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Sierra Club meets with farmers

Fri, Sep 26th, 2003
Posted in Features

Sierra Club members met with local farmers Saturday, September 20 at the Root River Church of the Brethren in rural Preston to discuss issues of sustainable agriculture. The meeting was led by Jeff Webster, a 25-year resident of southeast Minnesota, who was recently elected to the Sierra Clubs National Agricultural Committee. Working with Webster was Tarah Heinzen, who has been interning for the Clubs Antibiotics in Agriculture campaign. The taped discussions would be taken back to the national level as a tool for the club to work off of.Webster described "Factory Farms" such as Tyson Chicken as a creeping cancer, whittling away at smaller farmers who have a respect for the land and its surrounding resources. He also views many ag instruction at the college level to be slanted, with grant money hedging towards corporate wallets. Webster stated that the Sierra Club wants farmers to tell them how the club can help to make sustainable farming more viable.The meetings presentations included several speakers..Dan Hutton Dan Hutton, a Century Family Farmer in SE Minnesota, focused his discussion on buffers implemented on his farm that is riddled with sinkholes. He and his family farm about 1,000 acres of crops and woodlands. His philosophy of "Farm the Best & Buffer the Rest" is described as perfect for his situation. It keeps things simple. Buffers help runoff water to actually "clean up" as it makes its way through the fields, emphasized the farmer. In his case, the buffers cut up the fields to some degree, a quality that large farming equipment would find cumbersome to work around. 130 acres of his 600 workable was put into the buffer program. He said it sounds like a lot, but in actuality, it was the poorest land that was used for the buffers. Four grasses and 15 different types of wild flowers have been seeded. Some of the plants have roots that are up to 25 long. This all helps to "sop up the water" notes Hutton. As roots rot, the components of the soil are also improved. To maintain weed control Hutton favors burning. The DNR promotes this technique as well. The farmer does receive a cash incentive from the buffer program of $120 per acre. Huttons land is in a 15-year contract. Shorter contracts are available.Open discussion following Huttons presentation brought out the point that the government needs to get away from the corn and bean focus, and give more incentives for conservation practices. Besides saving the soil, with less land in crops, prices would climb to better levels.Sam BorntregerSam Borntreger, an Amish organic farmer along Hwy 44 addressed the qualifications an individual must meet to be certified. There are three Amish communities in this area that farm more than 25,000 acres. This makes them the largest organic producers in the state and region."Its a hard road to hoe to get there, pointed out the Amish farmer. Excellent records must be maintained, you cannot have used herbicides for at least three years, buffer strips are required around the farm to avoid neighboring contamination, field inspectors must be dealt with on your farm, and the ongoing process of fine tuning is very difficult admits Borntreger. More farmers want to go organic with foods for human consumption rather than animal production said Borntreger. He raises crops that actually go overseas. The family also frequents a market south of Riceville, IA. Sometimes though, the cost of shipping produce to market pretty well eats up the profits of the effort.Borntreger cautions people to really read the labels. Just because it says "organically grown, unless the word "certified" is present, there can be a big difference in the produces components.Dave Serfling Dave Serfling and his family raise livestock and crops near Greenleafton. Dave is a fourth generation family farmer and a member of the Niman Ranch, a group of about 275 pork producers that do not house animals in large confinement units. Nor do they use drugs or hormones. Serfling is a national officer of The Land Stewardship Project.In 1999, a group of farmers went to Washington to give the suits a truer picture of the smaller, family farm versus the large farms. It was noted that a lot of farmers dont want to farm the way they are, but government incentives force their hand and their equipment in a different direction. By bringing the farmers plight down to a more tangible picture for Washington, this group of farmers was able to get into legislation the Conservation Security Program in February 2002. It became law in April of that year. "The new program offers sound sustainable subsidies for conservation practices on working land," explained Serfling. This is not about set aside land, another government program. There are three levels of achievement, with each level requiring more effort on the farmers part, but being rewarded for that achievement. Serfling said that though this is now law, there is a real concern that this act will fall to the wayside for lack of funds. Originally, the program called for $7.5 billion dollars in its first year and was open to all farmers. This was later cut back drastically when money was channeled for other disasters. President Busch has placed a $2 billion dollar cap. Congress capped the project at $3.7 billion.Serfling encourages farmers who are interested in the program, (and those citizens who simply want more conservation practices used) to contact Gil Gutknecht and express their concerns. The Sierra Club will continue to maintain contact with the local farmers with more meetings planned for the future.

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