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Institute promotes sustainable agriculture

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Catherine W. Idzerda
June 12, 2011
— At the Michael Fields Institute in East Troy, scientists and educators are considering the price of our fast-food world.

That’s not just in the sense of a meal-handed-through-a-window fast, but food that’s produced quickly without much regard to the soil, the plants, the animals, the people who eat the products or the rhythms of the earth that have sustained people for thousands of years.


At the institute, the recipe for progress is a blend of research, education and public policy work.


Dynamic ideas

Christopher and Martina Mann established Michael Fields Institute in 1984. It originally was devoted to the principles of “biodynamic agriculture” developed in the early 20th Century by scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner.


For Steiner, everything in the universe was connected. The rhythms of nature, often dismissed by scientists as folklore, contained great truths.


For example, your great-grandfather might have insisted on planting marigolds around the vegetable garden. He didn’t have any scientific basis for the practice; it was always done that way.


Now, scientists believe French marigolds, Tagetes patula, repel certain kinds of nematode pests.

Three biodynamic principles have become the cornerstones of sustainable agriculture:


-- Using cover crops to protect and enhance soil or reduce weed growth.


-- Employing crop rotation to reduce pests and disease and enhance soil health.


-- Using “green manure,” crops that are planted and tilled into the soil for their nutrients and to provide organic matter. Such practices reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.


At Michael Fields, that early history in biodynamics has evolved into sustainable farming research, public policy work to make sure elected officials know the value and impact of such work on the environment and public health and education to train a new generation of farmers.


Money and agriculture

“To me, our niche is our research program,” Andrews said. “There are organizations like Prairie Crossing, Angelic Organics and some groups in Milwaukee. All of them do some education, some do policy, but very few of them do research.”


Major universities are involved in research in organic systems but only on a limited level.


“Research is very expensive,” Andrews said. “The universities get a lot of their money from the large seed companies.”


Andrews previously worked for Extension at Iowa State University.


When he was considering the job in East Troy, he went to Dr. Kathleen Delate, the university’s sole organic specialist.


“She said, ‘They’re doing the kind of research we should be doing,’” Andrews said.


Reducing inputs

Corn and farming systems research are the institute’s two mainstays.


“Farming systems research—you don’t always hear people refer to it that way,” said Andrews. “To me it’s manure management: cover crops, manure from a dairy. It’s about how to get fertilizers established in organic systems.”


John Hall, Michael Fields farming systems agronomist, is working with UW-Madison, UW Extension and the U.S. Dairy Forage Agricultural Research Service on a long-term study of alternative crop rotations.


“We’re looking at crop rotations for productivity, profitability and environmental impacts,” Hall said.


Every crop needs different nutrients and attracts different pests. By breaking up a traditional crop rotation, such as corn one year and soybeans the next, farmers are able to use fewer inputs.


“The narrower the crop rotation, the more agri-chemicals are needed,” Hall said.


A nontraditional rotation might include corn, soybeans, winter wheat and red clover. The winter wheat would be planted after the soybeans were harvested. Clover would be planted early the following spring. The two crops would grow together, with the wheat taking precedence. After the wheat is harvested, the clover would take over, adding valuable nitrogen to the soil.


“We’re looking at crop rotations for productivity, profitability and environmental impacts,” Hall said.


Some alternative cropping systems use up to 70 percent less nitrogen fertilizer.


More importantly, they’ve discovered that alternative, low-input cropping systems are close to conventional systems in terms of profit. For organic farmers, alternative systems are actually more profitable.


Adding protein

Farmers have been harvesting more corn—but it’s not their grandfathers’ corn.


“Pioneer and Monsanto have increased yields, and the way they’ve done that is to increase the amount of starch in corn,” Andrews explained. “And that’s fine if you’re going to make ethanol with corn.”


Animals, however, need higher levels of protein and amino acids.


Ironically, in the push for higher yields, protein levels have been dropping.


“Now we’re seeing corn that, on a dry basis, is 6.5 to 8.5 percent protein,” said Walter Goldstein, Michael Fields corn breeder. “Native corn have somewhere between 8.5 and 15 percent protein on a dry basis—most of them were between 8.5 and 12 percent protein.”


Goldstein is working to increase protein levels by crossing native varieties with standard hybrids.


Part of Goldstein’s work is driven by his concerns about the genetically modified organisms that have increased yields.


“There are things that might happen that aren’t the direct consequence but the indirect consequence,” Goldstein said.


For example, Roundup Ready corn and soybean seeds have been genetically modified to counteract the effects of the herbicide, making it easier for farmers to use it on their fields.


Roundup contains very powerful chelating agents—substances that tie up trace minerals—to kill weeds.


“There’s a growing amount of evidence that this massive use of Roundup over all these numbers of soybean acres is leading to an immobilization of nutrients in the soil.”


Those trace elements are crucial for healthy plant growth and protection against diseases.


Accomplishments

Both Goldstein and Hall’s research has produced tangible results.


Some of Goldstein’s hybrids are on the market, and improved varieties are expected.


Hall’s work with his university collaborators has been published.


Perhaps more importantly, cover crops and alternative cropping are rising to the surface in the sea of agricultural information and research.


Professional farmers and producers, organic and conventional, are asking more questions and engaging in practices that will yield an honest profit and sustain the earth for future generations.



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