Land Line: Grassland Bonanza, Mega-Concentration, Fake Farms, Hunger, Limitless Subsidies, Ag Secretary

Nov. 20: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Grassland 2.0 Aims to Replace Soy and Corn Farming with Perennial Pasture in the Upper Midwest

(11/11/20) With $10 million in funding from the USDA, Grassland 2.0 is a five-year project housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that aims to begin transforming the Upper Midwest’s farm landscape from 75% corn and soybeans to 75% perennial grassland, according to Civil Eats. Highlights:

  • As the American dairy sector has consolidated and moved South and West, small and mid-sized farmers have paid the price. Thirty percent of the nation’s dairy operations have shuttered over the last decade. The question remains how to reverse this trend and create a sustainable production system in the Upper Midwest. “It’s livestock production that’s based on grassland instead of grain,” says grassland ecologist Randy Jackson.
  • A diverse team of scholars, agricultural extension agents, policymakers, farmers, and a slew of private sector partners — cheesemakers, lenders, agricultural sales consultants, and others — have signed on to participate in Grassland 2.0.
  • Through the establishment of up to five learning hubs, the team will engage several dozen existing farmers — grass, commodity, and confinement dairy operations — to draft transformational agroecology plans.
  • A Michigan State University and Union of Concerned Scientists life-cycle assessment found that grazing has a lower carbon footprint when compared to conventional beef systems.
  • Consumer demand for grass-fed beef and dairy is on the rise. A recent report projected that by 2024, the grass-fed beef market could grow by an additional $14 billion in the U.S. due to animal welfare and environmental and human health concerns. However, demand exceeds supply and much of the grass-fed beef consumed in the country is imported from places like Australia and Central America.

Check out the Land Stewardship Project's Grazing & Soil Health web page for resources on how to build farm resiliency utilizing livestock.

The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts

(11/19/20) “The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts” is a special report released this week by Family Farm Action Alliance and written by the University of Missouri's Mary Hendrickson, among others. This report provides the latest updated data on the state of concentration in the agriculture and food system, and outlines what happens when a few hands control the way billions of consumers, farmers, and farmworkers work and eat. It also includes proposals for decentralizing our the system to move power out of the control of just a few. Highlights:

  • Consolidation is happening across all sectors in the food system, at the national and global levels. This has resulted in numerous negative impacts on farmers, workers and their communities as well as consumers, who have experienced higher prices and less innovation.
  • Crop acreage is consolidating in larger farms, while the sales midpoint (the point where where half of the farms have smaller numbers and half have larger numbers) starkly increased between 1987-2017. For hogs, the midpoint of sales has increased from 1,200 to 51,300, and in dairy, the herd size has gone from 80 to 1,300 cows.
  • New processes of integration are occurring. In U.S. pork production, large pork producers own processors and grain elevators, while supermarket behemoths Walmart and Costco are using backward integration in dairy, beef, and chicken. Kroger continues its strategy of backward integration in dairy and is supplying competing retailers. In addition, asset management firms are increasing their investments in food and agriculture, potentially reducing competition via common ownership of most of the leading firms in a number of industries.
  • In a consolidated system, farmers, workers and the environment are interconnected, meaning that when problems hit one part, they quickly engulf others. For meatpacking, COVID-19 hit workers, and the human tragedy of over 40,000 workers with COVID-19 quickly became a farm and environmental disaster. Besides the financial hit for farmers who may have euthanized between 300,000 to 800,000 hogs and 2 million chickens, the waste of the embodied resources (28,500 tons of pork, .02% of the 2018-2019 corn crop) is stunning. The inability to control the drift of the herbicide dicamba has divided communities, damaged livelihoods and ecologies, and illuminated the inability of agencies to regulate dominant firms.
  • In 2018, farmers whose primary occupation was farming but with sales of less than $350,000 had a median net income of -$1,524. An agriculture system without people has depopulated rural communities, causing a collapse in social relationships. Communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to excessive pesticide use or large animal confinement operations.
  • Consolidation obscures ownership to the point that farmers and consumers frequently have far fewer options in the market than it appears. Seed companies label the same seeds under multiple brands while products from a single processing plant may be sold under as many as 40 different brands.

Check out LSP's Federal Farm Policy page for details on our work to battle corporate concentration in our food and farm system.

Fraud-Prone Aid Program Sent $7 Million to Family’s Fake Farms

(11/18/20) A family in Cleveland, Ohio created 72 companies with agrarian-sounding names at three Cleveland-area addresses and then used them to get approval for loans and grants totaling $7.2 million from the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, according to Bloomberg News.

  • The loans are the latest sign of mismanagement in the SBA’s $212 billion disaster-relief program, which the agency’s inspector general warned in July was beset by “potentially rampant fraud.
  • The disaster-relief program has distributed 3.6 million loans worth $192 billion to small businesses since March, as well as 5.8 million grants that don’t have to be repaid totaling $20 billion. It’s distinct from the SBA’s $525 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which relied on banks to distribute forgivable loans meant to cover payroll.
  • A $750 million computer program set up by the SBA in April was supposed to flag suspicious disaster-aid applications before they were approved, but last month Bloomberg News quoted current and former SBA workers and outside fraud investigators describing widespread fraud that the computers had failed to catch. Even a person posing as President Donald Trump made off with a $5,000 grant.

Read LSP farmer-member Darrel Mosel's Minnesota Reformer commentary on the unfair distribution of COVID-19 ag relief payments.

USDA Exempts Family Farms from Limit on Farm Subsidy Recipients

(11/19/20) In a reversal, the USDA said this week that family-run farms are not subject to a rule that tightens eligibility standards for crop subsidies — the opposite of what it announced three months ago. Highlights:

  • At issue was an Aug. 24 regulation that requires people to perform at least 500 hours of active management or at least 25% of the management work needed in a year on a farm in order to qualify for a subsidy check as a manager. Almost 96% of farms in America are family-owned, so the new standard was hailed by reformers as a step against farm program abuse.
  • Congress has tried since 1987 to limit crop subsidy payments to those “actively engaged” in farming, defined as providing land, funding, or equipment to an operation as well as performing labor or management. But there have always been ways to get around the limits. The maximum payment per person is $125,000 a year. In 2018, the Government Accountability Office reported finding a farming operation that had received $651,000 in subsidies in 2012, with 16 of its 22 members claiming they had provided active management.
  • In a Federal Register notice, scheduled for publication on Thursday, the USDA said it had inadvertently applied the new management standard to all farms, when it had intended to apply it to “farming operations comprised of non-family members,” such as general partnerships. “After publication of the rule, stakeholders notified [the Farm Service Agency] of concerns regarding potential non-intended, adverse effects to farming operations comprised solely of family members,” it said.
  • The USDA’s explanation for changing its regulation strains credulity because it suggests that no one — administrators, program specialists, or lawyers — involved in the multistep process of writing a federal regulation recognized the impact of setting the 500-hour threshold for management, said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which LSP belongs to. He said the USDA executed “just a 180-degree about-face here” in an apparent election-year gambit. “This is a direct violation of the Administrative Procedures Act,” said Hoefner, referring to the law that requires the government to seek public input before making major changes in policy. “I have to believe an incoming administration would say, ‘No you don’t.' ”

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

As Thanksgiving Approaches, Fewer Than Half of Households With Kids Very Confident About Affording Needed Food

(11/18/20) As Thanksgiving approaches amidst a pandemic-driven economic crisis, just 44% of U.S. households with children are “very confident” that they can afford needed food over the next four weeks, and about 10%, or 3.5 million households, are “not at all confident,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Highlights:

  • That uncertainty reflects widespread food hardship across the country, with 5.6 million households with children struggling to put enough food on the table in the past seven days.
  • Households with children were less likely than those without children to report that they were “very confident” about affording needed food for the next four weeks, according to the new Census data, from the Household Pulse Survey for October 14-26. An estimated 7 and 11 million children live in a household where children didn’t eat enough in the past seven days because the household couldn’t afford it.
  • Other data show that hardship has significantly worsened since the pandemic started and remains high, underscoring the need for policymakers to agree on a robust, bipartisan economic relief package.

LSP Myth Buster #53 addresses how misinformation is fueling the federal government's attempts to cut food assistance programs.

Progressive Groups Back Fudge for Agriculture Secretary

(11/19/20) An array of farm, animal welfare, climate change, and environmental groups urged President-elect Joe Biden to select Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge for agriculture secretary, reports Chuck Abbott on the Successful Farming website. “She has long been an ally to farmers, food-chain workers, consumers, and rural communities,” said the groups in a letter. The Land Stewardship Project was a co-signer of the letter.

  • They cite Fudge's leadership on measures to strengthen protections for slaughterhouse workers, and her opposition to industry efforts to increase line speeds at processing plants. Fudge has also been an ally of family-scale farms and regional food systems, and is an advocate for communities historically underserved by the USDA. Rep. Fudge was also a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s scheme to slash Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
  • Also mentioned for the cabinet position have been Kathleen Merrigan, a former deputy agriculture secretary; California state agriculture secretary Karen Ross; Pennsylvania state agriculture secretary Russell Redding; Robert Bonnie, the head of the Biden transition team reviewing the USDA; and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

To read the letter signed by LSP and the other organizations, click here.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.