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Letter — Markets for organic products helped by U of M

Markets for sustainable and organic products are exploding and creating new opportunities to keep farmers on the land and get new farmers started. It is good news then that the University of Minnesota has committed to expand its research and outreach into organic and sustainable agriculture.

Especially important is the decision to establish an organic dairy herd at the West Central Experiment Station in Morris. This will make Minnesota the fourth university in the country wwith an organic dairy herd and positions the university to be a leader in organic agriculture research.

I dairy farmed for almost 40 years and retired in 2004. Promoting dairy farming has always been important to me and I wanted to help a beginning farmer get started on my farm.

I tried to get a young man started with a conventional dairy, but the numbers didn’t cash flow with the price of conventional milk and he couldn’t get a Farm Service Agency loan. Another young man came along who was interested in renting my barn and pastures for an organic operation.

The economics of an organic operation worked and made the move possible. He now milks an organic herd on my place.

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There are hundreds of dairy barns sitting empty like mine was. This is an existing infrastructure going unused that organic dairy could play a role in revitalizing. New farmers on the land and cows in once empty barns is real economic and community development for rural Minnesota.

The university has a role to play in helping realize this potential.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, "Organic farming has been one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture for over a decade.’’ Minnesota has been a leader in organic production with USDA data showing that in 2005, Minnesota was fourth in the nation in organic cropland and fifth in the number of organic farms.

This has been driven primarily by a strong network of organic farmers and advocates. There is potential for much more growth with the university’s help. In fact, the university’s help is necessary to make sure Minnesota realizes the full economic potential and the increased land stewardship that sustainable and organic farming offers.

Like much of the best agriculture programs, these new university programs were driven in large part by farmers.

Last year, Land Stewardship Project farmer-members and others pushed the Legislature to increase overall funding for agriculture work at the university and dedicate a portion of it to sustainable and organic agriculture. I was one of many farmers who travelled to the Capitol to make the case to legislators.

After succeeding in this, LSP farmers met with dean Bev Durgan of Extention and dean Al Levine of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences to discuss how to make the best use of these funds.

The deans listened and then put a solid proposal forward. As a lifetime dairy farmer, I applaud Durgan and Levine for making this commitment. It’s a smart use of funds and Minnesota’s farmers and rural communities will benefit tremendously.

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— Alan Perish, Browerville, MN

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