Photo courtesy of USDA.
We had a fascinating conversation with today’s guest, Margaret Krome, who is the public policy program director for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, located in East Troy, Wisconsin. Margaret has worked for many years to sustain state funding sustainable agriculture initiatives, plus she writes a regular column on policy for the Capital Times in Madison, and teaches workshops on grant writing and on using federal programs to support sustainable agriculture.
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute is a non-profit organization as well as a working biodynamic and organic farm. Along with the policy advocacy led by Margaret, the institute conducts research that “contributes to the future vitality of farms and rural communities.” An especially exciting project is the organic corn breeding program, where they are using traditional breeding techniques (not genetic engineering) to develop organic corn hybrids that will not breed with GMO corn!
Normally, corn plants can breed with any plant in the same family, so preventing cross-pollination of GMO and organic crops is a critical concern for organic farmers. The idea behind this new strain of corn is that when pollen from GMO corn would land on this new hybrid, the reproductive cells would not be compatible – similar to how two animals of different species cannot breed – thus preserving the corn’s organic status. The development would be a huge benefit for organic farming worldwide.
Along with this program, Michael Fields conducts other research programs, a children’s gardening program, farming internships, and more, all with a goal of “nurturing the ecological, social and economic resiliency of food and farming systems.”
Please enjoy this wonderful conversation with Margaret Krome.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Margaret Krome
August 24, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners, and welcome back to Rootstock Radio. I had a fascinating conversation with today’s guest, Margaret Krome, who is the public policy program director for Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin. Margaret has worked for many years to sustain funding for sustainable agriculture. She’s a writer, a columnist on policy for the Capital Times in Madison. She’s a teacher, she’s a grant writer, and she’s a change maker. Meet Margaret Krome.
TM: Welcome, Margaret! I’m so happy to have you here.
MARGARET KROME: Thank you, glad to be here.
TM: And I can see that, like many of our guests on this show, that you do a lot more than just policy—that you are a writer, you’re a speaker, you’re an activist; probably the list can be much longer. But can you give us a little bit of a background on what led you to be in the work that you’re in today around food and farming?
MK: Oh, sure. Well, you know, I was an English literature major, so that’s obvious, isn’t it?
TM: Yes—you can do everything!
MK: So I was a lobbyist in Washington on poverty legal aid issues; realized, you know, I don’t think I’m made for the cosmopolitan policy world. I thought it was kind of a cynical world. And I went through a personal self-examination way back in the late 1990s, early 1980s [[she must have meant late 80s, early 90s?]], and concluded that what I really cared most about when I had been an undergraduate, which was in very recent history in those days, was the natural resources world, and especially international work.
So if you live in Washington, everyone says to you, “Well, of course there’s a program for you, that you ought to explore,” which was of course the Peace Corps. So I decided before going to graduate school I would go into the Peace Corps, and specifically sought work doing natural resources management, particularly agri-forestry is what it was, in Cameroon, which is West Africa. And it was a very important and transformative time and made me clear that it’s not just protecting natural resources but figuring out a way to use them, in a way, because we’re going to use them. People will use them. People are the hugest impact upon our natural resources. So how can we use them in a way that sustains them and makes our lives rich, healthy, culturally invigorated, and economically sound?
So really, spontaneously, around the country, all over this country there were groups of farmers struggling in the 1980s, of course, with the farm crisis, with the tremendous overuse of resources, tremendous loss of soil. And it just was the case that a lot of people around the country, little clusters of farmers here and there and everywhere, were saying, “You know what we care about? We care about protecting our natural resources, we care about economic soundness, and we care about being socially responsible. We don’t want to do this on the backs of farm workers who aren’t paid enough. We want to be healthy in our communities.”
So that really, the three-point definition, that pretty much defines most people’s activities in sustainable agriculture: environmentally sound, socially responsible, and profitable. Those were the things that mattered to me, and it just happened that I became an early activist in the movement as it moved forward. And so, despite my having said I was leaving Washington because I didn’t think I wanted to do policy, I got hired to do policy and have done so ever since.
TM: What do you think—are we coming along? Is it becoming something that is a household word for people, this idea of sustainability? Are we making the improvements that you were hoping that we’d be making since you got in it?
MK: Great questions. And I will say I think there are a couple questions in that, and one of them is, is it becoming a household word? The answer is yes, I think. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing, because it’s also a sometimes co-opted word. So to the extent that people have some transparency about how things are produced and how the world is affected by how they are produced and distributed and processed and so forth, then I do think we are making major headway.
I think that the efforts to develop more transparency—and that effort takes lots of different forms—but in most of our communities, and I’m willing to bet most of your listeners have experienced farmers markets or community supported agriculture, or institutional buying where they are in a position to know who produced their food, and sometimes in a position to say to the producer, “You know, I’d like to have you do this versus that; and would you try that variety versus this?” For example, I am gluten intolerant. I am [in] that ridiculed group of people who can’t eat much wheat. I just get sick—
TM: You’re not just a hypochondriac.
MK: No, I’m not, I’m really, not, please! But it has really been delightful that in very recent months I talked with a local miller out in Lone Rock, Wisconsin, Lonesome Stone Milling, that mills a wheat I can eat! I’m so excited! Turkey Red wheat—it came over from Crimea back in the 1840s. It used to be all over the Great Plains, the biggest wheat variety, and somehow I can eat it. Now that’s an example of how our movement has made a difference in people’s health: I can eat wheat again!
TM: Okay, you gluten-intolerant listeners out there, please take note: Turkey Red wheat. It’s an heirloom, I’m assuming.
MK: It is, and it’s Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock—you can look them up on the Internet, I’m sure. But it’s made all the difference, just having a conversation at a social gathering and hearing yes, you do carry it? Great! And that’s the kind of thing our movement’s done.
We have had fits and starts, I think, in terms of the very reliable issues, issues that are perennial issues, like soil erosion. You know, frankly, we have had a tremendous problem in Wisconsin—and we’ve spoken about this recently, actually, Theresa—that in southwest Wisconsin, for example, as a lot of land came out of the government program called the Conservation Reserve Program, which sets land aside when it’s sensitive land, highly erodible, whatever land. And when they took that out in order to capture the benefits of the growing ethanol market several years ago and bioenergy markets, suddenly corn prices were really astronomical. And people said, “Hey, I don’t want to put that land aside—I want to grow!” And we have once again had the very highest rates of corn in—
TM: It’s sad, isn’t it? Yeah, we’re seeing it.
MK: —all over the… It used to be that part of the state, you could really see how our investments in soil conservation, to protect against soil erosion, how they’d been paying off. And now, you know, the market has created an incentive, and certainly we have federal programs which create incentives to grow crops in a way that are not going to protect the soil and are not going to keep nutrients on the land.
So there are issues there. It’s a mixed bag. But I am by no means pessimistic. We can make change; we have made change. And I’m excited that we have a number of leaders in mainstream agriculture in the state, people who are working with conventional farmers, and you know, a lot of those folks really do care. And that’s exciting.
TM: Of course they care! So many of them care. As someone who’s spent a lot of time trying to help convert conventional farmers to organic, it’s so challenging sometimes, and for other reasons than just because it’s a better-pay price. I think we’re looking at a lot of those kinds of issues of what’s the right thing to do but yet you have to be economically feasible.
MK: And it’s sometimes a cultural issue. You know, sometimes just the group of farmers that you come through your career with, and you’ve eaten and you’ve had coffee at the coffee shop, and you see them at the implement dealer, and they’re not doing anything different, or not one to talk about it. I used to have a farmer friend, actually, out in that Lone Rock area, who used to say when he had first developed a crop rotation that reduced his requirement for purchased nitrogen, as he developed it he just put on his fertilizer hitch anyway. He didn’t want his neighbors to know. He said farming is a competitive sport. He said, “I don’t want to look like a fool around here. I’ll do what I think is the right thing to do.” So culture sometimes influences what people—
TM: I heard a farmer say one time, and I just never forgot it, someone who was in the Practical Farmers of Iowa. He said, “If you think it’s bad being a teenager, be a farmer in Iowa and do something different.”
MK: Right, exactly.
TM: But I think a little bit of that’s changing now, that there perhaps is getting to be a little bit more of an acceptance, hopefully, of diversity in the farming world. Are you right now working on any policies with the Institute that kind of address this over…the conversation, what we call it, you said it was the Conversation Resource Program? Well we always call it CRP.
MK: Yeah, Conservation Reserve Program. So there are several programs, and yes, we’re working actively. And the Michael Fields Ag Institute leads a Midwest group focusing particularly on the Conservation Stewardship Program. So Conservation Stewardship Program, unlike CRP you just referred to, is not a set-aside program. It’s not a program where you take the land and put it into a lease to say, “We’re taking you out of production because you just really shouldn’t be… You’ve got too steep of hillside land. We shouldn’t put you in production.” That’s what CRP does.
CSP is for working lands—Conservation Stewardship Program. So it’s farmers—and ranchers, of course, not in Wisconsin, but nationwide it includes ranchers—and it’s a way of saying… The original tagline that the USDA developed back in 2002 when we first got this program created and passed through the Farm Bill that year, was “Reward the best and motivate the rest.” The idea is, a lot of farmers who have already invested in sound stewardship, those farmers sometimes end up not, for example, being able to enroll in conservation programs because it looks like, “Golly, the problem they’ve got left on their farm isn’t big enough for us to invest in. We’re going to invest in these great big farms.” And so small, medium-size farms, farms people have invested in stewardship, they weren’t able to succeed at getting help. And so the idea was, people who have already invested who are doing it well, reward them. Reward the best.
And motivate the rest: create a mechanism by which you encourage other farmers, or even farmers who are doing well but it’s a mixed bag in whatever way, or they’re emergent in their attempts. Help create a mechanism for them to be rewarded for new attempts and for new stewardship undertakings.
And so that’s the basic thinking behind the Conservation Stewardship Program. It is now the USDA’s conservation program that has the largest acreage in this nation. So that’s pretty impressive. It’s gone from a program that we had to fight, fight, fight, fight, fight to get created in the first place; fight, fight, fight for funding for. We still have to fight for funding. But that’s a program that makes a big difference in the lives of lots of farmers and gives them some flexibility and some options.
TM: It sounds to me also that it’s a program where farmers learn from farmers?
MK: Yeah, they can. It’s absolutely true.
TM: And I think that’s just the best, certainly the best way. I’m just wondering, I’m thinking about the Leopold Center. You’ve just reminded of the Leopold Center’s wonderful work they did on studying the “ag in the middle” farmers. Is this a kind of program that really benefits that ag in the middle?
MK: It absolutely can.
TM: Those people, not so big and not so small, but they say those people in the middle are the most efficient, have the ability to be the most sustainable, produce good quantities.
MK: Yeah, this is a program that absolutely can support farmers of all sizes. I will say that the determination of who, what size of farmer most benefits from a program, is made when Congress either does or does not, in the Farm Bill, put a limit on how much of a payment you can get. So that’s one of the biggest factors that determines whether you’re going to have a few very large farmers capturing the benefit. Certainly the EQIP program struggled with that for many years, and efforts to try to cap that continue to be a contentious issue in Congress. CSP has definitely served many, many farms. We just had a farmer go, actually a wonderful farmer in the western part of the state of Wisconsin, right along the Mississippi, in that area, Coon Valley. Some of your listeners may know that way back in the 1930s, Coon Valley was the very first of what’s now the soil conversation, natural resources—
TM: Right, yes, there’s even a plaque along the highway by Coon Valley.
MK: Yes, saying they did the first of the soil conservation projects, and that was in Coon Valley. And when I talked to this farmer, Jim Munch, he’s a grazier out there, and he says that his neighbors tell him that in those days, you could put a hay wagon in the gullies on his farm. And he said because of those investments in conservation, they now can farm it and be a very profitable and sustainable farm. Well, he went to Washington because they have used the Conservation Stewardship Program and it’s been a very important program for them. We had farmers coming into Washington from Kansas for whom this has been an important way for them to experiment. They’re much more, for example, they’re a no-till farmer. They’re much more of a cash grain farm. And yet they’re investing in cover crops. They’re trying to find ways that they can be resilient in the face of drought.
A lot of farmers are finding that the CSP, the Conservation Stewardship Program, offers a lot of enhancements that help farmers do things that can help them in the drought. They give them more tools to deal with this tremendous climate challenge that farmers are all facing.
TM: Well, you know, you’re reminding me that a lot of the reasons why farmers don’t always adopt more sustainable practices is because they’re spending all their time worrying about the weather. And that’s a very short-term, short way of thinking. And so it’s very hard, I think, for some farmers to get out of that short-term thinking of the weather to this long-term thinking about, okay, how do I build my soil?
MK: That is so true. There’s another set of incentives, too, that it’s really worth putting on the table, because it’s pernicious, really. And that is, you know, in the Farm Bill, every year, it seems like every several years when we have our Farm Bill, in the recent couple of decades people have said, okay, this is the year we’re going to really deal with the fact that our commodity programs pay farmers to monocrop, to crop a very few crops that are the commodity program crops, and farm a lot of them, and that makes it very hard to have a crop rotation. And if you don’t have a crop rotation, there ain’t no way you’re going to be able to reduce your pesticides, because that’s the way you deal with the fact that you have just put out a steady diet of the same thing and you’re going to attract all the pests and weeds and diseases that love that diet.
So you need a crop rotation. And if we don’t have federal policy that encourages it, no way. And so we always struggle with that. And now we have crop insurance that also very strongly supports the continuation of that small diet of crops. And it doesn’t encourage diversification, which is the absolute key for farmers to be able to be resilient and versatile and to not depend upon those few crops.
TM: We need to go back to understanding that soil is one of the most if not the most important thing that we should be looking at building as part of the resilience that we’re going to be needing in the twenty-first century. And so what do you think: can we have better incentives for soil building and for perennial grass-based agriculture?
MK: Well, absolutely. And we were just talking about a program, which is the Conversation Stewardship Program, and I’ll go back to that just for a moment and point out that part of the rationale was that we want to be creating incentives and subsidies. There’s nothing wrong with the word subsidy. There’s nothing wrong with society saying to a group of people, “Hey, we’d like to help you do the thing that’s in the greatest interest of society.” The question is, is it in the greatest interest of society to have a surplus of grains and drive the price to the bottom and end up paying a lot of money to farmers to compensate for that—and in the meantime harming the land for future generations? Or is it in the interest of society to subsidize soil conservation?
And part of what Conservation Stewardship Program’s thinking was is that we care about subsidizing stewardship. That matters for generations to come. If those farmers back in the 1930s hadn’t invested in Jim Munch’s farm, he wouldn’t be able to farm there. If we don’t protect our land now, we won’t be able to farm.
There are programs besides just pasturing and grazing; there are other strategies. And yes, Conservation Stewardship Program, but other programs also help reinforce the value of, for example, cover crops. Now, Michael Fields Ag Institute is hosting the 2015 Cover Crops Conference. We’re going to be talking about this strategy, which people are finding can actually… Recent data is showing it can increase the economic return on a farm. And just survey data around the country has shown that that can happen.
This is a… Cover crops—what is a cover crop, you say? Cover crops are strategies where you’re growing a crop, not because you’re planning to harvest it and sell it; you’re growing it because it builds the soil. You were just asking about soil. Cover crops build soil and they also have, with all of the microorganisms that they foster, they create the glue that holds soil particles together so that it doesn’t erode as much. It creates the micronutrients that are more accessible to your crop. It creates the kind of microflora that then help you hold your soil through a drought and keep moisture through a drought. So cover crops prove to be… Actually, it’s kind of interesting to people, the idea of growing a crop, not selling it, and making more money for having done that effort.
I’m working with this neat group of farmers in southwest Wisconsin, and it’s called the Southwest Wisconsin Farmer Innovation Network. And the idea is farmers, who took their land out of CRP, you know, found themselves looking at, uh-oh, the prices have gone down, way down. And when they bottomed out, farmers said, “Oh, my golly, we didn’t understand that we needed… We need to understand our options.”
TM: Because everyone did that and we overproduced corn.
MK: Yeah! And so we’re looking at, we’re asking them, what are the concepts you want to explore? What are they? And the first one we started off with is cover crops. And we will pursue other ones. But we’re doing a field day on a farm, and it’s a large farmer down there, a really neat farm. And I will say, the information on it is going to be on the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute website. That’s the easiest way. But it’s going to be down on August 31, which is a Monday, just a little north of the little town of Potosi. Beer drinkers who know Potosi because it’s a big beer-drinking, beer-brewin’ town. It’s a famous town but not a big town. But anyway, north of that a couple, three miles is where we’re going to have that and just give people a chance to share: how do you protect your soil, and why do you care?
TM: So www.michaelfields.org is the website. So please visit it, and also some of you out there may wish to attend this. You know, I know that some of our listeners out there who are food activists might not have a clue what “no-till” is. Do you want to give them a quick… And it’s important to learn this, because these are the kinds of different agricultural techniques that we’re trying to integrate with sustainability. And it’s so important to know how our food is grown. So I wondered if you could give us just a two-minute education on what is “no-till.”
MK: A quick explanation. Sure. So no-till is… Well, if you think about how, traditionally, you can imagine those wonderful songs about the field behind the plow, and so forth. That’s till. That’s serious till.
TM: Yeah, working up the soil.
ML: And when you’re planting crops—just as an example, corn. Corn is a tropical plant. It doesn’t like to come up in a Midwestern climate in that nice cold spring, and it’s going to sit there. And you know what’s going to be, while that corn isn’t coming up, you know what is coming up? Weeds. And so you’re going to have to figure out some way to deal with all those weeds while you’re waiting to plant your corn. So what people have typically done is they kill it. And then they get rid of the weeds and then they plant the corn when it’s a little later in the season.
But if you realize what’s happening with that idea, what you’re basically doing is, during that time of year when you get a lot of rain, you have tilled up your ground, so that ground is vulnerable to rain, and you’re going to have a lot of erosion going right down the hill, right down to the river, right down to the Gulf.
So what is the strategy? Well, some people have used a strategy, no-till, where they plant their corn; sometimes they leave the stubble in the ground from the previous year and they literally just, I’ll call it punching into the ground, when they’re putting their seeds in later on in the year. But they end up having to spray herbicide to keep the weeds down before they plant.
There is a very small but emergent strategy, which is organic no-till. And some people are using organic no-till. Some people use these cover crops that I just described—they use cover crops. After they’ve taken off their previous year’s crop, they will put in a crop that kind of has very sharp elbows, you might say. It kind of shoves out those weeds. Winter rye is a nice example. And then you plant into winter rye. How do you get rid of winter rye when you’re ready to plant your next crop? Well, there are different strategies, and some people use these things called rollers and crimpers, and basically they kind of smush them and let them dry down themselves, and then you plant your crop.
TM: Unfortunately, however, most of them were using Roundup. I’m hoping we can find some other solutions, because I think no-till is definitely one of the solutions, but not when you have to use lots of pesticides to get rid of your cover crop.
What do you think about that, this whole resiliency of the mycelium in soil? How do some of these agricultural practices perhaps protect that mycelium in the soil that is so basic to it?
MK: Well, not disrupting it, not tilling it is a good start, because it’s really tough on microflora to have tilling it. So that’s a good first step. But trying to maintain diversity in the thing that’s growing on top of that soil and in, down into the soil, that’s important.
One of the ideas—okay, you think I’ve just got cover crops nonstop on the brain, and it’s not the only solution. I mean, there are also good resource-conserving crop rotations and other strategies. But if you feed your microflora a diet, if you think of yourself as not just feeding the crop but feeding the soil and feeding the organisms in the soil, and creating a diet that’s going to create healthy organisms, that’s a very important strategy. So that’s a lot of the thinking behind cover crops, and it’s the thinking behind a good crop rotation.
You know, one of the reasons Wisconsin’s farmers have a leg up on a lot of other states is that we have a strong livestock tradition. And livestock, historically, in our state has had a varied diet. You’d typically have a few years of alfalfa, then you’d have a couple years of corn, and then you’d have two to three years, maybe a couple years, of a small grain like a wheat or a rye, oats. And then you’d go back to alfalfa. So that’s giving you nitrogen from the alfalfa, and you’re bringing up micronutrients with these different things. That helps your soil. So if you can figure out using that kind of a good crop rotation and then build into that some of these other really interesting crops that you can build in that help loosen your soil, that help open up new nutrients in it, that’s important.
I’m pretty confident—in addition to the research that we do on cover crops and the work we do in the policy program, I thought it’d be important for you to know that we do some really interesting work on corn breeding. So some of the idea is you want to create a crop that, of course, resists weeds, that resists pests, that is suited for organic production, but also that can’t take the traits, the GMO traits in GMO corn. So it’s resistant to that. Those are pretty important strategies.
TM: It won’t crossbreed. We have to have those varieties, so badly.
MK: It won’t crossbreed. And so we have work that’s going on at Michael Fields on that, and I just felt like to share a little of that. We have an education program that I haven’t talked about. We have really neat workshops that we do. But I didn’t want to have this only be about policy and cover crops, as much as I hear about those. Thank you.
TM: Once again, everyone, please visit the Michael Fields website to see some of the exciting work that they’re doing: www.michaelfields.org. Thank you so much for being with us today. We’re talking with Margaret Krome, the policy director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and an activist, a speaker, and someone who, as you can see, knows a lot about the way food is produced.
MK: Thank you, Theresa, so much. It’s such a great program.
TM: Thank you so much, Margaret, for joining me today. And a special thanks to the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. Learn more about Michael Fields at michaelfields.org. And you can find all the radio episodes from Rootstock, plus more information, at our website, rootstock.coop/radio.
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