Cereal rye seed harvest (copy)

Small grains are increasing in popularity with farmers in the Upper Midwest. Once cereal rye seed is harvested, a buyer typically needs to be found. A new small-grains directory is a resource updated annually.

I left Washington, D.C., yesterday, where I’m working with a group — the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition — whose spectacular track record of policy change to advance sustainable agricultural systems is unparalleled. The coalition has been responsible for creating and funding scores of programs to support conservation, beginning and historically underserved farmers, farmers’ profitability, sound research and much more.

On my way home from the airport in Madison, I stopped at the Regent Market Co-op to pick up my delivery of locally grown, organic spinach and some local organic Turkey Red flour that doesn’t trigger my gluten-tender stomach.

An argument can be made that the end of my day was as important as its beginning.

How consumers eat can transform America’s tortured farm landscape. Why do I say tortured? Our concentrated agricultural system produces crops and livestock at scales and with practices that erode soil, pollute our water bodies, contaminate our drinking water and impoverish smaller-scale farmers and their communities. This system also results in appalling rates of dietary-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and colon and other cancers. We’ve allowed the vested interests in our current farming systems to rule agricultural politics. The recently passed U.S. Farm Bill reinforced those antisocial tendencies in agriculture, and only extreme exertion on the part of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and others brought counterweight.

This isn’t inevitable. Many crops and cropping systems can support farmers’ income, protect soil for future generations, hold nutrients in place and produce healthy food. For example, complex crop rotations can interrupt the weed, insect and disease reproductive cycles associated with individual crops, reducing or obviating the need for toxic chemical pesticide applications and creating richer, healthier soil. In the Upper Midwest, growing wheat, oats, barley and other small grains in that crop rotation can offer particular benefits. After harvest, these “small grains” provide a secure environment to hold both soil and the tiny seeds of crops like alfalfa that could otherwise wash away in rainstorms. Being deep-rooted, small grains also bring up nutrients from deep in the soil, and they help create a more robust soil microbial environment, building soil’s ability to hold water and withstand extreme weather.

So if small grains grown in crop rotations have such benefits, why don’t more farmers plant them? One reason is that farmers can’t count on reliable markets for small grains. But markets expand and become more reliable when consumers realize that, just as buying from their local spinach farmer matters, it’s important to buy flour from local grain growers or baked goods from bakers who do, because those choices foster markets for small grains and reinforce valuable conservation practices.

The state of New York has created market-enhancing policies to encourage farmers to grow small grains. The state provides incentives for breweries to buy grains from New York farmers, and it pressures bakers at local farmers markets to do the same. A state like Wisconsin, with well over a hundred microbreweries and farmers markets in communities statewide, could implement similar policies. At a time when dairy farmers are in financial crisis, opening markets for crops that fall naturally into dairy crop rotations makes sense, and it also expands the means for consumers to support sound conservation practices — while quaffing a beer or munching on a scone they know was made with locally-grown grain.

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

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