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Local Foods and Sustainable Agriculture

More land is used for agriculture than for anything else in the United States. The way that our food is produced has a profound impact on the natural environment, the health of consumers and farm workers, and the economic well-being of small farmers and rural communities.

Pesticides used in food production contaminate our water supply and increase the risk of many types of cancer. Fertilizer runoff contributes to the formation of vast "dead zones" in our oceans. Animals kept in close confinement are fed a steady diet of antibiotics to ward off disease, contributing to the emergence of new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that can be deadly in humans.

Farmers are squeezed by a system in which they receive only 20 cents of every dollar spent on food, the rest going to large seed and chemical corporations and other middlemen. Farmland has become concentrated in ever fewer hands, resulting in the depopulation and economic decline of many small rural communities.

We must find a way to feed ourselves that is conducive to the long-term well-being of our planet and the people who live on it. Right here in Rice County, we can take steps to build an agricultural system that protects the environment and provides a fair living to local farmers.

What we're doing on campus

We are running a campaign in Rice County to enact policies that will promote the growth of a sustainable and fair agricultural system in our region. Together with members of Food Truth and local foods activists and sustainable farmers around Northfield, we are working to build grassroots pressure and lobby our county commissioners to pass the following two policies:

The Local Foods Purchasing Policy would require county-run institutions to purchase as much locally-grown and sustainably-produced food as possible. Institutions like the county jail spend tens of thousands of dollars each year on food, and nearly all of this money flows right out of the region. By redirecting some of this money to local farmers, we can keep the money circulating in our local community and promote sustainable agricultural practices at the same time.

Under the Local Foods Purchasing Policy, the first priority would be to purchase any given food item from a local certified-organic farmer. If this item cannot be obtained from a local organic source within a designated price range, the next priority is to purchase it from a local conventional farmer. Only if the item is not available from a local organic or local conventional farmer at a reasonable price will it be purchased from a non-local source.

The Organics Conversion Policy would provide short-term financial support to farmers who convert part or all of their land from conventional to organic production. The transition period between organic and conventional production is financially challenging, because federal law requires that farmers use organic methods for three years before their products can be marketed as "organic." Thus, farmers are using organic methods (which are sometimes more expensive and more labor-intensive) without benefiting from the higher prices that organic goods often receive.

The Organics Conversion Policy would provide property tax rebates to organic farmers for the first five years of their transition, to defray some of the costs of conversion. This assistance would be available to current farmers as well as new farmers.

In addition to reducing fossil fuel consumption and eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, organic farms are more economically productive per acre than conventional farms (after the initial transition period has passed). Encouraging the conversion of farmland from conventional to organic production would help increase the level of rural economic activity in Rice County and protect farmland from encroaching suburban development.

For more information

Contact Ben Hellerstein, Carleton MPIRG's co-chair, to get involved in promoting a sustainable and fair food system in our region.