Land Line: CSA Boom, Seed Costs, Pigford's Legacy, Fake Meat's Footprint, Winona County AU Cap

March 19: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

Will the CSA Boom Survive Beyond the Pandemic?

(3/10/21) Civil Eats addresses whether the 2020 pandemic-fueled boom in CSA farm sign-ups will continue in 2021. Highlights:

  • Many farmers whose business relied on restaurants, supermarkets, and wholesale had to make a quick pivot to CSAs and other forms of direct-to-consumer sales in 2020 as those markets dried up. Sign-ups for CSAs of all stripes showed significant increases, including meat CSAs.
  • Now, a year into the pandemic, farms across the country are continuing to see increased demand for CSA shares and are adjusting their business model to allow them to meet that demand — although questions remain about how long that demand will last as COVID-19 vaccines slowly bring life to some semblance of a new normal. The market average for CSA retention is only 45%, but no one is sure what to expect going into the second year of the pandemic.
  • North Carolina's Ten Mothers farm, which usually has a retention rate of between 70% to 75%, had its highest retention rate this year at 80%. Other farms are still early into their sign-up process and waiting to see what will happen.

LSP's 2021 CSA Farm Directory for the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and Western Wisconsin Region is now online, and it features over 40 farms that offer shares of produce, meat, and other food items. Shares tend to sell out by early spring, so check it out now.

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GRAPHIC: Seed and Fertilizer Make Up More than Half of the Operating Costs for Corn and Soybean Producers

(3/18/21) The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has developed a chart that shows the major role seed and fertilizer costs play in corn and soybean production. Highlights:

  • Seeds and fertilizers make up 62% of the operating costs to produce corn and 51% of the operating costs to produce soybeans. Seed innovations have helped drive a nearly three-fold increase in agricultural output since the 1940s. At the same time, land and labor costs have declined, according to USDA data.
  • After a series of mergers, there are now only a handful of companies that control the chemical and seed industry: Bayer, Corteva, Syngenta, and Limagrain.
  • The USDA reports that the largest four sellers of corn seed accounted for 85% of U.S. corn seed sales in 2015; the four largest sellers of soybean seed make up 76% of the market.

Unprecedented consolidation in agribusiness has created a double whammy for farmers: they lack access to open, fair markets, and are forced to pay inflated prices for inputs such as seeds. 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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Op-ed: $4 Billion in Debt Relief Is a Start, but the Fight is Not Over for Black Farmers

(3/16/21) Writing in Civil Eats, farmer and National Black Farmers Association founder John Wesley Boyd, Jr. describes the persistent discrimination he and other Black farmers suffered at the hands of the USDA, and how it led them to file the landmark lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman. Highlights:

  • Pigford v. Glickman found that the USDA systematically denied subsidies and loans to farmers of color. As a result, the courts required the agency to pay 22,000 Black farmers $50,000 each.
  • It was a small step in the right direction. But many farmers — around 70,000 — missed the chance to receive a payment. And few received the promised debt relief that was agreed to in the terms of the settlement.
  • In 2018 and 2019 alone, the USDA gave farmers more than $23 billion in bailout payments — money intended to offer relief from former President Donal Trump’s trade war with China. Ninety-nine percent of that money went to white farmers. In 2020, the agency handed out $9.2 billion in COVID bailout payments — and again, it mostly went to white farmers.
  • Congress recently passing the American Rescue Plan Act—the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. Included in the legislation was money for farmers — $4 billion in debt relief for Black farmers and other farmers of color.
  • It’s an important step, but it is not the final step on the road to justice for Black farmers, writes Boyd. The only way to correct the long history of discrimination is to undo it completely. "Justice requires land restoration for farms that were taken away under a century of unfair laws, and an end to the disparities in the treatment of Black and white farmers," he writes.

LSP and our allies are demanding that the Biden administration and the USDA's new leadership promote, among other things, racial justice in USDA programs. Check our recent action alert for details. For more on LSP's racial justice work, click here.

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Is Fake Meat Really the Future?

(3/12/21) National Public Radio's "On the Media" recently featured a discussion with food and climate writer Alicia Kennedy about the carbon footprint of alternative meat products. Highlights:

  • Oxford University research has found that plant-based products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have five times more of a carbon footprint than a classic veggie burger. Lab based, cultured meat is found to have five times the carbon footprint when compared to chicken because of the energy used to produce it.
  • "You're going to have to do better than that kind of impact," said Kennedy, adding that, "We have to be concerned that we're moving from industrial or factory farmed meat toward another industrial system where we're not getting that diverse diet, that diverse land use. We are just creating a new system that mimics the old system."
  • "Ultimately, we have to make those decisions about where we're putting tax money, because industrial meat and dairy production gets a lot of money from the government, so does soy and wheat and corn," said Kennedy. "We need to figure out how we fund changing the food system because it can't go on the way it is. And alternative meat is still not going to be the solution in the long run."

A recent LSP Myth Buster addresses the alt-meat industry's claim that its products will save the planet from climate catastrophe.

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Is Winona County's Animal Unit Cap Killing Business?

(3/17/21) In an article based on quotes from three Winona County farmers, the president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, and a county commissioner, a reporter for the Rochester Post Bulletin advances the argument that Winona County's cap of 1,500 animal units (1,071 dairy cows) is "killing business" in the area. Highlights:

  • Dairy farmer Parker Byington tells reporter Brian Todd that he is leaving the county because of, among other things, the unsuccessful attempts by Daley Farm to increase the size of its current operation near Lewiston by almost 3,000 dairy cattle for a total herd size of 4,628. It turns out a neighboring farmer is buying Byington's Winona County operation and will milk cows there.
  • Based on an Iowa estimate that each dairy cow is worth $25,000 in local economic activity, the reporter argues that Byington's exit is costing Winona County $7.5 million.
  • Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, an organization that vehemently opposes local government control of CAFOs, told the reporter that the animal unit cap is driving business elsewhere. No statistics were cited in the article to back up the claim.

Despite the provocative question posed by the Post Bulletin headline, the article itself offers up few concrete answers to what we should really be asking: is mega-sized dairying good for local economies? In fact, dairy farming does represent a significant boost to a community, a boost that row-cropping, for example, just can’t match. But a little digging shows that by automatically equating more cows with more economic activity, promoters of dairy CAFOs miss a key point: the local economic value of milk production on one factory farm is not the same as if it was produced on several small and medium-sized operations. Main Street economies benefit from more, not fewer, farms. Want the facts? Check out this recent LSP Myth Buster on dairy farming and its impacts on local economies.

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Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.