James Van Der Pol
I wish to thank the St. Paul School of Agriculture for allowing me the opportunity to work a year with the University of Minnesota. I only wish there were more time and that I could accomplish more. We have much started. None of it would be happening without the School's creative and forward thinking endowment.
We used endowment funds in the early spring of 1999 to produce a three show series on Pioneer Public Television called "Pigs, Pork and Prosperity". The substance of the show was that pork production was still possible for farmers, that there are farmers doing it by various, sometimes unconventional methods and that if farmers raise the right hogs, there will be a market. I am enclosing a set of tapes of the show.
You may well remember that commodity hogs were at an all time low in the autumn of 1998. This precipitated a movement of smaller farmers and individual owner operators away from hog production, leaving production pretty much in the hands of large food production and processing companies and further exacerbating an already grim rural economic situation. We had a good response to the series; farmer viewers were grateful that someone was talking positive about pigs for a change. Several requests came in from churches and farmer groups for copies.
As the farmers were giving up hog production, markets were beginning to develop for special and source verified kinds of pork production. I had knowledge of an Iowa company looking for hogs raised drug free on grass and straw, for example. That company is still running behind its needs and is looking for producers. Export markets for Berkshire hog meat to the Asian market were and still are growing. Both of these markets pay a very nice premium. There are others, such as domestic ethnic and direct sales that show real evidence of opportunity. But much of the problem is that hog farmers no longer believe they can succeed. It seemed to me then, and still does today, that this is a real opportunity for the University in terms of both its knowledge producing and information sharing functions.
Later that spring, we cooperated with Lee Johnston, swine specialist at Morris, in moving ten surplus sows out of the conventional housing into a hoop shelter on the station. This style of production, which is vital for any producer who aims at some of the specialty pork markets, especially those that center on humane production, allows the sows a great deal of freedom at farrowing(birthing). In contrast to industry practice, the sows are free to choose and arrange their own farrowing areas within certain limits. They must also care for their piglets without mechanical restraints. The piglets are weaned at a somewhat later time, and are often grown for market right where they were born, in contrast to conventional systems.
The pigs did well, producing numbers just a little short of their confinement mates. This little experiment made quite an impression in University circles; it is still a regular item of conversation. And it should be emphasized that the idea for it came from Lee Johnston, whose background is nutrition in conventional systems. That he thought to try it, and maintained the nerve to carry it through is due in large part, I think, to the impact and the help and advice of the endowed chair. It shows as well that the regular animal science faculty is beginning to accept the continuing presence of alternatives within the University structure.
Construction was started on the first phase of the alternative swine housing at Morris, four hoop houses, in the fall of 1999. These should be complete by mid spring, 2000. We achieved a certain cooperation with the dairy program there as clay fill was moved from dairy pastures, improving cow access through a ravine. This material was then used to bring the proposed hoop site up to sufficient grade to achieve good drainage of rain water. This is one example of the opportunity for work across disciplinary boundaries at the University. There is a willingness at Morris for everyone to consider everyone else's work that is pretty unique both in the University setting as well as the outside world.
As a further example, the hoops site will be monitored for water runoff and percolation by equipment purchased by the Alternative Swine Task Force and used by the Department of Soil Water and Climate in the persons of Neil Hansen and John Moncrief. This will result in good baseline data backed by the University of Minnesota; useful when questions are asked in regulatory circles about the environmental hazards associated with straw based pig production. The Soils group plans to use the hoops for ongoing manure pack work, which will also be of value when farmers need information to justify their production practices.
Plans are underway for the conversion of a gestation building on the Research and Outreach Center to a Swedish deep straw farrowing practice to be used for research and demonstration. This practice, which uses an in-depth understanding of swine behaviour and lots of straw to produce pigs on a year around basis, was called for in the legislation establishing the alternative facilities. Hog pastures will also be established, these in the year 2000.
It is important to note that these practices are important to the farm communities in the state for the reason that some of the new opportunities in hog production are calling for hogs produced in these kinds of systems. Currently the University does not have these facilities and is not doing some of the research that needs doing to serve this constituency. The work of the Alternative Swine Task Force and my position in the endowed chair has been to position the University so that it can serve this need as well as it serves conventional production.
It is also true that many of the conventional hog farmers use bits and pieces of these alternative systems and that this provides a real opportunity to tie the University program into one coherent whole.
Sam Baidoo, swine nutritionist at Waseca, has spoken to me about his desire to run feeding trials in the hoops as soon as they can be used, to answer the questions about what kind of diet pigs on straw ought to be fed for maximum lean gain. Currently, hogs fed in hoops or other straw based non-climate-controlled environments tend to reach market carrying a little more fat than their conventional counterparts. There is a respectable body of opinion in the industry that much could be done to change that by changing the diet of the straw raised pig. Professor Honeyman, of Iowa, which is currently a leader in hoops research, believes that research could solve some of these problems, so this is a chance for Minnesota to get the work started.
I have worked in conjunction with Wayne Martin, Alternative Swine Task Force Coordinator, to get a grant in to the LCMR (Legislative Commission on Minnesota's Resources). This is an idea formed in conversations with Professor Wyse and others around MISA which is that systems research needs to be done. The research, if funded, would look at hog production systems from the view not only of hog production and cropping rotations, but also impact on environment and community, effects on biological diversity and rural economies and the relationship of agriculture through food markets with urban communities.
This broad and far reaching approach is needed if questions about rural stability and Minnesota River watershed health are ever to be answered. Agriculture needs to be at the table in matters like these, since much of the needed change will be agricultural. And, once again, the University's role needs to be multi disciplinary.
I carried on an extended conversation with Jose Bicudo, Biosystems, about the need to include straw based systems in University extension efforts with farmers. Dr. Bicudo is a recent hire in the area of manure and odor management. His position was funded by the same legislature that established the alternative facilities. My concern was that if we did not take care, we risked giving the impression that the University had already decided that hog production was a smelly affair and that the best that could be done was to try some kind of a patch after the fact.
I argued to Dr. Bicudo that straw based systems are in some sense their own odor control as the straw used for pig comfort and behavioral expression had the impact of neutralizing the odors, which are mostly nitrogen based, with carbon. We achieved some real understanding in that area, as I was invited to help with a hoops tour which was planned later, and participated in data gathering in the area of odor research on my own farm.
The visibility provided by the endowment and the association with MISA afforded me a dozen or more opportunities during the course of the year to speak to groups in one way or another important to agriculture and the University. These include the engineers at Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, a workshop organized by the National Academy of Science for the USDA's Small Farms Commission, the Agricultural Research Service convention and the National Public Policy Education Conference, among others. Representative of the doors that are opened in this way would be my presentation to the Bush Foundation's planning retreat early in the year.
The Bush presentation was an opportunity for me to talk about my farm, agriculture in general and my association with the University to a group that is already an important funder of University work as they thought about moving into more environmental and agricultural funding. Other presenters included Dr. William Cronen, Frederick Jackson Turner Chair in American History from Wisconsin, Dr. G. David Tilman, of the University's Ecology Department and Dr. William Morrish, of the University's Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
This was a pretty heady experience, as you can imagine. One of the clear impressions I took away was that this group of influential urban people was looking for connections with each other, but also with the countryside that produces their food. Another was that they had great expectations of agriculture in terms of the changes that would need to be made in order to improve our rural and urban environments, our social interactions, and the provisioning of food for society in an environmentally responsible way. I was the only speaker connected in any manner with agriculture that day.
Discussions with Bush since have led to a series of meetings among representatives of Bush, Professors Wyse and Jordan of Agronomy, and myself about the possibility of Bush funding for various University interdisciplinary and community connected efforts including the Landscape, Human and Animal Health initiative which was presented at the White House in the autumn of 1999. It is my hope that Bush will continue to come on board with funding for these kinds of University work that seek to partner with the community, both urban and rural, and that this will begin to show a positive impact on the suffering rural economy.
It is not difficult to imagine a scope of work that would tie together LCMR funding with Bush funding to create a dollar stream for an ongoing academic and rural (farmer and rural business) based effort to completely restructure agriculture over the next decades, once again making it profitable and satisfying for its producers and producing communities, as well as connected with its urban customers.
I was invited to speak to such University classes as: Environmental Studies, Sustainable Ag graduate course, undergraduate agriculture honors class and a Food and Nutrition class. The give and take of the classroom experience was one of the lasting memories I will take with me. The students have a very unclear picture of what agriculture really is, especially those in Food and Nutrition. But they are excited and eager to learn. There is never enough time for questions. One of the questions we need to be asking ourselves is about this lack of understanding between agriculture and the users of food and how healthy that is for the entire system.
Perhaps most exciting, incoming Agriculture Dean Muscoplat visited our farm and spent three hours with us talking about University programs and rural needs.
But this doesn't begin to tell the story. The Alternative Swine Task Force is doing research with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on consumer meat preferences with an eye to focusing on effective farmer labelling. We are talking to MnCeP, which is a group that is doing work to get source and food safety verification for pork. And we are eagerly following some of the work at Texas Tech, which seems to indicate a taste difference in pork attributable to how it was raised. Perhaps another endowed chair could concentrate in this area, for it opens some fascinating farmer marketing potential!
Following my usual tendency to blur the lines between the University and the outside world, I became involved in a meeting with St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman and several state legislators in the matter of locating a proposed new Hmong slaughter house. The Hmong are a very important possible market for Minnesota grown pork and an interesting one at that since they like hogs at a lighter weight, do not often buy at the grocery stores, and attach religious significance to the getting of meat. My thought was that there were important rural opportunities here, as well as the connection between the University and the community, in this case an ethnic one.
The burden of my efforts in the Endowed Chair have had to do with the improvement of connections between farmers or rural people and academics. The fact is that when a farmer, and particularly one who is trying some of the more sustainable approaches comes to the University with a question, it is almost always a question that requires a multidisciplinary answer. What he or she too often gets is a reply carefully couched in the phrases of one particular discipline. If the University is to be of use to its constituents, who are the people of the state, it must learn to deal in messy human terms with messy human problems. It also needs to learn to endure the painful process of communication among academic disciplines in the interest of helping to create a possibility of a better economy, better society, and a better future for the state it is bound to serve.
I have been pleased and sometimes amazed at the reception I get at the University, and how, when I have explained the endowment to faculty in a wide variety of disciplines, they become animated and interested. Many folks at the University appear to be interested in systems thought and research. As an indication of increasing acceptance at the Swine Center, for example, I presented about the alternative facilities and program at their faculty meeting in December at their invitation. Not only that, it appears the Alternative Swine Task Force and the programs it fosters have a continuing slot on the faculty meeting agenda. In addition, we have been asked to participate in organizing the prestigious Lehman conference for this late summer.
I think this position is an idea whose time has come and I thank you for allowing me the chance to use it for a year. I look forward to the chance to visit about it with you and MISA face to face.