Land Line: Local Meat Processing, Soil Health & Nitrogen, Land Price Surge, High SNAP Demand

Jan. 29: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

After COVID-related Livestock Kills, a Push to Diversify Meat Processing in Minnesota

(1/25/21) When several large pork processing plants shuttered last spring because workers got sick with COVID-19, it had a huge impact on farmers across the Midwest. One estimate is more than 450,000 hogs were euthenized in Iowa and Minnesota alone because farmers had no place to process them. MinnPost reports that In the wake of the problems caused by the processing plant closures, one idea has become increasingly popular: expanding the number and size of smaller meat processing operations to reduce the state’s reliance on big plants, particularly in the hog industry. Highlights:

  • Large meat processing plants that sell products across state lines are federally inspected, but there are two categories of smaller plants under state oversight. Mid-sized plants, which the state refers to as “equal to” inspected plants, can process meat for commercial sale. Plants known as “custom exempt” can process meat for selling directly from a farm to a customer.
  • The Minnesota Department of Agriculture had created a grant program to help small meat processors buy equipment like coolers or bacon slicers that would help them expand. The state also cut the time for a plant to upgrade to “equal to” from several months to weeks by loosening requirements and assigning caseworkers to help plants directly.
  • The state added four “equal to” slaughter operations since the pandemic began, an increase of roughly 20% in the number of such plants, and other existing businesses increased capacity. The number of custom-exempt plants increased from 227 to 243 between April and December, though some custom-exempt and equal to plants closed due to normal attrition and the pandemic’s impact on restaurants and other businesses that serve food. While several other slaughter and processing establishments may open this spring, many are still booked through 2021 and even into 2022.

  • During he 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature, lawmakers are likely to debate a range of plans aimed at helping avoid future shocks to the meat industry.

  • On the federal level, the proposed Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act would allow states to set their own regulations for the retail sale of meat by expanding the exemption status of custom-exempt processing facilities, according to Modern Farmer.

In his recently released two-year budget proposal, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz calls for significant support for local meat processors, which LSP supports. More details on LSP's other legislative priorities are here.

In Minnesota, a Growing Interest in Reviving the Local Butcher Shop

(1/26/21) The disruption in meat processing and the increased interest in locally produced livestock products has revived interest in bringing back the local butcher shop, according to Minnesota Public Radio. Highlights:

  • “Custom exempt” facilities often provide the link between farmers and the consumers who buy an animal, or a portion of an animal, from the farmer. They’re smaller and are less expensive to establish or grow. It's in these class of processors where the industry is seeing the greatest interest in expansion.
  • While the cost of expanding or starting a facility can be a barrier to the industry’s growth in Minnesota, a bigger issue is the lack of trained workers to staff the operations. A 2014 study found that about two-thirds of existing small butcher shop owners in Minnesota would retire within 10 years.
  • A survey conducted by LSP and several other organizations recently found that two-thirds of farmers who run small to medium-sized livestock operations reported increased consumer demand. More than half of the respondents said they would raise more livestock if local processing capacity were increased.
  • Livestock producer Carla Mertz has found the slaughter and processing plant she's used for seven years is now booked into 2022. Mertz is trying to raise funds to build a small slaughter and processing operation of her own. A building and equipment will cost more than $2 million. It’s a challenging project that’s already consumed three years of research and planning, but she’s convinced it will pay off in the long run, given all the interest in locally sourced food

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.

Soil Health Linked to Nitrogen Fertilizer

Corn and Soybean Digest reports on research showing that building soil health provides a bigger bang for the buck when it comes to nitrogen fertilizer applications. Highlights:

  • Improving nitrogen use efficiency is linked to soil biology and the cycling of organic matter, both of which are important components of soil health.
  • In the Ohio State study, 10% improvement in certain soil health measurements increased relative yields by an average of 5% across nitrogen fertilizer rates.
  • The findings were consistent across a variety of soils and climatic conditions throughout the Corn Belt.

Jay Fuhrer and Jon Stika will be featured at a virtual LSP workshop on the principles of soil health Feb. 16. Register here.

We’re told that healthy soil sequesters huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Scientists are finding that’s not always the case.

(1/28/21) One proposal for fighting climate change is to create a federal “carbon bank,” which would pay producers to adopt conservation practices such as cover cropping and no-till farming on their fields. The basic concept is that these activities help plants suck carbon from the atmosphere and direct it into soil, effectively turning farmland into a big sponge that can sop up all the heat-trapping greenhouse gases we emit. But The Counter reports on recent research that raises new questions about how long sequestered carbon actually stays in the ground. Highlights:

  • Scientists at Princeton University devised a series of experiments that allowed them to observe how carbon molecules stick — and unstick — to clay, a key element in soil that retains carbon. Scientists have long known that microbes release some carbon in the process of decomposing organic matter in soil. But the long-held assumption is that clay can counteract that by binding with carbon and protecting it from microbial activity.
  • Scientists introduced enzymes — proteins released by bacteria and fungus to help them process food — into a modified microscope slide containing clay and carbon molecules. Enzymes are significantly smaller than bacteria, and for that reason, they were not only able to penetrate the clay structures, but actually helped release nearly all of the carbon molecules inside within hours. Once carbon is freed from clay aggregates, it becomes accessible to soil bacteria again, which can release it from the ground over time. This process could potentially render soil sequestration a more temporary carbon sink than expected.
  • “Previously, we thought that [clay-bound] carbon could not be released within an observable time frame,” said researcher Judy Yang, a former postdoc at Princeton and current associate professor at the University of Minnesota. “But we saw that release is happening within hours. Enzymes can get into clay, and they can release clay-protected carbon. If it happens for this type of enzyme, it probably happens for a lot of others, as well.”
  • To be clear, what happened in Yang’s lab is a highly simplified simulation of what may be happening on the field, stripped of countless variables like other microbial life and soil elements. And that's not to say that soil health is an unworthy cause, or that sequestration is completely futile. Rather, the findings could suggest new avenues for soil research, said Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science and director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University.

LSP Myth Buster #51 addresses the issue of how much carbon can be stored deep in the soil profile. During the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature, LSP farmer-members are pushing 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.

Will the Surge in Land Prices Continue?

(1/25/21) Auction sales in several states have produced farmland prices that haven't been this high since 2012, and the upward trend appears to be set to continue, according to Morning Ag Clips. Highlights:

  • "In specific instances, prices for good quality cropland in the heart of the Midwest are up hundreds to thousands of dollars per acre more than anticipated,” said Randy Dickhut, senior vice president of real estate operations at Farmers National Company.
  • Higher commodity prices and the historic influx of government payments in 2020 have increased interest in productive land.
  • As a result of COVID-19, a growing number of individuals have become interested in land as an investment. An individual might be interested in a rural acreage so they can have a place outside an urban area or it might be cropland if they want a safe, long-term investment.
  • In the land market, the same supporting factors that have been keeping ag land values stable the past few years are expected to carry on in 2021.

LSP's latest podcast features a conversation with two beginning farmers who are using sweat equity and soil health practices to make marginal, but more affordable, land into a thriving farming operation far from Corn Country.

Pandemic Leads to Highest SNAP Enrollment in Three Years

(1/27/01) Food stamp enrollment has surged by 6 million people since the pandemic hit the United States, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Highlights:

  • Some 42.9 million people received food stamps at latest count, the highest number since October 2017.
  • Before the pandemic, SNAP enrollment was about 37 million people. It zoomed to 40.8 million in May, topped 43 million in June, and fluctuated at levels slightly below that in the following months. The rise in enrollment was constrained compared to changes in the U.S. unemployment rate, which was 3.5% last February, 14.8% last April, and 6.7% at the end of 2020. SNAP participation is highest during times of economic distress.

LSP Myth Buster #53 addresses how misinformation has fueled attempts to cut food assistance programs.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.