In a recently released report titled “Vegetative Cover in Minnesota: Prospects and Challenges,” the Minnesota Department of Agriculture discusses the impact of some regenerative farming practices — the planting of perennial crops, the addition of cover crops, the utilization of land for off-season growing, and others. The study was furnished to address the issue of nitrate contamination in our water, but repeatedly lists a number of other benefits to these practices for farmers, such as improved soil health, higher quality crops, reduced costs of pesticides, and improved water retention. It is well documented that a reduction in carbon emissions and improved carbon sequestration is an addition benefit.
What do the farmers want? The results of the study make that clear. Over a five-year period, the acreage of cover crops in the state increased by 41%. Another practice with similar benefits, decreased tillage, showed a similar increase, with a 34% increase in acreage. Clearly the producer market increasingly believes these practices to be financially beneficial. And yet, only 2.2% of farmland in Minnesota utilized cover crops as of 2017, with total acreage trailing that of literally every other Midwestern state, as well as Nebraska, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
If both the state and our food producers tout the benefits of these regenerative practices, why have they not become more prevalent? Why are we trailing so many other states? One cannot help but draw a connection between the underutilization of these methods and the high number of big agricultural companies headquartered here in Minnesota. These large corporate entities prefer to rely on monoculture farms and indoor animal operations. This maximizes output numbers for them, even as it reduces profit power for farmers and harms our water, land, and environment. Indeed, according to this study, the number of farms decreased by 8% from 2012 to 2017, while average farm size has increased 6%. In other words, despite a trend of local farmers seeking out regenerative practices, we still see more farms going out of business and bigger farms controlling more land.
The report from the Department of Agriculture lists a few disparate state programs that food producers can utilize to receive some grants, low-interest loans, and other minor forms of assistance, but clearly these programs are insufficient and new programs are needed. Fortunately, a bill creating a better food web economy already sits before the Minnesota House of Representatives in the form of the Headwaters Community Food & Water Bill. This bill (HF 2738) would provide everything that the state’s report has said would be needed to expand these mutually beneficial practices, including increased funding for farmers to cover high upfront costs (equipment, knowledge, training), funding to allow for a period of transition to better practices, new research, and peer-to-peer collaboration. The bill would also assist neighborhoods and other entities throughout the state to create food hubs and to connect more directly with local farmers.
This bill, if enacted, would create the locally sourced food economy that the state seems to be encouraging, increase profitability for farmers, and benefit consumers in the form of cleaner water, healthier food, and a decreased carbon footprint. Perhaps most important, it would help insulate our food system from the kind of shock we have seen due to COVID-19. Let’s hope that our governing bodies can find the political strength to choose the farmers and consumers of our state over the big agricultural companies by taking up and passing the Headwaters Community Food & Water Bill.
Jeff Diamond is a volunteer with MN350 Policy Action and a member of the MN350 Food Systems Team, living in the Longfellow area of Minneapolis.
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