Mark Schultz had been organizing around corporate accountability on the East Coast when he moved to Minnesota in the late 1980s and saw an ad in the paper that said something like: “Are you concerned about corporate absentee landlords? Concerned about foreclosures and removing conservation from the land so it can be farmed with chemicals?” His response to the advertisement landed him a job at the Land Stewardship Project, where he’s (mostly) been for the past couple decades. “I loved being connected to people through the land and creating solutions,” Schultz said. “We need to be about challenging the worst environmental challenges while also building the community solutions.” We talked to Schultz about challenges in land use as part of our September focus on the environment.
What’s the most important issue in land use and agriculture facing Minnesota today?
They’re all interconnected, but probably the phenomenon of factory farm and mega farms. Factory farms mean livestock. Mega farms are the huge expanses of crop land which are owned or rented by fewer and fewer people. We’ve stopped 33 factory farms from being built; we also have maintained some farms.
There’s this other whole issue of corn and beans forever. It means chemical use and soil erosion. We have incredible soil runoff into the Mississippi. The issue is industrial agricultures dominance on our land and on our lives. It happens because of lack of crop rotation and an economic system.
What’s the most important policy change that could help further the Land Stewardship project’s goals?
These play out a little differently depending on federal and state policy. We’re active on both. Surprisingly enough, one of the key things is “beginner” farmer policy. The trick is to get new farmers started who are farming for a new farming system—who are growing food for people instead of corn for Cargill. Let’s get new people not conforming to this industrial ag mode.
We also need working lands conservation programs. Most public conservation programs pay someone to take their farm out of farming, and there’s a role for that. But more importantly now, is how are we assisting farmers to farm sustainably, and that means wildlife conservation, crop rotation, soil conservation etc. So that’s working lands conservation policy about the land that’s already being farmed.
Then you have regulations to prevent the worst stuff from happening.
Why is to so hard to reform the agricultural system?
The most powerful institutions in our society are working in the system. Cargill makes more money shipping corn and beans than lots of different crops, and of course that ties agriculture into the transportation. In our minds, it’s a battle of competing interests. You have the financing industry like the farm credit system … they’re pushing every day for policies that are going to further enrich their program.
What’s the connection between agriculture and urban communities?
The markets that we have are not set up to serve a kind of sustainable local and regional food system. We have an extraction-oriented system. Minnesota’s meant to produce crops and they get shipped out of state into the global food market, or extracted for high fructose corn syrup. So food, transportation, it’s all a part of that.
We want to create the system that links farmers on the ground to urban communities around them, and we want to make transportation more environmentally friendly through lessening transportation. But the systems aren’t there.
That said, we’re making headway in urban agriculture. We want the city of Minneapolis, for instance, to think about how urban agriculture can actually improve water quality use and water of the city. That’s a mechanism that can actually enhance the environment.
Where are the hurdles?
We finally have enough sustainable farmers. We have more people farming in Minnesota now than we did ten years ago. The way we do that is through organic CSAs and growth on the small and moderate end. There’s also growth on the bigger end, on the industrial agriculture, mostly on the production end.
Fifteen years ago there were 15,000 farms that were raising hogs. Now there are probably more like 3,000. Most of those are family farms. But I can name five huge factory farms that are working on those family farms. So we’re seeing more and more entrepreneurs, more organic restaurants. Farmers markets.
But what it seems to me is that there’s a lack of economic power, so the question is how do they develop their power?
So how do small and medium sized farms develop economic power?
A hundred years ago, the farmers created the DFL, which led to a progressive program against the big railroads and that kind of stuff, and they took their grain back.
But how do you establish that economic power today?
I don’t have an answer for that yet. But I will say that I’m excited that we can finally look at a substantial amount of new sustainable farming. It feels to me that we’re just at the point of moving into collaboration, aggregation, and participation. So how do all these entities come together to exert more power in the economy? That remains to be seen.
What happened in the last legislative session that affects the work you do?
Well, it was so poorly run that practically nothing happened in our area. Which was good for us. Behind closed doors, the Republicans put into the final budget some legal language that factory farms can create EPA permits. Talk about not even representative democracy, there was no bill passed … they just slipped it into the final deal. So we’re not happy about that.
Then there’s FAIM (Family Assets for Independence in Minnesota). FAIM is something that has bipartisan support and it’s a match-savings program. If a woman wants to start a small business, she can save and the government will match it. A lot of people who use it are people of color. We use it for beginning famers, but the program was cut bad and that will affect communities and our beginning farmers. We felt that Governor Dayton didn’t step up and stop it.