NORTH CENTRAL REGION
| || || || |
|University of Minnesota students make a nearby farm their classroom, part of a new program to teach sustainable agriculture through practical experience. |
Photo by Craig Sheaffer.
When a couple raising organic produce in Minnesota's Twin Cities area wanted to try a new weed-control strategy, they turned to an unusual source: a University of Minnesota (UMN) graduate program offering agricultural students practical, on-farm experiences. A student spent a semester gathering information for the farmers on flame weeders, discerning what was available and evaluating optimum burn intensities for efficient weed control.
The project became an ideal partnership for the farmers, who were seeking low-cost support for a relatively new organic technology, and a student desiring a sustainable agriculture curriculum that went beyond traditional class-room fare.
With an eye on UMN's innovative graduate-level offerings in sustainable agriculture, a group of SARE- funded professors and education advocates in three states are trying to create a similar educational experience for undergraduates. While on-farm internships for college students are becoming fairly common across the nation, the group wants to expand beyond traditional field labor work.
A plan to create an undergraduate minor in sustainable ag that's heavy on the practical could become a unique offering in American universities. While UMN already offers an undergraduate sustainable ag minor, it centers on a mix of existing agricultural course work. Craig Sheaffer, a UMN agronomy professor who is leading the project, hopes to take it to a higher level, emulating the successful graduate-level curriculum that he and other educators say has lured students eager to get into the field and tackle real-life farming challenges.
"We want to put students in situations where they can learn from a whole new set of mentors," says Sheaffer, who is working with primary collaborators from Iowa State University, the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. "They'll have a diverse set of learning experiences where they may pick vegetables, they may milk cows or they may bale hay, but they would also interact with their hosts to learn about farm life or how a sustainable agriculture association works."
Sheaffer credits the project with allowing his group to redevelop and refine the sustainable agriculture programs in Minnesota, as well as across the region and even the nation.
"The sustainable ag minor at the graduate level certainly serves as an attractant -- it made us come out of the woodwork," says Steve Simmons, a UMN professor of agronomy and plant genetics and director of agronomy graduate studies. Simmons asserts that most, if not all, of his graduate agronomy students in the last two to three years have come because they want a good graduate minor in sustainable ag.
"It's probably the most important feature of our curriculum," he says. "It attracts students to a traditional discipline like agronomy, as well as students from liberal arts and other backgrounds who are not normally interested in agriculture."
The curriculum will be piloted at UMN, Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska. Fifteen students will undertake the course work, including six weeks of farm visits. If it is as successful as the project organizers hope, a full-fledged curriculum could be launched at the universities in 1998 or 1999.
The "experiential" learning concept expands on traditional university curricula that focuses on classroom research. Sending students into the field to work out problems in actual situations will give them a better flavor of the challenges involved in sustainable agriculture.
The Twin Cities-area produce farmers, for example, wanted to learn about flaming because they needed an organic weed-control practice. Traditional agriculture curricula advise students to apply synthetic herbicides to control weeds.
Before an experience on a farm or at an advocacy organization, student advisers would organize meetings between the student and potential host to set parameters for the work. The meetings would define in advance what the student and host could expect to gain.
Beyond the farm experience, the curriculum would include a seminar course that helps students reflect about and process their field work back in the classroom.
Project organizers polled producers and representatives from sustainable agriculture nonprofit organizations across the North Central Region to ascertain who might host students. They then held workshops across the region that focused on experiential learning and instructional approaches for both educators as well as potential hosts.
Sheaffer hopes the momentum will infuse college-level educators across the country with an enthusiasm for experiential learning. "Too often, students learn how to conduct research at a university, but when they go to apply it, it doesn't fit all the time," Sheaffer says. "By having a minor in sustainable ag, we're trying to enhance existing programs and broaden a student's perspective on agriculture -- and life." -- Valerie Berton
| || || || |
|A publicity campaign to boost sales of local apples includes a 30-second TV spot. |
Photo courtesy of Mothers & Others For A Livable Planet.
Eight generations after the first Lyman began growing apples in 1741, the family has carved a small niche in the central Connecticut apple market.
That market share is tenuous, however, as orchard grower John Lyman faces competition his grandfather -- or even father -- never dreamed of. In prime New England apple season, local stores offer fruit shipped from New Zealand. Washington apples are trucked across the continent and marketed aggressively in stores, magazines and even the New York City subway.
While the Northeast region produces the nation's second largest apple crop, most stores stock out-of-state varieties. Few fruit-buyers think about the origin of the apples they buy, although they may later lament the disappearance of a farm down the road.
A SARE-funded educational project in New York and New England addresses that lack of understanding in the marketplace. Led by the New York City-based Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, the project encourages consumers to buy local apples produced in an environmentally sound manner. The project offers a new type of apple cleverly dubbed "Core Values-Northeast" -- fruit produced exclusively in the region using integrated pest management (IPM) strategies.
The Core Values campaign connects a pilot group of orchard growers with participating stores and offers information at the point of sale about IPM and the importance of buying locally. IPM features a variety of insect and disease control methods, such as encouraging the presence of beneficial insects or bacteria that prey on unwanted pests or scouting before spraying. Conventional growers often apply pesticides or spray according to a calendar, regardless of an actual pest outbreak. IPM also weighs the value of using a pesticide against potential crop loss.
Participating in the Core Values campaign "is our way of putting value onto our fresh product," says Lyman, one of the project's group of pilot growers. "If my family operation survives to a ninth generation and beyond, we have to find a way to sell more apples at a greater value. We have to capture the consumers who want to support growers who integrate their practices into the environment."
Mothers & Others, a national consumer education and advocacy organization, launched Core Values to stem the tide of disappearing farms in the Northeast. In 1994, New York and New England produced close to 32 million bushels of apples, second only to Washington. Project organizers want to strengthen the viability of the region's apple industry.
The New York metropolitan area obtains about three-quarters of its apples from outside the region. The intercontinental and transcontinental journeys of apples shipped from Washington or New Zealand require enormous amounts of fuel and contribute to poor air quality.
Project organizers want consumers to recognize local growers who voluntarily have reduced pesticides. IPM offers a middle ground between growing organically without synthetic pesticides and growing conventionally. The project involves a three-fold accreditation system to ensure growers raise fruit according to best management standards. Growers must submit a detailed farm plan and undergo an on-farm inspection. A five-member committee comprised of growers, IPM and apple experts, and a Mothers & Others consumer representative reviews each plan and inspection reports, then votes on whether to accredit the farm.
Project organizers hope the educational campaign will result in a dedicated group of buyers who might be willing to spend a little extra on Core Values apples to compensate farmers for that risk.
"What sets Core Values growers apart is gaining recognition from consumers that they use ecologically safe methods," says Francine Stephens, a Mothers & Others program associate. "By going into the stores with educational materials about IPM, the grower will ultimately benefit."
New Haven, VT., grower Jim Gallot tries to grow apples "with as little impact on the environment as possible." That's despite investing up to 18 months in each apple crop, a period when a single insect pest or disease could ruin an entire crop. Wholesale spraying of a pesticide could possibly eradicate the problem.
"Why, with all that risk would a sane person want to push the envelop of pest control?" Gallot asks. "Because it's the right thing to do."
Gallot likes the way Core Values does not prescribe a single set of IPM practices.
"The emphasis is on how you come to your decision," he says. The initiative "lets people know these apples are grown by someone with the same values."
In 1997, 21 growers completed a whole-farm plan to be on the list to supply Core Values apples. The plans specify how each grower will supply nutrients and combat pests using methods that minimize application of agri-chemicals. Close to 100 growers indicated interest in joining the project after the pilot portion concludes.
The year also saw the launching of a Mothers & Others educational campaign to introduce the idea of Core Values apples in the marketplace. In what Stephens describes as a "barnstorming tour," the organization sponsored a media blitz that featured visits to farms, restaurants and supermarkets from Vermont to New York. The tour garnered publicity in The New York Times and Vegetarian Times magazine, among other publications.
"Our ultimate goal is for consumers to recognize the logo and eventually ask for the Core Values apple," Stephens says. "New England farms are slowly disappearing, and we hope to build market support for local growers using IPM practices."
Project leaders will focus on schools in 1998, and hope to have public schools in several states buy Core Values apples and supply them to students.
Lyman, who describes himself as "very judicious" in how he uses chemicals, finds potential market expansion the most exciting thing to hit the industry since the negative publicity surrounding the Alar controversy in the late 1980s. Claims about the toxicity of the Alar pesticide prompted mothers across the country to stop buying apples.
"After being embroiled in food scares, anything we can do to address consumer concerns proactively is great," Lyman says. "We all work hard to produce a competitive grade. We also work hard to reduce pesticides, and we should get paid for that." -- Valerie Berton
| || || || |
|Mary Peet's book on sustainable techniques to grow vegetables fills a niche in the South. |
Photo courtesy of NCSU.
Farmers in the South face challenges unique to growing in a climate that remains hot and moist most -- if not all -- of the year.
Cold winters in the North knock back many pest populations that thrive all year in the Deep South. California experiences winters as mild as those in the South, but its generally dry air holds some types of fungal diseases in check.
In the South, insects and fungi remain a virtually constant pair of threats most southern farmers combat with pesticides.
Southern farmers concerned about their impacts on natural resources, the ever-disappearing arsenal of registered pesticides and the high cost of buying and applying agri-chemicals have a new resource in Sustainable Practices for Vegetable Production in the South, a 174-page book that covers alternative practices from cover crops to integrated pest management (IPM). The book, a well-regarded publication whose research and development was financed by the SARE program, was published by Focus Publishing in 1996.
Mary Peet had been teaching vegetable crop production at North Carolina State University for close to 10 years when she decided she wanted to include material on sustainable and organic practices. "Although there is a lot of material on the theory and principles -- the 'why' of sustainable agriculture -- there didn't seem to be much practical information," says Peet, who researched and wrote the book. "It became a major project just to get access to this information."
With her research assistant, Sarah Slover, Peet began the arduous process of ferreting out available information, much of which at that time was anecdotal. They contacted farmers in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, held farmer focus groups and read everything they could get their hands on.
In the early 1990s, the growth of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms led a groundswell of interest in sustainable farming. Peet tried to ride the wave. A group of progressive North Carolina growers became key sources, both in supplying information and suggesting what they needed in a comprehensive book on vegetable growing.
The book's progress was not without challenges, however. University scientists reviewing text wanted to know the sources of information presented, so it became apparent they would have to develop a footnoting system. Peet was concerned that approach might satisfy the academics but put off more casual readers. After those early reviews, she re-organized her approach and several chapters.
"To me, practicing organic farming and sustainable agriculture requires a very holistic approach, not only in what the farmer does, but in how we present information to him," Peet says. "We felt there isn't just one right way to do something, but rather each farmer needed to work out his own solution to problems."
High-analysis fertilizers and pesticides will work pretty much the same everywhere, she says.
"With organic ag, there are no magic formulas like, 'Add 10 pounds of turkey litter per 1,000 square feet.' or 'Apply 50,000 Trichogramma wasps per acre' that will work in all situations," Peet says. "The organic grower needs to be much more aware of the fertility, pest and beneficial status of his own fields to make decisions than does the grower fertilizing and spraying by the calendar. We felt we needed to present concepts and guidelines that would help in their decision-making process."
To provide that context for growers, the book begins by laying out systems-oriented information, including soil management, cover crops, conservation tillage and IPM before delving into ways to raise common southern crops: beans, cabbage/ broccoli, cucumber, eggplant, muskmelon/watermelon, okra, pepper, potato, squash, sweet corn, sweet potato and tomato.
While some of the information is technical, Peet's style is easy to read. Sections on cover crops, IPM and alternative practices for growers are presented in an accessible, understandable format.
Tables provide a wealth of additional information. For example, one helps growers plan rotations by compiling diseases common to southern vegetables, weather conditions conducive to those diseases, means of transmission and suggested alternative controls.
The longest chart provides a detailed list of cover crops, which have the potential to improve soil health.
In addition to writing for farmers, Peet targets agricultural Extension educators. Many, she says, had difficulty helping clients interested in alternative agriculture as recently as five years ago because of lack of information.
"Most of the small farmers in our state that are interested in sustainability are predominantly organic growers," Robert Hadad of the University of Kentucky Extension Service told Peet in an e-mail. "I have been working at bringing them research and other current information about organic and sustainable farming practices. Finding this information usually has been a challenge. Seeing a publication such as yours has really brought credibility to this area of farming."
The book is augmented by a site on the World Wide Web, www2.ncsu.edu/sustainable/. The web site attracts numerous visitors, many of whom then contact Peet.
"Your web site is the most informative resource I have found for a novice vegetable farmer," wrote Ken Stanley, who planned to move to a 110-acre farm in Tennessee. "Now I truly understand...the learning curve required for me to achieve my goal."
A Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agronomist looking for materials to host a field training on sustainable agriculture wrote Peet to ask for permission to reprint portions of the book.
"All the effort you put into the book was well worth it," wrote Janet Sioma of NRCS in Beltsville, MD. "In your preface you talk about how little technical information is really out there. You were right on the money, as I have seen in requests from our field staff. They want hardcore technical information on sustainable practices."
The book is available from PBS, Box 390, Jaffrey, N.H. 03452 (1-800-848-7236). -- Valerie Berton
| || || || |
|Farmers and agricultural educators learn more about a cow/calf grazing system in Fegus County, Mont. |
Photo courtesy of Western Region SARE.
One Montana-style recipe for sustainable agriculture: Sow high-protein wheat with an advanced air drill, grow it under conservation tillage, harvest, then dough it into 8,000 loaves of bread a day. At Wheat Montana Farms & Bakery in Three Forks, the formula is an enormous success.
With $3.5 million in annual business, Wheat Montana isn't exactly your neighborhood co-op. But it illustrates just how wide-ranging sustainable agriculture can be.
"A lot of people think sustainable farming isn't technical," says Dean Folkvord, a partner in the family-owned enterprise. "In reality, there's more to manage, especially at this volume."
Farmers like Folkvord know a lot about the emergent field of sustainable agriculture. SARE-funded training of agricultural professionals in five Western states aims to make a connection between those innovative producers and Extension and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) field staff who have provided information about traditional production for decades.
The training, led by the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) in Helena, Mont., had two goals: to provide information about sustainable agricultural production and help participants find new ways of learning from each other.
The Montana-based trainers also encouraged producers to team up in "farm improvement clubs" to learn more about sustainable agriculture, rather than working out solutions individually on their farms.
"Collaborative learning represents a shift in thinking from the tradition of someone coming to an expert for advice," explains Stephanie Rittmann, training program coordinator. "Instead, agency professionals and producers become co-learners and peers. They learn to recognize each others' skills and assets, be open to each others' ideas, ask questions and learn from each other."
This approach means rethinking the role of conservationists, Extension agents and other agency professionals.
"We're redefining an agent as a good facilitator, an educator who knows how to make the most of the skills, talents and knowledge that exist within a community and bring those alive," Rittmann says.
Working through established farm and ranch improvement clubs in three states, AERO also encourages producers to experiment and solve problems together. The clubs, in Montana, Idaho and eastern Washington state, essentially serve as farmer networks, bringing together producers with similar interests to share information and solve common problems.
"We hoped to eliminate some of the isolation farmers feel when they're trying something new," Rittmann says. "It's much easier growing lentils in an area where lentils have never been grown before if you've got five other buddies doing the same thing."
Farmers and ranchers were involved in every step of the two-year training project. The first year's activities, conducted in Montana, featured a conference that focused on principles of sustainable agriculture and tours of exemplary farms that demonstrated how those principles work. AERO also offered an alternative weed management conference that emphasized problem-solving. Follow-up training involved on-farm research, and an annual farm and ranch improvement club meeting offered a chance for collaboration.
In all, more than 100 people from agencies and land-grant universities attended all or part of the Montana training, which planted the seeds for a regional network of professionals involved in sustainable agriculture.
Participants probably gained the most from an illuminating tour of three farms and ranches that have built successful, sustainable enterprises around common commodities in the region.
"We wanted to answer the question, 'What does sustainable agriculture look like?'" Rittmann says. While many people think sustainable agriculture is synonymous with certified organic production, the tour showed a variety of options.
The first stop was Wheat Montana Farms & Bakery in Three Forks, where the Folkvord family combines large-scale grain production with value-added processing. The farm uses no-till and conservation tillage to produce herbicide-free wheat grown with some purchased fertilizers. They sell fresh bread produced in their on-farm bakery to customers nationwide.
At the Seven Bar Heart Ranch in Ulm, where Greg Gould and Aimee Hachigian raise registered Angus cows and calves, tour participants viewed an innovative integrated cropping and grazing system that relies heavily on a mix of marketing strategies.
Gould and Hachigian grow a variety of forage crops on 90 percent of their land, with 10 percent planted in grain and specialty crops. Some of the ranch's cattle meet organic guidelines; others are sold through conventional channels. Gould and Hachigian also sell organic wheat to a Montana company and organically grown buckwheat to the Netherlands through a cooperative. The final stop on the tour was the Quinn family farm and ranch, a certified organic operation in Big Sandy that grows winter wheat, lentils, buckwheat, alfalfa and kamut, an ancient Egyptian grain. The Quinns grow, buy and process organic grain for pasta they market to 30 states and 10 foreign countries through their own mill, Montana Flour and Grains Inc.
"We wanted to show sustainable agriculture is not a set of practices, it's an ongoing process," Rittmann says.
Many trainees were enthusiastic about what they learned, especially outside the classroom. They later told AERO that their participation gave sustainable agriculture a higher profile in their organizations.
Fittingly, AERO organizers themselves learned important lessons they were able to incorporate in the following year's training in Idaho. From the start, organizers involved agencies in planning the training, giving participants input and ownership. Trainers added a session on how to talk to constituents about sustainable agriculture.
A year into the project, Nancy Taylor, coordinator of northern Idaho's farm improvement clubs, could already see results from the connections made during the training.
"This year, farm clubs are telling me that it has been much easier to garner support from local Extension agents and resource conservationists for their work," she says.
Though not all participants embraced the new ideas and approaches, some carried out similar training within their own organizations.
AERO trainers hope the next time conservationists and Extension agents get inquiries about sustainable agriculture, they'll remember the aroma of 8,000 loaves of bread baking in Three Forks, and feel comfortable calling people like Dean Folkvord with their questions and referrals. -- D'Lyn Ford