• WisBusiness

Monday, April 11, 2011

GreenBiz: Fields Institute takes holistic approach to ag business


By Gregg Hoffmann
At the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a sustainable, integrated, holistic approach to agriculture always has been emphasized.

It only makes sense then that the Institute would take a similar approach in what it offers to those interested in various aspects of farming and agriculture.

The Institute ties together educational programs, engages in public policy and advocacy for sustainable agriculture, helps in enterprise development, conducts research on corn breeding and other areas, has urban agriculture projects and puts on Whole Farm Workshops.

“We concentrate on three major areas -- education, public policy and research -- but our approach does grow out of our overall emphasis on integration and a holistic philosophy,” said David Andrews, executive director of the Institute.

The Institute is located on a farm near East Troy. In 1974, Ruth Zinniker, a "biodynamic" farmer and native of Germany, reconnected with her European friends, Christopher and Martina Mann. She persuaded them to purchase a farm near hers to further their mutual goal of increasing biodynamic farming in the United States.

Biodynamic farming originated in Germany in the 1920s and looks upon the soil and the farm as living organisms. It regards maintenance of soil life as a basic necessity for productive farming that is in harmony with the environment and community.

There is no Michael Fields who runs or founded the institute. Its name was taken from a housing development that Christopher Mann built in Forest Row, England.

The biodynamic approach is very similar to many approaches in organic and sustainable farming today. “It’s not just science. It’s not just business,” said John Hall, former executive director and current director of farming systems outreach and education for Fields.

“There’s a spiritual and ethical dimension to this. Whether we live in a city, whether or not we derive an income from the land, few of us pause to consider how vital to us are such matters as how our food is grown, and by whom, whether growing food is a profitable enterprise, the fertility of the soil, the purity of the water, the conservation of Earth’s resources, and the sustainability of agriculture.”

While there is a definite philosophy behind the approaches taken at the Fields Institute, there is a combination of research theory and hands-on experience in all aspects of what is done. The approach has led to a growing business for Fields.

“We have seen a sizeable growth in people coming to our workshops, using our research and seeking us out for a variety of reasons,” Andrews said. For example, two farmers in Iowa recently contacted the institute for help in managing a conversion to organic farming.

The Fields education program includes a variety of workshops and materials. Teachers often have farming experience, and also include UW-Extension teachers and researchers.

The Whole Farm Workshops are the best attended, usually reaching a maximum of 30 students. The workshops are part of a Whole Farm Planning program.

Institute staffers will help farmers develop a plan that focuses on water management, biodiversity management, wildlife habitat, as well as economics. The reach of these programs is state and national in scope. Some of the biggest challenges come right in southern Wisconsin, where many of the farms are 160 to 250 acres in size.

“The overall challenge is can we take a 160-acre former dairy farm, and develop a management system that will re-articulate the farm into a working landscape and meet the goals of generating enough income to partially sustain a family, as well as meeting a higher standard of land stewardship?” Hall said.

Other extensions of the education function of Fields include urban farming projects, such as the Teutonia Urban Garden, which works with a charter school group in Milwaukee, an active Farm to School program, and enterprise development, such as the LotFoti Community Farm, a vegetable operation which started on an incubator farm of the institute and now is moving to its own farm location.

“The education part of our mission can be found in several areas, within several projects,” Andrews said.

Fields also has two staffers in Madison that advocate for sustainable farming policies and is active on both the state and national governmental levels. “We’ve had input on farm bills with both the state and USDA,” Hall said.

Corn breeding has been one of the special areas of research at the institute. Research program director Walter Goldstein has been working on developing high-yielding corn hybrids with enhanced nutritional value. In particular, he and his fellow researchers have been looking at how to increase amino acids in grain.

Much of the research explores how to improve soils. “Not just the country, but around the world we’ve really got problems with our soils -- infertility, compactions, root disease, poor soil structure, trace elements not being taken up,” Goldstein said. “Biodynamics has an approach that can lead to healthy farming.”

The institute also has conducted research into developing a systems approach to sustainable farming. Areas range from crop rotation, using diversity to aid yields, long-term effects of manure use, long-term economic comparisons of organic and conventional farming approaches and many other areas.

In its research, education and policy work, Fields often partners with other agencies and groups. For example, the USDA and Practical Farmers of Iowa have been working with the Institute on its corn breeding research.

The Farm Business Development Center of Prairie Crossing Farm and Angelic Organics Learning Center near Rockford, Ill., partner with the Institute on the Whole Farm Workshops. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) is doing three of the Whole Farm Workshops.

“We have many partners in much of our work,” Andrews said. “We also reach out to the community. We bring expertise and services to the community, and it contributes to us. This fits in very well with our overall philosophy and approach.”

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He will write the GreenBiz column monthly.

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