LSP Land Line: MnDOT & Spraying, Massive Meat Exports, Farm Income, COVID & Farm Workers

Sept. 28: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

MNDOT abruptly ends 25-year program with organic farmers

(9/25/20) Noah Fish reports in the Grand Forks Herald on how organic farmers and the Land Stewardship Project are upset with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's decision to abruptly end a 25-year agreement that kept herbicides from being sprayed on ditches near organic operations in southeastern Minnesota. Farmers first became aware of MnDOT District 6's reversal on the program when transportation workers pulled "no-spray" signs from the ditches near organic operations. Highlights:

  • Under the agreement, organic farmers pledged to maintain nearby ditches, and in turn, MnDOT agreed to not spray herbicides. Farmers rely on herbicide-free ditches as a buffer between their farms and conventionally managed land.
  • A MnDOT maintenance supervisor told Fish the program was ended so it could be reassessed as to how relevant it is related to current noxious weed problems and roadside safety issues. The supervisor also cited a "clerical oversight" for the fact that farmers were not notified.
  • "It's a serious issue and we're really struggling with them communicating with us. (MnDOT) is not taking any type of input from the public about it and are just ignoring what farmers have to say," LSP organizer Shona Snater told Fish
  • "For the sake of organic certification, you can't lessen or eliminate that buffer, because that counts as part of your distance away from any herbicide sprayed," said organic dairy farmer Tim Ahrens, adding, "We thought we were acting right and in good faith, and it was one of those occasions when the state and its citizens were working together, kind of a win-win."

Information on the Land Stewardship Project's work to develop and promote state policies that support organic farming and other forms of sustainable agriculture is here.

Surge in U.S. pork exports to China led by Brazil's JBS, China's WH Group

(9/25/20) Reuters reports that meat processors have been shipping a massive amount of U.S. pork to China in recent months, despite claims that the COVID-19 pandemic was reducing their ability to ship product. The article quotes figures developed by Panjiva, the research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Highlights:

  • When compared to the same period in 2017, meat giant JBS may have shipped 370% more U.S. pork to China between January 2020 and the end of August.
  • WH Group Ltd., which owns Smithfield Foods, shipped 90% more pork during the same period.
  • JBS told Reuters in April that it had reduced exports during the pandemic to focus on U.S. demand for meat.

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.

7 Overlooked Insights from the USDA's Farm Income Estimates

(9/28/20) An analysis of the latest USDA farm income and financial data by Ag Economic Insights shows that despite recent news that farm income is up, direct payments from the federal government are distorting the real economic picture. Ad hoc payments, in particular, are propping up the farm economy. Ad hoc payments are different from farm payments that are a regular part of federal ag programs, such as crop insurance premium subsidies. The recent Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and the trade war bailout payments are two examples of ad hoc payments. In 2017, 6% of direct government farm payments came from "supplemental and ad hoc disaster assistance." In 2020, 73% of direct payments fit that category of being "ad hoc." It's clear farmers are becoming alarmingly reliant on these emergency measures. Highlights:

  • Using inflation-adjusted dollars, all signs point to a record level of direct farm payments made in 2020.
  • Working capital in the U.S. farm sector is expected to slip to $68.2 billion in 2020, down 14% from 2019,
  • Overall, farm debt has risen in recent years, approaching levels last observed during the 1980s farm crisis.

Check out LSP's Farm Crisis Resources web page for help in dealing with economic, emotional, and weather related problems.

Virus’s unseen hot zone: The American farm

(9/24/20) At the height of the fruit harvest season, growers supplying some of America’s biggest agricultural companies and grocery store chains flouted public health guidelines to limit testing and hide COVID-19 outbreaks, according to thousands of pages of state and local records reviewed by the Washington Post. Highlights:

  • Crowded work conditions, combined with camp-like congregate housing and the transient nature of fruit harvesting, has created a perfect situation for COVID-19 to be spread in farm worker communities.
  • Officials in California's Monterey County found that as of July 1, agricultural workers had 1,410 positive cases per 100,000 population, about three times the rate for other workers.
  • The Post found documentation of major fruit production operations failing to provide workers with masks or outside hand washing stations. Others failed to test workers, attempted to hide the extent of their outbreaks, or punished workers who spoke out about unsafe working conditions.
  • In some cases, outbreaks on fruit operations spiked dramatically almost literally overnight. One producer told the Post that 10 of her workers had been infected with the virus by mid-July. By Aug. 12, records from the local health district showed that particular firm had 72 positive cases out of a workforce of 350 across three locations.
  • Purdue University estimates that nationwide 128,000 farm workers across all sectors of the industry have tested positive for COVID-19. That may be a vast undercount, given that it does not include part-time and temporary workers.
  • As of 2018, more than 60% of farm laborers, graders, and sorters were Latinos, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. And about three-quarters of about 3 million agricultural workers were foreign born, mostly from Mexico, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health.

LSP's latest Long Range Plan outlines the organization's commitment to creating a fair and just food system for everyone, including farm workers.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.