Heartland Sustainable Agriculture Network

Project Overview

LNC98-142
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1998: $64,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $48,950.00
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Jerry Jost
Kansas Rural Center

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: corn, cotton, grass (misc. perennial), hay, oats, peanuts, potatoes, soybeans, sunflower, wheat
  • Fruits: berries (other), berries (strawberries), grapes, melons
  • Vegetables: asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, rutabagas, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips
  • Additional Plants: ornamentals
  • Animals: bees, bovine, goats, poultry, sheep, swine
  • Animal Products: dairy

Practices

  • Animal Production: free-range, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, preventive practices, range improvement, grazing - rotational, stockpiled forages, watering systems, winter forage, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: windbreaks
  • Education and Training: technical assistance, decision support system, demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, study circle
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, marketing management, feasibility study, risk management, value added, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, indicators, riparian buffers, riverbank protection, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Pest Management: mulches - killed, physical control, prevention
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, holistic management
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil analysis, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, urban agriculture, urban/rural integration, analysis of personal/family life, social networks, sustainability measures

    Abstract:

    The Heartland Network stimulates local solutions to problems in agriculture through farmer-to-farmer clusters. These clusters choose to explore innovations such as management intensive grazing, pasture finishing, pasture farrowing, cover crops in crop rotations, organic farming, complementary on-farm and on-station research, relationship marketing, fresh produce subscription services, and cooperative marketing. In order to learn about these changes, clusters used their mini-grant resources for libraries in the local extension offices, field trips, training, on-farm demonstrations, market research, consultation, trade shows and publications. These activities provide opportunities to observe, make comparisons and judge innovative farming practices for themselves.

    Introduction:

    Freedom to farm requires making choices. As old farm programs fade and new flexibility emerges, farmers and ranchers need to take advantage of innovative management and marketing options. Future opportunities for farmers will come from farming in ways that are fundamentally different from the past and present. To consider change, farmers often need to break from past mental models. Research suggests that any major change in behavior involves new paradigms of thinking. Often, farmers find other farmers as the best reference and support for change. They learn most by watching what new ideas are being tried on their neighbor’s land. Formal and informal on-farm research and demonstrations are highly valued as sources of decision-making information.

    The Heartland Sustainable Agriculture Network was created based on this rationale. It was initially funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1993 to organize producers in local farmer-to-farmer clusters to explore and develop innovative approaches to their problems. The Heartland Network addresses the loss of local ownership of farms in rural communities, loss of farm profitability, and environmental degradation. The need for information sharing among agricultural stakeholders is particularly important because many current agricultural problems are human management challenges requiring more than technology for their resolution.

    The Heartland Network responds to these challenges by providing guidance and resources that allow local leadership to create their own solutions. These clusters in the past have chosen to explore options such as management intensive grazing, beef pasture finishing, pasture farrowing, cover crops in crop rotations, organic farming, complementary on-farm and on-station research, relationship marketing, fresh produce subscription services, and cooperative marketing. In order to explore these options, clusters used their mini-grant resources for libraries in the local extension offices, field trips, training, on-farm demonstrations, market research, consultation, and publications.

    The formation of producer clusters within the Heartland Network has created a safe environment that encourages change and experimentation. Farmers in the Heartland Network say that through their participation in a cluster, they feel much more able to try new farming practices than they would on their own. Members report that the most beneficial activities of the Network have been farm tours and field trips. These activities provide farmer interaction and the opportunity for participants to observe, make comparisons and judge innovative farming practices for themselves. Our evaluation has shown that clusters are the keys to lasting impact of training events such as Holistic Management workshops. Farmers who attend training events as a part of a cluster return home with colleagues who have shared their experiences and can continue to reinforce learning and application of information (Peak, 1996).

    This proposal will expand the Heartland Network both in size and scope. The purpose of expanding the Heartland Network is to empower farmers and ranchers to develop markets and management strategies that effectively balance profitability, quality of life, neighborliness, and resource conservation. The ultimate goal of this proposal is to build leadership and working partnerships that integrate farms, food systems, and institutions toward a more sustainable future.

    Healthy Rural Communities Benefit From Prosperous Family Farms

    A wide collection of sociological studies points to a correlation between large-scale, hired-labor farming and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions. These negative conditions include a decline in the rural population, greater income inequality, lower standards of living, fewer community services, less democratic political participation, lower community social participation and integration, decreased retail trade, environmental pollution and energy depletion, and greater unemployment (Lobao, 1990). Because of this relationship between farm structure and rural quality of life, the Heartland Network directs its efforts to strengthen small and moderate-scale, owner-operated farms and ranches.

    High Production Costs Threaten Farm Survival

    Complex technologies often compromise farmers’ understanding of their impact on the environment and society. In addition, these expensive technologies force producers to specialize production systems and borrow more money. In turn, these technologies increase production and depress farm prices. Such trends move decision-making off the farm to technicians, creditors, and market middlemen. As a Heartland farmer concludes, “farmers too often buy solutions to problems rather than managing them.”

    The Heartland Network works to promote a shift in agriculture from reliance on highly-technical solutions to problems to knowledge-based solutions. Such a shift parallels similar trends in our society. Drucker (1994) contends we are shifting to a knowledge-based society that creates a knowledge worker. Ikerd (1996) argues the future of agriculture will grow out of “high think” rather than “high tech” approaches to development.

    The Heartland Network Prepares Farmers and Educators for Constructive Change

    Future opportunities for farmers will come from farming in ways that are fundamentally different from the past and present (Ikerd, 1996). Often, farmers find other farmers as the best reference and support for change (Freyenberger et al., 1994). They learn most by watching what new ideas are being tried on their neighbor’s land. Formal and informal on-farm research and demonstrations are highly valued as sources of decision-making information (Eberle and Shroyer, 1996). The Heartland Network will organize new farmer-to-farmer clusters to change paradigms and transfer management innovations into new rural communities.

    Another way the Heartland Network promotes constructive change is to encourage collaboration between producers and university researchers through learning teams. A Kansas State University farmer attitude survey on research and experimentation among Kansas farmers showed that farmers wish to have greater input into the research process and are enthusiastic about on-farm research. The implication from the survey is that on-farm research involving direct participation of farmers can be very important in influencing farmer attitudes about new management choices. KSU research and extension staff were viewed as important sources of information by farmers (Freyenberger et al., 1994).

    The Heartland Network Will Use Whole-Farm Planning As a Management Tool

    The Heartland Network will use whole-farm planning to manage change within the context of system solutions. It is this experiential knowledge that enables farmers to master the “intricate formal patterns in ordering (their) work within the overlapping cycles — human and natural, controllable and uncontrollable — of the life of a farm” (Berry, 1977). Scientific knowledge provides farmers with valuable insights, but to be useful that knowledge must be placed in the unique context of each farm, understood as a complex interface of ecological, production and social systems. To paraphrase Chambers (1989), whole-farm planning puts the “farmer first.”

    Putting the farmer first does not imply that farmers who practice whole-farm planning must rely solely upon their experiential knowledge. They often incorporate both scientific and other farmers’ knowledge into their practices. Farmers in the sustainable agriculture movement, some of whom practice whole-farm planning, share knowledge through networks they have forged with other sustainable agriculture farmers (Hassanein and Kloppenberg, 1995).

    Savory’s (1988) Holistic Management approach puts primary focus on goal setting as the first step to planning. Holistic management can be a useful planning tool to integrate profitability, environmental protection, and quality of life (Stinner, 1996). Irvine (1994) reports that after a group has gone through this training, they are better able to clarify a shared purpose within an environment of openness and trust. Often, a common goal for Holistic Management clubs is to challenge members with fresh perspectives to maintain a balance between personal relationships and production demands.

    The Heartland Network Will Create New Markets to Reward Sustainable Farms

    The farming sector between the years of 1910 to 1990 experienced a significant erosion of economic activity to both the input sector and the marketing sector. These two sectors have squeezed both profits and farm families out of agriculture. If farmers take back 20% of that middle — 10% of both the input and marketing sectors — net farm income would double (Smith, 1992).

    Concentration in agricultural markets reduces sale outlets, depresses farm prices, and separates consumers from farmers. Large-scale vertical integration places farmers in poor bargaining positions with inadequate price discovery. A Heartland Network rancher describes these forces this way: “We are told to get big or get out. Our response is to get different. We are looking for a way to get closer to the consumer.”

    Improved profitability helps sustainable farming systems become more attractive and practical for farmers (Schaller, 1988). Hartman’s (1997) consumer research revealed a strong consumer interest in buying environmentally-enhanced food products. Diverse products and market strategies must be developed to meet diverse consumer needs. However, traditional marketing firms have been slow to change grades and standards to meet these new consumer demands (Dicks, 1992). This leaves the opportunity for farmers to tailor marketing food products to conform to the values of the today’s health-conscious consumer (Ikerd, 1996).

    The Heartland Network Will Help Clusters Develop a Menu of Marketing Strategies

    One niche marketing strategy is relationship marketing. One example is the farm of Joel and Theresa Salatin in Virginia. They sell everything they raise to about 400 customers — 75% of whom live within a 50-mile radius. Their customers prefer personal relationships with farmer and high food quality (Salatin, 1995). The Heartland Network will continue to support mentoring opportunities between Kansas farmers and innovative farmers like the Salatin family.

    Two other niche markets that the Heartland Network will expand are community supported agriculture (CSA) farms and farmers’ markets. These markets rebuild relationships between people and teach customers about the cycles of the growing season (Guenthner, 1992). This interest in such farmer-to-consumer marketing is growing. For example, the number of farmers’ markets nationwide has increased by more than 453 percent during the last 20 years. In Kansas, the number of farmers’ markets increased from 26 to 55 from 1987 to 1990 (Hughes, 1992).

    A fourth marketing strategy is marketing cooperatives. Cooperatives improve farm profitability by getting better prices, strengthening bargaining power, and expanding marketing channels. Normal trading profits of the usual middlemen and processors are diverted to cooperative members. Cooperatives also allow for more direct channels of distribution and improved food quality (Schaars, 1980).

    Project objectives:

    1. The Heartland Network will organize six new and support the 10 existing farmer-to-farmer clusters serving more than 200 farm families to help farmers and ranchers work together to learn the skills to plan, develop, and transfer sustainable farming systems into their communities.

    2. The Heartland Network will organize three learning teams providing research, extension, and education to farmers and ranchers on sustainable agriculture practices and holistic management. These learning teams will be partnerships of cluster producers, ranchers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and educators. These teams will develop educational workshops, field days, and printed materials to aid project outreach.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.