Thursday, March 24, 2011

Students Learn about Sustainable Agriculture in Worthington, MN

Source: Worthington Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON — Students in Worthington High School’s Ag 10 and Floriculture classes received a challenge Monday morning — to find a way to feed a growing world population with finite resources, and do so in a manner that protects the land and sustains it for generations to come.

Sustainability is a buzz word in today’s world of agriculture, and Monday marked the first class in a three-year project to get today’s youths thinking about tomorrow’s global food and fiber needs. Rolf Mahlberg, former WHS and Minnesota West Community and Technical College ag instructor, and Dan Livdahl, Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Administrator, are leading the project locally, thanks to a Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) grant. The two, along with Minnesota West ag teacher Jeff Rogers, recently completed training provided by the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center.

“Our goal is to say your generation needs to figure out how agriculture can stay sustainable,” said Mahlberg. Recent events in Japan that have led to elevated radioactivity in food and soil have highlighted further the need to protect lands used for production agriculture.

Mahlberg said students today need to be problem solvers for the demands that will be placed on agriculture production in the future. From 1900 to 2011, the world population grew from 1 billion to nearly 7 billion people.

By 2050, the population is expected to reach 10.5 billion people. At the same time, the amount of available land for production agriculture will stay the same. That means farmers need to find ways to get more production from the land without destroying it for future generations.

“We have to produce food in a sustainable fashion so that the people that will follow us on this planet have the same opportunities to feed this world that we had when we inherited it,” Mahlberg said.

On Monday, he and Livdahl took the first step in explaining sustainability by having students create a crop residue measuring tape. Students attached beads at one-foot intervals along a 53-foot-long cord, which will be used during a visit to the Mahlberg farm later this spring. There, they will stretch the measuring tape out across the grain of the field and calculate the amount of residue present based on the number of beads that come in contact with it. A field with a minimum of 30 percent residue present is considered a sustainable ag practice, Mahlberg said.

Why is sustainability important on agricultural land?

“When raindrops strike exposed soil, they will break the structure up and allow that particle to become mobile and flow with water,” Mahlberg said. “If rain hits the residue, the destructive force of that raindrop is absorbed by the residue. More residue means more erosion control.”

More erosion control leads to less soil loss and improved productivity.

“We don’t want farmers to sacrifice a bunch of income,” Mahlberg said. “We want them to think in terms of sustainability and production. We need to grow food.

“This world is ours for today, but it isn’t ours to use up,” he added. “It’s ours to be supportive of.”

Sustainability is not destroying the planet while trying to grow large crops to feed the world.

“Whatever we do has to be economical — it has to be good for the people that do it,” added Livdahl. “Our population is growing quickest in the countries with the least resources. Food and fiber will be needed to meet people’s basic needs.”

Livdahl said as a growing world demands more, non-renewable resources will be more expensive, like gasoline and fertilizers.

“We are 5 percent of the world population and we use 25 percent of the resources,” he said.

Students of today are needed to become the scientists of tomorrow — to answer the tough questions about sustainable agriculture, from food production to converting grain into energy, Mahlberg added.

Mahlberg and Livdahl will meet with WHS students again today as they plant corn in soils containing varying fertility rates. Throughout the remainder of the quarter, students will monitor plant progress and record data on nutrient management for use in proving or disproving a hypothesis.

Students will also take a field trip to Mahlberg’s farm to measure crop residue this spring, and summer field trips are planned as well.

Mahlberg and Livdahl plan to lead classes on sustainability at Round Lake High School this spring as well.

“I want every student that I can get a hold of exposed to the subject,” Mahlberg said.

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