FAIRMONT - Rural Advantage was awarded a $300,000 grant over the next three years from the McKnight Foundation.
The non-profit plans to use the funds to advance its Third Crop Initiative, a coordinated effort to encourage planting crops that require less fertilizer and pesticides and reduce polluted runoff.
The grant was one of 181 grants totalling $2.3 million disbursed by the McKnight Foundation in the last quarter of 2010. The organization's mission is to improve the quality of life for people through grant-making, coalition-building, and strategic policy reform.
Of the $2.3 million, $1.3 million were devoted to programs working to reduce water pollution from agricultural sources in four states along the Mississippi River.
"A clean Mississippi River is vital to both the people who depend on it for their health, livelihoods, and recreation, and to the delicate wildlife habitats it sustains," said Robert Struyk, McKnight's board chair. "Organizations like these and many others are seeking creative ways to identify, mitigate, and where possible, eliminate water pollution."
Linda Meschke, founder of Rural Advantage, said the money will be used to fund all the third crop initiatives, including ECoPayPack and Farm2Cafeteria.
"ECoPayPack stands for Ecological Commodity Payment Package and involves the development of a program that can supply a payment to the landowner for increasing the ecological value coming from the land they manage," she said.
Examples of these ecological commodities include improving water quality by reducing nitrogen, phosphorous or sediment; and improving game and non-game wildlife habitat.
"We have a pilot pollinator habitat credit program that we have developed and will be further developing this," Meschke said. "One program we will be working on is to reduce nitrogen coming from drained agricultural land and feeding a community wellhead ... causing high nitrate levels in the drinking water. Farmers would be paid for reductions in nitrogen levels in the drainage water."
Rural Advantage's other big project, the Farm2Cafeteria Network, was created last year, when the nonprofit began connecting locally grown produce to the cafeteria at Stepping Stones Childcare and Learning Center. The McKnight grant, along with a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, will allow expansion for both farmers and outlets in the program.
"In addition to the McKnight Funds, we received a specialty crop grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to assist growers, develop additional markets and connect with additional cafeterias over the next two years," Meschke said.
Rural Development staff are available to assist landowners with the development of a business or marketing plan for those desiring to grow their operation.
Meschke said she hopes to "expand the number of local foods growers, the volume of local foods and the number of people consuming and supporting local produce growers here in Martin County."