Farming is the backbone of Minnesota's economy, but agricultural pollution has posed an unsolvable puzzle for decades. Now, with viable alternative crops on the horizon — like cultivars of the silphium flower pictured here — a new coalition aims to flip the script and make it more profitable to be green. (Photo: JanetAndPhil)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more indispensable sector than agriculture, particularly here in the fertile Midwest. Minnesota's farm industry is one of the keystones of our economy, bringing billions of dollars back to the state from overseas and domestic markets.
But there's a downside to this boon: In order to keep yields going up, farmers spread millions of tons of fertilizer each year, much of which washes off croplands into the Mississippi River or seeps into our groundwater where it can compromise public health. Meanwhile, the pressure for farmers to "get big or get out" means that many agricultural communities, particularly those centered on smaller operations, are struggling to stay afloat.
Our farmers and our environment deserve better.
A new approach
Readers of FMR's Water Blog have heard all about clean-water crops grown in continuous living cover systems that offer a genuine alternative path. Crops like Kernza, hazelnuts, camelina and alfalfa show immense promise for the future of Midwestern agriculture and could change the industry as soybeans did in the 1950s. Though unlike the 1950s shift to soybeans, this change promises dual rewards of profitability and fundamental improvements in the health of the soil upon which so much depends.
The time to make this change is now. That's why we're proud to be a part of an emerging new collaborative effort: The Forever Green Partnership.
An emerging idea
The idea for the Forever Green Partnership initially came out of a series of conversations several years ago between Friends of the Mississippi River, the University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative, Minnesota Environmental Partnership and Green Lands Blue Waters. We all knew the status quo wasn't working, and that combining our voices would amplify our shared message. Ultimately, though, we also knew that success would depend on uniting a broad cross-section of groups in the ag sector, not all of whom have historically been on the same page.
Whatever our backgrounds, there's reason to believe that this is the moment to transition and adjust our agricultural practices: Rural farm families are suffering through an extended period of marginal profitability (propped up by unsustainable direct payments from the federal government), and urgently need alternatives or supplements to the corn, soy and wheat that currently dominates Minnesota's cropland.
At the moment, however, the farmers who grow these clean-water crops are relatively few and far between, and markets for them are still emerging. So how can we move Kernza from research fields to your grocery aisle or camelina biofuel into your plane's fuel tank? The Forever Green Partnership aims to show the way forward.
A growing partnership
The vision of the Forever Green Partnership is a network of farmers, agribusinesses, researchers and organizations like FMR pulling in unison for a fundamental shift in what we grow and how we grow in Minnesota, the Upper Midwest, and eventually, the rest of the country. It won't always be desirable or possible to replace leading commodity crops, but we need to diversify our landscape where it makes sense. We and our partners support what we call "market-based continuous living cover" that emphasizes profitable, self-sustaining farm practices while keeping the soil covered year-round. And, together, we're getting smarter together about these crops and practices by sharing information, convening gatherings and leading collaborative projects.
The University of Minnesota's Forever Green Initiative (FGI) is at the core of the partnership. This plant research and development hub's scientists, agronomists and economists are breeding more than a dozen advanced clean-water crops and figuring out the best ways to grow them. They're also helping to build the market systems that will move these crops from field to factory to the consumer. FGI's counterparts, other institutions working to bring alternative crops to fruition, will significantly contribute to the partnership as well.
FMR's role in the Forever Green Partnership
Friends of the Mississippi River has been one of the driving forces behind the creation of this partnership. We have successfully advocated for FGI funding and related projects in recent Minnesota state budgets, have helped to raise the profile of these issues in the environmental community and beyond, and are helping to set up the Forever Green Partnership apparatus.
As a member of the partnership's Steering Council, we'll help play the role of "air traffic control" for the broader network, making sure that our young coalition has a clear strategy and knows how to execute it. The Steering Council includes members from a range of sectors — academics and environmental advocates working alongside leaders from food companies, farm organizations, community development groups and agricultural experts. We've already established working groups to focus on key elements including communications and government policies, market opportunities like aviation biofuels, and more.
3... 2... 1... Liftoff!
The Forever Green Partnership is already bearing dividends.
Members of the Steering Council and its sister entity the Learning and Experimentation Network — the driving force behind our on-the-ground projects — have conducted a series of deep dives into subjects ranging from green finance and crop commercialization to the knotty but vital process of ensuring that this work is equitable and democratic. We have formed and strengthened relationships with partners from across the state. And perhaps most importantly, we have begun to create a shared vision for Minnesota's agricultural sector that is sustainable, ambitious and achievable.
Much work still lies ahead. FMR's #1 legislative priority for the current session is to secure full funding for Forever Green, which will give the partnership the resources it needs to thrive and enable our U of M partners to build on their groundbreaking research.
We won't be shy about asking for your help to support this legislative campaign, so stay tuned for action alerts and more!
On our Water Blog, you'll find updates on key environment and water quality issues including this partnership. Sign up for our e-newsletter, Mississippi Messages — a monthly digest of FMR news and events — so you don't miss our posts.
You can help!
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