How Can We Support Farmers & Clean Water During COVID-19?

May 22, 2020 | Agriculture, Clear Water Farms

by Michael Tiboris, Clear Water Farms Director

In Wisconsin, spring is always a breath of relief after the wintery dark. We all endure a stuttering frost or two, as the cold pulls its long fingers from the soil, but by then farmers have already begun their work.

There’s a rhythm to spring work, rooted in tradition and economic structure, that makes Wisconsin a major agricultural powerhouse. The COVID-19 pandemic—with brutal efficiency—has made it clear how fragile this system has become. The seasons turn with or without us.

The pandemic has also been an unexpected windfall for smaller producers with local supply chains and CSAs (community supported agriculture). The desire to avoid supermarkets and have fewer hands on our food is, for now, creating long waitlists and opportunities for small farmers to sell new products and reach more consumers.

Does this seem remote from the mission of River Alliance of Wisconsin? It is not. Because of Wisconsin’s unique dependence on agriculture—and the huge influence agriculture has on water quality and quantity in the state—the future of this food system is inextricably linked to our future prospects for environmental protection.

I believe one thing we’re really seeing now is that the agricultural system in Wisconsin needs to fundamentally change to avoid future shocks of this sort and become a positive force for soil and water protection.

Shifting local supply chains into a long-term trend is going to require some intentional changes.

When people feel freer to go to the grocery store, interest in buying directly from farms will likely decline. If we want to make local farms a pillar of the food landscape again, we need to rethink our food system.

We should be curious about why particular shortages during COVID-19 have happened, and what they tell us about how food is produced. 

Why should we, from a water perspective, care about how our food is produced? Because water (and soil health) have often been systematically disregarded by the dominant methods of agricultural since since World War II.

“Conventional agriculture” has seen spectacular success at solving some persistent problems. It has given us very cheap food at all times of the year. It has also reduced the number of people who need to depend on farming for a living, freeing them up for other jobs.

However, it has achieved this by imposing a factory-like technical management over land, water, and animals, producing single specialized products, and becoming locked into long commercial supply chains. While this has made these operations productive and efficient, it has also transformed farming into a low profit margin business with supply chains that are vulnerable to sudden shocks, dependent on cheap labor, and are a major source of water pollution through the concentrated application of manure, commercial fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides.

To this point, the basic strategy has been to control the worst consequences of this system for water pollution through attempting to regulate large farms like factories and doing targeted, publicly-funded remediation programs for places where water pollution creates public health emergencies.

There are, of course, stand-out conventional farms that do a lot to protect water resources. But on the whole, neither of the above strategies have been particularly successful.

This is why the recent boom in local direct-sales agriculture for smaller farmers is such an extraordinary opportunity for the regional food system and Wisconsin’s waters. Farmers who are locked into conventional production models and supply chains can only be responsive to one concern from consumers—price paid at the store. And even this is heavily mediated, because these farms do not typically sell to consumers, but to processors and others who aggregate, package, and redistribute food.

However, farms with local supply chains are directly responsive to the demands of local consumers. At the moment many people are expressing strong preferences for organic and minimally processed products. But, we could also express a strong preference for farming practices that promote soil health and do not pollute water.

Local food supply chains are not usually disrupted by market shocks or this sort of pandemic. Conventional farms that are locked into national and international supply chains can’t be shut off or redirected quickly. The recent and sudden loss of their institutional buyers, like restaurants and schools, left many conventional farms without an outlet. Without the ability to either do direct sales or stop animals and plants from producing, these products are disposed of. After milk is dumped, and dairy cows are slaughtered, a farm’s viability goes with them. The deep irrationalities in our food system are exposed here in the grim juxtaposition of massive food dumping when when 2 in 5 households with children in the US are food insecure.

The local food system and direct buying from farmers cannot fully replace the conventional production system. And, depending on local smaller-scale farmers would require some significant behavior changes and compromises from us as consumers. There is also no inherent guarantee that just because a farmer is “local” or smaller scale that they are managing their water impacts well. The point is not to fully replace the conventional system with the local agrarian one that dominated our landscape over a century ago. It is to provide an opportunity for evolution in both the conventional and local food systems that bends sharply toward sustainability and regenerative agriculture.

This will require different approaches by the environmental community to large conventional farms and local direct-sale agriculture.

River Alliance’s Clear Water Farms Program is exploring ways to facilitate these changes. Our plan is to support stewardship leaders among large farmers in the state, through tools like Alliance for Water Stewardship certification, and encourage their careful regulation.

At the same time, we’re now working with our agricultural partners, watershed groups, and producers to rethink the local food system in the state and the Great Lakes Region more generally.

This has to happen if we are to have a food system that is more resilient and promotes water protection in the state.

Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing more content on this topic and sharing the voices of people working on the front lines of agricultural change. Everyone who is committed to water protection and restoration must think about our food and interact with the farmers who produce it. We can influence policy by understanding the trade offs and economic challenges of an alternative system and voting for those who understand it as well.

This is an extraordinarily unique moment—probably the first true opportunity for significant change in agricultural land and water stewardship in most of our lifetimes.

There is little hope of sustained change, in agriculture or elsewhere, without a shift in the way people think about how we live, work, and spend generally. The pandemic is offering us this opportunity. Are we listening?

Image: We can help protect water by supporting good actors in agriculture. Roasts, brats, and steaks delivered to some of our team by the Cavadini’s of Cavern Point Farm. The Cavadinis raise pastured beef, are active in the EPPIC – Eau Pleine Partnership for Integrated Conservation, and are great stewards of the land and water.