Land Line: Climate Change & Erosion, Russia's Climate Windfall, Big Dairy & Vilsack, Farmland Access, Rivers of Manure

Dec. 18: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

National Soil Erosion Rates on Track to Repeat Dust Bowl-era Losses Eight Times Over

(12/16/20) Unhealthy farming practices and more extreme weather spurred by climate change will lead to an increased rate of soil erosion across the U.S. in the coming decades, according to a study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Highlights:

  • Erosion rates have slowed in recent decades, but soil loss from the nation’s farms is still unsustainable, said the UCS report. If soil continues to erode at current rates, U.S. farmers could lose a half-inch of topsoil by 2035 — more than eight times the amount of topsoil lost during the Dust Bowl. They could lose nearly three inches by 2100. Given that it takes a century or more for an inch of soil to form naturally, the U.S. will lose the equivalent of at least 300 years’ worth of soil by 2100 if today’s trends prevail.
  • Because of climate change, the possibility for even more accelerated erosion rates exists. The study found if more flooding and droughts lead erosion rates to worsen again, reverting back to the higher rates recorded almost 40 years ago, farmers nationally are at risk of losing more than two inches of soil by 2035 and five inches by 2100.
  • The study outlines several federal policies that could aid farmers and transform the agricultural industry, including supporting USDA programs focused on reducing soil erosion, strengthening federal crop insurance to incentivize healthy soil practices, and providing funding to states so they can advance their own regional programs.

LSP's Bridge to Soil Health Program has numerous resources for farmers seeking to build soil profitably utilizing cover cropping, managed rotational grazing, and no-till. Check out LSP's white paper, "Farming to Capture Carbon & Address Climate Change Through Building Soil," on our Carbon Farming web page.

How Russia Wins the Climate Crisis

(12/16/20) For centuries the vast majority of land in eastern Russia has been impossible to farm. But as the climate has begun to warm, the land — and the prospect for cultivating it — has begun to improve, according to an article by ProPublica/New York Times Magazine. Russia hopes to seize on the warming temperatures and longer growing seasons created by climate change to refashion itself as one of the planet’s largest producers of food. Highlights:

  • As a result of warming, 2 million square miles of now-frozen land in Asian Russia could become farmable by 2080. In Dimitrovo, which sits just 35 miles north of the Chinese border, 20 years ago the spring thaw came in May, but now the ground is bare by April; rainstorms are now stronger and wetter.
  • Across Eastern Russia, wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into soybeans, corn, and wheat. It’s a process that is likely to accelerate.
  • A 2015 paper in the journal Nature made the geographic implications of climate change clear: Draw a line around the planet at the latitude of the northern borders of the United States and China, and just about every place south, across five continents, stands to lose out. According to projections, by 2100, the national per capita income in the United States might be a third less than it would be in a nonwarming world; India’s would be nearly 92% less; and China’s future growth would be cut short by nearly half.
  • No country may be better positioned to capitalize on climate change than Russia. Russia has the largest land mass by far of any northern nation. It is positioned farther north than all of its South Asian neighbors, which collectively are home to the largest global population fending off displacement from rising seas, drought, and an overheating climate.
  • Russia's crop production is expected to be boosted by warming temperatures over the coming decades even as farm yields in the United States, Europe, and India are all forecast to decrease. When compared to last year, this season one area in southern Siberia doubled its yields in winter wheat and canola seed.

The members of LSP's new Soil Health and Climate Organizing Committee are pushing for public policies that support soil health and regenerative agriculture. Details are in the latest Land Stewardship Letter. During the upcoming session of the Minnesota Legislature, LSP will be working with allies to promote public policy that helps farmers build climate-smart soils. Watch our State Policy web page for updates.

Biden Vows to Pay Farmers to Plant Cover Crops and Put Land in Conservation

(12/14/20) Chuck Abbott reports in Successful Farming on president-elect Joe Biden's promise to fight climate change by, among other things, paying farmers to plant cover crops. Highlights:

  • The agriculture sector accounts for roughly 10% of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
  • A white paper authored by 150 climate and energy experts calls for a “carbon bank” at USDA that would “finance large-scale investments in climate-smart land management practices.” The agency would also encourage adoption of climate-smart practices through its land stewardship programs. A former USDA undersecretary, Robert Bonnie, now the head of the Biden-Harris review team for USDA, was a lead author of the white paper's chapter on the USDA.
  • During a recent news conference, Biden talked about what he expects Tom Vilsack, his nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, to do when it comes to climate change mitigation. “That includes making American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and create new sources of income for farmers in the process, by paying farmers to put their land in conservation and plant cover crops that use the soil to capture carbon,” said Biden.

A recent LSP white paper outlines several policy recommendations for supporting farming systems that build soil carbon.

Farmers, Advocates Concerned About Vilsack’s Record on Dairy Issues

(12/17/20) Some dairy farmers and advocates are worried that president-elect Joe Biden’s pick for agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, will do little to address their concerns about issues like consolidation, farm bankruptcies, and low milk prices, reports Leah Douglas of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Critics are especially concerned about how Vilsack’s years running a dairy industry trade group will affect his policymaking approach. Highlights:

  • Some farmers and advocates were critical of Vilsack’s handling of issues related to the dairy checkoff, a marketing program for dairy products overseen by the USDA, during his previous tenure as Secretary of Agriculture. Farmers are required to pay into checkoff programs, which exist for about two dozen commodities and spend millions annually on promotion and research. Checkoff programs have been criticized for promoting the most generic version of a food product and for failing to represent the interests of independent, smaller-scale, or nonconventional growers. Under Vilsack, several years of legally required dairy checkoff reports were delayed, angering checkoff critics, who said the issue was emblematic of the USDA’s poor oversight of the multimillion-dollar programs.

  • “He was obscuring the activity of a program that was already lacking in transparency,” says Angela Huffman, vice president of programs and development at Family Farm Action. “The checkoff programs are obscure, but we really have to pay attention, because they are exactly how corporate lobbyists are funding themselves.”

  • The dairy checkoff program brings in more money and pays its executives higher salaries than comparable programs for pork and beef, an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found earlier this year. Vilsack was paid a salary just shy of $1 million in 2018, his first year leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council, according to publicly available records. More than 1,600 dairy farms had shuttered across the country the previous year. Only around 50,000 remain.
  • In recent years, many dairy farmers have pushed for the U.S. to introduce federal supply controls for milk as a way to reduce overproduction and protect domestic producers. But Vilsack didn’t implement any such policies during his years at the USDA, and during his time at the USDEC, milk exports rose.

A recent LSP Myth Buster describes the harm farmers and rural communities have suffered as a result of consolidation in the dairy industry.

Report Calls for Farmland Access for Young and People of Color

(12/18/20) The main obstacle preventing a younger generation from entering farming is a lack of access to land, according to a Successful Farming article about a new report developed by the National Young Farmers Coalition. The report advocates for programs that would advance a new generation of farmers and promote racial equity in the sector. Highlights:

  • Ownership of U.S. farmland reflects broad inequities, the report says, with whites owning 98% of the nation’s farmland and accounting for 95% of all farmers. USDA figures also show that a third of farmers are over age 65, while only 9% are 35 or younger.
  • As farmers retire, farmland often changes hands without ever coming on the market, shutting out those who lack deep community connections to landowners or a family history in agriculture. In 2015, the USDA estimated that less than a quarter of the 91.5 million acres of farmland expected to change hands in the next four years would be made available to people not related to the owner. With 75% of young farmers coming to the profession without a family connection, many talented growers start out at a disadvantage.
  • Black, Hispanic and Native American communities have experienced disproportionately high rates of land loss and dispossession. The number of farms operated by Black farmers, who were excluded from numerous New Deal programs, fell by 98% between 1920 and 1997.
  • Among other things, the National Young Farmers Coalition is promoting a program to pre-qualify young farmers for Farm Service Agency loans. In a recent survey, only about 15% of young farmers reported using these loans. It also advocates creating no-interest loans for beginning farmers of color and establishing lending guidelines for loans to low-income resident farmers and farmer cooperatives made up of people of color.

Are you a retiring farmer or non-operating landowner looking to help transition your farm to the next generation? Check out LSP's Farm Transition Tools web page for resources and links. LSP's Racial Justice web page provides updates, action items, and resources for engaging in racial justice work in our communities.

Pork Has a Giant Manure Problem

(Fall 2020) Over the past 30 years, the pork industry has transformed farming and the food system, making cheap pork ubiquitous, passing on its costs, and raking in the profits, according to a new FoodPrint report. Large hog CAFOs are reliant on storing and disposing of millions of gallons of liquid manure, which has resulted in massive water pollution problems in rural America. Highlights:

  • A 2020 Food and Water Watch report estimates that industrially-raised hogs produce as much waste as half the U.S. population. One hog produces two to four times as much waste as an adult person. In North Carolina, the 1.9 million hogs in Duplin County, the top hog-producing county in the country, generate as much waste as the entire Boston metropolitan area, while the 1.3 million hogs in Washington County, Iowa, produce as much waste as San Diego.

  • One myth perpetuated by the pork industry about raising hogs in confinement is that the system is a closed loop: hogs produce waste, the waste fertilizes crops, the hogs eat the crops. The reality is that the volume of waste vastly outstrips not only the nutrient needs of the crops, but the land’s capacity to absorb it.
  • Nitrogen pollution from livestock manure increased nearly 50% from 1930 to 2012. In public water systems, the legal limit of nitrate in drinking water is 10 parts per million. In Iowa, the top hog-producing state in the nation, water regularly tests at or above those limits, with levels rising consistently since 2002. A study of almost 55,000 private Iowa wells found that they averaged 4.4 ppm of nitrate, with nearly one-quarter averaging 5 ppm and 12 percent at or above 10 ppm. Forty percent also tested positive for coliform bacteria from hog manure at least once in the 15-year testing period, and nearly 8% had the bacteria every time they were tested.
  • A Chicago Tribune article about Illinois pollution found that pig waste impaired 67 miles of the state’s rivers, creeks, and waterways from 2005 to 2014, killing nearly half-a-million fish. No other industry in the state came close to causing the same amount of damage
  • The good news is that communities across the country are organizing to fight the influx of massive hog CAFOs and are researching and publicizing the negative impacts of producing so much liquid manure in one place. In addition, consumer demand for environmentally friendly pork raised on pasture and in deep straw systems is providing an opportunity for small and medium-sized hog farmers to stay in business and thrive.

Check out LSP's fact sheet: "When Manure Hits Water: Large-scale livestock factories are a major threat to water quality in rural America."

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter