Planting the seeds to grow CommonGround

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

One woman complained that corn sweetener is in too many foods.

Another man expressed his worry that farming pollutes the creek where he likes to canoe, and that farm nutrients are ending up in the Gulf of Mexico.

A student said her “Holistic” class included the screening of a video that claimed a corn diet kills cattle.  Sometimes just letting a little sunshine in on a notion like this—taking it out of the classroom bubble and into the real world, is enough to get people to see that dairy and cattle farmers, whose livelihoods depend directly on the health of their livestock, would never feed them foodstuffs that would injure that health.

Minnesota’s three CommonGround volunteers were there to listen, and to let that sunshine in. The third annual Ag Awareness Day, organized by the student members of the University of Minnesota Ag Education Club, offered the opportunity on Tuesday, April 17, to respond to these worries about food and agriculture.

The CommonGround volunteers shared a booth with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, providing logistical support for this grassroots effort here in Minnesota.

The CommonGround volunteers let more sunshine in: consumers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to sweetened foods—farmers are happy to grow more crops for other uses as the market demands. Nutrient impacts on the environment are at the top of farmers’ agendas and farmers are driven both by environmental stewardship ideals and the bottom line of their businesses –fertilizers and other inputs are too expensive to waste—so farmers are driven to continually improve the delivery of nutrients, so that they help grow crops and don’t end up as waste in sensitive ecosystems.

The exaggerations and distortions about agriculture and food by media start to fall away when these farm women of CommonGround reassure people about the shared values that farmers and indeed most Americans hold—values that drive today’s agriculture—to produce safe, healthy food, to ensure the welfare of domestic animals, to ensure the quality of the environment for future generations and to build a strong foundation for an economy that can grow while achieving these other goals about food, health and the environment.

“We have to meet people where they are at, and hear their concerns if we want to connect with them and get them to have a stronger connection to Minnesota agriculture,” said Linda Kroll, who joined with Dorothy Smith-Jacobs and Kristie Swenson—all three women with farming backgrounds—in an effort called CommonGround—an organization trying to help people see past the shock video blurbs and understand how the sound bites and newspaper stories don’t tell the whole story.

Kroll farms in Royalton, Smith-Jacobs farms in Stearns County and Swenson works as a lender at a small town bank while her husband farms with her parents in Alpha.

Swenson, who attended the University of Minnesota, relished the chance to come back as a CommonGround volunteer. She has also attended the MARL agricultural leadership seminar series and before changing over to the banking field, she worked with one of the world’s most successful farmer cooperatives, Land O’ Lakes.

“We’re not only putting a face on agriculture, but we’re helping people see what’s true,” said Swenson. “An event like this is great, because you have the booths and people see the pigs and chickens and llamas, and also the crops and all the products made from the crops—people see all the different facets that make up agriculture and realize it’s not just one big thing, but a very diverse set of industries where people like my family are working hard to deliver commodities and products that people need and want. For me, putting a face on farming is a way to show the average person that when they are blaming “ag” they are blaming me and my family—not only should people think twice about reckless accusations, but they should know it’s a slap at actual people who work hard every day to do the right thing.”

CommonGround, as a volunteer program underwritten by National Corn Growers Association and United Soybean Board, has attracted small, grassroots chapters of volunteer farm women to “meet people where they are” and tackle the kind of anxieties that resonate especially with women as family meal planners and decision makers about family nutrition. Sometimes it’s just about the reassurance that consumers don’t need to go for the expensive niche products just to get the nutrition their families need. Everyday farm grown products get the job done. Everyone wants to do the best by domestic animals, so CommonGround volunteers offer for public consideration the realities that free-range practices don’t always enhance the lives of animals, and most indoor-confined animals exist in spaces that allow free range of movement, full extension of wings and legs, along with allowing for natural groom and feeding behaviors.

“It’s not our goal to tell people what to think,” said Swenson. “We want to make sure agriculture has a voice in all these discussions where there are so many concerns around food and farming. Ag needs to be represented because we bring our knowledge and experience to the table and assure that information is accurate and goals are realistic.”

It can come as a surprise to people made anxious by media reports when they hear all the things farmers are doing right in the pursuit of the good of the environment. Most people haven’t heard about all the ways farmers are working with government agencies and private industry to correct problems.

 

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