Bean there, done that

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by Brian Devore | April 17, 2009 • Some may have been surprised to read this week in the Star Tribune and Agri News that the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association talked one of the biggest agribusinesses in the world into pulling funding out of a clean water initiative in southeast Minnesota. When one considers the MSGA’s recent history, it’s not surprising at all.

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

But shouldn’t a group that represents farmers welcome any resources that can help those farmers do a better job of working the land? Wouldn’t that help be especially welcome at a time when money is short and the proposed funding comes from Monsanto, which has made plenty of profit off farmers over the years? It turns out the MSGA actually has a quite a reputation for reactionary activity that does not represent the best interest of its farmer-members, or rural Minnesota in general.

Here’s a brief and dirty history of how this commodity group has been “representing” agriculture in recent years:

* In early 2008, the MSGA, along with the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, temporarily suspended $1.5 million in grants to the University of Minnesota after internationally respected scientist David Tilman released a study showing that dedicating huge amounts of land to grow corn, soybeans, sugarcane and other food crops for fuel was bad for the environment. When asked why the funding was pulled, Jim Palmer, executive director of the two groups, told the Star Tribune: “The university hurt the farmers’ feelings, OK?” Hurt feelings are always a great basis for making million-dollar decisions.
* A look at a recent set of resolutions adopted by the MSGA offers a glimpse at an organization that is infatuated with, among other things, gutting local control of factory livestock operations and making sure soil erosion and fertilizer runoff are seen as “natural” occurrences as much as possible. One resolution claims that the Minnesota Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) on Animal Agriculture “indicts Minnesota Agriculture with claims that nutrient runoff, from manure and fertilizer, is seriously polluting our rivers and streams.” In fact, most environmental and family farm groups feel the GEIS soft-peddled agriculture’s role in the state’s water quality problems. Perhaps one of the more bizarre MSGA resolutions is this one: “…Minnesota’s landowners or farmers should not be held responsible for negative water quality or public health consequences resulting from establishment of wetlands or wildlife habitat.” I would have liked to have sat in on the discussion that went into forming that paranoid statement.
* A few years ago when a group of farmers and other rural residents in southeast Minnesota’s Dodge County organized to fight the construction of what at the time would have been the largest factory dairy in the state, the MSGA joined with Monsanto, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and other commodity groups in an attempt to intimidate the citizens into backing down. The MSGA and other groups painted anyone who was part of the opposition as “anti-agriculture.” Ironically, some of the citizens fighting the dairy were soybean farmers.
* “Checkoff funds,” money collected on soybeans sold by farmers, are supposed to be used for soybean research and promotion. Checkoff funds cannot be used for “influencing legislation or government action or policy,” according to federal law. But in 2006 a series of soybean-checkoff funded ads ran on WCCO-TV that attempted to build support for policies that favor large-scale livestock operations and blamed “anti-livestock activists” and “local control” for problems in the farm economy. The ads were sponsored by the Minnesota Farm and Food Coalition, to which the MSGA and Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council belong. The use of soybean checkoff money in this way was a potential violation of federal law. In addition, WCCO’s Pat Kessler did a “Reality Check” segment on the ads and found them full of “misstatements and exaggerations.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. I won’t even go into the current spat between MSGA and the American Soybean Association. The sad part of all this is that many Minnesota soybean growers are embarrassed by this most recent public relations misstep on the part of a group that claims to represent them. “The association just blew it out of the water and as a farmer I feel that their voice is not my voice,” a Northfield soybean farmer told the Star Tribune. Most farmers know they share a responsibility with the public at large for protecting and improving water quality.

It must be particularly frustrating for Minnesota soybean farmers when they look south, where the Iowa Soybean Association has welcomed with open arms initiatives that help crop farmers identify and fix water quality problems. In fact, it’s looking like some of the money that Monsanto was going to spend in southeast Minnesota is now headed to similar projects in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, where soybean groups are more receptive to a little stewardship help.

Roger Wolf, head of environmental programs for the Iowa Soybean Association, told the Star Tribune: “We’re taking responsibility for the portion of these issues that we have an ability to have an impact on. It’s not an ‘us and them’ situation here.”

How refreshing. Too bad his counterparts upstream don’t see things quite the same way.

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