This is the first in a series of posts “Notes from the Field” written by staff of SAC member organizations or farmers about how the federal sustainable agriculture programs that SAC fights for and wins make a difference on the ground.
This past August, Katie Wied received a M.A. in Sustainable Development with an emphasis on Public Policy from the School of International Training. Returning back to her home state of Wisconsin, Katie is now the Policy Organizer for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a member organization of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
“This program encourages me to maintain my conservation practices and research others.”
-Farmer from Gilman, WI who participates in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
As the Policy Organizer for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, I have the role of educating farmers about the new Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). I love this program because within the world of large commodity payments, it is the first governmental program that provides “green payments” to farmers. In other words, CSP provides payments to farmers and ranchers to maintain and manage existing conservation practices and implement additional conservation activities on land in agricultural production.
Farmers can be allotted up to $40,000 per year for conducting conservation practices that improve soil, water or air quality, soil and water conservation, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, as well as energy conservation. CSP has been greatly improved in the 2008 Farm Bill and now with improved access to the program, any farmer will now be able to apply for a CSP grant. This brings good news to the sustainable agriculture movement, and like any piece of good news we want to spread it far and wide.
With some newfound momentum I organized various CSP field days throughout Wisconsin. Field days are used to unite farmers by having them gather at a farm for food, education, and good conversation. I decided to reach out to farmers who utilize grazing practices on their farms. Letting cows graze on the land instead of keeping them confined is not only healthier for the cows, but also for the land. I contacted several people from GrassWorks, an amazing grazing network. This Wisconsin-based organization serves as a central point for grazing communities to network and share resources. With their help I was able to arrange short CSP presentations on several of their farms.
One field day that sticks out in my mind is my recent trip to Augusta, WI to Jersey Acres farm. The owner, Lester Henry, has been grazing since 1993, moving his milk herd to a new plot of grass on a daily basis. My two and a half-hour journey from Madison to Jersey Acres was lined with beautiful shades of yellow, orange, red and green as I drove through small towns and pumpkin patches.
When I arrived at the farm, I was greeted by a group of farmers, some who have been in the grazing community for almost 20 years. I passed around a sign up sheet, and informational sheets about the 2008 Farm Bill and CSP. After introductions, I gave brief overviews about the Farm Bill, explained CSP, who is eligible, what the payments will look like and how the USDA determines who receives a contract. After I took question, and ate a delicious homemade meal, I joined the farmers on a tour of the farm while Lester demonstrated his conservation practices.
The beauty of Jersey Acres farmland is inexplicable. Perfectly placed fence poles with homemade birdhouses atop lined the permanent fences around the designated grazing areas. Lester explained that since he put up the birdhouses, he has seen an increase in Meadowlark, Hawks and various other birds. The cows were happily grazing, eating a variety of grass as beautiful birds flew above. As we toured the land, the farmers discussed their ups and downs of farm life, their responsibilities that are not always so glamorous, and ways in which they utilize conservation practices on their own farms. It was a great afternoon of information sharing and encouragement.
Although I often feel bombarded by the struggles that many farmers are facing today, after a visiting a farm I always feel rejuvenated, full of positive life forces and optimistic about the future of farming.
Why I love going to farms to talk about CSP:
- Create a sense of community
- Help bridge the gap between policy and on the ground work
- Show respect and give praise to the farmers for their hard work and conservation practices
- Educate farmers and give them the tools to empower themselves through grants and other available resources
- To reinforce why I am involved with sustainable agriculture policies
Whether or not you are talking about CSP, I encourage everyone who is in the sustainable agriculture movement to visit the farms in your area. I feel that connecting with farmers and their land assist in making this movement more personal, inclusive and ultimately stronger. Visiting with farmers serves as a reminder that the sustainable agriculture movement is not only about policies, it is also about people.