Global Conservation – Land and Sea

Agricultural practitioners have known forever that everything in the environment is connected with every human being on the planet. Nothing new to us. SFA was started 25 years ago in part because of that very idea, that what we do on our farms affects the environment and the community and the food we produce as a nation. Actually, we’ve become known for our coordinated approach to sustainability. So much so, I’ve been invited by Conservation International to talk about what we are doing to promote Sustainable Agriculture in general and soil health in particular. As I write this, I am in Washington DC with other sustainability leaders to attend Conservation International’s Ocean Health Index Roundtable. Conservation International has developed an Ocean Health Index, and the idea here is that everything on the planet contributes to the overall outcomes in terms of ocean health. The first global rating of ocean health is not exactly stellar. Businesses, including farms, and countries individually contribute to our earth’s ocean health. Something I hope to bring to Conservation International is the understanding that ocean health is rooted in soil health (pun intended).

This is actually a part of a larger effort in global sustainability circles to assign a credit or a debit to a company’s books or a country’s economic ledger based on the contribution each entity makes to environmental health. Its gotten me thinking about the assessment of our own farms and how they contribute to overall soil health and water quality. We know certain farming practices work for the benefit of the environment. Its hard to miss with the soil health building practices such as cover crops, and grazing, and the intense combination of those that we will be highlighting at the 2015 Midwest Soil Health Summit. But what do those practices actually contribute to the bottom line of the environment? And as a part of financial sustainability, what do they contribute to the bottom line of the farm’s economy, the community’s economy and our societies social health? I’ll let you know what I learn from this trip and what other sectors of our economy are doing to integrate environmental accounting into their outcomes.

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Engaging Conventional Agriculture

Do we really believe sustainable agriculture, focused on building up its resources (soil, animals, people), is sustainable? Do we really believe industrial agriculture is not sustainable?

I do. And if you do, I would encourage you to behave as if you really believe it. By definition, we should be confident in our assessment of the future of agriculture. In so doing, I trust we will not be contributing to the kind of misunderstandings and “us vs. them” mentality that has led to the current perception in mainstream ag media and university extension about sustainable agriculture.

Speaking specifically for Sustainable Farming Association, and generally for the whole of sustainable agriculture, we are not a club of like-minded folks who really don’t have a prayer of making a difference in agriculture.

The premise of sustainable agriculture is founded on understanding the short- and long-term effects of everything we do in the environment. It’s working with natural systems and processes to build up the resources at our disposal; not attempting to subdue nature with the latest technology. We know it works, and we believe industrial agriculture practices are unsustainable. We should be doing everything we can to be approachable, kind, considerate, respectful and welcoming to everyone who asks politely, or condescendingly, about whether our brand of agriculture is viable.

Some question the ability of sustainable agriculture methods to produce enough food. Let’s not shrink from that, but let’s not fail to challenge the “Feed the World” mentality underlying the question.

Every concerned citizen should be asking industrial agriculture to explain how antibiotic resistance is a sustainable. Let’s continue asking what the plan is to resolve the situation going on in Des Moines, Iowa, and places along the Mississippi River, where agriculture has added so many nitrates to the watershed that cities must spend thousands of dollars a day to purify their drinking water.

However, lets not be snarky or unprofessional. That won’t get us anywhere. We live in an overstuffed media environment with great temptation to create “buzz.”  If a post or news story isn’t catchy, or a little shocking, it probably won’t get read. But we are talking food, farming and the future we are building for the next generation, not discussing the latest music video.
We will continue to point out the flaws we see in conventional agriculture practices, but we will not hyperbolize, exaggerate, or personally attack anyone or any group of people.

With that in mind, here are some rules of engagement for everyone, but especially the sustainable agriculture community for this important discussion:

1. We are all farmers, and all people. Commit to treating each other with respect. Disagreement is normal in this world. Fighting and anger is not. Don’t fall into the trap.

2. Be the leader. Let’s set the tone for this discussion. Even when you are attacked, don’t spiral down with the attacker. Take the high road wherever you can. Invite them to join you there. If they choose not to, just keep walking.

3. Know your facts. Don’t just “pile on” when you see a news story about how bad industrial agriculture is. Get the facts. The temptation toward over sensationalizing a controversial news story is often too hard for the media.

4. Be ready to give an answer for what you believe about food and farming. Come to the SFA Annual Conference on Feb. 8, or the Midwest Soil Health Summit on Feb 19-20 to learn more about sustainable agriculture.

5. Get some help. Join a group; Be a part of the movement.

6. Be inviting. Don’t put up walls. You’ve got the answers to many of the problems in agriculture!

Let’s get beyond name-calling and “us vs. them.” That’s what we are doing at Sustainable Farming Association. Will you join us?

John Mesko is the Executive Director of Sustainable Farming Association, a farmer-to-farmer network dedicated to advancing sustainable agriculture practices, rural communities and local foods. In addition to Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics from Purdue University, he held several agronomy positions with Dow Agrosciences, served as a County Extension Director with Purdue, and with his wife and two daughters operates a grass-fed beef operation. He can be reached at or 763-260-0209.

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Midwest Soil Health Summit a Success

John Mesko and North Dakota Soil Health Practitioner Gabe Brown

John Mesko and North Dakota Soil Health Practitioner Gabe Brown

Soil Health is on the tip of a lot of tongues these days. The raging success of the 2014 Midwest Soil Health Summit just confirms its importance to today’s farmers. The conference was a sold-out day and a half of programming. With a great blend of expert large-audience lecture, smaller breakout sessions and targeted one-on-one programming, attendees were well informed, educated and invigorated about the prospect of soil health.

Soil Health is what happens when the naturally regenerative processes in our soils are allowed to work, unhindered by unnecessary tillage, harmful pesticides and improper fertilization. When aided by the addition of cover crops, judicious use of grazing and creative management, soils can overcome years of abuse, and over time become additively productive. Sustainable agriculture means we are able to produce indefinitely. When we focus our efforts on soil health, not only are we able to produce indefinitely, we are able to increase production over time.

Add to this the reduction of input costs, the resiliency of cash crops against extreme weather events and the diversity that comes with marketing livestock, you have a recipe for taking the boom and bust out of farming that has traditionally trapped many in an unending cycle of overproducing the wrong product at the wrong time.

If you were at the Midwest Soil Health Summit last week, you heard a vision for this type of agriculture. If you weren’t at the Summit, you need a vision for this type of agriculture. We can help with that. Stay tuned for more information about future Soil Health programming from SFA.

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2013 Down, 2014 Coming Up!

As each year wraps up, its common to reflect on the past and vision about the future.  Well, 2013 was a great year for SFA.  If you are a paid member of SFA, you should  have received our annual Cornerpost paper newsletter in the past month.  In it you will find a full report on the progress SFA has made on our mission and our work within the sustainable agriculture movement in 2013.  (incidentally, if you are not a paid member, its not to late to become one.  Join in 2013, and we’ll mail you a Cornerpost!)

Additionally we saw steady growth in memberships and chapter activities in 2013, and for 2014, there’s even more planned as the Network Development Project rolls on.  You can see and learn more about SFAs Farmer-to-Farmer Network at the 2014 Annual Conference.

Response to the Op Ed piece I recently submitted to the MN Farm Guide has been overwhelming.  Many of you have contacted me about the column I wrote, and many more of you have apparently contacted MN Farm Guide.  This morning, I spent about 30-45 min. on the phone with Andrea Johnson, Asst. Editor.  She was calling to assure me that despite appearances, industrial agriculture does not have a “gag order” on my column at MFG.  The website recently pulled it down inadvertently, but now it is back up online for all to see.  I was grateful for the call from Ms. Johnson, as it gave me a chance to continue what we’ve started here at the end of 2013 and that’s reaching out to all agricultural producers of all stripes.

Sustainable agriculture is for everyone.  By definition, its the only brand of agriculture we are going to have in the future, so we need everyone on board.  In 2014, SFA will continue our important programming on the specifics of sustainable agriculture practices, and we will reach out to other farm organizations in an attempt to tear down the walls that separate us and to foster new relationships and growth.

How often do you get asked to support a cause that is inviting others to the table, rather than hunkering down around a prescribed set of beliefs?  Won’t you support SFA with a year-end tax deductible contribution?  Your donation of $25, $50, or $100 will be multiplied many times by the effort of our Farmer-to-Farmer Network.

Thank you for a great 2013, and here’s wishing you and yours a blessed, prosperous and very Happy New Year!

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A Sea Change in the Countryside

Why are Renewing the Countryside and Sustainable Farming Association working so hard on helping farms transition from one owner/operator to the next?

Individual family farms are at the heart of US agriculture and of American history, stemming back to the The Homestead Act signed by President Lincoln in 1862. Even today, many farms still have “the original 160” as a part of their holdings. As such, farms and farmland are deeply connected to most Midwesterners.

Farms have often been in the family for many generations. Unlike most small businesses, farmers tend to live and raise a family on the same premises as their place of business, further connecting parents and children with the land, buildings and stories associated with a farm.

But a sea change is under way, with thousands of farms in Minnesota alone expected to change hands in the next decade. Baby Boomer farmers are approaching retirement age, and many do not have a child or in-law interested in farming. With commodity prices at all-time highs, there is no lack of interested buyers for that land. But will those buyers be people who want to farm and be a part of the local community, or will they be mega-farms that own half the county? Without thoughtful planning, farmland that has been in the family for generations can be sold to the highest bidder out of necessity, rather than used to continue to support a farm family.

To keep families on Minnesota farmland and in rural Minnesota communities, we need Farm Transitions.

While it may surprise some, there are now scores of people eager to enter into production agriculture. However, access to land is a critical barrier to entry. By purposefully engaging current and future farmers, we believe we can continue to enjoy a diversity of agriculture in our society indefinitely. For that, we need Farm Transitions.

If you are planning on exiting the farming business or selling your farmland in the next 10 years, now is the time to start thinking about how to transition your farm. You can contact me at, or someone on the Farm Transitions Team by calling 612-910-7601.

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2013 Grassfed Exchange Conference

Last week, I attended the 2013 Grassfed Exchange Conference in Bismarck, ND.  The Grassfed Exchange is a coordinated effort of producers and buyers of grassfed genetics that come together to form the Grassfed Exchange Committee.  Their desire is to provide a means of education and exchange of grassfed genetics between producers.

About 400 people attended the 2013 Grassfed Exchange Conference in Bismarck, ND, Aug 20-22

About 400 people attended the 2013 Grassfed Exchange Conference in Bismarck, ND, Aug 20-22

This year’s conference was attended by about 400 and featured an emphasis on the development of Soil Health.  On Tuesday, using 5 tour buses, we toured two farms near Bismarck.  Ken Miller’s place on the cutbanks near the Missouri River, and Gabe and Paul Brown’s farm where we saw the exciting results from about 15 years of focusing on soil health as a main emphasis in farming goals.

The reintegration of livestock, primarily grassfed beef cattle onto row crop land in conjunction with the application of multi-species cover crops achieves several objectives.

  1. Keeps a living cover on the soil, which has many benefits, including reducing moisture loss.
  2. Uses varied rooting structures among the many species of crops to pull nutrients into the topsoil from below.
  3. As cattle tramp grasses and other cover crops into the soil, organic matter increases, and along with it, water and nutrient holding capacity.
Two-Year Old Cattle enjoying a multi-species cover crop mix at 100 degrees, Aug. 20, 2013, Bismarck, ND

Two-Year Old Cattle enjoying a multi-species cover crop mix at 100 degrees, Aug. 20, 2013, Bismarck, ND

Among other things on the tour, we saw a field of about 30 different cover crops that had been planted June 26 of this year, and had received less than one-half inch of rain since planting.  The temperature was 100 degrees (records were set in Bismarck), and the sorghum-sudan grass was just starting to curl up at about 3 PM.

The Brown Ranch has not applied any chemical weed control since 2000, and no commercial fertilizer since 2008.  The results speak for themselves.  In the picture below, some two year old cattle were released into the aforementioned field of cover crops.  They were quite happy, to say the least.

SFA Executive Director John Mesko addresses the 2013 Grassfed Exchange Conference in Bismarck, ND

SFA Executive Director John Mesko addresses the 2013 Grassfed Exchange Conference in Bismarck, ND

In addition to the farm tours on Tuesday, there were 2 days of indoor conference featuring some excellent presentations, including one by Don Huber on the dangers of glyphosate.  I was also able to address the group about Farmer-to-Farmer Networking and what SFA is doing to promote the adoption of soil health principles in MN.

Gabe Brown will be a speaker at the 2014 Midwest Soil Health Summit on Feb 19 and 20, 2014 at the Arrowwood Conference Center in Alexandria, MN.  Registration is now open, and we hope to see you there!



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What Makes Farmer’s Unique?

Wendell Berry, wrote in, Bringing it to the Table: Writings  on Farming and Food: “I have an idea that a lot of farmers have gone to a lot of trouble merely to be self-employed to live at least a part of their lives without a boss.”

To some extent, this probably rings true for many farmers reading this.  When I read this recently, I was reminded of iconic pictures of farmers displaying “rugged independence.”   It got me thinking about what makes farming attractive to farmers.

If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI), you know it is a fairly detailed assessment of a person’s way of taking in and processing information, making decisions and re-energizing their batteries to continue on in life.  By no means perfect, it does boast decades of successful use in business, academia and personal development.

Turns out that MBTI has been applied to farmers, and there are some interesting outcomes.  Farmers have a higher proportion of individuals with Sensing and Judging traits than the rest of society.  According to the MBTI Website, the following are some common traits among farmers:

  • I solve problems by working through facts until I understand the problem.
  • I am pragmatic and look to the “bottom line.”
  • I start with facts and then form a big picture.
  • I trust experience first and trust words and symbols less.
  • Sometimes I pay so much attention to facts, either present or past, that I miss new possibilities.
  • I dwell on physical reality, what I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
  • I’m concerned with what is actual, present, current, and real.
  • I notice facts and I remember details that are important to me.
  • I like to see the practical use of things and learn best when I see how to use what I’m learning.
  • Experience speaks to me louder than words.
  • I like to have things decided.
  • I appear to be task oriented.
  • I like to make lists of things to do.
  • I like to get my work done before playing.

According to Bill Long, with, farmers have a distinct way of  taking in new ideas.  When farmers consider making changes to their operations, or when our communities are asking farmers to make changes, many times farmers with have the following thought process:

  • I need to be convinced of the need to change.
  • I tend to define myself by my experience and I have a deeper investment in its value.
  • Unless there is a clear and desperate need to change, I prefer to stick to set procedures and established routines.
  • I do not prefer theoretical or abstract concepts involved in adoption of new ideas.

When presented with a new production method, or an idea that might change the way they farm, in order for farmers to respond, the idea or change needs to:

  • Be complete
  • Be packaged well
  • Have the relative advantage for change clearly evident
  • Be compatible with current practices and thinking (not too “out” there)
  • Be simple to adopt with a short-term return on investment obvious.

I’ll be talking more about what makes farmers unique and how we like to learn at the Grassfed Exchange Conference on August 20-22 in Bismarck, ND.  Hope to see you there!


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Grassfed Exchange Conference

I’ll be speaking at the Grassfed Exchange Conference in Bismark, ND Aug 20-22 (see below).  Seems like a long trip, but there’s grant money available to help you attend this important conference.  Farm Credit Services has agreed to provide funding for qualified participants of this important conference.  For details, you can download the application, fill it out and send it to Allen Williams, whose email address is on the form.  I hope to see you there!

The conference will start with a tour of Browns Ranch.  Owner Gabe Brown will be the keynote speaker at the Midwest Soil Health Summit hosted by SFA Feb 19-20, 2014. More details to follow.  You won’t want to miss this tour, where you’ll see the implementation of soil-health building practices such as cover crops and the integration of row crops with livestock production.

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Cover Crops Boosted Corn And Soybean Yields In 2012 Drought, Survey Shows

During last year’s historic drought, farmers who took advantage of cover crops, a soil-enhancing conservation practice, managed to improve their yields by as much as 14% compared to those who did not, a new survey shows.

An increasing number of farmers are using cover crops in the fall and winter because of the many ways they improve soil and field conditions, but some farmers express concern that cover crops will impair yields of cash crops like corn and soybeans by competing too much for water, especially in fields that rely on rainfall. In fact, the findings of this survey indicate that the opposite is true—cover crops conserve water—and they can help farmers adapt to changing climate patterns.

During the fall of 2012, corn fields following cover crops had a 9.6% increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops, according to the survey of more than 750 farmers who live across America’s agricultural heartland. Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6% following cover crops. In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11% yield increase for corn and a 14.3% increase for soybeans.

The survey was conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) program. Most respondents farm in the Mississippi River Basin.

“It is especially noteworthy how significant the yield benefits for cover crops were in an extremely dry year,” says Dr. Rob Myers, a University of Missouri agronomist and regional director of extension programs for NCR-SARE. “We think cover crops will be a key management strategy for farmers dealing with extreme weather situations in coming years, while providing a number of environmental benefits in watersheds across the country.”

Along with protecting and improving soil in fields that would otherwise lie fallow, cover crops improve water quality and wildlife habitat, along with providing other environmental benefits. Common cover crops include crimson clover, hairy vetch, tillage radishes, oats and winter rye.

The yield improvements provided from cover crops in 2012 were likely the result of a combination of factors. Plant residue left behind from cover crops creates a blanket that slows down evaporation, leaving more moisture in the soil for the following crop. Where cover crops have been used for several years, soil organic matter typically increases, which improves rainfall absorption into the soil and allows the soil to store more water. Improved soil organic matter also allows corn and soybean roots to travel deeper into the ground where more water can be found.

The survey’s findings reflect that cover crops are an increasingly popular management strategy on farms. Surveyed farmers reported planting an average of more than 300 acres of cover crops per farm in 2012, a 350% increase from 2008. They used cover crops on a total of about 218,000 acres in 2012, and expected to increase that to over 300,000 acres in 2013. Nationwide, an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million acres of cover crops were planted in 2012.

Farmers identified a variety of reasons for planting cover crops, the key benefit being improved soil health. Reduced loss of sediments, nitrogen and phosphorous from fields, and reductions in soil compaction from heavy tractors and harvesters were other key benefits cited. As one of the surveyed farmers commented, “Cover crops are just part of a systems approach that builds a healthy soil, higher yields, and cleaner water.”

Full results of the survey are available online at:

The SARE program has an informational site on cover crops at  Cover crop photos are available from NCR-SARE for media usage from Marie Flanagan, NCR-SARE regional communications specialist, at

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Pork Still Getting Squeezed

I grew up raising hogs.  It was my job to care for sows and feeder pigs starting at around 9 years old.  We always had about 15-20 sows when I was a kid, each in its own pen.  We had these pens spread out in about 4 different buildings, sheds and lean-tos.  By the time I was 11-12, I had 4 of my own sows and was in the hog business.


So, naturally, when we started our farm back in 2006, raising sows and feeder pigs was a part of our plan.  We bought a bred sow, kept the gilts, raised them up for breeding, and with in a year, we farrowed 6 sows and sold 40 feeder pigs the second spring we were on the farm.  I enjoyed the work, we broke even on the feeder pigs, and we had our own feeder pigs to raise up to sell pork to our customers.  Then came the fall farrowing.  We had pigs born in September and October, and they were ready to sell in November and early December.  We had about 25 to sell, and despite lowering our price from the spring, we couldn’t sell them, at least not all of them.


We kept feeding them, of course; and they grew and grew.  We kept advertising on Craigslist, great pictures, the whole works, but no one wanted to raise pigs through the winter.  We actually gave four 75# feeder pigs away that year.  The rest we raised through the winter, a very cold winter in which they consumed a tremendous amount of feed.  By spring, we had some pigs ready for market, but not enough meat customers to sell the meat quickly.  We butchered the pigs and still sold pork all through the summer by fall, we still had meat in the locker, and we ended up giving pork away to friends as gifts for Christmas.  When all was said and done, despite pork prices that bordered on “elitist,” we took a financial bath on the pigs.  All the while, we were trying to maintain sows and a boar with adequate feeding in between farrowings.


Needless to say, we quickly changed our pork model to a “buy pigs in the spring, feed them through the summer, and sell pork in the fall only” model.  This is difficult for me, having had many years perfecting the raising of feeder pigs as a youngster, I’m very selective about the breeds and quality of feeder pigs I will accept.  Finding a dedicated hog producer is getting very, very difficult for the reasons I experienced early on in our farming operation.


We recently received our small shipment of feeder pigs for this summer.  The farmer we bought from was lamenting his experiences with trying to sell fall feeder pigs, and it sounded familiar.  As we contemplated other options, such as selling to larger pastured pork operations like Niman Ranch, it became clear there is no easy answer to the sustainability of small-scale, diversified pork production.  With the rising cost of grain, as well as the general inflation of living expenses, selling feeder pigs is a breakeven proposition for most folks.  Plus, it really doesn’t lend itself well to a farmer with a full time off farm job.  Raising quality feeders requires attentiveness at odd hours.  Have you got a suggestion?  You might consider checking out SFAs 2014 Conference Idea Generator.  You will be presented with a choice between 2 topics to be covered at the SFA Annual Conference in Feb. 2014.  Pick your favorite, and then you’ll get another choice.  Keep Voting!  The more votes we get, the more accurate the results will be.  Next time, I’ll let you know what the leading ideas are.

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