In “Dispatches from the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.


In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a couple of events here in southwestern Colorado sponsored by the state and federal governmental agriculture agencies. Taxpayer-funded ag technicians showed off impressive new methods of irrigation and water management. They also demonstrated their commitment to the standard ag paradigm: maximizing yield of industrial inputs — e.g., crops that produce seeds that can be crushed into vegetable oil — above all other considerations.

At the same time, however, I came away encouraged. For while these public servants clearly focus on supporting industrial-scale farming, they also showed a refreshing openness to working with small-scale farmers who produce food for their neighbors to eat.

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The first was a oilseed crop field day at the Colorado State University Extension experimental station, and the second was an open house sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service branch of the United States Department of Agriculture.

At the field day, I rode around in a wagon pulled by a large John Deere tractor as extension agents showed off field trials of oilseed crops — primarily sunflowers, safflowers, and canola. See, we’ve got a brand-new oilseed processing facility, San Juan Bioenergy, going online in the nearby town of Dove Creek, Colo., this November, and for the past four years the experimental station has been supporting area farmers in their efforts to transition to these unfamiliar crops. (Previously, these farmers had primarily grown dry beans and wheat.)

This year, the station experimented with both irrigated and dryland (non-irrigated) sunflower crops, and found that targeted irrigation at a certain sunflower growth stage can increase yields while using less water than constant irrigation throughout the growth cycle of the sunflowers.

This is an important finding from an environmental perspective, and some of the research station’s other experiments also offer other promising results that could work toward improving the environmental impact of these crops. For instance, the research station experimented with different varieties of sunflowers to determine the best oil seed yields for non-irrigated versus irrigated land. They even conducted water table measurements this year to determine the frequency with which to rotate sunflowers, which typically deplete the water table in dryland fields, with other crops whose roots don’t go as deep and can rely more on surface water.

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Of course, the research station also conducts trials with Roundup Ready canola, a genetically modified crop dependent on the spraying of the herbicide Roundup. It’s testing out the canola as a potential biodiesel feedstock source. (Although San Juan Bioenergy is focusing on sunflower and safflower food oil production at the moment, it hopes to produce biodiesel as well.) The research station also uses its experimental plantings to test which herbicides and pesticides work best on weeds and sunflower insect pests. To my knowledge, it offers very little in the way of support for growing organic sunflowers and safflowers, although there is a demand for organic sunflower and safflower oil for use in organic products.

Taken as a whole, the research station’s work does not have a focus on improving overall environmental quality — increasing yields remain the golden goal in terms of research, and agents and scientists are still entrenched in a relatively narrow agricultural paradigm.

This narrowness of scope also seemed apparent at the Natural Resource Conservation Service Farm Bill Implementation meeting I attended last week, where federal employees were clearly unprepared to deal with the group of small scale farmers and ranchers who showed up at the meeting; they had come expecting to talk about water and soil issues that are caused by large-scale ranching operations. These federal employees are ready with the tools to help you conserve water if you’re growing hundreds of acres of hay, but if you’re growing intensively on six acres and want federal engineering consultation, and, what the heck, maybe even federal cost sharing support on your irrigation system (they offer it to the big farmers here all the time, in the form of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program), these agents didn’t have much to offer.

Although most of this isn’t news — the federal government and extension agents have rarely, in recent history, been supporters of the environmentally-conscious family farm — what is new was their recognition of this fact, and their expressed willingness to possibly work with small farmers in the future. At the NRCS meeting, agents there specifically acknowledged that they had not come prepared to work with the smaller scale farmers and ranchers who attended the meeting, but repeatedly stressed that we should provide input to them so that our needs would be included in the Farm Bill implementation process.

On the extension side of things, growers in certain areas have agitated for, and gotten, organic extension agents who do run trials for them and offer support that runs from ways to combat specific pests with organic methods to information on new market crops that growers might want to invest in growing. These supports are important, and the channels for them already exist. Farmers and citizens ought to communicate with their government agencies and ask for this service — for the most part, those on the grassroots level are ready to listen and are often even sympathetic to organic and environmental concerns.

Michigan State University has an active organic extension operation, as does North Dakota, and North Carolina even has an extension service dedicated to supporting small farms. That’s pretty cool. And I’m sure there are many other state university extension programs supporting organic and smaller agricultural operations in other states that I’m not aware of.  In Colorado, I’m only aware of one specifically organic extension agent who works in a predominantly industrial ag-focused office, but his position is, at least, a start.

Currently, the federal government, coupled with state university extensions, spends an enormous amount of money (about $35 billion allocated in this year’s Farm Bill) supporting agriculture. There’s nothing wrong with targeting that support towards sustainable ag and the support of environmentally-friendly practices. So if you’re a farmer, show up at those meetings and express your needs. And if you’re a citizen, ask your local state and federal agriculture agencies what they are doing to support local, sustainable agriculture — your voice matters.