Land Line: Land Baron Gates, Regenerative Grazing, Cost of Soil Loss, High Commodity Prices, EQIP Misses the Mark, COVID & OSHA

Jan. 15: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Bill Gates: America’s Top Farmland Owner

(1/15/21) Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates are now the largest private farmland owners in the U.S., according to The Land Report. Highlights:

  • They have accumulated a massive farmland portfolio — 242,000 acres — that stretches across 18 states.
  • Their largest holdings are in Louisiana, where the billionaire owns nearly 70,000 acres.
  • They own 20,588 acres in Nebraska, 552 acres in Iowa, 1,188 acres in Wisconsin, and 17,940 acres in Illinois.
  • While Bill and Melinda Gates may be the country’s biggest farmland owners, they are not the largest individual landowners. In its list of 100 top American landowners, The Land Report gives the top spot to Liberty Media chair John Malone, who owns 2.2 million acres of ranches and forests. CNN founder Ted Turner ranked number three with 2 million acres of ranch land across eight states. CEO Jeff Bezos is investing in land on a large scale, landing the 25th spot with his ownership of 420,000 acres, mainly in west Texas.

As a blog from several years ago makes clear, LSP has long been concerned about billionaires and investment firms grabbing up farmland — it's bad for local economies, beginning farmers, and communities.

Accelerating Regenerative Grazing to Tackle Farm, Environmental, and Societal Challenges in the Upper Midwest

(January/February 2021) The widespread implementation of regenerative grazing can help solve some of the Upper Mississippi River Basin's biggest challenges, argues a viewpoint paper published in the recent issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Highlights:

  • Applicable in both annual and perennial forage systems, such grazing builds on ecological principles and the relationships between grasslands and ruminants.
  • The paper cites research that shows how regenerative grazing can bolster farm financial resilience, provide ecosystem services, improve animal health and welfare, and build more vibrant rural community and regional economic health.
  • Recommendations for making regenerative grazing more prevalent in a region currently dominated by corn and soybeans include reforms related to technical assistance and education, land access, federal and state policy, supply chains, and market systems.
  • "Further, dedicated centering of racial equity and labor justice along with targeted access to land, capital, technical assistance, and other resources for BIPOC farmers will be crucial to ensuring this agricultural movement does not perpetuate the harms of previous movements," conclude the authors.

LSP's recent white paper, "Farming to Capture Carbon & Address Climate Change Through Building Soil Health," includes numerous policy recommendations for advancing managed rotational grazing and other regenerative practices.

One of the Most Under-Used Resources in American Ag Is a Waste Product

(1/8/21) Modern Farmer reports on a study documenting the potential of grazing corn residue — stalk, leaves, cobs, and the fallen ears of corn that are left behind after harvest. Highlights:

  • Only 15% of the corn residue acres in the central U.S. are grazed, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Agronomy.
  • That's too bad, because according to the University of Kentucky, each bushel of corn produced leaves about 50 pounds of residue in the field.
  • When soybeans were planted in fields where corn residue had been exposed to a 15-day concentrated grazing period, yields increased.
  • "Grazing cattle on corn residue can be a great way to make even more food for human consumption from corn fields, as both the corn grain and plant residue can be used as feed for livestock," said University of Nebraska researcher Morgan Grabau.

Check out LSP's Grazing & Soil Health web page for resources on adding value to cover crops, pastures, and crop residue utilizing livestock. Myth Buster #41 explains why corn residue should not be trashed.

Soil Degradation Costs Corn Farmers a Half-Billion Dollars Every Year

(1/14/21) One-third of the fertilizer applied to grow corn in the U.S. each year simply compensates for the ongoing loss of soil fertility, leading to more than a half-billion dollars in extra costs to U.S. farmers every year, according to new research reported on in Earth’s Future. Highlights:

  • Long-term soil fertility is on the decline in agricultural lands around the world due to salinization, acidification, erosion, and the loss of important nutrients in the soil such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Corn farmers in the U.S. offset these losses with nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers also intended to boost yields, but scientists have never calculated how much of this fertilizer goes into just regaining baseline soil fertility — or how much that costs.
  • But using fertilizer doesn’t just cost farmers and governments money. It also comes at an environmental cost. A large portion of the global greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture — 24% of global emissions in 2010 and 10% of U.S. emissions in 2018 — comes from fertilizer production.
  • When we consider not only dollars spent by farmers but also nutrient loss and impacts to the Mississippi River, the costs go from billions to over a trillion dollars every year, said researcher Jason Neff.
  • Practices like regenerative agriculture, which restore soil fertility on lands actively being farmed, will also reduce the costs and environmental impacts of fertilizer use, concludes the study. Healthier, more fertile soils can also capture more carbon, hold more water and keep excess nutrients from running off into ecosystems that can’t handle them.
  • “If you can drop the fertilization, while maintaining the yields that we need and the economic outcomes that farmers want, then why not, right? That’s a win-win,” said Neff.

As LSP Myth Buster #55 points out, a whole lot of money is leaching out of marginal acres that should probably not be planted to row crops in the first place. LSP's Soil Builders web page includes fact sheets, videos, podcasts, and other resources to help build soil health profitably.

Why Aren’t USDA Conservation Programs Paying Farmers More to Improve Their Soil?

(1/12/21) Civil Eats reports on a new study that shows that the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), doesn't offer enough incentives to help farmers make a long-lasting transition to more sustainable practices. Highlights:

  • EQIP, which has been around since 1996, is a cost-share program that was originally designed to deliver improved water quality, increase soil health, create wildlife habitat, and mitigate against drought and weather volatility. But as the authors of the new study found, it has often strayed from those goals.
  • For example, EQIP supports only about 10% of the cover crops farmers plant, despite the fact that they have been shown to bring a range of soil and water quality benefits.
  • Researchers reviewed the farm projects that received EQIP funding between 2009 and 2018 and found that those with the greatest potential to improve soil and environmental health represented between 2% and 27% of the total dollars spent.
  • Originally, there were restrictions on CAFOs receiving EQIP funds. But the 2002 Farm Bill eliminated the EQIP restrictions on large CAFOs, raised payment caps to $450,000 over five years, and reserved 60% of EQIP funding for livestock practices, including waste management facilities. When CAFO waste lagoons scored poorly for EQIP funds, Natural Resources Conservation Service state offices started setting aside some of their EQIP money specifically for CAFO applications so they only competed against each other.
  • “We want to see the 50% of EQIP dollars meant for livestock operations to go to pasture grazing as opposed to waste management,” said Tim Gibbons of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

During the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature, LSP farmer-members are organizing to provide resources to achieve a statewide goal of 50% Soil Healthy Farming by 2030, and 100% Soil Healthy Farming" by 2035. To sign the petition supporting 100% Soil Healthy Farming, click here.

Highest Corn and Soybean Prices Since Commodity Boom, says USDA

(1/13/21) U.S. farmers, who harvested some of their largest corn and soybean crops ever last fall, will reap the highest season-average prices for the crops since the heady days of the commodity boom that ended in worldwide surpluses seven years ago, reports Successful Farming. Highlights:

  • The harvested corn crop totaled 14.182 billion bushels, the fifth-largest on record and the soybean harvest, at 4.135 billion bushels, was the fourth-largest, said USDA in a final summary of 2020 crops.
  • The 2020 corn crop will sell for an average $4.85 a bushel and soybeans for $11.15 a bushel, compared with the average for $3.56 for corn and $8.57 for soybeans grown in 2019, said the USDA.
  • Farmers are expected to expand plantings of the eight major U.S. crops — corn, sorghum, barley, oats, wheat, rice, soybeans, and upland cotton — by roughly 6 million acres this spring compared with 2020.

is diversifying out of corn and soybeans an economic bust? This LSP Myth Buster says otherwise.

COVID-19 Deaths Go Uninvestigated as OSHA Takes a Hands-off Approach to Meatpacking Plants

(1/14/21) At least 239 meatpacking workers have died and 45,000 have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to tracking by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. But companies reported less than half that number of deaths to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a joint investigation by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center found. Experts say that's in large part because the agency weakened reporting requirements during the pandemic. Highlights:

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 87% of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants occurred among racial or ethnic minorities.
  • The last time the federal government estimated the number of meatpacking workers who died from COVID-19 was in July, when the Centers for Disease Control said the number stood at 86. But reporters have scoured media reports, obtained government records, and interviewed industry workers throughout the pandemic to tally up the 239 deaths.
  • That figure substantially outpaces OSHA’s response. In an e-mail, the agency said it has received 77 reports totaling 90 fatalities from COVID-19 in meatpacking plants, accounting for less than 4 in 10 of the deaths noted by the Midwest Center. Similarly, of the 65 meatpacking plants where reporters found at least one worker died, OSHA has not inspected 26 to date.

An LSP blog describes the key role local meat processing could play in creating a more resilient food system. In another blog, LSP member-farmers Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol propose the creation of community owned meat processing in Minnesota.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.