In search of better ways to farm

by Michael Pursell

Note: The editorial blog is an alternative space for opinion writers to explore issues independently. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the collective opinion of the Minnesota Daily Editorial Board.

Last night, the University’s Bell Museum hosted a panel discussion on sustainable farming that was sparsely attended for a University whose agricultural roots run so deep. The event is part of an ambitious ongoing series of presentations and exhibitions by the museum whose common goal is to look deeply at food and farming systems.

Despite some interesting and passionate digressions into issues like peak oil, global population growth, and Oscar Wilde’s views on the culinary merits of wild duck (no joke), the conversation had some substantial takeaways. The panel, which was composed of five Minnesota farmers, was representative of the incredible diversity of farming scale and practice in our state. Urban agriculture, organic agriculture, off-the-grid living, native plant restoration, ‘conventional’ corn and soybean production, nut production, and niche/heirloom products were only a few of the arenas represented. Panelists’ diverging perspectives were also an uncomfortable reminder that defining ‘sustainability’ — whether in agriculture or elsewhere — is never as easy or as black-and-white as it would first appear.

Indeed, it seemed at times that there was little common ground in the panelists’ visions of sustainable farming, if only because there’s so much room for growth and innovation.

There was at least one critical point of unanimity among the panelists: that federal agricultural subsidies need either drastic reform or elimination in the 2012 Farm Bill. Though subsidies keep many farmers in business in the current agricultural model, they also aggressively incentivize many of the wrong kinds of practices.

It’s true that we need a new national model of agriculture in this country: one that’s as kind to pocketbooks as it is to the soil. After all, financial sustainability is as important in its own way as environmental sustainability. The system we have in place now — which discourages or bankrupts conscientious farmers at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars a year — is anything but sustainable. Michael Pursell welcomes comments at [email protected].