Government is major barrier to adopting sustainable ag

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LEWISTON, Minn. – Government policy ranks as one of the top challenges facing farmers who are trying to adopt alternative production systems, say farmers who were surveyed in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The survey also found that a significant number of agricultural educators feel government policy can be a barrier to sustainable farming and that current funding is inadequate for this kind of agriculture.

The survey was recently released by the Land Stewardship Project.

Numbers. A two-state team led by the project conducted the surveys of 1,600 sustainable farmers, farm lenders and agricultural educators in 2002.

The surveys focused on credit-related practices as well as the perceptions each group holds about banks, sustainable farming and each other.

Current farm policy was marked by 43 percent of responding farmers as “a major challenge” they faced in implementing sustainable agricultural practices.

Only “lack of experience” (49 percent) outranked farm policy as a challenge, according to the farmers who participated in the survey.

Other major challenges included lack of knowledge (35 percent), a lack of external funding (25 percent) and social pressure (22 percent).

No surprise. Caroline van Schaik, a Land Stewardship Project staff member who coordinated the survey, said it’s no surprise that farmers see government policy as such a major barrier to sustainable agriculture.

However, she said it’s significant that in a survey focusing on credit issues, policy far outranked access to funding as a challenge.

“Both the surveys and our round-table discussions showed that the federal government’s policy of inducing farmers to raise just a handful of crops like corn and soybeans is a major roadblock when it comes to crop rotations, for example,” van Schaik said.

“A key feature of a good farming system is diversity. But current farm policy does not encourage farmers to incorporate small grains, livestock, or fruits and vegetables into their operations.”

Farm policy. Thirty percent of agricultural educators said farm policy was “unfavorable” toward sustainable agriculture, compared to 20 percent who said it was “favorable.”

Thirty-six percent of the educators said farm policy was “neutral” when it came to sustainable agriculture.

Almost half said that current funding and resources “ignore” or “inadequately support” sustainable agriculture, and almost one-third said they felt funding was at least adequate.

Stop penalties. Mark Schultz, Land Stewardship Project’s policy program director, said these results show how critical it is for public policy to stop penalizing farmers for stewardship practices like utilizing diverse crop rotations and using well-managed grass and forage to raise livestock.

Program’s help. One such policy initiative that actually rewards good stewardship, the Conservation Security Program, was made a part of the 2002 farm bill.

But the U.S. House of Representatives is trying to cut the funding allocated to the USDA to implement the program in 2004.

“CSP will make payments to farmers on the basis of the environmental benefits they provide through careful stewardship of working farmland,” Schultz said.

“It will begin to balance the excessive farm program tilt towards maximized commodity crop production and against conservation, which the farmers who responded to the survey said was a big barrier to implementing sustainable agricultural practices.

“Once we overcome the obstacles being thrown up by the U.S. House, this should be a program a large number of farms across the country can use – to the benefit of all society and the land.”

Cooperation. Cooperating on the “Getting a Handle on the Barriers to Financing Sustainable Agriculture” survey project were Minnesota and Wisconsin Extension educators, Farm Business Management/Production instructors, lenders and farmers, as well as the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

The farmers surveyed were picked because of their membership in various sustainable agriculture organizations.

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