Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 006 - The Early Years and Lasting Impact featuring Ferd Hoefner and Andy Clark

Ferd Hoefner: I think SARE could once again play a leadership role in maybe answering some of the big unanswered research questions that are out there as we face a future with, you know, radically changing climate and water shortages and input shortages that are gonna really make conventional agriculture start looking for a different way of farming, because there will come a point in the not-too-distant future when the way they farm today just simply is uneconomical.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. I'm Mal, and today on the show, we take a step back from daily life on the farm and hear from two experts in national agriculture policy and sustainable ag research. Ferd Hefner remembers a time when the word "sustainable" was foreign to Washington, and it really wasn't that long ago. He says, the national framework for the sustainable ag movement really began to take shape with the Agricultural Productivity Act in the 1985 Farm Bill.

Ferd Hoefner: The focus wasn't really on a USDA program or was on how to get federal money out to things that were happening in the countryside and it didn't say "sustainable agriculture" and it didn't really say anything that looks or feels or is structured like the program that we know today, but it was really the precursor to what became SARE. Then fast-forward again to 1988 and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition had just come into existence and our first big policy campaign was to try to get funding to launch this program. And so we were ultimately successful in getting that first roughly $3 million into the program and it became known as LISA: low-input sustainable agriculture. That's just sort of the historical footprint.

Mallory Daily: For this episode, Ferd, a senior strategic advisor for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or NSAC, will be talking with Andy Clark, National Communications Director for SARE.

Andy Clark: That's interesting. In 1985, I was just starting a master's degree in plant breeding. All along, hearing people say, "No, we can't do organic farming, that sustainable ag stuff. We're never going to be able to do that." But I got involved in working with a researcher who was doing cover crop research. I had always been fascinated by the concept of biological nitrogen fixation; the fact that instead of putting fertilizer on your plants, you could grow a legume and fix that nitrogen naturally. So this concept of cover crops completely took over my psyche. I was like, this is really, really great stuff. So working with the forage specialists there, we decided or he decided that he would take me on as a graduate student for my PhD. I still hadn't heard of the SARE program, but sitting down with a co-advisor--I had two advisors--and talking about all of the great plant samples we had to take and the soil samples we were going to take and how many experiments we were going to put out in the field. She kind of brought up the idea of, the concept of, "Well, how we gonna pay for all of this? Where's the money for all of those samples?" And this is literally what she did: she said, "Oh wow! And she reached down under her desk, went rifling through her recycle box and pulled up the sheet of paper and said, "Hey, this might be the program for you. This is a SARE program." Or I'm sure she said "the LISA Program". "They have funding, you know, for projects just like this." And so lo and behold, in 1989 in the second year of the program, we got a pretty decent sized grant, mostly to fund my Phd project in cover crops for no till corn. And as you know, I've been involved with the program ever since.

Ferd Hoefner: That's a really incredibly terrific story. I love that. And you know, the Program has had a huge impact on the sustainable agriculture movement. Obviously at the farmer and production level, the fact that farmers can participate in research, can do on-farm research, can get funding for their own research, has all been enormously important. But it's been important for the movement, too, in terms of being able to address such a wide variety of different needs within sustainable agriculture. So everything from organic systems to new and beginning farmers to local food system development to specialty crop work, which at the time that SARE started was grossly under-funded otherwise at the Department of Agriculture. So in many respects SARE had to be, had to do it all on a very small budget and did it amazingly well. So one of the things that inspired in us as an advocacy organization was to say, "Okay, we can't expect this one small program to do it all. We really need to have what we refer to as "beachheads" within all the agencies at USDA, including research, education, extension, but the other agencies as well. So over time we were able to develop and cultivate congressional champions and win support for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Local Farmer's Market and Local Food Promotion Program and others that were then able, because they were funded at decent levels, were able to do some of the work that SARE had got started. So, in a way, SARE became the incubator for lots of other really important USDA programs that are addressing the broader needs of the sustainable agriculture community. But if it hadn't been for SARE kickstarting all of that, I don't think we would have ever won all those other programs, 'cause we had to show that there was a need, there was an interest, there was demand, they were successful programs, projects that were being funded. And then said, but there could be so much more. So I think it's been a good back-and-forth between, you know, the development of new programs, but still having that bedrock, you know. For us, SARE is really the keystone bedrock program that we always go back to. So it's always the one that's nearest and dearest to our heart.

Andy Clark: There are really a lot of examples of researchers or others who had SARE grants and started and did sort of that exploratory work, as you say, found that it was successful and then have gone on and gotten larger grants from programs that had more money to take that work that much further. And in so many ways, SARE has been the risk-taker. We've funded, you know, projects that no one else at the time would fund to get that start in that area that no one was funding. And then, as you say, once they made some progress and showed some results and you got money appropriated in other grant programs and they were able to move up and on and carry that work forward. So that really is an interesting, as you say, back-and-forth with that.

Ferd Hoefner: Yeah. One of the things that was in the original guidance--I'm pretty sure if you went back and pulled out the first guidance document for the program--was that all research programs had to have an extension and outreach component, that all projects had to have some way of communicating results and outcomes to the broader public, that, you know, all projects had to have farmer participation built into it. A whole list of really important principles that remain more or less intact today. And I think at the time, if you would've asked me in 1988 or 1990 or 1992, you know, what the future of research, education, extension at USDA was, I would say more and more programs are going to look like SARE. Interestingly, no other program looks like SARE today, exactly. But I think some pieces of what SARE has accomplished has been copied by other programs. There are now at least one other program that has regional administration. But that has not caught on in a big way, like I thought maybe it would. And farmer participation: sure, there's other programs that have farmer advisers, but not really farmer decision-makers. So, you know, I'm glad that SARE is still out there as the bright, shining model. I wish it had rubbed off more than it has, but thankfully it has rubbed off to some extent. And I don't know if you have other thoughts on that.

Andy Clark: Yes. I think the farmer-rancher involvement in SARE is still unique to the program. And it's really one of the reasons I think it has been as successful as it has. In our first grant, we did get farmers and we got three farmers to work with us to just take some of the kinds of cover crop treatments we were using and to do them on a larger scale on their farms. And the SARE commitment or requirement that you do outreach also--not that we wouldn't have, but you know--encouraged us to do outreach. We did a number of field days and field tours, and brought other farmers in to see on these other farmer fields what was being done. Interestingly, we decided to go for a second SARE grant and get more farmers involved. We went from three farmers doing some of these to nine farmers doing some of the practices, some of what we had learned and doing that on their farms. In a way, farmer involvement, I think, has helped spread the word. The farmers start talking to other farmers and they see what these farmers are doing. That, I think, has been, again, another critical component to the success of the SARE Program. And again, the SARE commitment to get the results out into the field I think has been a hallmark of what we've done. Getting sufficient funding to continue to take the results of our SARE grants and develop educational materials has really helped spread the word and move the needle of sustainability across all of American agriculture. It's actually really rewarding to see what impact we've had in the field on the farm. Of course, we can't take credit for all of it because a lot of other programs have started coming along, but I think that the outreach component of the SARE program is really one of its strengths as well.

Ferd Hoefner: I'm am bringing to my mind the, you know, sort of the impact on SARE on agriculture writ large in the country. And here's a little historical footnote. So every single word just about in the SARE authorization in that 1990 Farm Bill got debated at length, but nothing more so than the definition of "sustainable agriculture", which was part of that bill. And literally every word of the definition got debated at length. But the most famous of those stories was an approximately 20 to 25 minute debate in the House Agriculture Committee in the U.S. Congress on whether the word "biology" or "biological" could appear in the definition of sustainable agriculture. I wish I had a recording of the debate. It was, in some respects, hysterically funny, but one member of Congress was insisting that the word "chemical" be in there and not the word "biological". And so there was a whole discussion about the nature of agriculture and its position in the biological system. In the end we were able to keep the word "biological". Then there was a big other debate between the word "maximize" and "optimize". That was also quite humorous. But, in the end, you know, we wound up with a definition which, worts and all, is still the official legislative definition, statutory definition of "sustainable agriculture". And it works, you know. One could always improve upon it, but I think it's a fairly good definition and it's inclusive of social responsibility and quality of life and the environmental and biological agro-ecosystem things, as well as economic profitability and farm livelihood. So it sort of covers the waterfront that needs to be covered. 

You know, SARE has funded cover crop work since day one and soil health work since day one, and that was largely because sustainable practitioners in the field, you know, for decades before that, were doing all of that work and seeing the centrality of soil health to the entire system. And so that got reflected, obviously, once they had their own program at USDA. Fast forward to today and we have--you know, whatever you want to call it--more conventional agriculture, suddenly wanting--you can't go to an ag conference these days without there being a soil health track. I think it's enormous credit to the SARE program that not only that it was the pioneer, at least the pioneer in terms of USDA, on that issue, but that it's still providing the basic resources that all the other groups are now using and referring to, somewhat amusingly as if they found something brand new, but we'll take it any way we can get it. 

So that also, you know, leads to a discussion of what's the future role for the Program. We're quite excited that the Congress has now appropriated the largest amount of money for the SARE Program for 2018 that it has ever had at $35 million. Still not nearly enough. I wish there was a zero at the end of the 35 and that would be a little bit closer to where it should be, but nonetheless, it has been growing. It has grown 82 percent since 2012, in terms of funding. So as it continues to grow as I think it will into the future, it raises the question of, you know, what is the role? And can it really, in addition to what it does so well--which is meet the needs of sustainable and organic farmers today with all the pressing research needs they have--can it also do more and more for all of agriculture such that, you know, we can make a bigger transition to a more resilient and sustainable future for the agricultural system as a whole. And that's a big challenge and the program needs to be quite a bit larger than it is now to fully embrace that. But I think now is probably the time to start down that path. I'm very, very interested in seeing a portion of the additional money that I think the program will have over the coming years being put to some big challenges that are faced by sustainable and organic farmers, but also by more conventional farmers and see if there can't be some new innovative, cutting-edge breakthroughs that come out of the Program. You know, I think SARE could once again play a leadership role in maybe answering some of the big unanswered research questions that are out there as we face a future with, you know, radically changing climate and water shortages and input shortages that are gonna really make conventional agriculture start looking for a different way of farming, 'cause there will come a point in the not-too-distant future when the way they farm today just simply is uneconomical. Those are kind of some of the big questions that are bouncing around in my head about where the Program goes from here.

Andy Clark: I want to bring it back for a minute to soil biology, because it is amazing that now, you know, any farmer you come across is talking about the soil biology, about the soil food web and they understand. They must have understood before, but they understand that the soil is really critical to their success in their farming operations. And we're seeming to find that, you know, a healthy soil is going to be one of the tools in the toolbox in a changing climate. If you have a good soil that you've built, that is part of your resilience. I think that we've opened a huge door to all of agriculture with the, the practices and the principles of sustainable ag. And we have great interest in soil, in cover crops, in some of the grazing and the crop livestock systems that we've put so much research into. And so if we can invite more of our farmers and ranchers in to try some of this and to look at what we've done, I think that they're likely to look around a little bit more and see what else. As you said, we've funded such a wide array of research into so many different aspects of agriculture that, bring them in and get them in the door, they want to know cover crop and soil health information, look around and maybe they'll take some of our other great practices, look at some of our other research and implement more of that.

Ferd Hoefner: Yeah. You know, in the early days, "sustainable" was not the safe word that it is today. And so we got attacked a lot for even using the term. And that's less the case today, but sort of the practice of sustainable agriculture is still attacked to some degree by mainstream agriculture. And what I find helpful in those discussions, many of which I've been in over the years, is to sort of change the timeframe. Say, "okay, let's not debate today. Let's debate 50 years from now, you know. When your grandchildren are farming, you know, what are the issues and what would it take to have a resilient and sustainable agriculture then?" And that, I find, leads to much more constructive dialogue than today's issues. So putting the time horizon into it, especially with all the pressing challenges that are becoming clearer and clearer to everybody, even if some of the national farm organizations are still in denial, I don't think that's true of the rank and file of their membership. So I do hope that the Program can sort of have those discussions and, you know, begin to make even more real the commitment to serving all of American agriculture by trying to get people to have those really difficult conversations. But talk about a generation or two generations hence, and what changes we need to make today. Because, as I always say, the importance of agricultural research from a policy perspective is that the research that we put dollars behind today very much determines the nature of agriculture and rural communities a generation from now. Because research takes a long time to happen and it isn't always successful and you learn new things and that leads to new research.

Andy Clark: Yeah, there's been a great increase over the years at every land grant and across the board and interest in sustainable farming. And so there has been progress and, geometrically, it may grow very quickly. But it does seem like it's a snail's pace. I mean, we knew 20 years ago that cover crops were really critical to soil health. And, you know, we're wondering, in talking with other researchers, why aren't people taking it? Why aren't they taking this on? Why is no one doing this? And it just took a long time. It took a a few pioneers. It took farmers seeing other farmers doing it and liking what they saw to really make that move. So hopefully that's a harbinger of what can happen across the movement. It's growing slowly but will continue to grow.

Ferd Hoefner: So maybe that's my hope for the future of SARE, that it continues to be the pioneer.

Mallory Daily: That's it for this week's show. You were listening to Ferd Hoefner of NSAC and Andy Clark of SARE. If you'd like to learn more about their projects, we'll post links in our show notes. And if you also made a mental note to Google the congressional definition of "sustainable agriculture" like I did when I listened to their conversation, local farmer Tony Minnick has your back.

Tony Minnick: Sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that, over the long-term will (1) satisfy human food and fiber needs, (2) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends, (3) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate where appropriate natural biological cycles and controls (4) sustain the economic viability of farm operations and (5) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Mallory Daily: This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Missouri. Tim Pilcher is our producer and I'm your host, Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform like iTunes or Stitcher. We're releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at , that’s S-A-R-E dot org. SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE Thanks for listening. We'll catch you next time. .