Are farmers up to the challenge? (Ryan Buck, Minnesota Corn Growers Association)

As a family farmer in Minnesota, I have a simple message to my fellow farmers in our great state: Make sure your voice is being heard.

There was a story in the April 28 edition of the Star Tribune about crop runoff impacting Minnesota’s rivers because farmers aren’t following a law designed to protect water quality. The story was based on a “study” by the Environmental Working Group, an anti-agriculture activist organization whose hired guns once compared farmers to cheap drunks at a bar.

I was angry. But I also wondered if, as farmers, we could be doing more to protect ourselves against attacks from the likes of EWG.

Farmers are passionate about growing food, feed, fiber and fuel for the entire world. But sometimes we’re hesitant to engage non-farmers about important local issues. We’re not comfortable telling our own story, or being proactive in building a positive brand for modern farming.

That needs to change. Because if farmers don’t tell their own story, someone else will, and it won’t always be truthful.

EWG’s “study,” which wasn’t peer-reviewed or conducted by an accredited research institution, claimed 80 percent of cropland in southern Minnesota near rivers and streams is missing at least some of the legally required natural borders that protect water quality. These natural borders are commonly called buffer strips.

Instead of providing objective context, the Star Tribune simply re-printed EWG’s most inflammatory “findings.” With a little more digging, the Star Tribune would have learned that things might not be as dire as EWG wants people to think.

The Minnesota Shoreland Rule requires a 50-foot buffer along most lakes and streams. The rule also states that general farming in these areas is permitted if the farmer maintains an approved conservation plan with USDA’s Natural Resource & Conservation Service, or if steep slopes and shore and bluff impact zones are maintained in permanent vegetation.

How much of the cropland cited by EWG is following an approved conservation plan? How much of it is in compliance due to natural vegetation remaining on steep slopes, shore and bluff impact zones? Conveniently, EWG left that part of the law out of its study and the Star Tribune didn’t bother digging deeper.

When notoriously anti-farming groups like EWG get the results of their “studies” printed in a prominent media outlet like the Star Tribune, it deals a serious blow to the real work being done on the countryside to help farmers improve water quality.

Buffer strips can be extremely effective in reducing cropland runoff and should be used where they are needed and where required by law.

Farmers invest millions of dollars annually through Minnesota’s corn check-off to have accredited institutions like the University of Minnesota conduct peer-reviewed studies on improvements we can make on the farm to protect rivers and streams. This type of non-biased research is used at the local level to develop real-world solutions that make sense across the broad spectrum of Minnesota’s diverse farmland.

Unfortunately, when anti-farming activist groups like EWG receive all the publicity for their agenda-driven work, it makes it much more difficult to find common ground and achieve actual solutions. Issues become political and divisive. People are reluctant to work together for fear of appearing to be on the wrong “side.”

If you’re a farmer, are you comfortable with groups like EWG defining you? Do you really want non-farmers who live and work in your community to equate farming with the destruction of our lakes and rivers?

I’m not comfortable with that, and you shouldn’t be, either. To change that perception, farmers need to get involved at the local level. Make sure your voice – the voice of the farmer – is heard. And make sure it’s the voice of logic and reason, not just another person yelling and screaming.

Today’s world is filled with the voices of anti-farm groups like EWG — you know, the type of people who think they are right because they yell the loudest. As farmers, we need to make our voices heard not by yelling louder, but by connecting with people.

How do farmers build those connections? A good place to start is participating in local meetings related to water quality and farming. Building relationships with non-farmers and non-ag businesses in your community is also helpful. Even being a knowledgeable resource when friends and family ask questions about modern farming and food production goes a long way.

Farming today involves more than simply tending to the day-to-day chores on your own farm. Today’s farmer needs to be involved, to develop his or her voice and make sure it’s heard above the noise made by groups like EWG.

Are you up for the challenge?

Ryan Buck farms near Goodhue, Minn., and is president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.


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