He says he’s getting older and more tired, yet Harlan Anderson still has ideas and opinions to share.
To some, the Cokato, Minn., farmer-veterinarian-entrepreneur is considered a contrarian who steps in the way of their “progress.” To others, he is a cheerleader for small- and medium-sized farm operations — in particular, dairy and alfalfa-grass producers.
“A lot of my innovative ideas came from listening to farmers, especially over the milk bulk tank,” says Anderson, a 1973 University of Minnesota veterinary college graduate. He admits he gets verbally beaten up for voicing opinions, yet he perseveres. Why? Because he believes in the opportunities and the profession of agriculture. He is concerned about shrinking farm numbers, megasize single-enterprise farms, and that agribusinesses have taken over farmer-led organizations.
“Do people realize what we’ve lost with lack of diversity?” he asks.
Anderson has been a behind-the-scenes prodder and questioner since the early 1970s. U.S. farm policy, university research and Extension are favorite targets for this fourth-generation crop and livestock farmer.
Anderson worked with Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Paul Wellstone on farm bills — most notably the 1985 Farm Bill, which created the Conservation Reserve Program. However, not long after he became discouraged with CRP haying and grazing. He tried with successive farm bills to influence lawmakers to protect alfalfa and grass, as well as provide milk pricing mechanisms to help dairy farmers, but to no avail. Farm bills evolved to provide government programs that helped row crops, like corn and soybeans, and special interest groups influenced policy. By 2014, he saw no need for a farm bill.
“This country has held back farmers and not let them be farmers,” he says.
Closer to home, Anderson often took his alma mater to task. As the university direction veered from its traditional ag research and Extension path, Anderson talked with university leadership about changes made that he believed overlook practical research and application, such as alfalfa production and management.
He developed and presented programs to the university, one that would help beginning dairy farmers fill barns left empty from the post-1985 dairy buyout, another that supported a grazing specialist and a third one that supported distance learning education at the Rosemount Experiment Station. All three were dismissed.
“We need to make sure our land-grant university remembers its roots,” Anderson says. “It needs to refocus on tomorrow’s farmers.”
Forever forage fan
Anderson credits his father and grandmother for cultivating his interest in conservation and innovation. Like them, he wants to leave his family a better farm, and his farm has earned its Minnesota Ag Water Quality certification. He and his wife, Mary, have two sons and two grandsons. This year will be the 151st cropping season for Idle Acres Farm in Wright County.
A lifelong alfalfa fan, Anderson continues to contact policymakers about why we have CRP. The original intent of the program was to take marginal corn and soybean land out of production, possibly boost crop prices and reduce erosion. Instead, with allowed haying and grazing, Anderson believes the practice depresses hay prices.
“Why aren’t alfalfa and grass considered cover crops and getting payments, too?” Anderson asks. “You get $60 an acre to plant cover crops between corn and soybean, but nothing for alfalfa and grass.”
Relying on his training and experience with feeding forages to ruminants, Anderson developed his own line of alfalfa, and a grass-based business — Square Meal Feeds LLC — that offers an alfalfa-hay biscuit for horses. He also has been working on a new product called Rumen Helper for 2-week-old calves to aid rumen development in their first 6 months of life.
“I know the health benefits, and I have done feeding trials in Iowa,” he says. “It is tough to compete with roadkill hay and free CRP-quality hay.”
Against the grain
Anderson has long been frustrated by lack of agricultural leadership at state and federal levels.
“It is my opinion that we are lacking a leader in Minnesota and American agriculture, and are being smothered by committees. I have been saying for many years, ‘Any good idea can be killed by committee action,’” he says.
Public universities are no longer unbiased, research-based sources of information because they are forced to rely on outside funding from large multinational agribusiness, he notes. Why? Taxpayers and elected officials do not prioritize adequate funding for land-grant institutional research.
“We need more money invested in federal research so young farmers have new ideas to move into rather than living in the past,” he says.
Anderson is not a fan of corn ethanol, either.
“Raising corn for ethanol is the most inefficient use of land that could better produce food for starving people around the world, and help develop better U.S. public policy,” he says. Corn is an expensive crop to raise with its high energy, fertilizer and pesticide requirements, he adds.
And farm organizations? Well, they may have had their place at one time.
“Farm and commodity groups are not there to defend us,” Anderson says. “Their mission is to defend their organizations, not the farmer.”
For those who believe the same, you’ve got an ally in Anderson.