Land Line: CC Incentive, Labor & Farmers Unite, Black Farmers & Climate Change, COVID Meatpacker Scrutiny, Swine Drugs & Super Bugs

Feb. 5: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

More Farmers Are Planting Cover Crops Thanks To State Incentive Programs

(1/29/21) Harvest Public Media reports on how state incentive programs are boosting the planting of cover crops in Iowa and Illinois. Highlights:

  • In both states, farmers can qualify for discounts on their crop insurance premiums for each acre of cover crops they plant.
  • Currently, only 3% to 6% of Illinois’s cropland utilizes cover crops. But farmers’ interest in the program has skyrocketed since the crop insurance discount program launch two years ago. This year, the Illinois Department of Agriculture allotted funding to compensate up to 50,000 acres. With 768 applications submitted, 185,000 acres were requested. Applicants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

  • Iowa just closed applications for the fourth year of its program that provides crop insurance discounts per acres of cover crops planted. To date, about 1,700 farmers have benefited from the program, and almost 500,000 acres of cover crops have been planted in Iowa.
  • Other Midwestern states are also hoping to adopt similar programs, including Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. There have been discussions about how to expand the program nationwide.

During the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature, LSP farmer-members are pushing a proposal that would provide incentives for establishing soil-friendly practices like cover cropping. To sign the petition supporting 100% Soil Healthy Farming, click here. LSP will be holding a series of community conversations on the "100% Soil Health Bill" Feb. 4, 9, and 15. Jay Fuhrer and Jon Stika will be featured at a virtual LSP workshop on cover cropping and other soil health practices Feb. 16. Register here.

♦ ♦ ♦

How the Deep Roots of Farm Labor Solidarity Helped Wisconsin Survive the Pandemic

(1/27/21) For decades, Big Ag has starved out small farms, hastening the decline of rural communities, and worsened working conditions for its labor. In Wisconsin, this fraught food system, exacerbated by the pandemic, has ignited a new statewide movement of solidarity from farm to factory, according to In These Times. Highlights:

  • Led by family farm unions operating in small towns like Chippewa Falls, labor unions and immigrant rights groups organizing in population centers like Milwaukee, their work builds upon a history of progressive populist organizing in Wisconsin.
  • At its most basic level, “farm-labor solidarity is recognition that workers at all stages of the food chain should be compensated fairly for the work that they’re doing,” says Melanie Bartholf, Political Director for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 1473, “and that the economy does better when farmers and workers are compensated fairly.”
  • For groups like the Wisconsin Farmers Union, this unity is essential to goals of carving out an alternative, sustainable model for a cooperative food system. “We’re based on the idea that it’s better for 10 families to be milking 100 cows than 1 farm milking 1,000 cows. Having small scale agriculture and a healthy agricultural economy that’s built on cooperatives and is democratic, that’s the food system that we’re fighting for out here,” says Charlie Mitchell, a journalist and WFU farm-labor solidarity organizer.
  • In October, condemning the loss of Hero Pay for essential food workers as COVID-19 cases surged across the state, WFU and UFCW joined forces to form a farmer-labor alliance. This alliance, the first and largest of its kind in years, is working to pressure county officials to intervene at meatpacking plants to increase worker testing and PPE access, as well as strengthen workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
  • The alliance also marks the first time in its history that UFCW, the largest labor union in the state with over 12,000 members, has come out in full support of farmers’ demands for parity, stronger antitrust enforcement and dairy supply management.
  • In Wisconsin, the spirit of this agrarian organizing can be traced back nearly a century. At the height of the Great Depression, when milk prices plummeted to unsustainable lows, thousands of farmers and laid off factory workers enacted a series of milk strikes in pursuit of parity.
  • Since 2015, over 2,500 Wisconsin dairy farms have gone out of business, nearly a quarter of the state’s total swallowed by CAFOs. Yet, in the midst of this crisis, when public sector unions infamously came under attack in 2011, farmers once again rallied in support. In a massive display of opposition against the attacks on public sector unions, hundreds of farmers from around the state drove their tractors and combines to Madison for a solidarity tractorcade around Capitol Square, garnering crowds of nearly 85,000, the state’s largest protest to date.

In 2017, LSP joined with many of Minnesota’s strongest people’s organizations in a new collaboration, “Our Minnesota Future,” to develop a new vision for thriving communities in the state. For details, including the "A Vision for Rural Minnesota" statement, click here. During the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature, LSP and its allies are pushing for a moratorium on new or expanding mega-dairies. For more on this and other LSP legislative priorities, see this recent blog.

♦ ♦ ♦

Two Biden Priorities, Climate and Inequality, Meet on Black-Owned Farms

(1/31/21) Two of the Biden administration’s biggest priorities — addressing racial inequality and fighting climate change — could converge by supporting innovative farmers of color who are building soil health, reports the New York Times. Highlights:

  • Farms run by African-Americans make up less than 2% of all of the nation’s farms today, down from 14% in 1920, because of decades of racial violence and unfair lending and land ownership policies.
  • Today, fewer than 35,000 Black farmers remain, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. (And some experts say the number is even lower.) Land owned by Black farmers has fallen by an estimated 90% from the early 20th century peak, according to the Land Loss and Reparations Project, even as white-owned acreage shrank just 2%.
  • Black farmers continue to face discrimination. As recently as 2015, Black farmers obtained only about $11 million in microloans designed for small farmers in 2015, or less than 0.2 percent of the roughly $5.7 billion in loans administered or guaranteed by the USDA. Black farm leaders and civil rights advocates are speaking out over the lack of scrutiny of Tom Vilsack's civil rights record during his recent confirmation hearing to lead the USDA, according to Politico.

  • Sedrick Rowe acquired 30 acres of farmland outside Albany, Ga., after training at a land trust called New Communities, one of a handful around the country that have sought to help more African-American farmers make a living by cultivating the land. Many of those trusts have also put sustainability front and center of their work with local farmers, tapping into the legacy of Black scientists like George Washington Carver. His work on cover crops sought to reverse the damage wrought by single-crop cotton farming in the South, carried out on the backs of enslaved people.
  • One early idea from the Biden transition team is a federal soil “carbon bank” that would offer credits to farmers for carbon they sequester in the soil through sustainable farming methods. The plan would allocate $1 billion to purchase carbon credits from farmers at $20 per ton of carbon they trap in the soil. The Biden transition team claimed it could reduce annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 50 megatons, equivalent to the emissions from more than 10 million cars driven for a year.

  • Such a policy could, in theory, benefit farmers like Rowe, who uses organic farming practices and is pursuing a doctorate in soil health. Recent studies have shown that organic farming, in particular, may help hold carbon in the soil.

LSP's latest action alert calls on the Biden administration's USDA to make good on campaign promises to address racial justice and the climate crisis, as well as consolidation and unfair market practices. Click here to make your voice heard. Check out LSP's Carbon Farming web page here.

♦ ♦ ♦

Editorial: Scrutiny of Meatpacking Plants is Critical after COVID Outbreaks

(2/5/21) The Star Tribune editorial board has called on lawmakers to undertake a serious investigation of how our nation's meatpacking facilities became COVID-19 hot spots. Highlights:

  • Tyson Foods has announced that it is investigating a situation where the managers of a Waterloo, Iowa, meatpacking plant allegedly wagered on how many employees would become infected with COVID-19.
  • The completion of what the company called its "Waterloo investigation" should mark the beginning, not the end, of efforts to scrutinize industry work practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Multiple outbreaks occurred at meatpacking plants around the country, and more than 57,000 employees have been infected, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network.
  • In-depth and independent investigations are needed to understand how plants became COVID-19 hot spots and how to better protect workers from future pathogens.
  • South Carolina U.S. Rep. James Clyburn has sent strongly worded letters to three of the nation's largest meatpackers, as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), demanding details on how COVID-19 is being handled.
  • Many industry employees are immigrants. Language barriers, low wages and the struggle to establish a new home in a new country may make them reluctant to challenge unsafe policies on the job. If OSHA or any other agency failed in its responsibility to these vulnerable workers, accountability is imperative.

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

Livestock Workers Face High MRSA Risk

(2/2/21) Wisconsin State Farmer reports that compared with individuals who don’t work with animals, those working on swine farms are more than 15 times more likely to harbor a particular strain of a bacterium known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, acquired from livestock. The Michigan State University study cited found that cattle workers are 12 times more likely to acquire the bacterium. Highlights:

  • Livestock-associated MRSA is a zoonotic disease, a disease that can transmit between animals and humans. Such diseases can have devastating consequences for human health. COVID-19, for example, was caused by a virus that likely originated in bats.
  • “Livestock-associated MRSA is a strain of MRSA that is especially infectious among animals. Now it has evolved to infect humans as well,” said one Michigan State researcher. “Bacteria have shown an amazing ability to jump across species to colonize and cause infections.”
  • When she first came to Michigan State University in 2013, researcher Felicia Wu became interested in how the growing problem of antibiotic resistance was being influenced by bacteria that jumped to humans from livestock. “Once the bacteria get a hold in an environment, they are really, really hard to get rid of,” she said. “Reducing the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections is one of the main goals that farmers have.”

  • In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration introduced rules and monitoring programs to curb the use of antibiotics in livestock production. Farmers can still use antibiotics to treat and prevent disease, but the agency forbid the use of antibiotics to spur animal growth. This has reduced the pressure on bacteria in agriculture settings to evolve resistance to antibiotics.

Big Meat often argues that banning subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production will be an economic disaster for farmers. LSP Myth Buster #30 shows otherwise.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.