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On The Farm: Small can still win on farming front

The “Go big, or get out” mantra has dominated U.S. agriculture for decades. It is getting push-back from small and medium-sized farmers in the Lake Superior regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the public response is remarkable. At the Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association annual meeting last weekend, executive director Julie Allen reported that its major annual activity, the September Harvest Festival in Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park, was another huge success, attracting over 6800 visitors and grossing over $25,500.00.

David Abazs of the University of Minnesota Extension reported informally that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Census of Agriculture,” completed every five years, shows that the region’s counties are increasing the number of small and medium farms, a trend that is unique. With its other activities, comprising six field days, a quarterly newsletter, a “Roots & Recipes” website, and occasional social gatherings, the LSSFA is the largest chapter in the statewide association.

The meeting took place at the Duluth Township Town Hall, in St. Louis County. Three dozen members gathered for a business meeting, followed by lunch prepared by members and a program of six presentations. The group included ten people who farm in Carlton County. John Fisher-Merritt of Wrenshall and Joel Rosen of Mahtowa, who both helped to found the Association over thirty years ago, were present and obviously proud to see their creation thriving in the hands of motivated young people. When it came time for new directors to be elected, several persons stepped up and volunteered; that is a healthy sign in any organization.

John Beaton of Fairhaven Farm in Saginaw, who is stepping aside after many years of service on the board, including six years as president, delivered an address that captures the basic farmer ethos of hard work, patience, and hope: a farmer exerts constant effort to manage daily change; waits long periods for results; and musters courage in the face of disaster. Beaton reviewed a role that led him to advocate for farmers and bring recognition to LSSFA by lobbying at the Minnesota Legislature and the U.S. Congress and by leadership activity in the Minnesota Farmers Union. Evoking the glamor of the halls of power, he gestured, by contrast, to the simple surroundings of the local town hall, and said that LSSFA’s evident success comes from the networks of commitment and mutual assistance demonstrated by ordinary people who love farming.

David Abazs spoke about “Opportunities for Farmers” through the University of Minnesota Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP). These include projects for producing biochar, furnishing deep winter greenhouses, establishing distributed composting, and implementing forest assisted migration. Biochar comes from burning wood under special conditions; it could be a way to manage forested land while limiting carbon dioxide pollution and providing valuable soil amendments. Deep winter greenhouses provide a way to continue vegetable production throughout the winter.

Distributed composting is a proposed alternative to large-scale “digesters” that produce fuel from livestock manure and food waste; by installing many widely-distributed composting centers, farmers could have a nearby ready supply of fertilizer. Forest assisted migration is an ongoing program that engages farmers to grow saplings of trees that will withstand the oncoming climate changes threatening the boreal biome of northern Minnesota; the program aims to produce annually one million trees that will be able to preserve a forested landscape in the region.

Mallory Forseth spoke about “Minnesota Grown,” a partnership of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and growers of specialty crops and livestock that gives producers a protected logo to differentiate their products from those sourced from far away, as well as access to marketing tools and a directory that promotes state farmers. A consumer survey has shown that 80 percent of consumers recognize the label. The program has 1800 participants, and 1000 farms are listed in the directory.

Troy Salzer, an Extension Agriculture Educator, explained how regular soil testing is valuable in managing soil health. In contrast to large-scale commodity growers, who apply synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, farmers who promote soil health test for soil type, texture, nutrients, minerals, and cation-exchange capacity.

Other speakers included representatives from conference sponsors: Compeer Financial, Farm Service Agency, the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the University of Minnesota Extension.

The movement toward consolidation is a phenomenon is many industries, including agriculture. Nevertheless, Carlton County can boast of a resilient community of agricultural producers who care about the health of the land and who want their colleagues throughout the region to thrive.

John Sanford “Sandy” Dugan and his wife are stewards of 54 acres in the Wrenshall area. They tend two acres as gardens and pollinator habitat; most of the land is rented out to grow forage for organic beef; a barn serves for occasional regional arts events. Contact Sandy at [email protected].

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