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Iowa Farmers Union Looks to Sustainability in Recruiting Millennials

“It’s time to reclaim the word sustainable,” said Suzan Erem, president and cofounder of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), speaking of the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the sustainable agriculture movement at the recent Iowa Farmers Union annual convention held at the Warren Cultural Center in Greenfield, Iowa. “That’s how we will bring young people back to our communities. We need to keep our soil healthy, our water healthy, and our lives healthy to provide that richness Iowa’s always had.”

Erem made her comments as part of a panel discussion on Sustainability: The Farm Bill and Beyond. Other panelists included Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center and President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture Fred Kirschenmann; Women Food & Agriculture Network Founder Denise O’Brien; and Tom Driscoll, National Farmers Union Foundation and Conservation Policy director.

A focus on sustainability fits the millennial mind-set and serves as a powerful tool of attraction for a demographic wanting the small town, rural life. “Our job,” said Erem, “is to be the people with the knowledge and resources to provide opportunity for them.”

While Erem’s organization addresses strategies for keeping land affordable for the beginning farmer, Kirschenmann focuses his energies on protecting the land itself by attending to the culture of the soil, a lesson he learned from his parents who survived the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. “Young people who want to farm face huge challenges,” he said. “We need to pass on to them the importance of caring for the land. And we need to address issues like soil health in our public policy.”

Driscoll said sustainability has been a topic of discussion in Washington, D.C., “inside and outside of the farm bill” for the past few years. “There’s an increased understanding of things like soil health, with agencies like the NRCS trying to figure out ways to help farmers,” he said. “People get if you store more carbon in the ground, you get the water quality that goes with that. They get there is value on the farm in spraying less and managing fertility in other ways. The public’s attention and imagination has been captured by things like that.”

Providing farming opportunities begins with protecting and improving the soil, said Kirschenmann, who is critical of the “intensive input approach where everything we use on the farm comes from off the farm in order to force the farm to produce.”

“We’ve been telling farmers for a long time they need to get bigger or get out – the fence-row-to-fence-row approach,” said Kirshenmann. “Farmers are now discovering that is not working economically. The costs of inputs keeps going up, and the returns keep going down.” He said producers see progress when they make three basic changes: reduce tillage, include cover crops, and significantly increase the biodiversity of their farms.

Kirschenmann suggested the ideal government policy would be a 50-year farm bill, with emphasis on what needs to be done every five years to meet the plan’s goals. “We need to think about public policy in terms of self-regulating and self-renewing systems.”

The Iowa Farmers Union has set an agenda that focuses on reducing consolidation in the food system and protecting competitive markets, in addition to protecting the soil and water.

Driscoll said he is concerned about what he calls the “erosion of public resources” and the handing of those resources over to private interests.

“It’s very important to have both,” said Driscoll. “There will be different approaches and different things achieved that way. These are complicated problems and we need a lot of different people thinking about them in different ways and taking different approaches.” But, he added, he becomes concerned when the public/private balance tips too far to one side, and he sees that happening in two ways.

One is the conservation title. “We’re always arguing for robust funding in the conservation title, but we also need to make sure that the ideal balance for farmers between public and private involvement there is achieved.”

The other concern is the research title. “We’re not keeping up on the international stage. That’s my primary concern,” said Driscoll. “My secondary concern is that corporate profitability is not the only thing that needs to drive what we need to learn about. We all need to dig in the weeds together and see not only how much money is being spent, but how that money is being spent. We want to attract the private investment in research, but we need to be wary of making marketing and the way we share food with people narrow and prescriptive. How growing food on your land works best needs to be the focus, not how it best fits on the processing end. Farmers need room to figure out how to use their land most effectively.”

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