Archive | Fall 2006


Why the Farm Bill Matters

(Yes, even to you.)
By Brian DeVore

Every five years or so, Washington, D.C. pays attention to agricultural policy long enough to whip up something called the Farm Bill. The latest concoction is due out in 2007, and policymakers and lobbyists are already working furiously to influence what ingredients will be included this time around. Debate over the Farm Bill should be front-page news. After all, it affects everything from which foods are grown on farmland and how safe that food is, to what our children eat at school and what claims can appear on food labels. The Farm Bill even determines how food stamps and other nutrition assistance programs are distributed.

No piece of federal legislation affects our supper tables more than the Farm Bill. And yet it’s virtually ignored by the vast majority of the public. To paraphrase former Texas Ag Commissioner Jim Hightower, most people’s idea of a good farm program is Hee Haw.

That’s too bad. Through a combination of benign neglect, outdated ideas, and a concerted effort on the part of narrowly focused special interest groups, our ag policy has evolved during the past half century into a beast that has less and less to do with creating a healthy food and farming system that benefits consumers, farmers, and our environment. As you read these words, consider this: as an individual taxpayer you shell out around $180 annually to support farm programs that pay farmers for producing a handful of commodity crops. (When one factors in the Farm Bill’s nutrition support programs like Food Stamps and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) initiative, the total cost for each taxpayer is around $447 annually.)

But there are many hidden price tags attached to our federal farm policy. In some ways, our Farm Bill is the antithesis of local food security, as it encourages monocultural production and penalizes local, diverse farming systems. The Farm Bill’s payment system encourages massive production of a few select commodities-corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton-using chemicals and energy intensive systems. That’s one major reason the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled agriculture one of the biggest sources of nonpoint water pollution-the kind that comes from many, hard-to-trace, indirect sources such as field runoff and manure lagoon leakage. This focus on all-out raw commodity production has also played a major role in creating a situation where a typical meal travels over a thousand miles before it reaches our plates. What incentives do Minnesota farmers have to raise vegetables for local markets when the government will pay them to raise corn and soybeans for export?

In a state like Minnesota, for example, diverse farming systems that used to consist of dozens of crop and livestock enterprises have become monocultural one-trick ponies. In some parts of western Minnesota, 90 percent or more of the farmland is planted to either corn or soybeans. Livestock, which traditionally provided an excellent way for farms to add value to their grains and forages while recycling nutrients in the form of manure, are increasingly being raised on specialized, large-scale factory operations. They are fed corn and soybeans that are raised in the next county, the next state, or even in another country. Even though such livestock operations do not receive direct subsidies, they do get a substantial indirect subsidy in the form of corn- and soybean- based feed that is kept cheap by the Farm Bill.

Agriculture should be about food. But our federal farm policy has little to do with feeding ourselves, and more to do with raw commodity production. A prime example of this disconnect is the USDA’s Food Pyramid. The Pyramid, which promotes a balanced diet that contains fruits and vegetables, has little relation to what the USDA pays farmers to raise.

“The disparity points out an awkward truth about the USDA: what it urges people to eat to remain healthy does not match what it pays farmers to grow,” writes Andrew Martin in the Chicago Tribune.

It’s telling that perhaps one of the most innovative programs for getting fresh, local foods to schoolchildren is administered not by the USDA, but the Department of Defense.


Agribusiness firms and their allies in Congress defend the current Farm Bill by saying it keeps family farmers on the land. That was true in the past, but it’s less so these days. In 2004, for example, 10 percent of the richest farms received $11 billion in total commodity subsidies, more than double what the rest of the operations receiving subsidies got that year. Farm program loopholes and the lack of firm payment limits allow individual operations to collect subsidies that exceed $1 million in some cases. The Washington Post ran yet another exposé this summer on how the farm program is being abused by wealthy landowners, many of whom have never once sat on a tractor. A University of Minnesota analysis of rural census numbers and cropping trends shows that often the more corn and soybeans planted in a county, the steeper the drop in population.

A recent bipartisan effort to create a firm $250,000 payment limit-far more than the typical family-sized farm would ever qualify for-has gone nowhere in Congress. Multinational grain companies, factory livestock operations that rely on cheap corn and soybeans for feed, and mega-grain and cotton producers like things just the way they are. It’s no wonder they are pushing for an extension of the current Farm Bill in 2007.

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Given the dysfunctional mess the Farm Bill has turned out to be, it’s tempting to call for a complete dismantling of the whole thing. But not so fast: there are still over two million farmers in this country, the majority of whom are not abusing the system. They have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the areas of crop production, animal husbandry, and land stewardship. Farmers and ranchers own and manage half of the land area in the United States. It has become clear in recent years that diverse family farms provide many public benefits that go beyond the price of a gallon of milk or a box of cereal. Research on sustainable farming systems in Minnesota and elsewhere is showing that farms can help protect water quality, improve wildlife habitat, and provide other ecological benefits-all while producing food for local consumption. Such contributions to the public good are difficult to put a price tag on, making it necessary to have policies in place that support and encourage such farming systems. It’s not easy to transition a farm from the typical corn-bean-feedlot operation to a more diverse farm that provides multiple public benefits while feeding local consumers. Sustainable agriculture, not to mention alternative marketing ventures such as direct sales and Community Supported Agriculture, is management intensive. A support system is needed to help farmers successfully make the switch.

That’s where a new, food-based, consumer-friendly Farm Bill can come in.

The current Farm Bill is a good place to start. In fact, hidden here and there in the fine print are some good programs that promote local foods and sustainable agriculture. Now they need to be given full funding and expanded considerably to make them more than good-sounding ideas. Within the past

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Discovering Minnesota Wines

Is Minnesota the Next Sonoma Valley?
By Charli Mills

Sandy soil presses into my Keen sandals as I stand among the oldest commercial grape vines in Minnesota. I am stalking the rising sun to capture a glimpse of grapes at daybreak. The sky is already alight with streaks of orange and pink when the crow of a rooster reminds me that this vineyard is an anomaly among corn and soybeans. The road sign directing visitors to this particular swatch of vineyard is surrounded by predictable stalks of corn. No doubt that this is Midwestern farmland. Come winter, frozen ground and drifts of snow will plunge the landscape into legendary severity. I am amazed as I linger among twisted vines that have survived oppressive humidity and below zero temperatures for some thirty-three years. In fact, these magnificent twining plants have surpassed mere survival-they are fertile with broad jagged leaves and clusters of ripening fruit. My pursuit to define Minnesota wine has led me to this morning, seeking to connect to a burgeoning regional industry that is as captivating as our romanticized views of the bold voyageurs who embodied the amalgamation of the old and new worlds.

Voyageurs, the French Canadians who paddled birch-bark canoes into the Great Lakes region, trading European staples for native fur pelts, make a fitting metaphor for wines from a climate typically considered too harsh to grow traditional wine grapes. While native varieties of grapes have survived in Minnesota, they do not produce quality wine. There were, of course, the traditional fruit wines developed by farmers. But these were only bottled for their own tables. Despite the challenges, local grape growers, farmers and winemakers have pioneered in an unlikely region, combining old and new world harvests to produce award-winning wines.

Alexis Bailly Vineyard, the oldest in Minnesota, has earned over 45 national honors. It also carries on the namesake of the family’s very own voyageur ancestor, Alexis Bailly. Nan Bailly, second-generation winemaker at ABV, is no stranger to pruning shears, casks, or hardship. Growing up in the shadow of her father David Bailly’s dream to create a new viticultural region taught her a truism of the French winemakers: in order to make good wine, grapes must suffer. The family originally planted old world vines known for their wine-producing quality, but they were not enduring of the harsh climate. The reality of growing such varieties in Minnesota pressed the Bailly family to adopt such laborious methods as protecting the vines by removing them from their trellises after harvest and burying them in the dirt. “I’ve been growing grapes for 30 years,” Nan says, “and I’ve had to replant five times.” Grapes do suffer in Minnesota: winter freezes the vines, hail damages budding fruit, and prolonged heat stresses the plants. But for all their suffering, Nan understands that tending to the right grape can make her task as winemaker easier.

Simply put, Nan is a good winemaker. She learned to love the lifestyle working her father’s vineyard as a kid and she mastered winemaking in France, returning home from the Old World with a traditional French recipe for Ratafia. Considered a fortified red dessert wine, Bailly’s Ratafia gives off a heady scent of oranges, herbs, and spices. It is warming to sip on a cold autumn day and it brings out the best in a hand-made truffle. It’s one of those traditional wines that differs from region to region, reflecting the qualities of place. Bailly’s newest release is aptly named Voyageur. It is ABV’s unique expression of combining the vineyard’s oldest vines with its newest plantings. It also demonstrates Bailly’s ability to create a linear wine from bouquet to finish-the kind of wine consumers expect to taste.

The newer plantings at ABV include cold-hardy vines developed by the University of Minnesota, which established a formal breeding program for wine grapes in the mid-1980s. Combining 100 years of research with that of pioneering viticulturist Elmer Swenson, the university ascended as a world expert in cold-hardy varieties of wine grapes. Swenson spent a lifetime developing varieties to withstand extreme cold yet produce a quality wine. One challenge is agricultural: to grow a grape that can survive 20 below zero. The other is production: to create quality wine. The vine of the Frontenac grape (first introduced by the University of Minnesota in 1996) has fruited after surviving 33 degrees below zero, yet winemakers have to overcome the grape’s high acidity. While challenging, the Frontenac has proven versatile in capable hands and has thrust Minnesota into a promising viticultural region only dreamed of by visionaries such as David Bailly and Elmer Swenson. The new voyageurs of the day are rendezvousing.

In 1978, when ABV released its first wine, it was the lone outpost to an industry yet to come. Today, due to the innovative spirit of Minnesota grape growers supported by a strong University of Minnesota program, there are 23 commercial wineries and vineyards. Fieldstone Vineyards, 12 miles southeast of Redwood Falls, is one such newcomer. In a flat expanse of prairie where the tallest mark on the horizon is a grain silo, the Reding Century Farm opened its winery in 2003. Eldest of the family-owned business is Don Reding who remembers milking cows in the circa 1930s barn that now serves as a tasting room. Yet, some things have not changed. Reding jokes that on Ladies Night, “What happens in the hay loft stays in the hay loft.” Another expression of humor is found on a bottle of Fieldstone wine labeled “Wine-ing Farmer.” You can tell that Reding is enjoying this new enterprise, growing hybrid vines of Frontenac, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, and Marquette in fields that once yielded only corn and soybeans. Reding’s son-in-law Charlie Quast understands that these hybrids are unusual grapes, but Fieldstone has a naturally talented winemaker in partner Mark Wedge. Quast is confident that, “Out of our 14 wines there will be at least one style you will like.” He has hopes that Minnesota wine will be the economic boost needed in rural areas.

Vincent Negret, Cannon River Winery

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Don Reding, Fieldstone Vineyards

If the local market continues to build, growing grapes will be an agricultural boost. Northern Vineyards, founded in 1983 as the Minnesota Winegrowers Cooperative, grows most of its grapes in small vineyards across southern Minnesota. The winery itself is set in scenic Stillwater. Crofut Family Vineyards is the first vineyard to grow grapes in Scott County. Walking the vineyard with owner and winemaker Don Crofut revealed the value of growing good grapes. Crofut knows the vines by sight and easily named off each row of hybrids. He doesn’t hesitate to pluck a handful of grapes to taste the development of the fruit. His expert palate can already name the notes these grapes will develop as wine. My novice tongue could only tell that I was eating wine. Crofut went on to describe his work in the vineyard, combining different hybrids at the vine as though he’s making wine at the soil level. When you consider the time it takes to develop a vine that won’t die in the winter, the four years it takes to bear fruit, the ten years it

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Fall 2006 Table of Contents

Is Minnesota the Next Sonoma Valley?
By Charli Mills

The Surprise in My Mother’s Meatloaf
By Janet Cass

Video Series Cooks with Kids, Student Organic Farm, Authentic Travel
By Mickie Turk

A Wild Autumn Menu
By Teresa Marrone

To No Place and Back
By Richard Cretan

Cajun, Crayons, and Cukes
By Mickie Turk

By Peggy Hanson

Yes, even to you.
By Brian DeVore

Operation Ketchup
By Peggy Hanson

South along the River
By Michelle Hueser

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