Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and it is so my honor and so much fun to have Margaret Krome with us today. She is the program director for public policy at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. We have actually talked to Margaret before and she’s just a tremendous wealth of information. So it’s great to have you on the show today, Margaret.

MARGARET KROME: Thank you so much. What a pleasure to be back.

TM: How are things at Michael Fields Institute, Margaret? And you can refresh us on what a wonderful organization Michael Fields is.

MK: Well, it’s a great organization. I do feel very fortunate to work at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. We’re located in Southeast Wisconsin, but we serve a much broader regional than—I work at the national level area. So, we have a new executive director starting in January, Terry Brown, who use to work, for many years, at the Department of Ag, Trade, and Consumer Protection here in Wisconsin. And we have an incredible new asset, which is we have a very large research farm that we’ve been able to purchase, and right near at hand, converting it to organic culture—that’s exciting.

We have a lot of strong engagement at a lot of levels, including this exciting work that we’re doing with watershed groups. And so we have this new watershed group we’ve started that’ll be part of [unclear—state discussions?]. The southwest Wisconsin Iowa County is located in the very highly erodible, hilly area of Southwest Wisconsin, and we have a terrific watershed group there that we’ve really been active working in. So that’s been—lots of stuffing going on, but those are some of the fun things.

TM: I was so delighted the other night that you invited me to a rather unusual gathering where, I believe, nine farmers came up from the bayou who are fishing in the Gulf. And, Margaret, I understand this was your idea, and I would love to hear the story on that: fishermen from Louisiana actually coming all the way up to Wisconsin to get together with corn and soy and dairy and livestock farmers.

MK: I would love to tell you. It’s truly been one of the most enjoyable parts of the last several years of work. I had a group that I called Southwest Wisconsin Farmer Innovation Network. And we had a meeting—gee, a year and a half ago—and I said to them, “Hey look, the Department of Ag, Trade, and Consumer Protection here in this state, in Wisconsin, has just offered, opened up a grant program—it’s the first time—and it’s for farmer-led watershed groups. And you have to have at least five farmers in a watershed or subwatershed. And if any of you are interested in submitting a proposal, I’m willing to help you write a proposal.”

And one of the people who got back to me really quickly was this young man. He was 22 years old at the time, and he said he could recruit that many farmers and more. We had a meeting—that was a Wednesday or so, and on Saturday we had a meeting at his farm; we had eight folks there. And so we launched, we put in a proposal, and we started this group from the very beginning, even from before we submitted the proposal.

I was struck by two things: one, the group was not just typecast—it wasn’t just conventional farmers or just organic, or just small, or just large, or just dairy, or just grain, or just…it was a very mixed group. And second, I was impressed that they all, to a person, cared about water quality. A lot of people saying, “You know what we want to put in this grant: we want to have help figuring out how to monitor our streams.” Now, lots of really good farmers care about water quality, but they’d just as soon not have somebody monitoring it, thank you! And these farmers wanted it. They were worried: “Are our practices really making a difference?”

So with that sense of genuine commitment I, just not long after that, had a call from the National Sustainable Ag Coalition, with whom I work very closely on a lot of policy issues. And they said, “You know, we have a little, tiny grants program, Margaret. You haven’t applied. It’s for work in the Mississippi River watershed. Why haven’t you applied?”

And I said, “Well, here’s what I would propose: what about our having…creating a cultural relationship between these genuinely great conservation farmers in the upper Midwest and the end users of their water, namely fishermen in the Gulf who are dealing with the dead zone? The nutrients that come down from the upper Midwest are so determinative of their ability to have fish when they need and expect to have fish and shrimp.” And so they said, “Go for it!”

And I happen to serve on the board of the National Center for Appropriate Technology—some of you all know the ATTRA [Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas] program. So I’m sitting on the board with a maritime attorney from New Orleans and he works in the bayou, and I called him up and said, “Duke, do you happen to know any fishermen in southern Louisiana?” And he said, “Yeah, I know them.” He said, “I work for them pro bono all the time.” He was one of the named attorneys that a federal judge said “You will serve on this; you will be one of the attorneys working on the BP oil spill.” So he had been working on that. But he’s worked for these folks for years in various capacities. And he said, “I know a lot of them.” He said, “I’d love to work with this. It’s a great idea.” He connected us up.

And then last September some fishermen came up, and a couple of them drove trucks up with this unbelievable seafood, and we had a wonderful seafood dinner. And we had farmers here who hosted them on their farms—that was the idea. We didn’t want this just to be a go-to-the-hotel. Some of the fishermen were kind of unsure about that—and they bonded. So they said, “Come back and see us down in the bayou.” And in March we did, we went down there. And we were, this time, taking, we were taking the food. We took down steaks and [unclear—brats?]. And they treated us so warmly, and we really have bonded.

And this year we’ve expanded it a little so that when you came to our dinner on Thursday, you saw we also had incredible fishermen from Mississippi and Alabama. And some of them are real innovators, aren’t they? These amazing, sustainable fishermen. And they’re excited about each of them sharing information about how can they each show each other, other new strategies? And how can they help support the best kind of farming in the upper Midwest? So they all are saying, “Hey look, you know, we could be promoting grass-fed beef down here, and you all are supporting our industry up there.” It’s very exciting.

TM: Yeah, it was very dynamic and also heartbreaking. What actually struck me though, Margaret, and I don’t even know how to say this, but I’ll give it a try, is that the very people who are ruining it for them—that is, nutrient loading through corn and soy production and soil erosion and so on—here they are, feeding them. I mean, you don’t hear them say, “Wow, what are you guys doing up here? You’re losing so much topsoil, you’re nitrogen loading, it’s all coming down to the Gulf, and you’re creating a dead zone.” Instead they’re in this frame of mind of, “How can we help you understand what’s happening, and you can help us?” And I think that is so unusual, and I just wondered, how is it going? Are they able to have these kinds of tough conversations with each other on what’s happening in the Midwest that’s impacting the Gulf?

MK: Well, that’s a really good question. And to be honest with you, I did not feel that they could or should be expected to have that conversation. I felt that in a way there’s been a lot of correction and messaging to farmers in the upper Midwest: “Here’s the problem…” But, you know, all of us are guilty of tuning out the things that are just too tough for us to deal with if we don’t know how to fix them. And my feeling was, why not start with a group of farmers that’s doing it the right way, and really trying, and celebrate what they’re doing right, and use that as a chance to have media cover it.

And people, I find, are opening up their ears. Because when you talk about it from the positive side of things, “Thank you very much, you farmers in this upland watershed group, for going to the trouble to plant cover crops. Thank you for your grass-based dairy. Thank you for your pastured beef operation. Thank you for using small grains and having a much more extensive crop rotation. Thank you,” et cetera. If you do that, people can hear it.

And we have created, within our watershed group, we have this tradition now. We do, every single farm tour and farm field day, we serve Gulf shrimp so that every time we do we can talk about this relationship and we can say, “Here are the dots. Let’s please help us connect the dots.” I think we can do it in a way that people can open themselves to. Not everybody and not all at once. But it doesn’t mean we should go light on regulation where regulation is appropriate. It just means that if we open up a tent and invite all comers to come and join us in that tent, we will do, I think, far more to have conversations built and culture built around conservation.

And that’s what we’re finding. When we actually have had some of these farm tours… You know, I’ve said at the beginning of a farm tour, “Everybody be sure to take a name tag, because we want you to meet people you don’t know. I hope you’re going to reach out and strike up a conversation.” And they do. I’m struck by how many people call me up and say, “That really excited me. That’s really important!”

So, I’m not naïve, but I believe that culture plays a greater role than we sometimes give it credit for. And we can allow people to see themselves in the face of farmers who are doing the right thing and become a part of that “we.” We all care about being part of a group. And being part of a group that’s doing creative and dynamic stuff—that’s kind of exciting!

TM: Better “we” than “them.”

MK: That’s exactly! And so we have worked hard to have our watershed group be a mixture of conventional farmers and sustainable organic farmers—people who come at it from a very different set of philosophy, but we want that. We intentionally reach out using some of the more conservative farm groups, to have them help us reach out to new farmers who might not have naturally considered some of these questions. And we’re hoping that that will, not only just in the next few years but over time, make a big difference.


TM: Well, you know, you’re only into it for a year now.

MK: Exactly—we’ve got time. We’ve got to keep working on it.

TM: Yeah, it’s an infant program. I think it would be great if you could share with us a day in the life of a fourth- and fifth-generation fisherman who, their whole lives, have been fishing this area which is now dead zone. I was so moved to hear the stories, and I wondered if you might share a story with us about what’s it like now for a [fisherman]. Besides the fact that they have to go further out, but what are the other things that are happening that is really disruptive for them?

MK: Well, I’ll do two things. I will share with you the answer to that second question, “What are some of the other issues that they face?” And I’ll give you that kind of a day-in-the-life as I have come to understand it. But what I have learned is there are actually several concerns all at once. One of them is there’s a lot of threat from overseas shrimping, and it busts apart the market. It’s not well regulated overseas—Asian shrimp, as I understand it—and it gets brought over, and they skirt underneath guidelines and regulations that we have, and that busts apart the market. So there’s that, just cutting the process right out of the market. There’s that.

Then there are concerns…a lot of folks say that some of the regulations that have been created for some of the fishing have been really inappropriately tailored. They have not been very thoughtfully developed, so that it means that the cost of a boat could run a million dollars. For a beginning fisherman this is extremely tough. So it means it’s very hard to get into the industry. Other people say some of the other big issues are the bayou. What the bayou is, is it’s at the mouth of the delta—it’s the mouth of the Mississippi for a reason. It’s the deposition of all the soil from Big Muddy, all those millions of years. And then what they’ve done is two things: not only is it getting the nutrients from the upper Midwest, but they’re not getting dispersed into the delta because of all the channelizing that’s been done by Army Corps of Engineers and such, over the years, so that the water comes kazoomingdown the Mississippi and out into the Gulf, and it doesn’t get the nutrients and the soil into the bayou where it’s needed to replenish the bayou.

So they’re losing land dramatically fast. And the nutrients don’t get, they’re not diluted by going out through the bayou. They go straight out into the Gulf and create the dead zone. So channelizing is another concern. Loss of land…they’ve got a series of challenges before them. So that’s the answer to the second question, like some of their challenges.

But they describe, some of the fishermen talk about when the dead zone starts, it’s like night and day, or day and night. You’re out there fishing one week and you’re catching red snapper, just can’t pull them in fast enough. So many red snapper, a really important part of the economy of the Gulf. And then you go back to the very same place the following week, boom! The dead zone’s hit and there is nothing in the water columns. They say they send divers down and there is nothing there, period. Not a minnow, not a thing. And they describe the dead zone in such terms as you understand that they live and breathe, where is the life in this marine system? It’s gone. And they have to go further and further out.

TM: It truly was, and shocking. You would think that things happen gradually, but it happens year after year. They don’t know whether an area’s going to be a dead zone or not, or part of the dead zone. It hurt my heart to hear how many square miles, thousands now of square miles. And then their own goals were something like 5,000 square miles and now they’re looking at 8,000 or 9,000 square miles.

And then, what was the word that they use? It was a new one for me, I hadn’t heard it. I always call it dead zone. Hypoxic?

MK: Hypoxia is the state of being where that body of water ends up with an algal bloom from the nutrients that come in. And that algal bloom then takes all the oxygen out of the water, and that’s what creates the dead zone. And of course it’s not just in the Gulf of Mexico—there are dead zones all around the country now. It’s in Monterey Bay in California, Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, Green Bay in Wisconsin. We have, all over the country, we’re struggling with these excessive nutrients going into the water and what it does to those water bodies.

And it can be fixed! That’s the amazing thing. This is a reversible problem if we change our policies. If we—and also, I would say—if we can create market demand for agricultural practices that keep the ground covered, that use grass-based production practices, that have a really sophisticated crop rotation so it’s not just corn and beans and corn and beans, so that we don’t put in more fertilizers than we need to if we do use nutrient management plans. Those all make a difference, and we can create a changed system.


TM: Well, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Margaret Krome, program director for public policy at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. Margaret and I are talking about how the Midwest farming practices are linked to fishermen in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. And so, Margaret, you were talking about how this hypoxia or dead zone can be actually reversed—we could actually solve it. It’s not like climate change and global warming, where it’s going to take decades to reverse. You could actually, from one year to the next, probably, fix some of it.

And so I’m wondering, Margaret, how can—that connection is happening right now between the fishermen and the farmers. How can that be moved into the two areas that you said are our solutions? One, maybe some stricter policies, both for other global fishermen who these folks have to compete with, as well as what kind of market incentives can those of us who are always saying we can vote with our dollars, how can we move that kind of thinking into these fishermen and these farmers who are trying to be connected and do the right thing for the water?

MK: What a great question. Well, I would say there are lots of policy issues. And, of course, we’re coming up to the next Farm Bill. And some of the policies—I’m going to simplify things by saying where I would go for the best information is the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. NSAC has always got these questions and concerns right at the forefront of our thinking collectively. And it is collective and it’s very democratic and it’s something that is inspiring. If you feel like you’re starting to feel too cynical about the potential for government to be responsive, become an active follower of the National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition and you will see how, through the careful listening sessions that NSAC members pursue, and the policies that we develop and then the programs we create and the funding we get for those programs and the meticulous attention to how these programs are implemented, we’ve made a huge difference on the landscape. And it’s very undoubtedly part of the reason I’m not cynical. Discouraged at times, yes, but I don’t get cynical because I know that we can make a difference. We’ve demonstrated it for decades now.

And so some of the examples of that—we’ll, we’re working now on several conservation programs and practices. We definitely need to have more enforcement of existing expectations and standards. Personally, I think we need to raise the standards in some cases. But we especially need to get funding for existing programs that we have, conservation programs without which we will be losing further ground.

One reason I’m so thrilled our fishermen from Mississippi and Alabama came, they said, “We will be in touch with our members of Congress. We have agricultural appropriators.” You know, the chair in the Senate is from Mississippi, Senator Thad Cochran. The chair in the House is from Alabama, Congressman Robert Aderholt. Of course, in Wisconsin we have Senator Tammy Baldwin and Congressmen Mark Pocan. All of these people need to hear, “We need to protect the Gulf by protecting conservation programs as they exist now, and building up their capacity to support it.” That’s an example of where policy gets very real on the ground real fast.


TM: Thinking about research, thinking about the hard numbers, are we able to collect the hard numbers about what works? Is there someone monitoring just how much nutrient loading and so on is happening down there in the Gulf? And trying to make a little bit more, a truly direct connection between when we farm like this, this is what happens? When we do this…I mean, do we have ways that we can test how we can protect the Gulf?

MK: Well, it is an interesting place, because you’re really talking about institutions where you have the oceanography world and the NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and some of the other, Sea Grant, and the other apparatus associated with helping protect fisheries and support healthy water bodies. And they have their own research programs. And then you have the whole agricultural research. So developing the bridges between those two is a very good thing.

I have been struck at some of these fishermen who came up—I found them through Sea Grant. I called up the regional leaders for Sea Grant and they found this wonderful fisherman, Lance Nacio, who…he was there, he was talking about how he does direct marketing of his shrimp. He’s all over the world marketing his shrimp with the highest folks around. He’s been to the Slow Food movement several times, and he’s been all over on some of the best shows around the world, talking about what it is to do sustainable seafood. And then you have folks like Randy Skinner, who’s developing this winged trawler, which brings up much less by-catch—by-catch being the stuff you didn’t really mean to get; you didn’t mean to get the fish, you were looking for the shrimp—and developing… And he showed us that night, didn’t he, at the dinner, the different reasons that one strategy, one kind of a trawler works better than another.

So we have the capacity to begin to draw the links between them. But I do agree, I really feel we need to specifically work to make those connections clearer.

And then what are the incentives to change agriculture? That’s really…you know, what can we do? I think a lot of it’s going to be market-based. And I’m excited that one of the things that this project seems to be starting towards doing is developing relationships with real market leaders who are interested in what role they can play and how effective they can be. And I’m excited. And so we are really starting to build some market potential around this.

TM: So it sounds to me like starting with the connection between the different farmers and fishermen, looking at culture and how we can develop cultures that really take pride in managing the watersheds, and then having public policy that also is helpful, including the way we look at insurance and the Farm Bill, which is so important. And now, finally, the marketplace. And so it seems to me that the question to ask as we wind down our interview, Margaret, is: When I go to the restaurant and I want to buy shrimp, what should I be asking the restaurateur?

MK: One of the things I need you to ask is where do they come from? Frankly, I don’t buy Asian shrimp. I just don’t. Now, that’s other people’s perspectives, do what you like, but I know that there are standards. And in Louisiana they have a program called Fisheries Forward. These are the sustainable practices, this is the best management practices. And when there’s Fisheries Forward shrimp, I go for those. I like to know that a shrimper has been very attentive to their by-catch, and what kind of practices can they use to protect against turtles. And they do, they have these special hatches, like escape hatches, so that the turtles don’t get ensnared in the nets. They have all these new systems, making sure that the fishermen are using those practices. But that they’re maybe—well, tell us about your by-catch. What is your percent of by-catch and what do you do with it, and how are you protecting against non-target species?

Those are the kinds of things I would be asking. I think it pays to get to know individual fishermen. I’ve been struck by how open these fishermen are. They’re dying to get to know us. They go to so much trouble and they’re so willing to share their stories. I think I would seek to connect a chef with a really well-credentialed sustainable fisherman, and then stick by that restaurateur.

TM: Well, can I ask you this? The Fisheries Forward, do they have a logo? Can they identified, for example, if a restaurateur wants to put something like that on their menu?

MK: They do, actually! Yes, and you can go to the Louisiana Fisheries website and just do “Fisheries Forward” and you’ll find that program there.

TM: Terrific. So there are ways that all of us can contribute to really building awareness. You know, we see a lot of bumper stickers now that say “Know Your Farmer,” and we probably just have to extend that to “Know Your Farmer and Your Fisherman.”

MK: Absolutely! And I would say if we really are concerned about the Gulf and you’re buying meat, buy grass-fed beef. Get beef, unless you happen to know somebody who can say that the grain that was used to feed this animal came from a farm with an extensive crop rotation, that used conservation practices, that planted conservation crops, that planted cover crops. Unless you know that, then support a system that you know is much more sustainable—use a grass-fed approach. And there are lots of new options on the market, and support those. With United States domestic grass-fed market, you can feel pretty confident that you are helping solve the problem in the Gulf.

TM: Thank you so much, Margaret. That was such excellent advice for all us. There’s just a lot of ways that we can build awareness and be involved. And I’m really going to be looking forward to really having you take this program and amplifying it to all of the farmers in the Corn Belt states, and all the consumers, so that we can all be participating by voting with our dollars.

MK: Thank you so much, Theresa.

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