By Scott Rosencrans, Associate Director of Development and Communications
For the most part, they are not young farmers and not even first generation farmers. They are veterans of the fields who were raised on traditional methods and they have seen dozens of trends come and go over the years. The size of their operations ranges from just a few acres to more than 1,600 and they raise everything from potatoes to soybeans, and even bees. The attendees of the Semi-Annual Meeting of the Farmer-Led Watershed Conservation Group, hosted by the River Raisin Watershed Council (RRWC), are wise, acutely knowledgeable about the global economy, protective of the environment, and they like to save money.
Facilitator Stephen May, Executive Director of RRWC, opened the meeting with a series of questions regarding the use of sustainable practices and whether the farmers are willing to share their knowledge with others. Some of the farmers were a little hesitant regarding the latter. Every farmer takes a unique approach to raising their crops – not all approaches work for everyone – but the biggest reason for their reticence seemed to be that they didn’t want to come off as know-it-alls. They’ll answer any questions you have, but aren’t likely to preach about their successes. All of them expressed with pride that they were using cover crops, no-till, filter strips, and/or phosphorus management. It’s just good business and it saves them a lot of money.
Andrew McCain, Agriculture Program Coordinator for Monroe County Community College (MCCC), gave a presentation about his program, which is a partnership between MCCC and Michigan State University. Students can earn an associate’s degree and a certificate in agricultural operations which give them a leg-up toward a bachelor’s degree at MSU. I was amazed to learn that there are over 400 professions related to agriculture and the work that these students are doing is impressive.
The highlight of the evening was two presentations offered under the heading “Women in Farming.” Laurie Isley is the President of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee (MSPC) and former President of the Lenawee County Farm Bureau. She and her husband grow soybeans on a 5th generation farm. Her job at MSPC has taken her around the world exploring agricultural markets and she had a wide variety of experiences to share. European and Asian markets greatly prefer sustainably grown natural products, and the U.S. is still able to produce them faster and in larger volume than any other country in the world. That said, the loss of most of our market share in China due to the current trade conflict has delivered a heavy blow to producers. A consolation is that we picked up a larger portion of the European market, but not enough to replace the business that we previously enjoyed with China. Every farmer in the room is feeling the pain of this situation and wondered why “the government” isn’t tapping into their knowledge and experience more to resolve these kinds of situations.
Megan Deleeuw, District Manager of the Washtenaw County Conservation District, also presented. She and her husband have an 8-acre organic farm in Washtenaw County and grow a variety of produce. She described how some farmers begin by trying a sustainable method on a small portion of their land; they see how it goes, and then decide whether to integrate the practice for the rest of their acreage. Many of the other farmers present agreed, saying that is how they started and confirmed this as a successful approach.
The bottom line is the motivation for these farmers to explore adoption of more environmentally friendly practices, but the algal blooms in Lake Erie have provided the impetus for getting started sooner rather than later. This annually recurring disaster is always present in their minds and many of the side conversations at the meeting cited it as a pretext for how they approach their work. One commented that just south of the border in Ohio it is no longer possible for farmer groups to have calm and civil discussions at their meetings. Security personnel must be present because the debates can become so heated that there is a risk of violence.
Even with increased mechanization and the use of high technology, farming remains a very difficult line of work. Farmers are tied to the land and the climate like few other professionals. The work day is just as long as it has always been and there are always new challenges to replace those resolved.
Some say that farmers were the first environmentalists. They understand the effects of climate change, the degradation of water quality, the impacts on soils due to chemical use, and fluctuations in the global economy as well as anyone because they live it every day. Many of us outside of that profession want to help farmers respond to their challenges with well intentioned studies, advice, and facts and figures. Most farmers need a more credible source of information to get them to switch to more sustainable practices. Their peers, those who have walked in their boots and shoveled the same amount of manure, are that credible source and must be an integral part of the process to encourage more sustainable practices. Farmer led groups like this one seem to be the best bet for reaching that future.
To that end, Legacy participates in programs that help farmers connect to groups that offer help and facilitate discussions. While our main tool is the conservation easement, which helps forever secure agriculture lands in our region, we also participate in and talk with landowners about the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) many grants or cost-share programs to support implementation of conservation practices. We are the lead partner in the Huron River Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and a partner to the Greenbelt-led RCPP, both of which bring additional federal dollars to the region to pay for or share costs associated with conservation practices and conservation easements. The Huron River Watershed Council’s new Whole Farms for Clean Water program also seeks to support farmers with funding to implement practices which measurably reduce phosphorus runoff. To connect with or learn more about these resources, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.