LSP Land Line: Big Ag Gravy Train, Habitat Loss, Soil Health, Dairy Crisis, Nitrogen, Kernza

Sept. 25: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Very large farms collect one-fifth of USDA’s coronavirus payments

(9/23/20) Chuck Abbott reports on that the government's COVID-19 payments to agriculture have been a gravy train for mega-operations. According to an analysis done by the Environmental Working Group, the largest 1% of farms in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) received one-fifth of disbursements, or nearly $1.1 billion of the $5 billion paid during June, the first month of CFAP. Highlights:

  • The largest 1% of farms received an average payment of $352,432.
  • As of this week, the overall average payment for CFAP was $15,838.
  • The USDA set a payment limit of $250,000 per farmer or entity, double the limit in the traditional farm program.
  • The Government Accountability Office says the USDA paid an additional $529 million in trade-war payments in 2019 because of the higher payment limit.

During the development of the last Farm Bill, LSP member-leaders worked with LSP organizers to develop a roadmap for federal ag policy reform. It included sensible limits on government payments to mega-operations, among other things. Check it out here.

Study: U.S. commodity farmers imperil biodiversity for ever-lower yields

(9/24/20) The Food and Environmental Reporting Network describes a new study showing that during the past decade, U.S. corn, soybean, and wheat fields wiped out an expanse of native grasslands and ecosystems larger than the state of Maryland, which decimated wildlife habitat and released an immense amount of carbon dioxide into the air. The study was published in the journal Nature. Highlights:

  • The hardest hit area is the prairie pothole region stretching from northern Iowa through much of the Dakotas into northeastern Montana and southern Canada.
  • Much of this land is considered "marginal," and is producing lower-than-average crop yields.
  • The causes: ethanol production, crop insurance taking the risk out of farming marginal land, the shrinking of the Conservation Reserve Program.
  • South Dakota farmer Lyle Perman says there's one way to reverse the loss of grasslands: more cows and less crops. Cattle provide an economic incentive to keep grass on the land. "You lose the cows, you lose water quality, you lose air quality, you lose species diversity," he told FERN.

Check out LSP's recent Myth Buster on the issue of sod-busting marginal acres. LSP has long called for sensible crop insurance reform. Our special report, Crop Insurance: A Torn Safety Net, is here.

OSHA cites JBS, Smithfield Foods for failing to protect employees from coronavirus

(9/14/20) Reuters reports that the U.S. Labor Department has cited Smithfield Foods and JBS for failing to protect employees from COVID-19. In July, the HEAL Food Alliance (the Land Stewardship Project is a member-organization of HEAL) and other members of a nationwide coalition filed a civil rights complaint alleging Tyson and JBS have engaged in racial discrimination in the way they have handled COVID-19. The CDC reports that nearly 90% of infected meatpacking workers are people of color. Highlights of the Reuters article:

  • OSHA cited Smithfield's plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., for "failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm," according to a statement.
  • At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted COVID-19 and four employees died this spring, OSHA said.
  • It's a slap on the wrist: the government proposed fining Smithfield $13,494 and JBS $15,615 for the violations. To put things in context, the USDA awarded JBS USA and its subsidiary Pilgrim’s Pride $193 million from 2019 to 2020.

A recent LSP blog describes how "Big Meat" has been putting workers in danger while falsely claiming we are in the midst of a "meat famine." It also describes how the lack of local meat processing is hobbling the local food movement in Minnesota.

Why fewer Minnesota dairy farmers are going out of business

(9/16/20) The Star Tribune reports that while dairy farming is still in serious trouble, the exodus of producers has "slowed" somewhat in 2020. Highlights:

  • Minnesota lost 268 dairy farms in 2019; Wisconsin, 818. Dairies are still going out of business in 2020, but at less than half the pace.
  • Experts quoted in the article credit the dairy margin coverage insurance program for helping slow the decline of dairy farms. In addition, dairy farmers received $1.7 billion through the federal government's COVID-19 relief package.
  • Mike Yager, who milks 300 cows near Madison, Wis., told the Star Tribune that “middlemen” are still benefiting the most financially from milk production.
  • The article does not address the detrimental role mega-dairies have played in flooding the market with too much milk or the benefits of implementing supply management programs, something that was discussed during LSP dairy crisis meetings last winter.

A recent LSP Myth Buster took on the argument that big dairies = big economic benefits for rural communities. In an LSP Ear to the Ground podcast, ag economist and dairy expert Richard Levins talks about the negative impacts the "get big or get out" attitude has had on farming and rural communities.

University of Minnesota leads project to boost yield, uses of crop that could cut water pollution

(9/18/20) The Star Tribune describes a $10 million University of Minnesota Forever Green project to scale up the production of the wheatgrass Kernza. The Land Stewardship Project has played an instrumental role in getting legislative funding for the Forever Green initiative. LSP staffer Alex Romano put together these highlights from the article:

  • Researchers at the U of M will work with dozens of scientists, farmers and buyers from Kansas, the Great Plains and around the Midwest to both increase the yield of the grain and expand the market for restaurants, millers and brewing companies to purchase it.
  • “We’re seeing 100 times less nitrogen leach into the groundwater,” researcher Jacob Jungers said. “These wellhead protection areas were losing about 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre in a corn or soybean rotation. With Kernza, that’s dropping down to 0.3 pounds per acre.”
  • Today, it’s grown by about 100 farmers on 2,000 acres of land, according to the Land Institute.
  • So the big question for growers remains: Will it sell?

Check out this LSP Ear to the Ground podcast on how one Minnesota farm is integrating Kernza into its cropping system.

Fertilizer rules to start this week, but will they curb Minn. groundwater’s nitrate problem?

(8/31/20) Minnesota Public Radio describes how beginning this month farmers in parts of Minnesota face new restrictions on nitrogen fertilizer applications. The "vulnerable groundwater map" related to these restrictions is here. LSP staffer Alex Romano put together these highlights from the article:

  • Farmers won't be allowed to apply nitrogen fertilizer in the fall or on frozen ground, in parts of Minnesota where the groundwater is vulnerable to contamination. The rule applies to about 12% of the state’s cropland, mainly in the central and southeastern parts of the state.
  • Clean water advocates say real change will only come if farmers in those vulnerable areas move away from planting corn and soybeans, which require a lot of tilling and fertilizing. "There's a point at which, you know, it's not how you grow the crop. It's the crop you grow,” said Trevor Russell, water program director for the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River. “There are some places where you simply cannot grow traditional corn and soybean crops and not lose nitrate to the aquifer and put public health at risk.”

A recent Land Stewardship Letter article describes how LSP Soil Builders' Network member Martin Larsen is using his passions for caving and soil-friendly farming to reduce nitrogen contamination of his community's groundwater. As Larsen points out, traditional "best management practices" aren't enough — innovative soil building practices are the only thing that will move the dial.

Cargill joins regenerative agriculture movement, sets goal for 10 million acres

(9/16/20) The Star Tribune business section quotes Cargill officials saying they will "convert 10 million acres of row crop farmland in North America over a decade to regenerative practices, which are designed to improve soil biodiversity and reduce erosion and runoff." Highlights:

  • Cargill says it will "give whatever support farmers need, whether its knowledge, training or market-based incentives."
  • 10 million acres represents a small fraction of the 1.1 billion acres of cropland in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
  • Illinois farmer Al Klein describes how his first foray into cover cropping was a failure. However, seven years ago he gave them another try. "I never expected to have these results so fast. It's really exciting to have a shovel full of worms. That's what it is all about — the living stuff in your soil," he told reporter Kristen Leigh Painter.

LSP's Bridge to Soil Health Program has numerous resources for farmers seeking to build soil profitably.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.