Land Line: Lost Horizon, Nitro Overload, Drugs & Bugs, Meatpacker Compensation, Food System Control, Giving Back Through CSA, Farms & Groceries

Feb. 28: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

New Evidence Shows Fertile Soil Gone From Midwestern Farms

(2/24/21) National Public Radio reports on a new study showing the most fertile topsoil is entirely gone from a third of all the land devoted to growing crops across the upper Midwest. Highlights:

  • The soil that's darkest in color is widely known as topsoil. Soil scientists call this layer the "A-horizon." It's full of living microorganisms and decaying plant roots, also called organic carbon.
  • Researcher Evan Thaler and his colleagues compared that color, as seen from satellites, with direct measurements of soil quality that the USDA has carried out, and found that light brown soil contained so little organic carbon, it really wasn't A-horizon soil at all. The topsoil layer was gone. What's more, Thaler found that this was consistently the case on particular parts of the landscape. "The A-horizon was almost always gone on hilltops," he said.
  • Thaler's team then expanded their study to fields of corn, soybeans, and other crops within a large area of the Upper Midwest that includes much of Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. They calculated that about a third of the crops were growing on erosion-prone hills. This produced their estimate that a third of all cropland in that region had lost its topsoil

  • "To me, it's not important whether it's exactly a third," said Anna Cates, Minnesota's state soil health specialist. "Maybe it's 20%, maybe it's 40%. There's a lot of topsoil gone from the hills." Cates says that farmers already know that these eroded hilltops are less productive, and many of them are looking for solutions. "We're essentially trying to make up for many years of fairly thoughtless practices," she said.

LSP's "100% Soil Healthy Farming Bill" is making its way through the Minnesota Legislature. For details on how to push this groundbreaking legislation past the finish line, check out our recent action alert; on that page, you'll also have an opportunity to sign the "100% Soil Healthy Farming" petition. Check out LSP's Soil Builders web page here.

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A Map of Excess Nitrogen Use Across the US Reveals Where and How to Act

(2/19/21) Researchers have produced a map identifying 20 hotspots across the United States where nitrogen is being over-applied, according to Anthropocene. Their study focuses on some of the social and economic reasons why farmers are overly liberal with nitrogen, which could help target interventions to reduce its environmental impact in years to come. Highlights:

  • An estimated 50% of nitrogen applied to the world’s croplands today goes to waste. These leftover nutrients pollute rivers and cause massive dead zones in the sea. Fallow excess nitrogen is also easy prey for billions of soil microbes that transform it into nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas hundreds of times more powerful than CO2. In fact, nitrous oxide is one of the main reasons why agriculture makes such large contributions to climate change.
  • Recent research shows that nitrous oxide emissions have increased by 30% in the last 40 years — in large part due to fertilizer use. That rising trajectory threatens to unseat the Paris climate emission targets.
  • This research exposed 20 hotspots — the biggest of which occurred across a spread of 61 counties in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin. There, a surplus of 374,000 metric tons of nitrogen is annually applied. By area, that amounts to a striking 63 kilograms of surplus nitrogen per hectare, each year. This hotspot was closely followed by another in a span of 55 counties across Kansas and Nebraska, where 362,000 metric tons of excess nitrogen is applied to the soil each year.

A recent LSP Myth Buster addresses the benefits of not pushing row crop yields on marginal farmland utilizing excessive applications of fertilizer. Utilizing those marginal acres for managed rotational grazing of livestock, for example, would be good for the land, water, and rural communities.

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Grant to Help Fill Gaps in How Livestock Manure Management Affects Antibiotic Resistance

(2/16/21) Researchers have received a $1 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study how manure management systems in livestock production affect the development of bacteria capable of resisting antibiotics, according to the Iowa State University News Service. Highlights:

  • Antibiotic resistance is the process by which disease-causing bacteria develop the ability to protect themselves against medications used to stop them. Antibiotic resistance poses a growing threat to human, animal, and environmental health because the speed of resistance currently outstrips the speed with which new antibiotics are being developed.
  • The majority of antibiotics in use today are used in animal production. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can wind up in manure before making their way into the environment, such as when manure is applied to fields as fertilizer. The researchers aim to figure out what resistant genes are proliferating in bacteria and how widely those bacteria spread and persist in soil.
  • The researchers also will examine the feasibility of composting and other methods to stop the spread of resistant bacteria.

LSP's Bridge to Soil Health team has recently launched an on-farm composting research project involving several Minnesota operations. Watch the Soil Builders web page for updates. LSP has also created a Microbiology & Soil Health web page.

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Meatpackers Deserve Workers' Comp Protection

(2/24/21) A Star Tribune editorial calls for providing meatpacking workers fair access to workers' compensation as a result of the toll COVID-19 is taking on these workers. Highlights:

  • Thousands of workers have been sickened and 250 have died after "at least 41 major outbreaks in meatpacking facilities in 20 states," according to a recent U.S. House investigation.
  • Despite this reality, Minnesota meatpacking employees have been passed over for workers' compensation benefits at a shocking rate, according to a Star Tribune story. Of the 935 claims filed due to COVID, zero have been approved, according to the newspaper's analysis of a state Department of Labor and Industry report.

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.

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President Biden, Who Controls Our Food System Matters

(2/23/21) LSP farmer-member Bonnie Haugen co-authored a commentary in the Nation that calls for President Joe Biden to take steps to ensure American family farms can still make a living, that rural communities thrive, and that we have a food system that works for consumers, our environment, national security, and our democracy. Highlights:

  • Recent supply chain disruptions in the industrial meat industry offer a vivid example of how centralized corporate control has made our food system less resilient. The Biden administration needs to go beyond the status quo to shift resources to family-farm-based regional food systems instead of corporate-controlled industrialized operations.
  • First, multinational corporations should not receive pandemic relief funds; instead, public dollars should go to independent family farmers and local food infrastructure to ensure their survival.
  • Second, public money should not support new or expanding CAFOs through direct payments, loan guarantees, or other programs.
  • Third, we should prioritize protecting workers in meatpacking plants (and the rest of the food system) with enforceable workplace safety and health standards, and require public reporting of COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace.
  • The administration should support existing family farm operations and expand opportunities for a diverse set of beginning farmers. USDA programs should improve access to farmland and ensure that all farmers, at every scale, have access to fair markets that allow them to make a good living. We should focus climate policies on deeper public investments in livestock production that support sustainably managed pasture-based systems run by independent farm families.

LSP and our allies are demanding that the Biden administration and its USDA leadership address numerous issues early in Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's tenure, including consolidations, support for beginning farmers, market access, promoting soil-friendly farming, and developing a regional food system. You can make your voice heard on these and other ag issues via our recent action alert.

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Co-op Supporting Immigrant Farmers in Minnesota Gives Back With Food Boxes for Families in Need

(2/26/21) The Star Tribune reports on an initiative where Shared Ground Farmers' Cooperative, a mostly immigrant-owned co-op in Falcon Heights, Minn., is donating CSA shares to families in need. Highlights:

  • The In 2020, the co-op launched the Food for the People CSA to boost access to healthy organic foods for low-income communities of color, especially Black and Indigenous residents, while supporting mostly Latino and Hmong farmers with livable wages.
  • The co-op tested a new program funded mostly by donations last summer giving CSA boxes each week to 62 households in need. This summer, the co-op aims to expand to 100 families, doling out boxes of carrots, squash, and other fresh vegetables and dairy.
  • The co-op, which usually markets food to restaurants, grocery stores and CSAs, is fundraising now to collect $40,000 to pay for the free food boxes in 2021, which will start to be distributed in June.
  • Shared Ground started in 2014, organized by farmers and the Latino Economic Development Center, a Saint Paul nonprofit. Six Minnesota and Wisconsin farmers own the co-op and work with about a dozen farms.
  • "We're trying to make a living. We want to feed our families. And the only way to do that is the support of the community," said Shared Ground farmer Rodrigo Cala. "The work of farmers is really important."

LSP's 2021 CSA Farm Directory is now online. For updates on our work to support all farmers in their efforts to make a good living while being treated fairly, see LSP's Racial Justice web page.

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Strengthening the Farm to Rural Grocery Pipeline

(2/24/21) Kathy Draeger, director of the University of Minnesota Extension's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, recently described how local farmers and small town grocery stores can forge strong connections. Her talk, which was reported on by the Duluth News Tribune, was given during the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota conference. Draeger was the lead researcher on the Minnesota Rural Grocery Survey Report published late last year. The report, which surveyed hundreds of grocery store owners in towns with populations of 2,500 or less, revealed important characteristics of rural grocery stores in the state. Highlights:

  • What makes the rural grocery sector so important to the state's ag industry is that over 90% of stores are privately owned, meaning the decision makers for those businesses are more than likely willing to work with local farmers.
  • While 62% of those surveyed said that their business was thriving, 88% of survey respondents said they were concerned about their store's economic sustainability.
  • "We have seen a number of these stores close," Draeger said. "And we get really frantic calls from communities, even from municipalities, about their store closing and what can they do."

The U of M's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships' Farm to Grocery Toolkit is a resource for farmers and grocers to help facilitate the sale of farm-grown products to rural grocery stores. LSP's 2021 CSA Farm Directory is now online.

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Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.