Land Line: Crop Diversity, Hmong Farmers, Ag Secretary Rumors, Ag Policy Changes, Meatpacker Abuse

Nov. 13 : An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Crop Diversification Can Help Environment Without Sacrificing Yields

(11/12/20) A new study shows diversifying agricultural systems beyond a narrow selection of crops leads to a range of ecosystem improvements while also maintaining or improving yields, reports Morning Ag Clips. But an Iowa State University agronomist who co-authored the study said some marketing and agricultural policy considerations will have to change for farmers to adopt diversification practices more widely. Highlights:

  • The study, published last week in the journal Science Advances, analyzed the results of 5,188 separate studies that included 41,946 comparisons between diversified and simplified agricultural practices.
  • In 63% of the cases examined, diversification enhanced ecosystem services while also maintaining or even improving crop yields.
  • The study looked at diversification practices such as crop rotations, planting prairie strips within and along fields, establishing wildlife habitat near fields, reducing tillage and enriching soil with organic matter. Such measures improve water quality, pollination, pest regulation by natural enemies, nutrient turnover and reduced negative climate impacts by sequestering carbon in the soil.
  • Many current policies and market conditions incentivize farmers to focus on a few highly productive and profitable crops. In the Midwest, that means corn and soybeans are grown on the majority of cropland. But agronomist Matt Liebman said rethinking those considerations, as well as working with farmers to transfer knowledge that allows them to gain confidence with diversification, could lead to wider use of the practices.

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

Farm Purchase Would Give Hmong Farmers a Long-term Place to Grow in Dakota County

(11/10/20) The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) is planning to buy 155 acres in Minnesota's Dakota County, a monumental land purchase for a group that wants to ensure the metro area’s pioneering small farmers have a place to grow fruits and vegetables for years to come, according to the Star Tribune. Highlights:

  • The nonprofit leases plots to its members and uses several areas to conduct research and demonstrations to train members in sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Farmers grow over 125 varieties of produce at the HAFA farm, with vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, asparagus and snap peas the most prevalent crops.
  • In addition to selling produce wholesale and at farmers markets, the farm this year produced enough fruits and vegetables to sell 1,200 Community Supported Agriculture shares.
  • An anonymous benefactor bought the property in 2013 and leased it to HAFA, hoping the farmers could eventually buy the land themselves.
  • HAFA could be able to purchase the land with $2 million included in the state’s $1.9 billion infrastructure borrowing package. The group must come up with $500,000 to complete the purchase.

Are you a landowner who would like to rent or sell farmland to a beginning farmer? Or are you a beginning farmer seeking to purchase or rent farmland in the Midwest? Check out LSP's Seeking Farmers-Seeking Land Clearinghouse. Resources related to farmland access and farm transition are available here.

Women Dominate List of Potential Nominees for Agriculture Secretary

(11/9/20) Obama-era officials and lawmakers top the list of potential nominees for agriculture secretary in the Biden administration, and, for the first time, most of the contenders are women, according to Successful Farming. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota was the most frequently mentioned name. Also circulating were California state Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, Reps. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Rep. Chellie Pingree, of Maine, and Delaware state Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse. Highlights:

  • Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was defeated for re-election in 2018 after a career that included 16 years in statewide offices in North Dakota. She met Donald Trump soon after the 2016 election and briefly was mentioned as a possible Trump nominee for Agriculture, Energy or Interior secretary.
  • Ross, the California agriculture secretary, was chief of staff while Tom Vilsack was agriculture secretary.
  • Pingree is an organic farmer and a member of the House Agriculture and Appropriations committees, an unusual combination of assignments that gives her a hand in food and agriculture policy as well as USDA funding. She has introduced bills to reduce food waste and to expand the role of small meat processors.

  • Fudge is one of the foremost advocates in Congress for public nutrition programs such as SNAP. As chair of the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, she called hearings last summer looking into shortcomings in the Trump administration’s food-box giveaway program. Fudge also has been mentioned as a possible candidate to chair the House Agriculture Committee.
  • The New York Times is reporting that Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is also being considered for agriculture secretary. Senator Klobuchar has advocated increasing support for agricultural commodities, disaster programs, and federal crop insurance.

Check out LSP's Federal Policy web page for details on our work to create public policy that supports sustainable agriculture and small to moderate-sized farms.

What Will a Biden Presidency Mean for Food and Agriculture Policy?

(11/10/20) Food Print explores how a Joe Biden presidency could address some of the major issues facing farmers, and how this could impact sustainable agriculture in the U.S. Highlights:

  • Trade and Aid: Biden’s approach to trade and payments is still unclear. He has clashed with Trump about trade payments in the past, asserting that the money had come from American taxpayers rather than China, as Trump had claimed. Biden’s Plan for Rural America notes the inequities in farm payments so far, but he hasn’t committed to continuing or eliminating payments beyond a promise to “rescue and revitalize small business throughout rural America.” And although Biden has been critical of Trump’s trade wars in the past, the transition team intends to keep many of the outgoing administration’s tariffs in place.
  • Conservation and the Environment: Biden’s Plan for Rural America states that his administration will bolster funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. The incoming administration has expressed support for carbon markets, expanding the ways that farmers can be paid to care for the environment. Biden’s support for ethanol in particular is controversial among those who say it only encourages unsustainable industrial corn production.

  • Fighting Consolidation in Agriculture: One of the Biden campaign’s central messages to farmers was a promise to level the playing field for farmers who are feeling the pinch of corporate consolidation. The biggest area of concern is in meatpacking, where farmers and ranchers have complained that the few companies controlling the industry have worked together to drive down prices, particularly in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Biden’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture will indicate how tough he’s willing to be on corporate agriculture interests. So far, however, nothing signals a dramatic shift: his chief campaign adviser on rural issues, former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, is friendly to the big agribusiness interests that many farmers feel victimized by.

Read LSP's ag policy statement: Our Farm Bill: Re-imagining U.S. Farm Policy that puts People, Communities & the Land First.

'They think workers are like dogs.’ How pork plant execs sacrificed safety for profits.

(11/11/20) USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting spent five months piecing together the pivotal moments during a COVID-19 outbreak at one of the nation's largest meatpacking plants. Highlights:

  • The investigation found that during the outbreak, which occurred at a Triumph Foods facility in St. Joseph, Mo., company officials failed to respond with effective safeguards during a crucial period from mid-March to mid-April that could have contained the spread of COVID-19.
  • Local health officials, who received complaints from employees and their family members, missed several opportunities to investigate. They instead took the company’s word that it was doing all it could to protect its workers.
  • At the start of the pandemic, Triumph Foods employees worked up to 10-hours-a- day, crammed side-by-side. Even after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the general public wear face masks, the company did not require them for weeks. It initially did not screen sick employees and implemented a bonus program that rewarded workers for perfect attendance even as they complained and fell ill.
  • On April 19, the day before the plant’s first positive case, Triumph’s board chairman Glenn Stolt shared a coronavirus conspiracy theory video on his Facebook page that claims 5G cell towers were instead to blame for illnesses, that the virus is less deadly than the seasonal flu, and that the CDC’s recommendation on 6-foot social distancing was “misinformation.”
  • Weeks later, nearly 500 Triumph employees — roughly a fifth of its workforce —tested positive. Four workers died.
  • With Triumph’s input, local members of Congress lobbied the CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in mid-May for relief from COVID-19 guidelines such as those recommending workers stand at least 6-feet-apart.
  • After the extent of Triumph’s outbreak became clear in May, the company withheld information on the total number of cases and encouraged state agencies to do the same. Weekly reports to the union stopped.

Meatpacking Giant JBS Denies Workers' Coronavirus Claims

(11/11/20) Employees of the biggest meatpacking company in the world, JBS, are filing compensation claims as a result of getting sick from COVID-19. However, the company is denying those claims, according to National Public Radio. Highlights:

  • Meatpacking plants have been hotspots for outbreaks of COVID19 and companies have resisted efforts to put in place such practices as social distancing. However, JBS denies responsibility for the infection of thousands of workers at its plants across the country.
  • In Minnesota, 929 meatpacking workers have had coronavirus workers' comp claims denied. JBS owns the meatpacking facilities with the two largest outbreaks in the state. In April, Minnesota legislators passed a law requiring insurance companies to presume essential workers filing claims had contracted COVID-19 at work. That same month, the federal government deemed meatpacking workers essential. But a Minnesota Labor Department official says the law there only includes certain professions, not meatpackers.
  • Court challenges against JBS' compensation denials or working conditions are underway in Colorado, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.

In an LSP blog, LSP member-farmers Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol discuss an idea for creating community owned meat processing in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is opening up a second round of grants aimed at helping livestock processing plants and producers increase capacity for slaughter, processing, and storage in the wake of supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Details are here.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.