Resilient Agriculture and Ecosystems works in the Upper Mississippi River Basin to increase the number of acres of farmland that are sustainably managed. Long-term commitment to sustainable management requires an alignment of economic and environmental interests. We accomplish this by expanding grass-based systems of livestock production and introducing cover-crops and periodic livestock grazing into row crop farming, all of which both increase profits and rebuild soils and water cycles. Partner organizations work directly with farmers, landowners, land trusts and others to highlight the opportunities and support transitions to more sustainable management. At the same time, RAE staff and consultants help ensure efficient value chains, address policy barriers, align conservation and agricultural interests, and otherwise support the development of an environment conducive to sustainable beef production.
Initially called “The Pasture Project,” RAE began with the goal of improving water quality in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Harmful algal bloom and hypoxia conditions in the Gulf of Mexico are largely attributed to nutrient runoff from conventional agriculture in the Upper Midwest (particularly Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois). As the project has developed, we have come to recognize that polluted water is but a symptom of a broader problem.
Soil is literally the ground upon which agriculture is built, yet much of modern farming takes from the soil without regenerating it. Nutrient-runoff into the Mississippi, the inability of soil to hold water through periods of drought, and the need for expensive fertilizers are all consequences of neglecting soil health. Healthy soil improves crop yields and actively removes CO2 from the atmosphere.
Building soil that is rich in organic matter and teeming with life starts with growing plants year-round. Soil gets even healthier with the grass-trampling, manure-making benefits of well-managed cattle. Appropriately grazed pastures have healthy soil and significantly reduced run-off. Rotational grazing and cover crops on land planted with row crops also builds soil and reduces runoff, while often increasing both yields and profits. The variation in grass heights that comes from rotation grazing builds habitat for bird species, and the reduction in runoff and soil erosion improves fish habitat in streams.
The market for grass-fed beef is booming and offers significant premiums over conventional products. The challenge is ensuring that farmers and landowners know about the economic opportunity then get the information and support they need to appropriately establish grazing on their land and access markets.
The Wallace Center works to expand acres under sustainable management in two ways. First, we work closely with partner organizations throughout the region. These organizations have deep ties in their communities and offer workshops, farm tours and other assistance to local farmers and landowners interested in grass-fed beef. The Wallace Center provides financial support and technical assistance to these partners. Second, the Wallace Center works regionally and nationally to reduce the barriers to raising grass-fed beef and increase the number of stakeholders supporting sustainable farm management and working together to accomplish it.
While all of our partner organizations directly engage with farmers and provide education and opportunities to see grass-fed operations, each also engages in unique approaches to improving sustainable management. Approaches to farmer and landowner engagement pursued by our partner organizations:
Sustainable Farming Association in Minnesota trains farmers to be leaders for sustainable agriculture in their communities and organizes networks of producers helping each other learn, access resources, and implement changes on their land.
Southwest Wisconsin Grassland and Stream Conservation Area in Wisconsin is developing a new position, that of the grazing broker. A grazing broker matches those wanting to graze more land with nearby landowners, then works with the parties to establish a rental contract and grazing plan.
Kickapoo Grazing Initiative supports the training of government staff that work directly with farmers to help them be knowledgeable supporters of grazing and provides highly targeted outreach to different communities of farmers.
The project as a whole reduces barriers to entry and increases stakeholder engagement by thoroughly understanding the many elements that go into making decisions about, and then implementing, more sustainable management practices. We then identify those government bodies, non-profits and businesses that touch each element, build relationships with them, and work together to encourage grazing and sustainable land management. A recent project involved working with USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to produce a monthly price report for grassfed beef.
RAE is currently focused on a subsection of the Upper Mississippi River Basin, the Driftless Area—encompassing parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—where ecological conditions hold particular promise for environmental benefit. The project also continues to serve as an information and communications hub for producers and support organizations throughout the wider Upper Mississippi River Basin area.
The research phase of this project, which generated the strategy laid out here, culminated in a report Expanding Grass-Based Animal Agriculture in the Midwest, which provides the founding body of knowledge on the market, benefits, and barriers related to grass-fed beef production, and outlines a clear way forward for transitioning acreage to more sustainable management with environmental, economic, and social benefits.
On the ground, RAE has identified and supported some of the most promising models for engaging producers and landowners in the transition to grass-based animal agriculture. Together, these pilots have conducted outreach to about 2,000 operating and non-operating landowners who collectively control about 25,000 acres of land. And the learning networks of producers, landowners, buyers, policymakers, government agencies, and support organizations are poised to continue this work through a framework of mutual learning and cross-sector collaboration, with the Wallace Center’s ongoing support. A common framework for evaluation of our many different strategies is underway. It is our intention to use the best in practical evaluation methodology to continuously develop the project approach and increase impact.
In the Upper Midwest and interested in producing grass-fed beef or dairy and/or more sustainably managing your row crop operation? Already a producer but want more advanced grazing knowledge?
We’ll link you to those who can help you get started or work with you to expand your knowledge and skills.
Are you promoting or supporting more sustainable agriculture and grazing in the Upper Midwest? Want to be?
We’d love to hear more about what you’re doing and look for ways we might work together.