can have huge benefits to soil health.  These systems mimic the large herds of bison and elk that once roamed the plains.  This movement of these herd and the subsequent rest periods were essential to maintaining the health of the prairie ecosystem.  When farmers implement the practices described soil structure and function improves.  We keep more of our rain where it hits the ground.  We keep more of our nutrients in the soil and available for plant growth.  We sequester more carbon feeding the soil microbial system.  And, farmers can see productivity and profitability improve on their farms.

        • travis fitzner says:

          June 3, 2014 at 9:59 pm

          One question Kent, how long have you been farming?

          • Kent Solberg says:

            June 9, 2014 at 12:14 pm

            24 years

        • travis fitzner says:

          June 3, 2014 at 10:02 pm

          ...also, How many acres do your farm? graze?

          • Kent Solberg says:

            June 9, 2014 at 12:18 pm

            Before I accepted the Livestock and Grazing Specialist position with SFA we ran about 240 acres, owned and rented.  Due to my commitments with the work, we are down to 80 - only so many hours in the day! smile

  • Ann Olson says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Good morning. I just the Court of Appeals decision on the case involving the MPCA and Reichmann Land and Cattle. Do you have comments/opinions about the ruling?

    • Kent Solberg says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:08 am

      I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with the case.

  • Joe says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:15 am

    There were a few steps forward on this issue at the legislature, and a few things that didn’t make it through.
    Talk a little about those issues.

    • Mark Schultz says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:22 am

      One significant piece was the allocation of $1 million to Forever Green to support diversified crop rotations, perennials, and soil health research and outreach.  Don Wyse at the University of MN deserves a lot of credit for working to use the U’s infrastructure to support sustainable farming systems.  Farmers testifying for Forever Green was key.  In some cases, the people we had to convince were some of the most “environmental” legislators, who were reluctant to accept knowledgeable (and environmentally strong) leadership from farmers and rural environmentalists.  But in the end, it happened.  One step forward.

  • Sally Jo Sorensen says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:17 am

    I’m concerned about post-secondary education programs for young people interested in family farming.  There do seem to be a lot of younger people interested in sustainable farming, where livestock and cropping systems are integrated in a way that creates a “stewardship bonus,” but the programs at the U and MNSCU seem focused on educating ag staff rather than owner operators.  The sustainable food production program at MSCTC-Fergus Falls, for instance, was shut down, with the college president telling a local state representative who supported the program that corporate farms are “the future.”

    Fortunately, some of the SFP programs classes are being offered now by the Sustainable Farming Association. While this programs and the new beginning farm programs set up by LSP are great, it would seem to me that the public post-secondary institutions should response to the demand for local food by helping to educate some local farmers, especially since many young people (and vets) pay for their education through grant and loan programs that require students to be enrolled in accredited colleges. 

    What can Minnesotans do to get our public colleges and universities back on track as far as farm education programs go?

    • John Mesko says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:21 am

      Thanks Sally Jo, for your question. It deserves a long conversation, but I’ll drop by 2 cents in on it.  Public (Land Grant) college ag programs are funded heavily by industrial agriculture.  Since there are fewer commercial products required in sustainable agriculture, there are fewer profit motives out there who have the desire and the capacity to influence like Big Ag does.

      • Sally Jo Sorensen says:

        June 3, 2014 at 8:35 am

        That describes a situation but not a solution. How can citizens change it?  Can you recommend actions for citizens who want to assist millennial generation members who love the idea of having their own small farm-but who are stymied by the lack of programs for them?

        • Mark Schultz says:

          June 3, 2014 at 8:57 am

          Sally—You make a good point about many young people and vets using programs through accredited colleges for education, and the relative lack of sustainable ag education in those places.  Unfortunately, the pro-corporate comment by the college president you cited is not unique.  This is an area where potentially the Legislature could make a difference in terms of providing public dollars for the educational programs people need at these schools.  As John pointed out, there won’t be much coming from the agribusiness side.  But to make real public investment happen, we need strong, hard work and tough action by a Commissioner of Agriculture who will break through the dominant narrative about “corporate industrial ag is the only real future” and join with the community-based organizations in our movement to win real dollars.  It will take real money, for sure—and it will pay back.  But the lack of top-level leadership in state government and in the colleges and universities is a major impediment that we also need to change. 

          For one thing, it may mean the creation of a new revenue stream, which is always a big fight but one worth having on this issue, I think.  For example, Minnesota used to have a graduated (or progressive) land tax, in which land taxes would go up once farms became very large.  This compensates society for the increased social costs that study after study has shown is caused by the concentration of land ownership, starting with the famous Arvin and Dinuba study by the USDA in 1948.  But it also would provide funds for just the kind of “new family farm” education you’re talking about.  We need to make major structural change to fully advance the kind of agriculture and food systems that really are good for people and the land—a graduated land tax in Minnesota, in which huge farms pay more in land taxes per acre, could be such a structural change.

        • John Mesko says:

          June 3, 2014 at 9:06 am

          Thanks Sally Jo,
          Here are some suggested steps for citizens:
          1. Join an organization like SFA and get involved.  Learn more about the issues.  SFA hosts an annual Festival of Farms (second Sat. in July,) where citizens can see first hand the kind of farming that preserves and enhances the environment.
          2. Volunteer with your time to these organizations.
          3. Make financial contributions to these organizations.
          4. Tell your friends, and encourage them to do the same. 
          5.  SFA is developing funding mechanisms to support the SFP program you mentioned.  A phone call to your congressional representative, indicating the importance of the program and asking for their support would be fantastic.  I’d be happy to share specific requests with you offline…
          6.  Buy food from a local, beginning farmer if at all possible.
          7. When you eat at a restaurant, ask if the food was purchased directly from a farmer.
          8. Invite your favorite restaurant to join SFA and begin making connections with farmers.
          9.  Contact the University of MN and ask them to support programs like SFP with resources and promotion.
          10.  I suspect you are already doing these things!  Being involved on this web chat is on the list as well!  Thanks.

          • Sally Jo Sorensen says:

            June 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

            Thanks Mark and John—those are good, practical suggestions.

    • Elliot Altbaum says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:44 am

      John raises a good point that industrial agriculture has significant influence on academic programs through funding. There has been a growing resistance to this subversion of the intent of land grant universities by professors and students. New programs are starting to pop up that teach sustainable agriculture. In 2013, The University of MN, Twin Cities started a new food systems major within their college of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource science. It focuses on production for local markets and agroecology.

      For a more national look at sustainable agriculture programs look at the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association.

      • Mark Schultz says:

        June 3, 2014 at 8:59 am

        Good additions—these are important steps, and SARE at the federal level is a key program for our movement.  Now we need to keep moving forward.

  • John Mesko says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:25 am


  • Herbert Davis says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Our only realistic hope is the real family farmer. ( Not the “family farm” that adds hundreds of acres through rental and additional acreage in each relatives names.) Good environmental farming practices are pretty likely if the farm is truly a family farm and if the farm is about a decent income for a farmer instead of an investment in early retirement or maximum profit per acre.

    We need to tighten up the law and enforce the “family farm regulations. I do know this is an important topic.

    • Mark Schultz says:

      June 3, 2014 at 8:43 am

      Herbert—agreed.  Over the past 25 years, Minnesota’s Corporate Farm Law has been riddled with loopholes, led by groups such as the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, the Minnesota Soybean Growers, and the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council (whose exec committee includes Cargill, General MIlls, ECOLAB, etc.). 

      The critical fight on the state level is for real leadership by the Administration’s Department of Agriculture, which has been lacking.  Much can be done administratively to redirect resources to, as you say, “real family farmer” concerns.  That should happen.

      But the force of federal farm policy—especially the huge subsidies from the public treasury targeted to the biggest landowners and farm operators in the country—is a major, major factor.  Land Stewardship Project is doing research on the impact of such terrible policy on the concentration of land ownership and the directly-related lack of access to land to beginning farmers, which you will be hearing more about later this year.  But when the 10 largest farmland owners are literally more than or close to million-dollar payouts each year just through federally subsidized crop insurance (not for disaster payments, but direct subsidies), you know something is wrong. Of course, it’s that way because the major agribusiness corporations and their front organizations want it that way—we must build the power to change this.

  • Ann Olson says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:32 am

    You mentioned that you are seeing more interest from producers in adopting tools and techniques for a healthier landscape. We are interested in animal welfare issues. A few questions:
    1. Do some of these techniques also involve the welfare of animals, or is the issue also framed in that way?
    2. As cost is a huge factor (to make systemic changes in current operations), how have you dealt with that issue? Are there state funds available to assist farmers financially to make positive changes?
    3. You mentioned workshops. Are the topics posted on your website?
    Thank you.

    • Kent Solberg says:

      June 3, 2014 at 9:31 am

      Getting livestock back on the landscape and out of the feedlot is a major push from folks working on the soil health issue.  The greatest cost to most producers in bringing livestock back on the landscape is 1) fencing and 2) watering systems.  Most of our livestock fencing has been removed or allowed to deteriorate in the past 50 years because the move was toward confinement operations.  Fencing is a long term investment (20-25 years).  Costs can range into the tens of thousands of dollars.  Some financial assistance is available through programs like MN Dept. of Ag. Livestock Investment Grants or USDA EQUIP funding.  Announcements for workshops are posted on the SFA website.  Go to to sign up for our free e-newsletter (SFA CONNECT) to stay posted on upcoming events.

  • John G. White says:

    June 3, 2014 at 8:53 am

    That post was from the winter. I have another blog coming on the effect a lack of buffer strips and grass ways have on holding soil in place. In other words, we’re not seeing much care for the God-given resources that are being farmed by the commodity farmers. There seems to be no thought of the future.

  • Megan B says:

    June 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

    What are some of the major economic barriers that stewardship-minded farmers face? You’ve already mentioned increasing funding for sustainable agriculture education and research, as well as corporate-oriented federal farm policy, trade policy and even state ag policy. I often hear farmers talking about taking off-farm jobs for some added-income and, more often, to get health insurance through an employer. What does healthcare reform mean for farmers—and for stewardship?

    • John Mesko says:

      June 3, 2014 at 9:17 am

      Thanks Megan, for your question. 
      Conventional agriculture is supported by tax dollars in the form of subsidized crop insurance, which is really revenue insurance, meaning the government provides a discounted insurance policy to farmers who grow certain crops insuring them of a certain income, with provisions on the part of the farmer, of course.  Without these artificial supports all farmers would need off farm jobs, and even as it is very few farmers and farm families can attribute all of their income just to the farm.  I’m not aware of how healthcare reform has affected farmers in general, but personally, our family’s health insurance costs tripled under healthcare reform.  I was one who liked our plan, but we didn’t get to keep it…

      Fortunately, doing the right thing environmentally doesn’t have to cost alot of money.  Integrating crops and livestock in a soil health building model, like what SFA is promoting through our GrazeFest Series of events is one way to have tremendous impact at low cost.

    • Mark Schultz says:

      June 3, 2014 at 9:19 am

      At LSP, we decided a few years ago that we needed to work hard for major health care reform.  Our members—who farm, or drive truck, or teach, or work in an office, or own a small business, etc.—called on us to get involved.  After a couple of years of intensive conversations with our members, we believe we must win major reform—towards the kinds of publicly run systems they have in every other advanced nation in the world from Japan to Canada to the United Kingdom.  Too many farmers, especially, pay huge amounts of dollars for inadequate insurance—like $1000/month for insurance that includes a $6000 deductible.  The same is true for other small businesses.  Other societies have higher quality health care (US ranks 27th, I believe), at lower cost, and with 100% access to health care, because they don’t let insurance corporations run it and control all policy related to it.

      We’ve heard from too many beginning farmers who want to farm but have to wait until they can afford any health insurance—that’s a debilitating cost on our society and economy.  Or they go without, risking injury in what is a relatively dangerous occupation—which is unjust and hurts us all.

      We need Minnesota, over the next 3 or 4 years, to enact a publicly run health care system in which everyone is in, and no one is out.  Overall, it will save money as well eliminate the enormous and costly duplication of administration and executive costs (salaries, bonuses, junkets) in the well-heeled insurance industry.  Do I sound like a populist?  I am, at least on this issue.  This is an issue of what the people need vs. what corporations and their political allies want.

      In terms of stewardship, helping new sustainable farmers get started, and relieving the burden of off-farm jobs from current family farmers, will reap real rewards.  One of the causes of the loss of livestock from family farms is this loss of labor from the farm (livestock is labor-intensive), as one or both of the farming couple decides they must leave the farm during the day to take a job in town “for the insurance.”  Livestock on the land, utilizing pasture and forages, and is great boon to stewardship, properly done.  We’ve lost a lot of that, and we need it back.

  • Adam John says:

    June 3, 2014 at 9:00 am

    My family farms in MN and it seems much of what used to be grazing land (pasture) or CRP is going under the plow into intensive crop production.  Just from driving the countryside the erosion on the land the last couple years seems really bad, why is this happening—- doesn’t seem to sustainable.

    • Mark Schultz says:

      June 3, 2014 at 9:07 am

      It is happening for two main reasons—high commodity prices for crops over the past few years, especially a few years ago.  And the major and persistent impact of huge commodity crop (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice) subsidies delivered through the federal Farm Bill.  This last Farm Bill (2014) was the worst.  Look for LSP’s report on the concentration of land ownership, the impact that has on the land (pretty much all intensive row crop production, as you have been seeing), and the impact on people who need access to land to start farming, and on the community.

      You are right—soil erosion is a continuing disaster.  No small thing—read history.  It’s what brought major empires of the past down, and we’re repeating the mistake.  To see all that soil blowing away into the road and ditches, or running off into our streams and rivers and polluting them with the chemicals they hold—it’s awful.

  • John Mesko says:

    June 3, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Thanks everyone for participating, this has been fun…