Michael Fields Agricultural Institute: Changing Food, Farming and the Future
Oct 31, 2011 09:16PM
● By Linda Sechrist
“It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What’s needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take ‘everyone on Earth’ to bring about change, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.” ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Since 1984, a small group of deeply committed change agents from Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI), in East Troy, has been standing tall against the forces of Big Agra and commercial farming. Seeking to cultivate the ecological, social, economic and spiritual vitality of food and farming systems through education, research, policy, and market development, MFAI’s educational programs are making a difference. By teaching farmers—conventional, organic or biodynamic—about the benefits of sustainable agriculture and fostering the next generation of sustainable agriculture proponents, the institute is helping to tip the scales of change toward a future in which farmers and consumers create agricultural landscapes with healthy regional systems of land use, food production and distribution.
In January 2011, when Sandy and David Andrews learned how they could be part of the change by adding their talents, skills and wisdom to MFAI’s grassroots movements, they jumped at the chance. David, a fourth-generation farmer from Central Iowa who also managed agricultural projects in Eastern Europe and the Philippines, is now MFAI’s executive director. Before joining the institute, David was a conventional farmer with a strong interest in organic and sustainable agriculture. “After 25 years, I was like other conventional farmers that grow tired of the exposure to chemicals and the high prices of fertilizer,” says David. Today, he enjoys rising to the challenge of learning about organic and biodynamic production methods.
Collaborative Projects and Initiatives
MFAI fit Sandy like the perfect gardener’s glove and gave her a chance to not only write about her favorite subject, the history of agriculture, but also to use her background in teaching and lecturing to develop and facilitate new educational projects, community initiatives like Little Green Thumbs, and special workshop sessions, such as In Her Boots: Sustainable Farming for Women, by Women, in collaboration with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).
Little Green Thumbs, Sandy’s first community initiative, involved nine master gardeners throughout the community and was an educational collaborative with two local schools. “Classes took place in the garden, where it was so delightful to watch teenage students from East Troy High School interacting with six-year-old first graders from Leona Doubek Elementary School,” says Sandy.
In Her Boots, a sold-out workshop, had a long waiting list and touched on something dear to Sandy’s heart: women interested in taking a more active leadership role in changing the food system. It drew women vegetable farmers and those looking to start such an operation, as well as food enthusiasts interested in eating more seasonal and local food year-round. “We couldn’t accommodate everyone that wanted to come and learn how to prepare all the vegetables in their CSA boxes, as well as how to preserve and cook them,” advises Sandy, who notes that the cooking tips, ideas and recipes came from area vegetables farmers. “We’ll repeat this again next year for the CSA members who don’t know what to do with all the fresh produce, and for members interested in the new ‘cottage food legislation’ that allows small-scale food processing in private kitchens for public sale.”
An agricultural historian interested in people’s relationship with agriculture today and in the past, Sandy enjoyed her research into MFAI’s history. “It led me to deeply appreciate our founders, Martina and Christopher Mann, whose original curriculum borrowed from biodynamic farming methods developed in 1924 by Rudolph Steiner,” she advises. During the institute’s infancy, there was little interest in biodynamic farming; today, weekly calls are received from individuals interested in the institute’s research work, which few small nonprofits conduct. MFAI also benefits from its location near the Zinniker Family Farm, the oldest working biodynamic farm in the U.S.
Steiner, an Austrian-born philosopher, developed a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms. It also emphasizes balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system, without the use of toxic pesticides or artificial fertilizers. Unique biodynamic methods, practiced in more than 50 countries, include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives, field sprays and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar. Steiner’s philosophy and his methods are still taught in MFAI programs.
Farm and Food Education
MFAI calls upon expert, innovative, successful farmers, as well as leaders in the University of Wisconsin and UW-Extension faculty, for training the next generation of sustainable farmers and advanced growers. The top-notch faculty provides classroom training for Wisconsin and Illinois farmers in the winter; during summer months, interactive teaching is conducted at the on-site biodynamic demonstration garden, complete with greenhouses, perennials, hedgerows, beneficial insectaries, raised beds and fruit trees. Produce is marketed through a Community SupportedAgriculture (CSA) model.
“We teach everyone the skills and competencies they need to take their agricultural careers to the next level,” advises David, who is excited about new whole-farm workshops, which begin in February, as well as the CSA class. The CSA Planning Course – Improve, Improvise and Prosper, demonstrates how farmers can expand their farms to incorporate a CSA enterprise. “The course is also open to anyone running or contemplating CSA,” says David.
MFAI’s Policy Program, run by Marret Krome and Bridget Holocomb, empowers citizens to use democratic processes to direct government resources to support sustainable agriculture’s many objectives. For example, in Wisconsin, MFAI’s policy efforts have advanced projects such as, “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” and “Farm to School” programs. “We are building the capacity of the sustainable movement through our nationally sought-after policy internships,” notes David, who notes that five-month policy internships are offered with a small stipend every spring. The internship program is important because it educates activists, who learn how to speak with legislators and affect policy, as well as how to run grassroots campaigns to support organic agriculture.
Integrated Farming Systems (IFS)
The IFS program, managed by John Hall, consists of research and outreach activities focused on determining and demonstrating the benefits of diversified cropping systems and other agricultural enterprises that make up a farming system. It also seeks to improve sustainability in profitability and ecosystem services.
Most of the research projects on the MFAI farm have been undertaken with farmer involvement and in collaboration with partners at the UW-Madison, UW Extension and USDA Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center. Also, most projects are part of a larger collaborative effort called the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST).
Crop and Soil Research
The MFAI research team, along with seasonal workers, seeks to change the lack of diversity in the corn seed industry. The program to accomplish this does not use transgenic technology; instead, it breeds plants that combine high agronomic performance under organic conditions with enhanced nutritional products.
Eleven months into their work, Sandy and David reflect upon a philosophy they have come to fully embrace. “We fit into MFAI quite well, because we understand that well-being isn’t just about the food we eat, it’s also about taking care of the soul and spiritual life, which is part of Steiner’s overall philosophy,” explains the couple, who plan to integrate the arts and promote a sense of community. The Andrews enthusiastically agree that they want to make MFAI a place where everyone in the community—not just farmers—can gather to openly explore ideas about making a difference and shaping not only agriculture, but the future.
Location: W2493 County Rd. ES, (P.O. Box 990), East Troy, 53120. For more information, call 262-642-3303 or visit MichaelFields.org.