September 9, 2005
sustainable agriculture program perishes under Blunt’s budget
Missouri’s farmlands are not the only place where one can smell the pungent scent of manure.
Its stench also is wafting from the state capitol, or so think two small Missouri farmers impacted by a budget cut to an agriculture program that helped them experiment with new ideas for organic farming.
“We’re not happy about it,” said farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff, co-owners of Fair Share Farm, Kearney, MO.
“If the state is really interested in moving forward in agriculture, they need to help Missouri farmers convert farmland and try new ideas and develop more organic farms. To not fund that is very short-sighted,” Ruggieri said.
“The priorities of the governor are not to support agriculture in Missouri. If they were, he would have kept the small amount of money we had that was helping farmers create a farming enterprise that succeeds,” she said.
“He should focus on helping farmers try new things without betting the whole farm on that enterprise. Most farmers don’t have the economic security to take a risk on their own and for good reason. They fear trying new things without a little bit of help.”
In June, Gov. Matt Blunt cut nearly $45,000 from the Missouri Department of Agriculture for the Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Award Program. The cut impacts fiscal year 2005, which began July 1.
The purpose of the program, launched in Missouri in 1995, was to help farmers develop sustainable or organic agriculture practices so they could reduce their use of non-renewable or non-organic resources. Farmers also shared what they had learned with others.
Blunt defended the program cut, asserting that it “appears to have resulted in very few viable sustainable agriculture operations” and was “necessary to ensure a balanced budget.”
Joan Benjamin, who directed the state’s sustainable agriculture demonstration award program before the cut, disagrees.
“I saw incredible results from the program, some of which were published in two books. In speaking with farmers and visiting them, I have really seen a tremendous impact. I hope the governor looks at the results and refunds the program next year and realizes there were some really impressive farms that did become more sustainable because of the program.”
Benjamin currently is the associate regional coordinator and the farmer/rancher grant program coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program for the North Central region (www.sare.org), which includes both Missouri and Kansas.
Blunt also eliminated the state’s organic certification program, which Benjamin said was “an excellent program, started at farmers’ requests.”
Missouri farmers now must receive organic certification from private agencies, which tend to charge higher rates, she said.
“The state program made it more affordable for farmers. I know the program was important to farmers throughout the state and I hope the program is reinstated.”
Benjamin said there is a growing demand for organic food in the state.
“And as organic operations become more and more popular with the public and farmers, farmers will be able to do the stewardship they like, improve on farms, be profitable, and encourage future generations to become farmers,” she said.
More than 200 Missouri farmers have received sustainable agriculture demonstration award grants since the program began in the state in 1995.
In 2003, Ruggieri and Graff were awarded a $3,000 grant from the program to convert their farmland soil from conventional to organic.
In a nearly three-year period, the couple conducted background research and two soil analyses on their land, located in northwest Missouri.
“We discovered the pH balance was low in the soil and wasn’t really conducive to growing vegetables,” Ruggieri said.
The couple added calcium, lime and manure to improve the soil’s content. Part of the program grant was used to purchase a manure spreader.
“We saw the quality of produce change,” Ruggieri said. “This is an indication of improved soil quality.”
Ruggieri and Graff are dedicated to sharing their certified organically grown produce with the community. In 2004, they started the Fair Share Farm Community Supported Agriculture Group (www.fairsharefarm.com).
Members pay annual dues, as well as volunteer to help harvest and distribute the food, in exchange for weekly produce during the growing season.
“We’ve seen membership increase from 25 members last year to 52 this year to 75 to 100 next year,” Ruggieri said.
Ruggieri and Graff said they also hope Missouri reinstates the sustainable agriculture demonstration award program and not just for their sakes.
“We feel if the state invests in agriculture, it shouldn’t take away from a program on the cutting edge of agriculture. It helps improve and build community, helps us feed ourselves in the state and use less energy, and it promotes community involvement in food production,” Ruggieri said.
“This is why we do what we do. And it should be promoted by the state.”
Rhiannon Ross is an associate editor for eKC online. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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