A new way to look at American agriculture
American agriculture has a bright and dynamic future. Farmers are banding together, policymakers are taking a second look at the status quo and scientists are making new discoveries and advancements every day.
In short, agriculture is changing.
But change itself is no guarantee of long-term improvement. For that reason, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, through its Integrated Farming Systems (IFS) Initiative, is helping to ensure that the changes in today’s agricultural industry are positive, sustainable ones. Located throughout the United States, IFS projects are helping to plant the seeds for a new agricultural system; one that better allows farmers, rural residents, and businesses to make a decent living, while also providing consumers with high-quality food. Other changes promise to keep farming productive, while preserving more of our vital nonrenewable resources.
All of these changes point to a future in which American agriculture will more effectively support itself and the communities it serves.
Many farmers, rural residents, policymakers, and academic supporters already are doing the groundwork to ensure such a future. From Massachusetts to California, Montana to Georgia, they’re working together on IFS projects to shape, test, and evaluate new ideas and methods for better farming. Today, they’re working only in pockets here and there. But their work is exciting, and every single success generates additional successes.
“The ultimately exciting thing is that farmers are beginning to see a future for their children on the farms,” says one farming advocate in Kansas. But, as he points out, “Constructive change in agriculture begins 20 years before it occurs in the fence rows.”
For that reason, the changes being experimented with today must continue to be tested, validated, and increased if they’re to benefit American farmers and farm communities on a broad basis tomorrow. In other words, now is the time to plan for the future. It is time for those who are nurturing new farming ideas and methods to come together to spread their knowledge and experience. It is time for extensive work on America’s agricultural future.
With the belief that people can overcome most challenges themselves if they have a little help, the Kellogg Foundation has funded community-based IFS projects across the country. Although their locales vary, the projects all involve a holistic approach to food production and distribution. These projects are tackling everything from new weed management techniques and marketing strategies to crop rotation and economic development in rural communities.
By committing approximately $16 million to the IFS Initiative, the Foundation is building on its history of providing funds to groups and organizations that have promising solutions to human challenges. But the IFS projects have other common characteristics too, including a commitment to working with people at the community level and pulling together various partners in shared efforts.
In general terms, the 18 IFS projects funded by the Kellogg Foundation have the following goals:
- Help farmers integrate into their crop and livestock systems new methods that are productive, profitable, and environmentally sensitive. Those methods would also benefit the personal health of farmers and their families. As Tom Guthrie, a Delton, Michigan, farmer says, “We not only want clean water, we expect clean water.”
- Help people and their communities overcome any barriers that might otherwise prevent them from adopting improved, more sustainable agricultural systems.
As you might suspect, the barriers are many. There are technical hurdles: how do you provide nitrogen or control weeds with fewer added chemicals? There are policy and economic obstacles: many farm programs encourage farmers to move toward less sustainable systems and agrichemicals. And there are institutional questions: how do you provide farmers and others in the agricultural community with relevant information and support?
“Until farmers can see that the change is going to be for the positive, they are reluctant to do it,” Guthrie says. “So you need to have supporting evidence to convince them that what you are asking them to do is of benefit to them. Once they see that, farmers are willing to change.”
One of the greatest hurdles, however, may be personal attitudes and beliefs. Even though many farmers and most rural residents have not fared well under the current agricultural system, many are wary of change. For that reason, the Foundation has supported projects that help people develop more positive attitudes and behaviors toward more sustainable farming systems and rural communities. The approach is steadily generating successes.
In Arkansas, for example, the Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corporation is helping limited-resource and minority farmers develop sustainable production practices, ones that lead to greater market opportunities. Those practices include such things as raising rice crops in the summer and creating wetlands in the winter. The wetlands in turn attract waterfowl that eat weeds and insects and also give the farmer an opportunity to lease the land to hunters and earn additional income in the winter.
Dr. Barry Colley, IFS director for the Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corporation, says new, holistic ideas and practices such as those are being demonstrated by some of the area’s most reputable and successful minority farmers.
“When we use farmers who have demonstrated success in their communities, the other farmers are likely to listen and respond accordingly,” Colley says. “We are learning that these farmers will adopt environmentally sound production practices, but the first step is proving that it’s economically feasible.”
Creating Dynamic New Collaborations
Across the country, IFS projects are proving to be greater than the sum of their individual parts. IFS projects from Durham to Santa Cruz are creating dynamic collaborations among individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions within and between communities. Farm families, rural enterprises, university advocates – they’re all working together to face the changes and challenges ahead.
“When you bring together a group of people who share the same values and can cross-fertilize their own ideas and their own experiences, that’s what I have found most dynamic,” says Jerry Jost, IFS project coordinator for the Heartland Network in Whiting, Kansas.
“The most exciting part of it was that these people felt they were often alone, and repeatedly we’ve come across the discovery that they are not alone,” he says. “There’s an empowerment in doing it together. To be too different from your neighbors is uncomfortable; I think that’s part of the power of bringing together people with shared values and wrestling with the problems of today’s agriculture.”
As part of that fundamental collaboration, all of the IFS projects are working with an educational or science-based institution and are focusing on the following items:
- Developing and testing approaches to a technical problem or technology that is involved in the move toward resource-efficient, integrated farming systems.
- Devising an innovative educational strategy, so that these technologies and systems are promoted and used.
- Helping those with a stake in rural communities communicate more effectively and make more responsible decisions about their community’s agricultural and food systems.
- Developing leadership in the farm community, and using that leadership to promote communication among farmers and non-farmers in the community.
- Providing a plan to evaluate the extent to which project objectives are met.
- Developing relationships with policymakers at all levels.
With those goals in mind, IFS collaborators are pushing ahead. And, along the way, they’re discovering they have more in common than they thought.
“The farming system is much bigger than what we traditionally think of the farming industry as being. The farming industry is but one component of the total system on this planet,” says Tom Guthrie, who is involved in an IFS project called Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems. The project is bringing together individual farmers, organizations, environmental groups, agriculture administrators, university educators, and policymakers.
So far, the collaboration has pointed out the inclusiveness of agriculture, Guthrie says. Everyone from recyclers and environmentalists to business leaders and urban apartment dwellers play a role in the agricultural industry.
As Guthrie says, “Regardless of what our occupation may be or what our industry may be, we are all involved in farming systems in some way.”
Tying the Projects Together: The IFS Network
As vital and productive as these collaborations are, they become even more so when their knowledge is shared with others around the country. For that reason, the Kellogg Foundation is also funding additional activities, such as information networking and leadership development, to tie the projects together. Those activities are allowing IFS project leaders from across the United States to share visions and work together to overcome the larger policy, economic, and information barriers that stand in the way of more sustainable agricultural systems.
Each IFS project has an evaluation component and the Foundation is funding an evaluation of the entire cluster of projects. Data gathered will be shared extensively as part of the dissemination activities, because the Foundation takes seriously its obligation to share lessons learned.
In addition, the IFS network is intentionally diverse. The Foundation has funded IFS projects in a variety of our nation’s geographical and agroecological areas, taking care to balance the projects, both geographically and in terms of which audiences are being served. One of the goals is for traditionally underserved people, such as women and minorities, to be well-represented. Often, their resources are more limited, and, as a result, they may be less able to take a chance on new farming practices.
Limited finances may be a concern for all farmers, but, as Barry Colley says, “With limited resource farmers, I think that’s even more pronounced, because they have little ‘risk capital.’ If they make a mistake, they are more likely to lose income.”
So far, Colley says, the Arkansas IFS project has made progress simply by bringing those farmers together to share ideas and experiences.
“By putting the farmers together in these groups, they discover each other, they discover each other’s strengths, they are able to discover some market opportunities,” he says. Through small-farm outreach efforts, for example, one group of vegetable farmers organized a cooperative and obtained state loans to upgrade and operate a packing house.
It’s advancements such as those that keep IFS projects chugging along with high hopes, Guthrie says.
“It [change] isn’t something that is here today and things are different tomorrow,” he says. “It’s not that quick. It’s a constant process.
“But change will always happen. The agriculture industry isn’t unique in that. When something better comes along, a better mousetrap, we tend to do it.”
IFS projects involve a variety of dynamic collaborations among individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions. However, for the sake of simplicity, the name of each primary funded organization is listed below. Feel free to contact individuals listed for more information.
Shaping the Future of American Agriculture: The IFS Projects
Contact Information Update, April 1996
Alternative Energy Resources Organization
Project: Northwest Ag Options Network
Purpose: Increase resource conservation and foster economically viable family farms and rural communities through new institutional and community relationships and sustainable farming options.
Contact: Ms. Nancy Matheson
Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corporation
Project: Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corporation
Purpose: Help farmers identify and adopt ecologically sound and sustainable crop and livestock systems and increase farmer and community understanding and support for integrated farming systems.
Contact: Rev. Bryant Stephens
University of California
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Project: CASA (California Alliance For Sustainable Agriculture)
Purpose: Enhance sustainable food and agricultural systems by creating innovative models for community-based education and coalition building.
Contact: Ms. Kerstin Ohlander
Center for Rural Affairs
Project: Nebraska IMPACT Project
Purpose: Develop farmer leadership and institutional capacity to promote integrated farming systems.
Contact: Mr. Wyatt Fraas
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Project: Future Harvest: Farming for Profit and Sustainability
Purpose: Build alliances among farmers, environmentalists, and community members to develop new food production practices that reduce the negative and increase the positive impact of farms on the environment.
Contact: Mr. Michael Heller
Future Harvest, Old Marlboro, Md.
Mr. Spencer Waller
Future Harvest, Annapolis, Md.
Community Farm Alliance, Inc.
Project: Kentucky Leadership for Agricultural and Environmental Sustainability
Purpose: Help farmers, university faculty, and leaders of agricultural agencies and organizations increase sustainability of farming systems.
Contact: Mr. Hal Hamilton
University of Georgia
Department of Continuing Education
Project: The Southwest Georgia Alternative Agriculture Project (SWGAAP)
Purpose: Develop technology to assist farm communities in southwestern Georgia to move towards more sustainable agricultural production systems.
Contact: Dr. Frederick V. Payton
Project: CISA Project (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)
Purpose: Help farmers create and implement a vision of a more sustainable food production system and identify and address the main obstacles to achieving it.
Contact: Ms. Vicki VanZee
Kansas Rural Center
Project: Heartland Network
Purpose: Empower farmers and rural communities to develop and practice integrated farming systems that balance profit with resource conservation.
Contact: Mr. Jerry Jost
Land Stewardship Project
White Bear Lake, Minn.
Project: Stewardship Farming Program
Purpose: Promote widespread adoption of farming practices and systems that will improve the environment and enhance the quality of life for farm families and rural citizens.
Contact: Mr. George Boody
East Lansing, Mich.
Project: MIFFS (Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems)
Purpose: Demonstrate agriculturally and environmentally sustainable farming systems by developing community learning and leadership networks.
Contact: Ms. Meg Moynihan
The Nature Conservancy
Columbus, Ohio 43212
Project: The Darby Project
Purpose: Empower the agricultural community of the Big Darby watershed to implement economically and ecologically sound land-use practices.
Contact: Ms. Teri Devlin
North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers
Project: Partners in Agriculture: Sustaining Farms and Rural Communities
Purpose: Create a partnership to identify, develop and adapt sustainable agricultural systems to benefit rural citizens.
Contact: Dr. Jeana L. Myers
Oregon State University
Washington State Department of Agriculture
Project: Northwest Food Alliance
Purpose: Link farmers, food processors/distributors, environmentalists and consumers via an educational program that includes technical assistance and explores market alternatives.
Contact: Mr. Miles McEvoy
Practical Farmers of Iowa
Iowa State University
Project: Shared Visions: Farming For Better Communities
Purpose: Develop a model to help rural communities provide support, guidance and teamwork needed for acceptance and use of sustainable farming systems.
Contact: Mr. Gary Huber
Rodale Institute Research Center
Project: RISA (Regional Infrastructure For Sustaining Agriculture)
Purpose: Develop a regional infrastructure model for sustaining agriculture as a prototype for farmers, policymakers, marketing and technical support professionals and consumers.
Contact: Ms. Maria Magnelli van Hekken
Washington State University
Department of Animal Sciences
Project: Holistic Resource Management
Purpose: Help livestock producers develop more sustainable agricultural and natural resource production systems.
Contact: Dr. Donald D. Nelson
University of Wisconsin
Project: WICST (Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trail)
Purpose: Improve agricultural producers’ understanding of alternative farming practice through integrated cropping systems trails and establishment of on-site learning centers.
Contact: Dr. Joshua Posner
WKKF Publication Number 103