Friday, October 24, 2008

SARE Program in USA Today

As sustainable farming takes root, green thumbs get greener
By Judy Keen, USA TODAY

ALTURA, Minn. — The 160-acre Kreidermacher family farm, once a traditional dairy operation, has become an incubator for sustainable farming methods.

Ed and Joyce Kreidermacher, now 63, bought the farm when they married in 1967. Over the years, they shifted from cows to hogs to growing flowers. Their son Eric, 33, is using environmentally friendly techniques and making the farm less dependent on oil.

Biomass boilers heat the greenhouses. Ash from the boilers fertilizes fields. Watering systems were designed for conservation, the soil mix used to grow plants includes coconut fiber and rice hulls instead of peat moss from environmentally sensitive bogs, and plants are grown and sold in biodegradable pots.

"We're looking for ways to do things better and be better for the land," Eric Kreidermacher says. "People respect and are willing to pay for a plant produced in a way that's more sustainable."

Kreidermacher is part of a growing trend. More old-school farmers are using techniques that protect natural resources instead of damaging them with chemicals, erosion and animal waste.

Many farmers are "rethinking … what farming is," says Kathryn Draeger, statewide director of the University of Minnesota's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

'Doing the right thing'

Sustainable farming, the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, with little or no harm to its ecosystem, is catching on across the USA, says Andy Clark, national outreach coordinator for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

Interest is driven by consumer demand for locally grown, organic and sustainable products.

"Farmers have always been good stewards of the land," Clark says, "but now they can get paid for it."

What farmers are doing:

• Dave Petty, who raises cows, calves, corn and soybeans on 4,000 acres in Eldora, Iowa, has turned some crop production land into pasture to prevent erosion and protect nearby streams from fertilizer runoff. After fall harvests, he doesn't till his fields because leaving crop residue in place adds nutrients to soil and helps it retain moisture.

"Every major decision we make has to be sustainable," says Petty, 56.

• Scott Stone's family cattle ranch in Woodland, Calif., irrigates 600 acres of pasture and cropland with water from a nearby soup factory, limits the amount of time cows graze on each pasture to reduce disruption to plants and soil, and makes conservation projects a priority.

It takes time and money, says Stone, 51, but "you're doing the right thing. There are long-term benefits."

• The Yon family farm in Ridge Spring, S.C., also practices rotational grazing, says Lydia Yon, 43. They fenced their streams to prevent erosion and keep cattle from tainting them, making groundwater cleaner, she says. They plant grasses that give nutrients back to the soil.

"What's good for us from a business standpoint and at the same time is good for the environment is not something we do because we have to, but because we want to," she says.

A shift in focus

Sustainable farming makes financial sense for Kreidermacher.

Not long ago, the farm here used 80,000-100,000 gallons of propane every year. Now, by using biomass boilers that burn pellets made of corn and wood, consumption is down to less than 20,000 gallons. Kreidermacher's goal is to reduce that number in the next three to five years and use propane only as a backup.

He buys 600 tons of corn and wood pellets for the boilers each year, so he recently bought a pellet mill and planted native grasses that are being harvested and will be processed into pellets. When the mill is paid for, he'll save more money, he says. Biomass boilers heat two greenhouses, a barn for 1,400 hogs and the house.

Kreidermacher conserves water by capturing rain and pumping water into a growing table for his plants instead of watering them from overhead. The pots he uses are made of rice hulls or wood fiber and can be composted, but they don't break down for two or three years.

The impetus for his innovations was to find ways to make his mums, poinsettias and other plants healthier, Kreidermacher says. Gradually, his focus shifted to the environment. Planting native grasses on 20 acres two years ago, he says, resulted in "an increase in wildlife habitat and water quality, helping erosion problems."

Kreidermacher plants about 30 acres each of corn and soybeans and next year will grow organic corn, wheat and barley. He wants a wind turbine to generate more oil-free energy.

"You have to keep changing for the good of the land," he says.

Read the story at the USA Today site here.

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