Land Line: Efficiency's Cost, Busting Big Ag, Neonic No-No, Rooting Out Racism, Rural Isolation, Winter Greens

Feb. 12: An LSP Round-up of News Covering Land, People & Communities

The Efficiency Curse — We built a ‘better’ food system. The cost: It couldn’t handle a pandemic.

(2/5/21) When COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., we discovered that the food system was fragile, rigid, and therefore vulnerable. But, as Michael Pollan points out in an opinion piece for the Washington Post, smaller, more diverse farms are proving that they can pivot better to adjust to such catastrophes. Highlights:

  • A hyperspecialized system is more vulnerable to disruption; it is not resilient. As the pandemic emerged, farmers dumping out tens of thousands of gallons of milk and buried giant crops of onions, potatoes, or carrots. Those tended to be the producers that supplied the industrial, institutional food chain. Suddenly, we needed to take all that milk, put it into smaller containers and reroute it to consumers in supermarkets. The system couldn’t do it.
  • A critical lesson for farmers from this crisis is to diversify to whatever extent they can, even if that costs some efficiency. This applies to what farms grow and whom they sell to — and to the entire food chain. For a farmer, it’s more complicated to have 10 crops instead of one: She may need a different kind of machinery to pull carrots than to combine the wheat. There is a price to diversity, but it creates a cushion that can be important in times of crisis.
  • Many smaller farmers moved to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, selling a mix of produce to consumers in boxes, the exact contents of which they could determine each week depending on what they were harvesting. According to Civil Eats, farms with existing CSAs have seen “a massive increase” in memberships since the start of the pandemic, with some reporting a 50% bump in sales.
  • The principle that diversity enhances resilience applies beyond the pandemic. Diverse farms do better in the aftermath of destructive climate events such as storms or droughts. Studies done in Central America have compared how different kinds of farms respond to hurricanes, showing which ones can withstand the storms and recover faster. It turns out that “efficient” monocultures are vulnerable, but polycultures are resilient. This goes for both large and small farms.

The 2021 edition of LSP's CSA Farm Directory is now online, and features over 40 operations that can provide shares of produce, meat, and other food products during the upcoming growing season.

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OPINION: Don’t Stop at Big Tech — We Need to Bust Big Agriculture, Too

(2/3/21) Amid Congressional investigation and federal, state and private antitrust cases, all eyes are on Big Tech, but the food system has been particularly fertile ground for rising concentration, the emergence of dominant firms, and formation of domestic cartels as well, writes National Farmers Union President Rob Larew and the American Antitrust Institute's Diana Moss in Modern Farmer. Highlights:

  • Much like their counterparts in the tech sector, many of the largest food and agriculture corporations have acquired their way to dominance by gobbling up rival businesses. This has occurred across the food system, including digital farming startups, biotechnology firms, food manufacturers, flour millers, farm machinery manufacturers and grocery store chains. But nowhere has it been more pronounced than agricultural inputs. In acquiring competitors both small and large, the six biggest agricultural biotechnology firms collapsed rapidly into the Big Three — Bayer, DuPont, and ChemChina. This wave of consolidation, which was met with little resistance from antitrust authorities, gave these corporations control of proprietary, multi-level systems of traits, seeds, agrochemicals, and digital technology that limit farmers’ choices and lock them into limited cropping systems.
  • In beef packing, the top four firms now control about 85% of the national market. On multiple occasions, these packers have been accused of colluding to pay ranchers less for cattle and charge consumers more for beef. Similar allegations of price fixing have been leveled against tuna, chicken, turkey, egg, pork, and peanut producers, among others.
  • Americans depend on a safe, functional and resilient food system at least as much as they depend on their social media networks or ability to search the Internet. Antitrust enforcers must turn their attention there next, argue Larew and Moss.

LSP and our allies are demanding that the Biden administration and its USDA leadership address consolidation and anti-competitive practices in agriculture. Check our recent action alert for details on how to send a message to President Joe Biden and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that we need significant changes in our approach to Big Ag.

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These Widely Used Insecticides May be a Threat to Mammals Too

(2/5/21) Neonicotinoids are already accused of contributing to widespread insect declines, but there’s evidence they can also harm rabbits, birds, and deer, according to National Geographic. Highlights:

  • Chemically related to nicotine, neonics were developed in the 1990s as a safer alternative to more toxic, longer-lasting farm chemicals. They’re now the most widely used pesticides in the world, effective against aphids and leafhoppers and a wide range of worms, beetles, and borers. Deployed as coatings on seeds for crops that cover more than 150 million acres in the United States, neonics are taken up by all plant parts: roots, stems, leaves, fruit, pollen, and nectar. Insects chew or suck on their preferred portion, then curl up and die.
  • History tells us that such broad-spectrum pesticides may have unintended consequences, and scores of studies suggest that neonics, along with climate change and habitat destruction, are contributing to the steady decline of insects across North America and Europe. Bees, essential for crop pollination, have been especially hard hit.
  • South Dakota State University researchers have found that mammals with higher levels of the pesticide in their spleens had shorter jawbones, decreased body weight, and undersized organs, including genitals. More than a third of the deer fawns died prematurely.
  • Deer aren’t the only species inadvertently consuming neonics. Charlotte Roy, a biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has found that many kinds of animals will gladly consume neonic-treated seeds when they get a chance — as they do during spring planting.
  • South Dakota farmer and scientist Jonathan Lundgren is also analyzing the spleens of 100 river otters, bobcats, and fishers. His preliminary results suggest neonics contaminated between 15% and 30% of the samples. The animals could have consumed the pesticides in contaminated plants, prey, or water, he says.
  • A 2019 National Institutes of Health study found neonics in 49.1% of 3,038 human urine samples.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the registrations of five neonics. Environmental organizations and human-health experts claim the agency’s ongoing analyses have consistently underestimated the costs of neonic use and overestimated the benefits. Meanwhile, neonic-treated seeds are a $1.5-billion global market that the industry has a strong interest in protecting.
  • “Our work on regenerative cropping and livestock systems”—which includes tilling less, planting cover crops, and promoting beneficial insects and more diverse crop rotations—“is showing that insecticides are really not needed,” says Lundgren.

LSP recently hosted Jonathan Lundgren for a series of workshops in Minnesota. For more on his work related to regenerative agriculture, check out this LSP blog and podcast.

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Black Farmers Unconvinced by Vilsack's 'Root Out' Racism Vow

(2/10/21) President Joe Biden’s nomination of Tom Vilsack to lead the USDA received a chilly reaction from many Black farmers who contend he didn’t do enough to help them the last time he had the job, according to the Associated Press.

  • Some Black farmers fault Vilsack for failing to adequately address a backlog of discrimination complaints that predated his arrival at the department in 2009, and they say he should have hired more minorities to high-level positions.
  • There’s also lingering bitterness about Vilsack’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, a Black woman who served as USDA’s Georgia director of rural development. Vilsack fired her in 2010 after a blogger posted an edited video of her supposedly making racist remarks, but he asked her to return when the full video surfaced showing that she was taken out of context. Sherrod declined the offer to come back.
  • Some Black farmers want Biden to sign an executive order they drafted halting foreclosures on Black-owned farms and making other civil rights reforms.
  • Abraham Carpenter, a 58-year-old Black farmer whose family grows fruits and vegetables on about 1,500 acres near Grady, Ark., said it doesn’t make any difference to Black farmers if the nation’s president is Obama, Biden or Donald Trump: “We have been treated wrong for so long, we just want to be treated fairly now.”
  • At the heart of many discrimination complaints are the Farm Service Agency’s county committees, locally elected advisory councils that share information with their farming communities and in the past had power to make loan decisions. After a statistical analysis showed their lack of diversity, Vilsack directly appointed minority members to more than 300 county committees.
  • The USDA said Tuesday that the White House and Vilsack support legislation introduced this week that is designed to provide $4 billion in immediate farm loan debt relief for minority farmers and help them respond to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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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Farmers Already Felt Isolated. The COVID-19 Pandemic Made It Worse.

(2/10/21) The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reports on a survey that finds the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated farmers’ feelings of isolation. Highlights:

  • The percentage who said social isolation affects farmers’ mental health jumped more than 20% in 2020 compared to 2019.
  • In 2019, 46% of farmers said isolation affected their mental health either “some” or “a lot.” In 2020, that number was 68%, according to the survey.
  • According to the survey, 66% of farmers said COVID-19 has affected their mental health, while about half of rural adults did. Farmers experienced nervousness or anxiety more often than rural adults during the pandemic, according to the survey.
  • According to the survey, 75% of rural adults said that mental health is very important, a 6% increase from 2019. Also, 87% of farmers said it’s important to reduce the stigma around mental health in agriculture, and 59% said it’s very important.

Feeling stress as a result of emotional, economic, or weather-related pressures? Check out LSP's Farm Crisis Resources web page.

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Deep Winter Greenhouses Ensure Bountiful Harvests Year-Round

(2/12/21) "Deep winter greenhouses," also called "DWGs," are catching on in Minnesota, according to Hometown Focus. Highlights:

  • As part of a statewide initiative, the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships is working with the College of Design’s Center for Sustainable Building Research to develop construction documents for three DWG designs.
  • A DWG is a passive solar greenhouse that captures the sun’s light and heat during the day and stores the heat in the earth to recirculate at night. The greenhouse is oriented east-west with a large south-facing glass or polycarbonate wall built at an angle that will catch as much of the sun’s energy as possible. The other walls are solid and very well insulated, often with reflective interior surfaces, and the north wall is sometimes earth sheltered. It is the dirt, and sometimes gravel or large stones about four feet deep under the greenhouse, that act as a battery to store the heat that’s captured during the day. That heat is blown underground with a fan and then vented out and up into the growing area at night.
  • Stefan Meyer, who manages a DWG in Finland, Minn., has been harvesting lettuce, Asian greens, salad mix, rainbow chard, and Napa cabbage throughout the winter. He has recently planted spinach, arugula, and more kinds of lettuce. These all need the lengthening days which tend to become noticeable by early February.

Ford and Waibel graduated from LSP's Farm Beginnings course, and were featured in an LSP profile and podcast.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.