Minnesota has long been an agricultural innovator. From creating the first winter-hardy alfalfa to cultivating Honeycrisp apples to University of Minnesota alumnus Norman Borlaug fathering the Green Revolution and winning a Nobel Peace Prize, our state has revolutionized the global food system. While climate change presents many challenges and stresses for Minnesota agriculture, it also offers us the opportunity to lead the way in the 21st century. With USDA climate research being suppressed, our state Legislature should increase funding for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant program (SADG) to allow our farmers the resources and flexibility to continue that tradition of creativity.
We need to change how we grow our food here in Minnesota — fast. The spring planting season across the state this year was unusually wet. The fall harvest season will likely be more of the same. Far too many crops were planted late, and many not at all. Combined with fears of a potential early frost, we may see large crop losses this year, decreasing income for farmers and increasing prices for consumers. Since 2000, widespread rains of more than 6 inches have been four times more frequent. Our average temperatures statewide have increased by 3° F, meaning more days above 95° F in our future, which is the temperature at which corn can become irreparably damaged. Climate change will only exacerbate these patterns, threatening both our food system and our state’s agricultural history.
Most farmers in the U.S. are no longer able to afford farming full-time. Ever-decreasing profit margins put the time, land use, and money required for experimentation out of reach. This stifles their ability to creatively adapt to a fast-changing climate, which is why the money from SADG is so crucial to the future of Minnesota agriculture. Currently, SADG awards up to $200,000 a year in grant funding for farmers, educational organizations, and nonprofits to support projects “that explore sustainable agriculture practices and systems that could make farming more profitable, resource efficient, and personally satisfying.” SADG has 22 currently active projects looking at ways for farmers to innovate in everything from growing tomatoes in high tunnels to creating unique, Minnesota-grown hops for our craft beer industry. The impacts of SADG projects are felt not just in the fields, but also by everyday Minnesotans.
For instance, intermediate wheatgrass (known as Kernza) is starting to be grown not only as a more resilient alternative to wheat, but to provide much-needed yearlong ground cover, helping prevent erosion and adding biomass as cover crops do. What if Kernza could also be used for livestock foraging without decreasing grain yield, thereby opening up former pasture land to other uses? Alan Kraus, of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, is using SADG funds to investigate just that question and then make the lessons learned publicly available for all farmers. Two farmers in southeast Minnesota each provided land for the three-year study. Every acre of a farm is precious, and removing some from production for three years would have been costly for them without the supplementary SADG funding. SADG allows for experimentation without harming a farmer’s bottom line.
The nearly 69,000 farms we have across Minnesota are a combined $18.4 billion industry. Climate change threatens that economic powerhouse and our state’s food system. But Minnesota’s farmers are resourceful and industrious. Expanding programs like the Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant would allow them to further unleash that innovative spirit to find new ways to grow our food, improve our state’s economy and health, and continue a long agricultural tradition of creativity. We should increase those resources so that we may all reap the benefits.
Matthew Gabb is a former urban farmer and a current graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, studying urban and regional planning, with a focus on resilient food systems.
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