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Carleton MPIRG plants seeds of community sustainability

< campaign to transform Rice County's agriculture underway, MPIRG is taking on the local food system.

Last spring a couple of members of MPIRG asked themselves “what policies a local government could enact?” Among these inquiring students was sophomore Ben Hellerstein, currently co-chairing the student organization with Christa Owens. Hellerstein explained MPIRG’s work with local foods in a Carletonian interview earlier this week.

MPIRG also asked: “how can a rural community develop economically without sacrificing its character as an agricultural community or bringing in an outside corporation?” Often a town or city competes to bring in employment powerhouses, like Walmart, by offering tax breaks.

According to Hellerstein, this is okay to a certain extent, but the system trying to offer “the biggest bribe” to a corporation doesn’t consider how sustainable it is over the long-run. Plus, Hellerstein said the outside corporation is not keeping dollars circulating within the local community.

Small-scale farmers are the ideal solution since they have a “tangible investment and interest in staying on the land” and serving the community for decades.

By modeling potential policy enactments after Woodbury County in Iowa, Carleton MPIRG is seeking to help Rice County implement a small-scale agricultural structure and “learn from their experiences.”

Hellerstein said that MPIRG is working on an organic conversion policy. For a farmer to be organically certified, it’s necessary to have been artificial pesticide and fertilizer-free for three years. Hellerstein said that this standard poses an obstacle to switching to organic farming because during those three years farmers can’t benefit from price premiums for organics.

Additionally, the farmer’s yield usually declines since the soil must adjust from artificial methods to becoming “biologically self-sustaining.” Thus, many farmers are dissuaded from making the leap and transitioning to organic.

Despite the challenges of transforming into an organic farm, Hellerstein said local governments can encourage local farmers with property tax rebates on county property taxes, which Hellerstein estimates to be about $750 per year.

But what is the deeper incentive to go organic? Hellerstein said that organic farming techniques are good for the environment and cause less soil erosion and pollution. Moreover, organic farming is a great economic development strategy.

“Organic is more economically effective per acre,” said Hellerstein, with less land needed for a comparable yield to conventional farming. Though communities can sell out land to developers, they risk “sacrificing and obliterating their local character” and culture which attracts residents. Jobs are also created, with local farms which “rely on human labor” and “employ more people in our local communities.” Hellerstein said that Carleton MPIRG is not looking to mandate organic conversion, but to make it easier for interested farmers to make the switch.

Carleton MPIRG has been reaching out to the local Northfield community by meeting with the Northfield Food Action Network each month. There are also five county commissioners who would vote on implementing the organic conversion policy. MPIRG has contacted two of them, of which one, Galen Malecha, said that he was “eager to work with [Carleton MPIRG] to help move this [plan] forward.” Another, Jeff Docken, is waiting to see more information on the proposed economic benefits of such a plan.

As a nonpartisan and “youth-driven organization,” MPIRG is also working on a Complete Streets project, supporting lobbying efforts to increase mass transit and sidewalks, make roads safe, as well as both environmentally and biker-friendly.

Coming up on Thursday, March 4, at 5:30 pm is a Potluck with the Co-op in downtown Northfield followed by a presentation by Carleton MPIRG. Besides reaching out to local residents, Hellerstein hopes it will be an “opportunity to learn more about what we’re doing and what to do to get involved.” And, of course, there will be “plenty of good food.”

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