by Erin Silva | The broad negative impacts of the way in which we produce food are becoming increasingly evident. Regularly we see news headlines reporting on pollinator decline, contamination of our ground and surface waters, and the negative health impacts of the American diet. Further, the people and communities that are producing our food are suffering – here in Wisconsin, in 2018 alone, we lost 638 dairy farms, impacting the well-being of our rural communities and rural families.
However, optimism still exists regarding the potential future of our food and agricultural systems. At the end of January, I had the pleasure of hosting a conference at the UW-Madison campus that drew over 200 grain farmers from across the Midwest to learn more about the opportunities offered by organic production. While the farmers came from diverse backgrounds and locations – some dairy farmers, some grain farmers; some organic farmers, some conventional farmers; some new farmers, some seasoned veterans – the group was united in their desire to move our conventional agricultural system in a new direction that better supports not only farmers and eaters, but the environment on which our health depends.
I was inspired and humbled to be among so many amazing farmers willing to push the envelope on the production status-quo, adopting new organic production techniques that build healthy soils, produce healthy crops, and create healthy livelihoods without the application of synthetic chemicals. These farmers show the potential of how diverse rotations, built on a foundation of preserving our soils and biodiversity, can substantially contribute to feeding of our communities while fostering the health of our natural lands.
The OGRAIN Conference
While gatherings like the OGRAIN Conference are evidence that change is occurring – we need to do more to move the needle on sustainability. We need to continue to push forward with research that documents the impacts of our agricultural practices – both the negative consequences of the current paradigm and the positive change that could be created if more acres were shifted to more sustainable methods of farming, including organic and pasture-based management. We need to conduct research to provide a greater understanding of how our agroecosystems function, to give farmers tools to be more successful in their operations and to help policy makers to more effectively guide the direction of our food and agricultural policy. And we need education – we need greater and more effective opportunities for young people to learn how to become organic farmers and see organic farming as a viable livelihood with opportunity for a good quality of life in which to raise their families.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to train the next generation of farmers, agricultural professionals, researchers, and policy-makers. Our four-year students are hungry for opportunities to learn how to engage in food production and distribution in order to create a better future for themselves, our communities, and our land. Within our four-year degree programs, we have faculty and instructors that can be drawn from diverse agricultural disciplines, allowing us to engage in teaching in novel ways that better reflect the holistic, systems-based ecological practices underlying organic management. With innovation, creativity, and a willingness to think outside the box, we can shift the current paradigm that is driving our food systems in a direction that we know cannot be maintained.
FISC, USDA & Extension Opportunities
Even beyond our four year degrees, we have other amazing opportunities to have an impact on the education of our farmers and agricultural professions. The Farm and Industry Short Course (FISC), existing since 1886, offers another opportunity to create learning opportunities for young farmers wanting to pursue ways of farming that offer a hopeful path forward. Already within FISC, we have seen the impact of the School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Producers, which has helped launch new organic grazing operations in the state. The strong Extension system through UW-Madison offers yet another opportunity to both train new farmers and offer alternative practices to existing farmers – our Organic Grain Resource and Information Network (OGRAIN), funded by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, offers a 2-day conference, a mentoring program, and small learning communities to foster peer-to-peer learning while bringing in the expertise of our land-grant researchers and Extension specialists.
There is much to be optimistic about in agriculture, especially when considering the passion and commitment of many young people to create a more just, equitable, and environmentally sustainable food system. I look forward to continuing to help UW-Madison step up to the challenge of providing the resources needed to allow these young people to achieve their goals and revision our agricultural future.
Erin Silva is an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Organic and Sustainable Cropping Systems Specialist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.