New Approaches to Help Farmers Make a Living and Protect Our Water Resources

During a recent symposium held by the Great Rivers Confluence partnership, John Mesko spoke about trends in farming over the past fifty years. In 1960, the average farm family made approximately half (47%) of their annual income from farming. By 2009, farm income had shrunk to only 9% of total household income for most farmers. During this same time frame, our farming landscape changed dramatically in other ways. Fifty years ago, most farms in the upper Midwest produced a diverse array of foods – multiple vegetables and grains, a few different types of livestock, a handful of chickens for eggs, and a couple of cows for milking. Now, corn and soybeans cover 75% of Minnesota farmland and most hogs, turkeys and chickens are raised in large feedlots or inside buildings.

Conventional farms look different today than they did 50 years ago. Minnesota farms tend to grow only a few crops (corn and soybeans) and many raise large numbers of animals indoors. Photo from Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 

As the director of Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), Mesko has also watched the U.S. sustainable agriculture movement grow rapidly since 1990, resulting in more farmers’ markets, more organic farming, more grass fed beef, and more farmers practicing no-till. Due to these two competing trends, most farms today are either very large or very small, with few left in the middle.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are one type of small-scale, sustainable agriculture that has flourished in recent years. CSAs connect people directly with the farmers growing their food, through membership systems that deliver locally grown food on a weekly basis. Members sign up during the spring and pay all or a portion of their farm share in advance. Then, during the growing season, they receive a box of food every week – usually vegetables, but sometimes also fruit, eggs, meat or honey. Community supported agriculture helps people to better know their local farmers and also provides growers with a stable and predictable income from year to year.

Chickens on Turnip Rock Farm, a CSA in western Wisconsin.
CSA farms grow a wide variety of produce and many raise animals as well.

It is no secret that farming impacts the health of our rivers and lakes here in Minnesota. Much of the native prairies and wetlands across the state have been converted to row crop agriculture, resulting in larger volumes of runoff and less wildlife and pollinator habitat. Nearly three-quarters of the nitrogen entering the Mississippi River in Minnesota comes from cropland, and agricultural lands contribute the majority of phosphorus to the St. Croix River as well. In southern Washington County and southern Minnesota, nitrate contamination in groundwater drinking supplies is a big problem as well.

Runoff from farms can increase soil erosion and cause algae blooms downstream.

Small-scale organic farming, grass-fed beef and bison, permaculture, farmers markets, and CSAs offer new approaches that can help farmers to make a living without expanding their cropland, using lots of chemicals, or increasing runoff water pollution.  Though CSA farms are not necessarily certified organic, most follow organic farming guidelines or use integrated pest management to reduce the use of pesticides. Many CSAs also use cover crops and other practices to reduce runoff pollution and nurture soil health.

If you are interested in trying a CSA membership this year, Minnesota Grown has an on-line directory of 90 CSA farms in Minnesota, as well as hundreds of farmer’s markets, orchards, and berry patches where you can buy directly from farmers.  The Land Stewardship Project also has on-line lists of CSA farms that deliver to the Twin Cities area.

Late summer bounty of vegetables from our farm share from Turnip Rock Farms in western Wisconsin.