Land Line: Hog Growth, Farm Income, Goodbye USDA, Organic Policy, Carbon & Crop Insurance, Sustainable Ag Award

Dec. 7: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

More Hogs Coming to Northwest Iowa

(11/30/20) Economists say exploding foreign pork demand will result in an industry-wide expansion in the Upper Midwest, from finisher barns to even new processing plants, reports the Storm Lake Times. Highlights:

  • The industry is feeling upward pressure because of a 22% increase in foreign pork demand. Domestic demand is forecast to be flat. Iowa State University livestock economist Lee Schultz said the U.S.’s main overseas customer, China, won’t rebuild its hog herds, which were ravaged by African Swine Fever, until 2024.
  • The Upper Midwest — western Iowa and Minnesota, in particular — is poised for an expansion because hog producers were able to maintain their herds throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Steve Meyer, an economist with Kerns & Associates.
  • The main question is whether state governments are willing to tolerate a sustained expansion of hog barns," said Meyer. “We have to be better neighbors,” he said, noting the industry needs to further its innovations to control odor and dust. “There will be long-term consequences if we keep building hog barns across the street from people, or if they stink to high heaven.”

Check out LSP's fact sheet on how rural residents can take steps to protect their communities from the negative impacts of factory livestock farms.

Record-high Ag Subsidies to Supply 39 Percent of Farm Income

(12/3/20) Despite the effects of the pandemic and the trade war, U.S. farm income this year will be the highest since 2013 because of the largest federal payments ever — $46.5 billion, triple the usual amount, reports Successful Farming. Highlights:

  • Government payments will account for 39% of net farm income this year, the largest share of income since 41% in 2001. The highest share ever was 65% in 1983, during the worst of the farm recession.
  • The USDA estimates farmers will receive $24.3 billion in coronavirus payments this year, along with $5.9 billion in Payroll Protection Program loans, which will be forgiven in most cases; $3.7 billion in trade war payments; and $10 billion or so in traditional farm subsidies and land stewardship payments. In 2019, direct payments totaled $22.4 billion, less than half of this year’s amount.
  • When $6 billion in indemnities from federally subsidized crop insurance programs are added to the direct payments, the government would be responsible for $52.5 billion, or 44%, of farm income this year. Crop insurance, however, is not considered a direct payment.

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

SNAP Caseloads and Benefits are Breaking Historical Records—and it’s Still Not Enough, say Hunger Advocates

(11/27/20) The Counter describes a new report from Hunger Free America that shows how during the pandemic, as American hunger has risen to historic levels, the country’s nutritional safety net has been stretched to its limits. Highlights:

  • From March to July, the total caseload for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, jumped 14%, from nearly 31 million recipients to over 35 million, in 33 states.
  • Meanwhile, over the same time period, the total amount of SNAP benefits disbursed also rose, from $3 billion to $4.4 billion, or 47%, in 22 of those states.
  • But as the year comes to a close, a number of safety net programs are set to expire or risk running out of money. To avoid that calamity, Joel Berg, the president of Hunger Free America, called on Congress to go beyond the expansions provided by the March stimulus, and pass new legislation to boost SNAP snap funding by 15% through next September.

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

Goodbye, U.S.D.A., Hello, Department of Food and Well-Being

(12/3/20) By appointing a Secretary of Agriculture who is not beholden to big agribusiness interests, President-elect Joe Biden could tackle economic inequality, the rural/urban divide, climate change, the growing mistrust of science, systemic racism, and even COVID-19, write Ricardo Salvador and Mark Bittman in a New York Times op-ed. Highlights:

  • Some view the USDA as a backwater that matters only to the nation’s two million farmers. But this perception is at odds with both the department’s actual budgetary allocation and its history: Two thirds of the USDA’s $146 billion annual outlay goes to programs addressing nutrition and food insecurity, not to agriculture.
  • The USDA invests hundreds of millions each year in financial and technical assistance for rural communities to improve infrastructure that most urban residents take for granted — electrification, broadband access, water and waste disposal, housing, healthcare and public safety. Yet broad sections of the rural population feel — indeed have been — left behind.
  • Even with this aid, the USDA supports a system that, overall, prioritizes trade and profit at the expense of most farmers, the environment, and everyday Americans — instead of encouraging a food system that provides a thriving livelihood for farmers and farmworkers, environmental protection and healthy food for all. At best, 7% of farmers are able to make a living from farming; food chain workers earn poverty wages; large-scale agriculture poisons land, water and air and contributes mightily to climate change; and good food is available only to the relatively wealthy.
  • Enlightened leadership at the USDA could begin to change all of this. Rather than seeing its paramount mission as supporting agribusiness, the new Secretary of Agriculture could steer the department toward becoming what President Lincoln envisioned when he established it — “the people’s department,” with responsibility to everyone in the nation.

To read the letter signed by LSP and the other organizations in support of naming Rep. Marcia Fudge secretary of agriculture, click here. You can sign an LSP petition in support of Rep. Fudge here.

‘Buy it or else’: Inside Monsanto and BASF’s Moves to Force Dicamba on Farmers

(12/1/20) Executives from Monsanto and BASF knew their dicamba weed killers would cause large-scale damage to fields across the United States but decided to push them on unsuspecting farmers anyway, in a bid to corner the soybean and cotton markets, concludes the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in a special report. Highlights:

  • Monsanto and BASF released their products knowing that dicamba would cause widespread damage to soybean and cotton crops that weren’t resistant to dicamba. They used “protection from your neighbors” as a way to sell more of their products. In doing so, the companies ignored years of warnings from independent academics, specialty crop growers, and their own employees.
  • Monsanto limited testing that could potentially delay or deny regulatory approval of dicamba. For years, Monsanto struggled to keep dicamba from drifting in its own tests. In regulatory tests submitted to the EPA, the company sprayed the product in locations and under weather conditions that did not mirror how farmers would actually spray it. Midway through the approval process, with the EPA paying close attention, the company decided to stop its researchers from conducting tests.
  • Even after submitting data that the EPA used to approve dicamba in 2016, Monsanto scientists knew that many questions remained. The company’s own research showed dicamba mixed with other herbicides was more likely to cause damage. The company also prevented independent scientists from conducting their own tests and declined to pay for studies that would potentially give them more information about dicamba’s real-world impact.
  • Although advertised as helping out customers, the companies’ investigations of drift incidents were designed to limit their liability, find other reasons for the damage, and never end with payouts to farmers. For example, BASF told pesticide applicators that sometimes it is not safe to spray even if following the label to the letter, placing liability squarely on the applicators.
  • Monsanto released seeds resistant to dicamba in 2015 and 2016 without an accompanying weed killer, knowing that off-label spraying of dicamba, which is illegal, would be “rampant.” At the same time, BASF ramped up production of older versions of dicamba that were illegal to apply to the crops and made tens of millions of dollars selling the older versions, which were more likely to cause move off of where they were applied.

Think genetically modified crops have reduced pesticide use? An LSP Myth Buster provides key insights on this issue.

Minnesota, Wisconsin Organic Dairy Farmers Hope to Regain Ground with Biden Administration

(12/5/20) A flurry of interest groups are now jockeying to be heard by President-elect Joe Biden’s administration and are seeking clarity on what new congressional leadership could mean for sectors such as the organic dairy industry, according to a story in the Star Tribune. Highlights:

  • Organic Valley and its competitors often work together to push for clearer regulatory standards for organic food. The USDA under President Donald Trump reversed several of those efforts, including a transitional organic-certification program and animal-welfare standards. “The reversal of decades of work on improving and updating the organic standards has led to declining consumer trust in the organic label and has caused economic hardship for U.S. organic farmers,” the Organic Trade Association wrote in a memo to Biden’s transition team.
  • The electoral defeat of Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson shifts agricultural leadership in the House to the South. Corn and soybeans are prioritized in the North, while cotton and peanuts are in the South, said Adam Warthesen, Organic Valley’s director of government affairs.“Dairy is probably not in as strong of a position as it was before. That’s not to say those leaders don’t care, but their familiarity with it is probably not as strong,” he said
  • Organic Valley and others are pushing hard for consistent enforcement and regulatory certainty on transitioning or growing a herd of organic dairy cows. USDA certifiers are often interpreting the standards differently, leaving some farmers who follow the more “true” interpretation of the organic standard at a competitive disadvantage, Warthesen said.

Read LSP's ag policy statement: Our Farm Bill: Re-imagining U.S. Farm Policy that puts People, Communities & the Land First. A recent LSP Myth Buster outlines why small and medium-sized dairy farms are better for rural communities. In episode 238 of LSP's Ear to the Ground podcast, ag economist Richard Levins discusses how a "get big or get out" policy has decimated dairy farming.

Crop Insurance as a Tool for Carbon Sequestration – What?!

(12/3/20) What if crop insurance paid farmers for farming practices like no-till farming and cover-cropping, which help keep soils healthy and resilient in the face of natural disaster? That's the question asked by Farm Commons in a recent article. Highlights:

  • Both Iowa and Illinois have started pilot projects where the states are offering discounts to farmers who are enrolled in crop insurance programs and implement no-till farming and cover-cropping on their land.
  • At the federal level, the Conservation and Crop Insurance Task Force, a diverse group of participants including farmers, scientists, economists, environmentalists, and policy folks, is working on making such an program national.
  • There are 300 million acres of farmland enrolled in the federal crop insurance program, so the potential impact such a mechanism could have is significant.

LSP has published two major studies on the need for crop insurance reform. They are here and here.

Le Sueur Organic, Sustainable Farm Gets National Attention

(12/3/20) Southern Minnesota farmers Tim and Tom Nuessmeier have been recognized by Niman Ranch with its first ever Sustainable Farmer of the Year Award, according to the Mankato Free Press. Highlights:

  • The brothers were recognized by the Colorado-based meat company for utilizing sustainable methods to raise hogs without antibiotics in natural conditions, as well as for growing organic grain and providing critical habitat for pollinators and birds.
  • In the 1990s the brothers installed terraces to reduce erosion. They put land in the Conservation Reserve Program where they have seen robust pollinator life. They have dubbed the area a “songbird commons” because of the many ground-nesting songbirds among the native plants.

Besides farming, Tom Nuessmeier also works as an LSP organizer specializing in federal policy.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.