We all need ag diversity training


I came away from last week’s North Central Ohio Dairy Grazing Conference with renewed optimism for agriculture.

First of all, just getting to the two-day event in Dalton meant you traveled horrible snow- and ice-covered roads, so the 600+ people who came each day really, really wanted to be there. Second, there were as many young farmers as old farmers soaking up the information. And third, there wasn’t a whiner in the bunch.

The conference is coordinated by farmers for farmers, with some organizational help from the Small Farm Institute. Since its start, it has triggered small groups of like-minded farmers getting together for pasture walks, or individuals coordinating trips to visit other graziers in Vermont or New York. And educators within OSU Extension and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service responded by planning pasture management schools for beginners and other programs.

“The adoption of this technology [grazing] has been phenomenal, the way it’s passed from farmer to farmer,” observed retired Wayne County Extension Educator Tom Noyes, who’s a Jersey grazier himself.

It’s a unique mentoring and sharing of information that many in agriculture seem to avoid. Maybe that’s because some feel that to ask for help implies ignorance — even though we all had to start somewhere.

At lunch that day, Ron Caldwell of Beaver County reminded me of a name I hadn’t heard in a long time: Lisa.

Actually, it’s LISA, the acronym for Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture, and she was a hot topic 20+ years ago. The 1985 farm bill even authorized the LISA research and education program, but the effort to draw attention to sustainability drew ridicule — some called it “low income sustainable agriculture”. In the end, there was neither the political will nor the farm community leadership to foster a public debate over agricultural sustainability, and LISA quietly died (although she was revived as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, or SARE, program).

Here’s the thing: Reducing inputs, grazing, going seasonal or even milking once a day are limited management options, but they are options nonetheless.

What’s the best way to farm? That’s the wrong question. We should be asking: What’s the best way for me to farm?

Regardless of acreage, regardless of crop mix or livestock, regardless of geography, the 600 farmers at last week’s conference were eager to ask that question.

I had a phone call last summer from a producer who took me to task for what he felt were too many articles on “different” or nonconventional farming operations. I certainly understand where he’s coming from, but I don’t agree.

We cannot be so narrow-minded to think that there is only one way to be successful, to be sustainable, in farming today. We need to be open to embrace different philosophies, different practices, different management styles. We all need some agricultural diversity training.

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