The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported recently that the numbers of agricultural education teachers in Minnesota is shrinking, while the need grows. This trend should surprise no one: Minnesota’s population is increasingly urban, and farm consolidation is meaning fewer and fewer people make a living through farming.
And it should be just as evident that the need to learn about agriculture has really never been greater. For a variety of reasons far beyond this post, we may be nearing the end of the days when we don’t have to think about how food gets on our plate.
A faculty member at the University of Minnesota is quoted that ag education itself is changing, that it’s not “plows, cows, and sows” any more.
What, then, what should agricultural education for the 21st century in the Midwest look like? I suggest three topics, to complement the previously mentioned references to row crops and livestock. Farmers will continue to have to know about crops and stock, of course, but in addition, they will have to know about water, about communication, and about the planet.
With a minute fraction of the country actively engaged in farming, and a slightly larger number engaged in food processing and production, it is imperative that farmers know how to tell their story. And I emphatically do NOT mean letting farm chemical producers, or commodity associations, or grain companies or seed companies tell it for them!
Farming produces for a global market, often in competition with growers across the world. The impacts of farming are felt both locally and globally, and the challenge of feeding a global population will affect every farmer in the country. It’s not enough just to know your own backyard, or your watershed.
Speaking of watersheds, it may be only a slight exaggeration to say that the most important material coming off a farm is the water that drains the fields. Better water management is an essential part of contemporary agricultural practices. If wise management of the Mississippi River is largely a matter of managing the water flowing into the river and its tributaries, then farmers have to be part of that management solution. But they have to know as much about water, and care as much about clean water, as their river conservation partners (now too often arrayed as combatants).
Yes, there likely are too few ag ed teachers, in large part because there are fewer young people with ag ed in their background. Maybe if some of these other subjects are seen as essential to future ag learning, then more folks can be enticed to participate, whatever their background. Worth thinking about, anyway.
Those of us who think about water for a living can pretty easily find ourselves lamenting the lack of interest or insight from “everybody else” who doesn’t “get it.” (Whatever “it” is, whether it’s the importance of a particular river, the value of wetlands, the necessity of understanding urban stormwater, etc.) At least here in the Upper Midwest, we don’t live in a very “hydroliterate” society, at least not yet.
Earlier this month, I was a bit taken aback, then, by a stream of information and links from the US EPA on the importance of water to the US economy. As is the case for most of us with water, the economy is mostly “just there,” notable when it’s going too fast or too slow, just like we only notice water in floods or drought.
But the EPA has a large body of important information, starting with a report spelling out the importance of clean water to our economy. Once again, it’s always salutary to spell out in detail what we think “everybody knows.”
Accompanying the report, the agency released a statement from Nancy Stoner, the Acting Assistant Administrator in charge of the Office of Water. The agency has also published a good primer on the effects of climate change on water resources.
This is a short work week for many of us, so between spending time with family, shopping, eating and watching football, there should be plenty of time to read up on all of this vital information.
Yes, this will be on the final!
A recent blog post on rulemaking for the Mississippi River corridor through the Twin Cities generated some comments, both to the blog itself, and to the Facebook notice of the blog post. This is great; one of the important functions of the River Talk blog is to inspire discussions.
These comments raised for me the question: Who knows the River best? Arguments that one or another group has “undue influence” or “knows the river best because…” are vital because the Mississippi needs all of the concerned citizens we can rally to it. But I have to add, when I see that a group “speaks for the River,” I just have to ask: “How did the River ask you to speak for it?”
To take another perspective, a scientist friend of mine recently told a group we were meeting with “The Mississippi River doesn’t have a crisis. It simply is; it’s us who is having a crisis about the Mississippi.”
Well now. That’s not a perspective I hear every day, though it may well be true. (How would you ask the Mississippi how it feels? Some people do believe the river is a sentient being.)
The basis for claims to know the river are pretty interesting. Do we know the river best when we:
- spend a lot of time on the water, and know it through long experience boating?
- study its hydrology and understand the variations in its flows?
- know the life cycles and connectivities among the animals and plants that live on, in, and beside it?
- spend our careers studying it, protecting it through regulatory and political/legal actions and advocacy work?
Seems to me that “all of the above, plus more” might be the best answer.
If that’s too wishy-washy, as it legitimately could be to many, then I will offer this: it depends on the context where knowledge is needed. In the context spoken of in the earlier blog post, processes whereby communities and other organizations establish development rules for the cities along the river in this part of the world, I would suggest that scientific and urban design knowledge would be vital, and that we need both local points of view that see the river as an economic force in a local community and a bigger perspective that understands the river as a national and internationally significant landscape.
At that point, we need to fall back to a process that ensures sides are heard and feel that they have been taken seriously. Should a local community act completely in its own self interest, and thereby perhaps harming the great commons that is the river? Multiple perspectives need to be heard.
Once again, then, it seems that we need to have strong community expression that is clear, yet subtle and significant, which informs governance structures that are fair. Both should be informed by solid science where appropriate.
That won’t solve controversy, which is as much about local circumstance as anything else, often enough. But it’s not my hope to solve controversy, but to stimulate more, and better discussion.
As before, comments welcomed! Guest posts are also available–get in touch with me at email@example.com to talk about how to set one up.
A week ago yesterday was Election Day, which I personally barely noticed because I had not been inundated with television ads telling me that [whoever the ad's opponent is] threatens the very basis of democracy as we know it. For once, we weren’t being told that this election is The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime.
The lack of attention to this year’s election should not let us overlook the truly remarkable election results in Minnesota five years ago. In 2008, Minnesotans voted to raise taxes on themselves to provide a steady 25 year source of funds to improve water quality, enhance parks, recreation, trails, and wildlife habitat, and support arts and cultural heritage work.
This remarkable achievement, known in shorthand as the “Legacy Amendment,” has allowed government agencies concerned with water quality to take a longer view in addressing the state’s needs, rather than only being able to respond to crises after they occur. The first step was to develop a Water Sustainability Framework to identify key challenges, define the most urgent research, governance and planning needs to meet those challenges, and to serve as a guide for ongoing investment.
The work is bearing fruit. Last week, in recognition of this five year anniversary, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a press statement describing some of the more innovative and visible long term efforts to enhance water quality in certain parts of the state. These include:
- more detailed water quality monitoring at a watershed scale, rather than just along individual sections of selected streams;
- a long term program of restoration and cleanup in the St. Louis River, near Duluth;
- continued detailed attention to the ongoing efforts to clean up the Minnesota River.
The Minnesota River is one of the largest single sources of the nutrients that make up the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The St. Louis River, which empties into Lake Superior, has suffered extensive damage from industrial uses for the past 130 years. It is fair to say, then, that the Clean Water Legacy Amendment is having an important effect at the national scale and is working to reverse better than a century of degradation.
Maybe the 2008 election, at least in Minnesota, really WAS The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime!
Of course, anyone who has thought about this for more than about a minute and a half would realize that a river the size of the Mississippi makes its own rules. As my friend Karen Campbell used to say “Even dams are really just long term experiments on rivers.”
Nevertheless we are humans, so we have to try to impose our will on natural systems, and the Mississippi is no exception. It serves us well; we serve it much less well. In the metropolitan Twin Cities region, efforts to align the goals of a population now numbering about 3 million with the living system of the Mississippi really began in the 1970s, although there were some notable urban design efforts before then. The 1970s saw the establishment of the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities as the state’s first “Critical Area,” which set in motion all kinds of activity that continues to this day.
I’ll try to keep this short, I promise. In the United States, land use decisions are typically managed at the local level. Matters such as community planning, zoning, and related special studies are done by cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, or counties rather than by states, for the most part.
In the 1970s, the State of Minnesota recognized that the Mississippi River, a regional landscape with statewide, even national and international, significance, was being altered by locally-based zoning and planning decisions. A community might allow a tall apartment building to be constructed along the river corridor, which made for great views, high value apartments, and a good addition to the tax base, but was a visual intrusion. Or another community might allow development to take place right up to the shoreline, thereby ensuring that lawns would get established at the river edge, with damaging impacts on water quality.
The details of how cities administer the river corridor under their planning and zoning purview are worked out through state administrative rules. After a disastrous effort a couple of years ago to revise these rules, the state Department of Natural Resources is trying again, this time with an approach that is much more responsive to local governments. Local governments appear to be responding well to the new process; when you read this article closely, you’ll see lots of language to the effect that local government control is better than “having the state tell us what to do.”
But there lies the rub: as a landscape corridor of statewide and now designated national significance (this stretch of the Mississippi was added to the National Park System in 1988) there must be a strong role for government above the local level and for advocacy groups and other interested parties of all kinds. If local governments can do with the Mississippi River corridor what they please, then it won’t be long before this mythic river looks like every other ignored, mistreated urban river.
Yes, I am that pessimistic. I would love to be persuaded otherwise though, and welcome the discussion about appropriate balance of governance authority on such a world-class landscape as the Mississippi River. This is difficult stuff, and I don’t have an answer ready at hand, so am hoping to hear from you, through comments on the blog, tweets to @RiverLifeUMN, on Facebook, or all three.
“Sip of Science” is a really outstanding program (I’m resisting use of my student’s favorite adjective “awesome” but it is) that makes interesting and important science accessible to the public. The good folks at the National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics put the programs on, which are held at the Aster Cafe, located on SE Main Street in Minneapolis “the prettiest street in Minneapolis.”
The November 13 “Sip” features Dr. Karen Gran from the University of Minnesota-Duluth speaking about “Duluth Stream Geomorphology and the Solstice Flood of 2012.” Program is at 5:30.
A SIP OF SCIENCE – the 2nd Wednesday of every month
Duluth Stream Geomorphology and the Solstice Flood of 2012
A SIP OF SCIENCE bridges the gap between science and culture in a setting that bridges the gap between brain and belly. Food, beer, and learning are on the menu in a happy hour forum that puts science in context through storytelling.
November 13th Event
Roads and retaining walls collapsed. Cars were sucked into giant sinkholes. A seal escaped the local zoo and were found in traffic. In June 2012, the Duluth area experienced widespread flash flooding, amounting to a 500-year flood event. The floodwaters caused severe damage to infrastructure, stream banks eroded, bluffs failed, and massive quantities of large woody debris swept downstream. How did this happen? With the November Sip of Science, Dr. Karen Gran will cover some background on streams in the Duluth-area, how the geomorphology of these streams can affect their response to floods, and provide some perspective on how the floods have impacted the streams in the Duluth area.
The talk takes place during happy hour at the Aster Cafe || Food and Drink Available for Purchase
ABOUT THIS MONTH’S SPEAKER
Dr. Karen Gran is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She got her Ph.D. from the University of Washington, M.S. from the University of Minnesota, and B.A. from Carleton College. Her research focuses on river geomorphology, including how channels evolve under changing conditions, from volcanic eruptions to land use changes.
ABOUT A SIP OF SCIENCE
A SIP OF SCIENCE is a science happy hour sponsored by the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED). It is a chance to hear about new and exciting research over beer, in a cool bar. Come talk with the experts about their efforts to address some of the Earth’s most pressing problems. NCED’s A SIP OF SCIENCE brings the wonder of science to happy hour.
Get more information at: http://www.nced.umn.edu/
Earlier this fall, I was invited by Prof. Roopali Phadke of Macalester College’s Environmental Studies Program to participate in a small group workshop considering the future of St. Paul and the role various technologies might play in that future. St. Paul is one of six cities participating in a program called “The Futurescape City Tours,” organized through Arizona State University.
The group of us met and discussed our attitudes toward technology, then took a daylong walking tour of downtown and the immediate vicinity, with stops highlighting innovative technological systems such as those at District Energy and the St. Paul Union Depot.
The Depot, of course, is combining “past technology” of rail travel with innovations and multi-modal transportation that will serve St. Paul well into this century. And for me, considering St. Paul, that was one of the dominant themes: how the past and decisions that were made better than a century ago continue to shape the ways we will live in this place for the next century. Apparently a lot of us felt this way, our photoblog on Flickr is resonant with the built forms of the past in this place.
For me, of course, the view always turns toward the Mississippi, the reason for St. Paul’s very existence in the first place and perhaps its most distinctive physical characteristic going forward. For example,
St. Paul’s past is intimately tied to its location at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River. That place, where people and goods disembarked from riverboats and, often, continued their journey by rail, is still marked on the landscape by extensive railyards, often separating people from the river. This image, taken from the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, illustrates that juxtaposition.
St. Paul’s present relationship to the river is quite different. Rail yards have been replaced by multi-use development and parks. People can get close to the water and in some places actually put their feet in the “Mighty Mississippi.” As the picture shows, the rail tracks are still there, still forming a barrier from downtown to the river, but there has been a whole new neighborhood developed at the waterfront.
St. Paul’s future river relationship will be more subtle, as these tiles, created by school children and forming part of a rain garden at the Vento Sanctuary illustrate. You maybe can’t tell from the photo, but I know the artist who worked with these children, and they were a multi-ethnic, mixed income and background group. St. Paul, where Garrison Keillor broadcasts “Prairie Home Companion” on many Saturday nights, will look less like “Lake Wobegon” in the future, and those of us who live there will have to be taking our water relationships much more seriously, hence the photo of rain garden elements.
What does this all add up to? I don’t really know, but our workshop leaders were kind enough not to make us focus strictly on nanotechnology. Technologies come in all manner of shapes and scales; understanding those we already have, and that we’ll have framing our lives for decades, is an important place to start!
Dedicated readers of this blog (both of you!) know that I’ve been writing recently about myths, narratives, the Mississippi River, and the critical need to go beyond our “Mark Twain zone” of only general familiarity with the river.
A highly informative story about “big water” has been good grist for the mill. 20th century heroic mega projects such as Hoover Dam, the dams that impounded rivers throughout the Southeastern US and brought power to many rural homes, and countless other projects we can name are steadily becoming things of the past. This is not 100% true yet; there are always dam builders lurking with their plans and IMF forecasts of benefits, but even a place like Las Vegas is beginning to understand how water conservation is cheaper than a mega project, and can achieve results at a scale that really matters.
This is a vital insight, because in coming years as we are all asked to conserve water, we may wonder “what difference does it really make if I leave the faucet running while I brush my teeth?” Scale that individual action up, and the results can be impressive.
Speaking of impressive, Ensia magazine, produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, is rapidly becoming a “go to” source for me on all sorts of things. There are of course articles by award-winning journalists on issues relating to ecosystems, water, and the other sorts of issues that you’d expect in coverage of “the environment.” Ensia also addresses business, technology, and culture, adding much-needed breadth and complexity to the discussion.
Put Ensia on your blogroll, add it to your RSS or bookmark page, follow them on Twitter and Facebook; whatever you need to do, keep up with these folks. It’s cutting edge thinking, expressed well enough to be understood by all of us.
Yesterday’s news that a reproducing population of Asian carp had been identified in the Great Lakes watershed was greeted with dismay across a wide variety of news platforms.
The four fish, caught in the Sandusky River in Ohio, all contained biological indicators that they had spent their entire lives in that river, and had not come from a fish farm or originated elsewhere and been accidentally transported to the Sandusky.
What does this discovery mean? Turns out, it can be seen to have several meanings.
As reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, US Geological Survey specialist Duane Chapman says the discovery makes the job of controlling the invasive fish more difficult, but not impossible.
Several sources have noted that grass carp such as the ones identified this week aren’t as big a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem as silver and bighead carp. Silver carp, the “jumpers” that are so famous via YouTube, and bighead carp outcompete native species for food, causing vast disruptions to aquatic food chains. Grass carp, while damaging, are primarily of concern because they damage underwater vegetation.
Nevertheless, as Prairie Rivers Network argues, the presence of a reproducing population of any of the Asian carps anywhere in the Great Lakes watershed means that it’s time to accelerate action to block the others from gaining such a foothold.
If you find yourself in St. Paul MN (admittedly more likely for some of you than others), stop by the Institute on the Environment’s offices in the LES Building, on the corner of Buford and Gortner Avenues on the University of Minnesota campus. Here’s the notice the University posted recently:
THE INSTITUTE ON THE ENVIRONMENT’S COMMONS MEETING AND ART SPACE will celebrate the opening of its newest exhibit, Tales of Environmental Turbulence: the Common Trails of Art and Science, Oct. 17, 4:15 p.m., R350 Learning and Environmental Sciences building. The Commons Meeting and Art Space is designed to highlight the intersection of science and the arts.
So I’m too late to get the word out about the opening, but the exhibit is still quite interesting. It’s great to thee the scientists at the IonE recognizing the value of artistic expression and communication–we need to go from exhibits to collaborations!