UMN to host sustainable agricultural center through 2022

The program gives grants to farmers and researchers working to promote sustainability in agriculture.

by Katrina Pross

For the next five years, the University of Minnesota will continue to host a regional agricultural sustainability research and education program, the University announced earlier this month.

The North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program — in operation for the past 30 years — has four regional branches across the U.S. The program awards grants to farmers, ranchers and researchers working to promote sustainability in agriculture.

Previously, the host institution was named on a volunteer basis, but this year institutions had to apply for the position to make the funding more competitive, said Beth Nelson, the University’s director of SARE. The program has been housed at the University’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering for at least 10 years, Nelson said, and was previously led by the University of Nebraska.

The University was selected because of its effective human resources department and sustainable agriculture-centered research in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, said University Associate Dean for Extension Michael Schmitt.

Over the next five years, Schmitt said he expects SARE to fund projects relating to cover crops, soil health and pollinators, popular topics in the environment and agriculture community.

The program gives out 100 grants each year for applied research, Nelson said.

SARE aims to fund projects that are profitable, but sustainable as well, he said. Recent grants have gone to projects focused on hop growing, linen production and cover crops, among others.  

Farmers are one of the main groups that receive grants from SARE. Wisconsin farmer Erin Schneider received a grant from SARE in 2009 to study how to grow berries that aren’t common in the Midwest, like currants and elderberries, and expand their marketplace.

“SARE helps farmers innovate and be resourceful and look at production from social, environmental and economic viewpoints,” she said.

SARE directly includes farmers in research, which is unusual among agriculture programs, Schneider said. She also said that she thinks the program respects female farmers, while in other programs she feels that she is not taken seriously since she is a woman farmer.

Schneider is also on SARE’s review committee, which analyzes the efficiency of the funds used, as it is funded by taxpayer dollars.

The program also offers grants to researchers. For example, in the 1990s, University bee researcher Marla Spivak received three SARE grants, and today Spivak is well-known across the country for her research on pollinators, Nelson said.

In addition to awarding grants, SARE offers educational material including books and pamphlets that are accessible to the public, she said.

Over the next five years, SARE’s staff members hope to continue to provide grants to promote sustainability in today’s changing environment, Schmitt said.

“The future of agriculture depends on the principles that SARE has. We need to report future agriculture that stewards the environment and takes the quality of life into consideration,” Schmitt said.