Land Line: Locating CAFOs, USDA & Racism, Investor Land Grab, Food Production & Carbon, Pastured Solar Panels

March 7: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Information on factory farms is spotty at best. The government has been hogtied from doing more.

(2/25/21) There is no comprehensive list of CAFOs in the Midwest, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s up to states, researchers, and activists to build their own databases. This work is complicated by the fact that each state has different rules for issuing CAFO permits, on top of those mandated by the federal government. Highlights:

  • Generally, any animal feeding operations that discharge waste into federal waterways must apply for a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency or from the state agency designated by the EPA. When a government agency issues such a permit, the applicant’s information is added to a database. The collected information includes the facility type and location, the owner’s name and contact information, the number of animals at the operation, and the facility’s manure disposal plan. These databases are useful because they allow agencies to quickly locate the source of a pollution event, schedule facility inspections, and track CAFO hotspots. They’re also considered public records, obtainable via a Freedom of Information Act request, which allows journalists, researchers, environmental groups, and neighbors to access the same information.

  • However, the federal government doesn’t require permits for facilities that claim they pose no risk to water quality, meaning thousands of CAFOs aren’t included in these databases. When the EPA tried to expand its reach to cover unpermitted facilities, judges ruled the agency cannot require all CAFOs to apply for a permit, effectively barring the federal government from creating a complete register.
  • Even before lawsuits blocked the EPA from collecting more data on CAFOs, the agency wasn’t adequately studying the environmental impact of their waste, according to the Government Accountability Office.
  • And not knowing the exact location of thousands of animal feeding operations makes it harder for regulators to find the source of a manure spill or to know which areas are CAFO-dense and should be closely monitored for pollution.
  • Groups like Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement are fighting for the release of information on the location of CAFOs. Lists of livestock operations are available for Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, but it's unclear how accurate and up-to-date they are.

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. For information on LSP's work fighting factory farms, click here.

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Equity Commission Will Root Out Systemic Racism in USDA Programs, says Vilsack

(3/2/21) Successful Farming reports that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is vowing to use an equity commission to “identify and root out any systemic racism that may exist” in USDA programs.

  • Vilsack also said he wanted to use $13 billion in pandemic relief funds, approved at the end of 2020, to reach producers left out of earlier COVID-19 programs.
  • Dewayne Goldmon, executive director of the National Black Growers Council, was named USDA senior adviser on racial equity, reporting to Vilsack. He is the first high-level official in the agriculture secretary’s office whose primary focus is racial justice, said a USDA spokesman.
  • President Joe Biden has ordered federal officials to review whether underserved communities face systemic barriers in federal programs and to decide if new policies are needed to advance equity in their programs.
  • The USDA acknowledged decades of racial discrimination in the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010 and paid $2.2 billion to Black farmers and their descendants. Complaints continue of persistent discrimination by USDA.

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 systemic racism, 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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Foreign ownership of U.S. farmland is growing. A Missouri lawmaker wants to ban it in the state.

(3/3/21) The Counter reports that there is a growing global interest in U.S. farmland as an investment opportunity. Highlights:

  • By the end of 2019, foreign entities held an interest in nearly 35.2 million acres of U.S. agricultural land, representing 2.7% of all privately held farmland, according to the USDA. That’s about a 60% increase from 2009, when foreign entities held an interest in only 22.2 million acres, or 1.7% of privately held farmland.
  • But while that’s a significant jump, it’s not the only outside group after a slice of the agricultural pie. Non-farmer domestic entrepreneurs and investors are snapping up farmland at a rapid clip, also doing much to drive up the cost of agricultural production for those who don’t own their land.
  • “Institutional investors—pension funds, university endowments, private foundations, and other organizations that manage huge pools of capital—are increasingly incorporating farmland into their investment portfolios,” wrote University of California-Santa Cruz sociologist Madeleine Fairbairn, in her new book Field of Gold: Financing the Global Land Rush. “The same is true of those extremely wealthy people who in financial circles are euphemistically termed ‘high-net-worth individuals.’ This investor interest has spawned a host of new asset management companies eager to accommodate and encourage investors’ newfound passion for soil … managers [who] promise to shepherd investor capital safely, and often extremely profitably, into plots of farmland the world over.”

For information on how to transition farmland to the next generation in an affordable and sustainable manner, see LSP's Farm Transition Tools web page.

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Large Food Companies are Looking to Lock Carbon in Soil as a Way to Meet Ambitious Emissions Goals

(2/9/21) Several dairy farms are working with Stonyfield Organic to hone cost-effective methods for measuring soil carbon, and tracking changes associated with farming or grazing practices, through an initiative called OpenTEAM, reports Ensia. Stonyfield plan to compensate farmers in its supply chain for storing carbon in their pastures, as part of its “science-based target,” or commitment to cut carbon emissions 30% by 2030. Highlights:

  • Stonyfield isn’t the only food company betting big on meeting its carbon reduction pledge by shifting its farmers toward regenerative agriculture practices that sequester carbon in soil, among other benefits. General Mills, Cargill, Danone, Walmart, and others have made similar ambitious pledges.
  • General Mills is running three regenerative agriculture pilots now, one with 45 row-crop producers in the U.S. and Canada’s northern plains, a similar program with 24 farmers in the southern plains, and a program with three dairies in Michigan.
  • Agriculture and climate change experts generally view efforts to sequester carbon in agricultural supply chains as a necessary climate mitigation strategy. But they’re keeping a watchful eye on how companies carry out their commitments. Verification by third-party auditors, transparency, and public reporting will be key.
  • “I worry about greenwashing within this movement, and with this phrase ‘regenerative agriculture.’ It’s the sexy thing for companies to say they’re doing now,” says Arohi Sharma, policy analyst for the water, agriculture, and wildlife nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who adds she’s nevertheless “glad” that companies are making the effort. “Regenerative agriculture is not something that will be done in three or five years, not even 10 years. It’s a lifelong commitment that farmers and ranchers are taking. I hope these companies go for the long term,” says Sharma, stressing that this approach to farming is a management philosophy that encompasses much more than carbon sequestration.

LSP's "100% Soil Healthy Farming Bill" is advancing 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. LSP's Carbon Farming page is here.

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Evaluation of Solar Photovoltaic Systems to Shade Cows in a Pasture-based Dairy Herd

(March 2021) A paper in the Journal of Dairy Science reports on Minnesota research showing the combined use of solar photovoltaics and agriculture may provide farmers with an alternative source of income and reduce heat stress in dairy cows. Highlights:

  • Two groups of cows had access to shade under 30-kW solar panels set up in grazing paddocks at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn. Two groups of cows had no shade in their grazing paddocks.
  • The cows grazing under the solar panels had lower respiration rates and lower body temperatures when compared to the non-shaded cows.
  • "Agrivoltaics" incorporated into pasture dairy systems may reduce the intensity of heat stress in dairy cows and increase well-being of cows and the efficiency of land use, concluded the researchers.

For more on innovative regenerative ag research being done at the West Central Research and Outreach Center, check out episode 233 of LSP's Ear to the Ground podcast.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.