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Alert: Family Farm Pork Producers, Take Action Today

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

If you are a family farm pork producer, your action is needed before January 2.

The USDA (under the cover of Christmas) is asking pork producers if they want to vote on the pork checkoff. If 15% of producers request it, a vote will be held within one year. You can read more here.

The form producers need to fill out and mail along with a feed bill or other proof of production can be found at the USDA website, or more easily here: http://www.ruralpopulist.org/porkcheckoff.pdf. The proof of production must be from 2007. This is a vote of 2007 hog producers.

Send or deliver your completed form to your county FSA office before Jan 2.

Time is short but the internet is fast. Fill our your form today and send this alert to others.

Since the mandatory checkoff began, hundreds of millions of dollars has been collected by the National Pork Board from producers while the number of independent hog farmers plummeted. The National Pork Producers Council, with close historical and operating ties the National Pork Board, has supported vertical integration and packer ownership of livestock and has blocked legislation that will make markets open and fair for independent family farms. The checkoff has not benefited small family farms.

Pork producers have been through this election once before. They triumphed at the ballot box, and lost amidst political gamesmanship in Washington. A new administration and new leadership at USDA creates hope for a fair handling of the vote this time. All checkoffs should be democratically controlled by producers.

For a history on the battle to end the pork checkoff visit:
Center for Rural Affairs, Corporate Farming Notes
Land Stewardship Project, Pork Checkoff Campaign

If you are not a hog farmer yourself, please send this to farmers you know.

Updated December 16th with additional details regarding the relationship between the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers.

Update 2: Don’t miss the comments on this post, and visit U.S. Food Policy for another post on this topic.

Michael Pollan on Agribusiness Populism

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

This is a near quote of Michael Pollan on NPR’s Fresh Air this week:

There is a real issue of perception of elitism, and it is one of ironies of our society that junk food being sold by multinational corporations like McDonalds and Kraft appears to be populist, and food grown by struggling, scrupulous farmers is regarded as elitist. And I think there is something wrong with this picture, that those agribusiness companies have seized the populist high ground. When you look at how that supposedly cheap, populist food is produced, it’s dependent on government handouts, it’s dependent on the brutalizing of workers and brutalizing of animals, and it suddenly appears in a very, very different light.

The discussion occurs at about 31:00 minutes into the interview.

Pollan’s comments notwithstanding, it remains the case that much of the sustainable and local food system in the U.S. supports those with solidly middle to upper-class paychecks. This has bothered me for years.

We have seen renewed food systems that we cheer come into existence in recent years, but we too often fail to acknowledge that the growing gap between the rich and the poor is precisely what has made this possible.

Who doesn’t love a Niman Ranch hog farmer? But these farmers that we love to love produce meat for high-end markets on the coasts. Certainly, this is better than producing hogs in confinement for export or growing corn for unmitigated biofuels production. But a local food system that caters to and relies upon a growing wealth disparity leaves too many of the social ills that we set out to address untouched.

That being said, Pollan, as he is apt to do, offers a concise and effective rebuttal to the “local food as elitist” argument. In fact, it is best rebuttal I ever recall having heard.

Depew Family Farm

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

My little brother sent me the below photo of our family farm this evening. He found it online at an aerial map service.

I remember the aerial photo of my family’s farm that my grandparents used to have hanging on their wall. They paid an aerial photographer for it. Apparently such expensive endeavors are no longer necessary. The photo below is not as high quality as the photo that used to hang on my grandparents wall, but this one was free.

Depew Family Farm near Laurens, Iowa

The pictures is oriented as you would a map. The greenest square in the southwest corner is the yard and house. To the north and west is the machine shed. Directly north of the house is the barn where my grandpa milked cows and where my family has raised sheep, pigs and beef cattle. To the north of that yet is a feed yard and the old silo, unused for decades. To the east of the silo are a couple of open front livestock sheds. North of the silo and those sheds is the grove of trees planted to protect the farmstead from cold north winds.

To the east of the yard and house is the shop and the corn crib that we shelled ear corn out of until I was in high school. The larger white building to the north of the corn crib and to the east of the silo is the insulated winter farrowing building what we bought second hand and moved on site while I was in college.

To the east of the farmstead sits four hoop houses for hogs. We built all four from the ground up with little or no hired labor, completing the first and west-most one in the fall of 1998. I still distinctly remember finishing it on crisp fall days while listening to market reports on the radio as the price of hogs crashed. We poured a shorter concrete slab in the front of that building and used plywood for the walls. Who could justify more expensive concrete and tongue and groove sidewalls with hogs at eight dollars a hundred weight?

I think we took one year off before building the next three hoop houses in three consecutive years. The third and fourth were purchased used. Their previous owner tore them down, opting instead to build more confinement facilities. I remember talking to him as he told me that the hoop house “just didn’t fit with his business model.” I think he had tried to pack hogs into them as dense as he did in his confinement buildings, and was disappointed with the results.

Soon there is a good chance there will be no more hogs in those hoop buildings. That’s a story for another blog post though.

As We Sow

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Part 1



Part 2


Part 3

Horribly depressing. Film credit.

Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

I had the following oped published in today’s Des Moines Register:

Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans

BRIAN DEPEW, SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

I recently returned from a visit to my family’s farm. While there, I was dismayed to learn that three more livestock confinement buildings are being built within 2 miles. Once complete, there will be 13 industrial livestock buildings within 3 miles of our farm. There is now at least one facility in every direction.

After growing up and attending college in Iowa, I left the state. Around the same time, political leaders in Iowa began to notice young Iowans leaving in droves. They wondered out loud: What can be done to keep our best and our brightest in the state? In 2005, legislators floated a plan to exempt Iowans under 30 from state income taxes. Then last year, the Legislature commissioned “Generation Iowa” to ponder the problem further.

But tax breaks and task forces will not help Iowa overcome the problems it faces. Today’s young adults are moving to places with vibrant natural resources, thriving communities and healthy economies. But for two decades Iowa’s leaders have sat silently while a corporate system of animal agriculture planted itself firmly in the state, undermining these crucial amenities. Our leaders are evading this issue and ignoring the barrier that large confinement operations create to a prosperous future.

Political leaders in Iowa have uncritically embraced the industrialization of animal agriculture and by doing so have contributed to the ongoing decline of family farms and rural communities. Iowa’s leaders took it a step further by ensuring that Iowa citizens have no recourse against the environmental destruction industrial livestock facilities sow upon the state.

I have some advice for the Generation Iowa Commission, due to report to the governor and Legislature on Jan. 15. If Iowa is serious about keeping young people in the state, it should work first to stop, and then reverse, the rise of large confinement operations. By destroying the economic and social fabric of rural Iowa and degrading the environment of the state, confinement facilities make returning to Iowa undesirable.

With palpable air pollution and undeniable water pollution, the environmental strife is easy to see. With fewer family livestock producers, rural communities are left without a vital sector of economic activity. As farm families leave the countryside, rural communities face the challenge of keeping afloat critical social infrastructure such as schools and government services. No young Iowan wants to return to a dying community or a polluted state.

For more than a decade, Iowa Democrats have run on a promise to clean up this mess. After taking charge last year of all three branches of state government for the first time in 40 years, they largely capitulated on this issue. They must do better in 2008.

Iowa cannot afford to lose another generation of young people to the allure of other states, and rural Iowa cannot afford to lose its next generation to the allure of the big city. The state must fiercely protect its resources and amenities from those looking to make a quick buck off the back of the state’s long-term viability.

Like others born and raised in the state, I would like to return one day, but I am loath to the idea of returning to a state overrun by an environmental, economic and socially detrimental livestock industry.

BRIAN DEPEW lives in Lyons, Neb. He grew up in Laurens and was the Green Party candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2002. He works for the Center for Rural Affairs, but these thoughts are his own.

Tom Harkin: Strengthening America with Investments in Rural America

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Guest Post by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin

In the last few weeks I’ve traveled to over 26 cities and towns all over Iowa to meet face to face with residents and listen to their hopes, their concerns, and their feedback on the 2007 farm bill, which will strengthen investment and economic opportunities for our rural communities and farmers, conserve our environment while decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of oil and improve the quality and safety of our food and nutritional options for our children.

What struck me most during these personal meetings was how our uniquely American entrepreneurial spirit is stronger than ever. I have always believed that one of the cardinal responsibilities of government is to provide the basic infrastructure for Americans with innovative ideas to be able to readily carry them out — and in Washington, Anamosa, Lake City, and other cities and rural communities across Iowa — I was able to witness this entrepreneurial spirit first hand.

In Washington, I met with a local family-owned company called Practical Environmental Solutions that started with a grant they received from the 2002 farm bill that helps to reduce waste by transforming wood into pellets that can burn cleanly in an oven. And in Anamosa and Lake City, I met with farmers who are using innovative conservation practices that not only help protect and improve the environment, but also help strengthen their income from the Conservation Security Program that I created in the 2002 farm bill.

Throughout Iowa, I witnessed the tremendous amount of good that we can accomplish when we pair good government policy with this entrepreneurial spirit and I am hopeful that the 2007 farm bill will continue and expand upon programs such as these to strengthen our farms, our children and our families, our rural communities, and our country.

We can strengthen our farms and secure the future for the next generation of farmers by expanding opportunities by promoting conservation through initiatives like the Conservation Security Program and expanding use of farm-based renewable energy produced throughout Iowa.

We can strengthen our farm payment system so that it can better focus on what it was designed to do – help farmers when their incomes fall and they really need the help. That’s why I support stronger payment limitations and integrity in our farm programs.

We can strengthen our children and our families by expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program so that elementary schoolchildren around the country can have access to healthy and nutritious meals so they can focus in the classroom and their parents no longer have to worry about what their children going to school hungry.

We can strengthen our rural communities by ensuring that they are not left out of the information revolution by increasing broadband access and working to jumpstart a new Rural Collaborative Investment Program to boost rural infrastructure and spur effective economic development strategies.

And we can strengthen our country by increasing funding for innovative programs such as the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program that helps entrepreneurs cover the cost of getting renewable energy facilities off the ground.

The 2007 farm bill is an incredibly important piece of legislation for Iowa and America’s future and I will fight every day to continue to be a voice for sensible policies and values that strengthen all of America.

Editors Note: Leave comments for Senator Harkin in the comment section below or at his own blog.

Beyond Agriculture

Monday, September 10th, 2007

In our next post, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin will write about his hopes for the 2007 Farm Bill. A story in yesterday’s Des Moines Register offers some policy-context to parts of his post.

Talk of agriculture often dominates discussions about the farm bill, but yesterday Philip Brasher wrote about another sort of battle brewing in the debate over the 2007 Farm Bill.

Brasher: Harkin prepares push for rural development

A battle could be brewing between the House and Senate on an issue that seldom gets much attention in Congress - rural development.

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, is preparing a series of rural development proposals, including funding for water and sewer improvements, venture capital and even child-care centers, that would increase federal spending by $2 billion over the next five years.

The farm bill that passed the House this summer had relatively little new money for rural development programs. [Snip…]

A mandatory program must be included in the federal budget each year. Spending for other rural development programs in the House bill would be left to the discretion of congressional appropriations committees.

By contrast, all of the $2 billion in new rural development money that would be in Harkin’s legislation would be designated as mandatory spending, according to his staff, which provided a description of his plans.

“We need to help communities help themselves to create quality jobs and an improved quality of life,” says Harkin, D-Ia.

Harkin’s proposal provides money for rural water and sewer systems which currently face a large funding backlog. It also includes money for constructing and maintaining rural hospitals, assisted-living facilities and child care facilities.

The proposed legislation designates $100 million for microenterprise loan programs for people looking to start a new rural businesses, and $200 million over five years for value-added grants.

These are important programs for rural America, and critical after years of farm consolidation and rural out-migration driven by unlimited farm payments in the Commodity Title of the bill. But the fight won’t be easy.

Republican-led Congresses repeatedly nicked several rural development programs that were authorized in the 2002 farm bill, including the value-added grants and Internet loans. (This is the reason the House Agriculture Committee’s chairman, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., gave for not putting more mandatory spending into rural development this year.)

Harkin has allies in the Bush administration for at least some of his ideas. In threatening to veto the House farm bill, the White House specifically cited the lack of funding for rural hospitals and infrastructure, among other reasons.

I will be watching the debate unfold, and hoping Harkin holds out for a full $2 billion in mandatory rural development spending in the 2007 Farm Bill.

Farm Aid: Live from the Big City

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

Why is Farm Aid in Manhattan this year?

Next Up: Senator Tom Harkin

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

On Monday Iowa Senator Tom Harkin will write a guest post at Rural Populist outlining his priorities for the 2007 Farm Bill. The House passed their version of the Farm Bill in late July. The Senate is expected to take up their version of the bill sometime this fall.

Senator Harkin is the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee as well as the co-chair of the Senate Rural Health Caucus.

The Value of Rural

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

By Steph Larsen

In a recent post that was crossposted on Gristmill, there were a few comments that reflected a view of rural areas by folks who I can only assume have chosen not to spend much time in the country. They asked questions like:

“What’s so special about rural communities? Why isn’t it better if half these people just moved to the cities?”

I find myself defending rural communities more frequently lately, even though I’ve never been a permanent resident of one (yet). To my city friends, the statement that I’m spending three weeks in Nebraska is almost always met with raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. While they understand the desire to leave the swamp that is our nation’s capital, most of them are coastal people who haven’t given the Midwest more than a cursory glance as they drive by or fly over on their way to somewhere else.

There are a lot of answers to the question “Why care about rural communities?” One might be that with 55 million Americans living in rural areas, it would be undemocratic to categorically ignore their voices. Another would be equality–we routinely spend tax dollars revitalizing run-down parts of cities, and rural communities deserve similar treatment.

Another person commented:

“Explain to me why is it important to keep these small towns alive? Those who have left the small towns are gainfully employed elsewhere. Note that our food production has not fallen off in tangent with the decline of these rural centers. So, this is not leading to starvation. The future may be one of profitable organic farmers in close proximity to major urban centers, if that is what the market creates, and if the government and everyone else would stop trying to prop up a lifestyle that is an echo of our former agrarian economy.”

While it is certainly the case that our food production has not decreased dramatically because of the decline of diversified agriculture, it is also true that agriculture has gotten more consolidated and unsustainable, adopting many practices that are arguably much worse for the environment than ever before. As an advocate for local organic food, I personally make sure that as much of my food as possible comes from local organic sources, but I speculate that every major urban area does not have the space for profitable local organic farmers to feed all the residents in the nearby city, especially with rampant urban sprawl.

In addition, if even a majority of rural residents suddenly moved to the city, there would be a huge strain on infrastructure and resources, not to mention that a flood of labor would likely not do good things for wages and working conditions. In fact, today’s farm policy is partially a legacy of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, whose “Get big or get out,” “Fencerow to fencerow” style led to an influx of rural residents to urban areas that provided cheap labor for urban manufacturing.

There is one argument, however, that I think we can all relate to regardless of our roots. I want you to picture the place you consider home. Perhaps you are in that place now, and can look around, and feel how good it is to be there. Then, imagine what you would feel or do if someone told you that you couldn’t, or shouldn’t, live there anymore. Approximately 20% of Americans live in small towns and rural areas, and many of them are passionate about protecting their homes and communities. It’s unfair for folks to suggest that rural residents leave the places in which they want to live.

Many of us, whether we realize it or not, have rural roots or depend on rural areas. The idea of allowing rural communities to go to waste would have unintended and unforeseen consequences. I admire that our country still allows for equal opportunity to all our residents, and I hope that these opportunities would not be denied due to geography.

Whole Foods, Empty Promises

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

Long time readers know I’m no fan of corporate behemoths, and have no confidence in the idea that what a rural community needs to prosper is another Wal Mart, another large livestock facility, or a corporate dump.

For similar reasons, I don’t put much faith in Whole Foods’ recent promise to do more to support local farmers - an effort that would only slow the trend to corporatize the natural food market, not stop it. This week we got another reason to think Whole Foods will not be inclined to crusade for justice on any front as long as CEO John Mackey is in charge.

By now you’ve probably heard, Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, spent much of the last two years posting anonymous diatribes online in an ongoing effort to paint his chief competitor, Wild Oats, in a negative light. Read the original story at the Wall Street Journal.

I want to draw attention to one of Mackey’s posts in particular - the one in which he talks of his love for Wal Mart, his disdain for labor unions, and his apparent dislike for anyone who might claim to be a victim of sexual or racial discrimination. Mackey writes:

Wal-Mart was just named the most admired company in America (also by Fortune Magazine — that magazine which obviously hates “working people”). I probably admire Wal-Mart more than any other company in the world (except for maybe Whole Foods!). What a great, great company! Wal-Mart has single handedly driven down retail prices across America. They have improved the standard of living for millions and millions of American people. Also Wal-Mart is crushing the parasitical unions across America. I love Wal-Mart! Damn straight that they should be on this list. Sexual discrimination lawsuits? Sexual harrassment lawsuits? Racial discrimination lawsuits? What company doesn’t have those? The Trial Lawyers (the richest professional class in the United States and the largest contributors to the Democratic Party — even bigger than labor unions which are #2) sue Wal-Mart. They sue Whole Foods Market. They sue every business which makes any money. They are probably even a bigger threat to our country than labor unions are (if that is possible?).

For Mackey, an interest in the all-mighty dollar trumps workers rights and pesky discrimination lawsuits. Mackey’s love for Wal Mart, which relies on boatloads of imported merchandise, legions of poverty-stricken workers, and clear anti-competitive practices, leaves one wondering.

Just how serious can Whole Foods possibly be about helping small, local farmers?

Hat tip: Tom Philpott at Gristmill

Let There Be No Doubt

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

The Farm Bureau supports unlimited commodity subsidies — subsidies that help the nation’s largest farms drive family farmers out of business. Responding to a draft version of the 2007 Farm Bill, the Farm Bureau said in a press release:

While Farm Bureau was pleased there are no cuts to payment limits in the proposal, the organization will watch the debate closely in the future. “We recognize that the farm bill debate is far from over and that changes are likely in the coming weeks,” said Stallman. “Farm Bureau will be particularly watchful of changes to payment limitations and adjusted gross income caps.”

In so doing, Farm Bureau is protecting the interests of these “farms.”

Rank Farm Businesses Location 2003-2005
1 Balmoral Farming Partnership Newellton, LA $7,908,563
2 Phillips Farm Yazoo City, MS $5,893,194
3 Due West Glendora, MS $5,417,792
4 Kelley Enterprises Burlison, TN $4,933,845
5 Walker Place Danville, IL $4,627,034
6 R A Pickens & Son Company Pickens, AR $4,307,636
7 Dublin Farms Corcoran, CA $4,286,864
8 Morgan Farms Cleveland, MS $4,192,828
9 Perthshire Farms Gunnison, MS $4,161,420
10 P G C Farms Brinson, GA $4,157,017

The Farm Bureau has long claimed to be the “largest farmer-member organization” in the country, but when it comes to Farm Bill politics, they are a lobby for the interests of large agribusiness. Supporting $8 million subsidy checks is no way to be a friend of the farmer.

With their support for unlimited subsidy checks, Farm Bureau is helping to drive the continued consolidation of agriculture. I’m sure their lobbyists in Washington talk a good line about supporting farmers, but in the countryside the devastating effects of the agricultural policy they help write is clear.

Restoring Rural Roots

Monday, July 9th, 2007

by Steph Larsen

In a recent trip through the small town of Walthill, Nebraska, the phrase “rural revitalization” took on a whole new meaning. In this case, it was the lack of any kind of prosperity that made it obvious to me why rural communities are in need of revitalization. Main Street looked painfully deserted, with two recent arsons adding fresh scars to the once-active storefronts. As we drove around the residential area, most houses looked to be in some state of disrepair—so much so that it was difficult to really tell which were homes and which had already been abandoned. If ever there was a town that needed some life breathed back into it, this was it.

About the same time, I read an article about the aging farmer population and the simultaneous difficulty of young and beginning farmers breaking into farming. This from John Seewer from the Associated Press:

So many American farmers are working longer than ever before that one in four is at least 65 years old. [snip] Within the next decade those older farmers will be looking for someone to take over their operations and selling millions of acres of land.

Much of that land will be merged into bigger farms with fewer people working on them. Rural communities will lose even more young people, and a few will struggle for survival. [snip]

“Some of those communities will survive, but the nature of the community will change,” said Lori Garkovich, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. “Studies have shown that industrial farms change communities in many ways.

Todd Stewart, who raises hogs and cattle near Meadow Grove, Neb., and at 47 is among the youngest farmers in the area, said it’s hard to find volunteers who will coach ball teams or help out at church anymore.

“Towns are hurting,” he said. “The school is usually the first to go, then it’s the churches and then the town. There’s going to be a lot of towns that will wither up and go away.”

Communities need people, of course, but vibrant, sustainable rural communities need people of all ages so that the infrastructure that makes a town strong—schools, churches, local businesses—are able to thrive. Farmers are a significant part of this equation, and being able to recruit young people into farming will only help to strengthen the communities in which they live.

In my last post, I talked about local ownership as a key component if rural communities will see any substantial benefit from the ethanol boom. It is clear, however, that it takes more than money to reinvigorate a community. Another component to this push for revitalization is to renew demand for the institutions that have been weakened as farms consolidated. The aspiring farmers I know are typically energetic folks who choose to come back to the land, and will greatly add to any community if only they can access the things they need to start farming.

Not coincidentally, I think about this as legislators in Washington, DC are writing the next Farm Bill. There is a lot of debate about the future of the commodity title and the need to increase money for nutrition and conservation, but often rural development seems to be thrown in as an afterthought—as if legislators know that it’s a good thing to say but think there isn’t enough political will to put their money where there mouths are.

Why aren’t rural voices demanding more from their legislators?

There clearly have been some voices, though I would argue not nearly enough. The 2002 Farm Bill included some promising provisions that help rural communities, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development and the Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG). The former was in the 2002 Farm Bill but did not receive funding from 2002-2007, while the later usually received between $15 million and $20 million dollars annually, or about one-third to one-half of the money it was slated to receive.

The draft of the 2007 Farm Bill was just released in the House by Chairman Collin Peterson, and while these two programs are funded at $15 million for Beginning Farmer and Rancher and $20 million for VAPG, legislators will need to hear from their constituents in order for these numbers to remain strong.

A welcome addition to the 2007 draft is the Rural Entrepreneurs and Microenterprise Development program, which would provide technical assistance and loans for starting a rural business. However, unlike the other two programs I mention, a slight technical difference in the language for the Microenterprise program means there’s no guarantee it will see a dime.

Rural communities aren’t receiving fair treatment in federal legislation, which is slightly ironic considering that it’s the Farm Bill, and most farming occurs in rural areas. This bill is a great opportunity to push for the rural revitalization that legislators keep promising—not with haphazard handouts but with strategic investments that assist new, resourceful, innovative farmers establish new roots and bring young people back to rural communities.

Water Wars Creep Eastward

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

It is commonplace now to see stories about agricultural water demand colliding with other demands for water in the West. When the following came across my RSS reader, I assumed it was another such story:

Amendment to farm bill would help pay for small irrigation reservoirs

Drought-plagued farmers who can’t afford to irrigate could get some help in the near future if an amendment sponsored by a local congressman becomes part of the 2007 Farm Bill.

Read further though, and you learn that the lead sponsor on the legislation is U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Alabama). Then this:

The grants would be targeted to farms in the southern and eastern United States and would be awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a competitive basis…

The demand for water and competitive pressures on that water are almost certain to be one of the most significant forces that will shape agriculture over the next 100 years.

Lies The Economist Told Natasha

Monday, June 11th, 2007

Natasha over at Pacific Views has a great post up on the Economist and the business of agriculture. She starts with a quote from the Economist article:

… This special report will examine how climate change is affecting business, and how business can affect climate change. It will concentrate on industrial emissions rather than on agriculture and deforestation (which produce lots of carbon dioxide without involving business much) but will leave out air travel, on which this newspaper will publish a special report in two weeks’ time.

Then the fun begins for Natasha:

Pardon? Agriculture … doesn’t involve business much? My cranial hamster wheel wobbles on its very axis; it threatens a total derailment. Are these people stupid, lying, deranged, or merely hard toking the hash that’s been flooding Europe since the US invasion of Afghanistan? Maybe they decided to write the preface to this special report during their annual editorial off-site in Amsterdam. I am not qualified to say with certainty which explanation is correct, but as you can see, my suspicions in this regard run towards the lurid.

Read the full post over at Pacific Views. Natasha is right. Agriculture today is increasingly, and in many countries solely, about business.

Natasha offers somewhat regular agriculture commentary. She should write about agriculture more often though.

Ag Education: A Different Way

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

The Associated Press reported this week that twice as many Iowa high schools are looking for teachers for their agricultural education programs this year than there are potential candidates graduating with the appropriate degree from Iowa State University. The same is generally true in other states as well.

Some educators warn that a shortage of agriculture instructors could stifle student development in 1 of Iowa’s largest industries. […]

A national study on agriculture educators indicated 40 high school ag departments across the country shut down last year due to the lack of a qualified teacher.

Low pay compared to the business world and the urbanization of America are blamed for the shortage.

The solutions suggested in the story, while not bad ideas, are pretty run-of-the-mill:

Miller hopes several steps recently taken by the state will attract young people into the profession.

Those efforts include boosting teacher salaries, providing sign-on bonuses and using student-loan forgiveness programs.

I graduated from a small school district in Iowa with a declining number of students and a dwindling number of students enrolled in the agricultural education program. Not only will my high school face the challenge of finding a new teacher for the position someday, but it will also face the challenge of continuing to justify a full time position for a limited number of students interested in agriculture. I suspect the same is true at many small, rural districts across the country.

Furthermore, the districts that will face the most challenges attracting, retaining, and justifying full time agricultural education teachers are the districts where maintaining such programs is both most critical and holds the most promise for attracting students serious about a future in farming.

So, I have a proposal for Iowa State University. Establish a program that will allow local farmers to go back to school part-time to become agricultural education teachers in their local districts. Utilize the current extension service to reach out to potential candidates, and to deliver initial instruction. Follow that up with a combination of distance-based learning and short periods of intensive instruction on campus during farmers’ off-seasons.

Who could be better suited to train and mentor the next generation of farmers than one or two local farmers who work as part-time agricultural education instructors at their local school? Even just off the top of my head, I can think of several farmers I know who would make excellent teachers, and I bet some of them would jump at the opportunity to do so.

While loan forgiveness, higher pay, and sign-on bonuses are all ways to attract the needed professionals to rural communities, we must also think outside of the box and turn to our local resources when seeking to solve the challenges facing rural communities today.

Farm Labor Movement

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

The movement for a fair and just agricultural and rural policy and the movement for fair and just labor policy are both close to my heart. For that reason, agricultural labor movements, and the history of the agricultural labor movement is of particular interest. A guest post on Ethicurean last week offers a good primer on the history of the farm labor movement in the context of the current immigration debate.

Quick! The history of U.S. policy on farm labor in 60 seconds. During and after World War II, U.S. workers shift out of farming and into industrial jobs. Agricultural producers mobilize to persuade the government to help find workers. In 1951, Congress passes a law creating the Bracero guestworker program, which allows producers to “import” Mexican workers legally for seasonal jobs and send them home afterward. (Bracero means “farm worker.”) In addition to tying migrants to one employer, Bracero contracts establish standards for housing, pay, and the guarantee of work that are lower than those applied to U.S. workers. The President’s Commission on Migratory Labor provides this assessment of the situation in a 1951 report: “We depend on misfortune to build up our force of migratory workers, and when the supply is low because there is not enough misfortune at home, we rely on misfortune abroad to replenish the supply.”

Honesty in government — a real breath of fresh air, no?

Fast-forward to the 1960s. The Bracero Program has become the focal point for organizing by the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which charges that it undermines domestic labor conditions and drives down wages industry-wide. The opposition kills the program in 1964, and the farm labor market tightens. The UFW launches campaigns against the use of undocumented workers as strike-breakers and wins concessions for unionized workers requiring rest periods, clean drinking water, and the provision and use of protective clothing during pesticide application. By 1973, the UFW represents 67,000 workers on California farms producing grapes, lettuce, strawberries, and other specialty crops.

But the UFW’s heyday is short. The networks established during the Bracero era between communities in Mexico and the United States are strong, economies in Mexico and Central America are weak, and the rate of undocumented migration surges. UFW wage strikes in the late ’70s and early ‘80s don’t gain many friends among producers, who turn to the growing pool of undocumented workers instead. By 1983, the number of UFW contracts has dropped from a high of 180 to fewer than 20.

In the ’80s, a weakened UFW decides to switch gears and help undocumented workers become legal immigrants so they can join and support the union. They’re stymied by two factors: first, employers use the threat of job termination to keep workers from even talking to the union, and second, when workers do manage to gain legal status, they typically leave the farm sector for better-paying positions in other industries. They’re replaced by newly arrived undocumented migrants — and the UFW is back to where it started.

And that brings us to today.

Read the rest at Ethicurean

Biofuels: Boon or Bust?

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

by Steph Larsen

Biofuels are clearly getting a lot of attention lately, and some speculate that ethanol and biodiesel will bring much needed income and spur revitalization in rural communities. Ethanol might be good for the price of corn at the moment, but it looks like it’s not going to be helping residents of rural America as much as one might think. From the Omaha World Herald:

“The EPA on Thursday substantially relaxed air pollution standards for plants that manufacture ethanol for fuel, eliminating one of the major hurdles to plant size.

“The rule will allow plants to generate two-and-a-half times more of certain types of air pollution before they face regulation. Included are particulates, volatile organic compounds and sulfur dioxide. The change also exempts some emissions from being counted toward the limit.

“Critics condemned the change as unnecessarily increasing the risk to public health. Supporters say the change represents a more balanced, fair approach to regulation that allows industry to take advantage of the economies of scale.”

“Fair” by these new standards means that the people who live near ethanol plants are the ones who may suffer more problems with asthma and other diseases caused by increased air pollution. The rule change came about because plants making ethanol for food or alcohol could pollute 250 tons, while those making ethanol for fuel could pollute 100 tons. With this decision, the EPA is choosing to prioritize the interests of corporate ethanol producers by allowing plants to pollute at the higher level, at the expense of public health and the environment.

It’s true that biofuel companies have the potential to bring income into struggling communities, except that chance for revitalization is lost when those companies choose to relocate to urban centers. From the Des Moines Register:

“Biodiesel company Renewable Energy Group Inc. says it is considering a plan to relocate its corporate headquarters to Ames. ‘The company, now based in Ralston, in Carroll County, plans to relocate to central Iowa as part of plans to grow from its current 70 employees to 300 by 2010,’ said spokeswoman Alicia Clancy.”

“Clancy said Friday that a move would help in the company’s expansion plans, strengthen its ability to recruit workers and improve operational efficiency. Relocating to Ames would put the company closer to research partners at Iowa State University and business partners including the construction and engineering company Todd and Sargent.”

Ralston had a population of 98 in 2000, and estimates projected that number to decrease even further. 230 new jobs would certainly go a long way to encourage growth and attracting new residents to Carroll County, and their business partners in Ames are only 50 miles away, hardly far by Midwestern standards.

Biofuels could be a valuable asset for rural areas, but only if jobs and profits aren’t exported to urban centers. In addition to existing incentives for biofuel production, there should be incentives for local ownership in order to capture the full benefit for struggling communities.

Fired for Doing His Job

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

From today’s Des Moines Register:

Replaced appointee blasts Culver:
Environmental commission now weaker, he charges

A departing member of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission wore a white t-shirt to his final meeting Tuesday to express his disappointment with Gov. Chet Culver’s attention to the environment.

Commissioner Francis Thicke of Fairfield used the occasion to accuse Culver’s administration of catering to the interests of agribusinesses.

“Environmental Protection Commissioner” was printed on the t-shirt Thicke wore to the meeting.

But the word “commissioner” was crossed out with a big red “x” and “fired for protecting the environment” was hand-written below that.

Let’s see that shirt:

Fired for Protecting the Environment Shirt

I know Francis, and it’s not everyday that I expect to see him wearing such a shirt. That alone, speaks to the gravity of the situation at hand. Back to this morning’s news story:

Thicke suggested that Culver’s environmental platform is run by agriculture groups and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, the former Iowa secretary of agriculture, at the expense of the state’s environment.

“What signal was the Culver/Judge administration trying to send when it ignored the recommendation of the many environmental organizations who called for the reappointment of the EPC commissioners, deferring instead to the dictates of agribusiness special interests who lobbied for our removal?” Thicke asked.

Thicke was one of four members of the nine-member commission who were replaced by Culver last month.

[snip]

The commission has been in the middle of an increasingly tense battle over livestock farming, including what to do about the odors, manure and chemical emissions from confinements and feedlots.

[snip]

Thicke said during Tuesday’s commission meeting: “A few days ago, it became clearer to me where at least part of the Culver/Judge administration is coming from. I spoke with one of my neighbors who is proposing to build a 4,800-hog confinement about a mile and a half upwind from me. When I talked to him about it he said Patty Judge is his ‘champion’ and the reason he is planning on going through with this in spite of the objections of his neighbors. He said Patty Judge told him that Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave in any of four directions.”

[snip]

Judge has her say on all issues, Anderson said. “She is a very influential member of this administration…”

Francis worked tirelessly on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission–often taking time off from his farming operation in southeast Iowa to drive to Des Moines for regular meetings. Francis did it because he has a strong commitment to the future of Iowa. Few people have more integrity in all of the work that they do than Francis does, and it is distressing that Democratic Governor Culver did not reappoint him and the three other commissioners to the EPC.

One wonders what the rest of the Culver/Judge administration holds for the future of Iowa agriculture and Iowa’s natural resources.

Payment Limits

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

Comments of farmer and Senator Jon Tester on the floor of the U.S. Senate speaking in favor of stricter farm bill payment limits.

Mr. President, I thank Senator Baucus for allowing me to speak. I also thank the good Senator from North Dakota.

Mr. President, I rise to speak on amendment No. 464, the Grassley-Dorgan amendment on farm payment limitations, making those limitations max out at $250,000. That is a quarter of a million dollars. That is how much money that is going to be maxed out for individual family farmers to get. That is a reasonable request. I think it makes the farm bill more defendable to the American people.

I am a family farmer. I understand family farmers are the backbone of this country. They keep our food security there so we do not have people going hungry. What the farm program has meant to do, and has always been meant to be, is a safety net for farmers so when market prices drop they have that safety net to depend upon. There is not one farmer I know of who does not want to get their income from the marketplace. So we need to keep it that way.

We need to encourage fair trade deals. We need to encourage more competition in the marketplace. We need to make sure our freight rates are, what I would call, not abusive, if we are going to keep family farmers on the land.

Some 30 years ago, the student body in the high school I went to in a farming community had 160 kids in it. Today, that same student body is less than half that size because we have not had a farm bill that has worked for the farmers.

This amendment makes sense because it puts a cap of $250,000 on the benefits from farm program subsidies and eliminates those big agribusinesses that have been taking money they do not need, quite frankly. They do not need that safety net that the farm program subsidies provide in our farm program.

So with that, Mr. President, I ask that all the Members of the Senate support amendment No. 464, the Grassley-Dorgan amendment, because it is the right thing to do.

Thank you, Senator Tester.

Last Year in Review

Friday, January 5th, 2007

The Brownfield Network did a review of the “big stories” in agriculture in 2006. It is an hour long audio report that can be listened to streaming or downloaded. It is mainstream agriculture news, but a decent review nonetheless.

The Year of Food

Friday, December 29th, 2006

Was 2006 the year food went political?

“This is the year everyone discovered that food is about politics and people can do something about it,” [said Marion Nestle]. “In a world in which people feel more and more distant from global forces that control their lives, they can do something by, as the British put it, ‘voting with your trolley,’ their word for shopping cart.”

This year saw food safety issues come to public prominence with more contamination instances than I can even recall.

Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma hit best-seller lists, and Fast Food Nation was made into a film. New York City banned trans-fats. Chicago banned foie gras, and Whole Foods Market stopped selling live lobsters (both citing animal welfare concerns).

Heated debates continued over the standards behind the “organic” label, and most recently over FDA’s decision that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe for human consumption.

In Iowa (the heart of America’s Bread Basket), sustainable agriculture and local food advocate Denise O’Brien raised a record amount of money in her bid to become Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. She lost very narrowly, and only after big agribusiness dropped tens of thousands into the race in the waning days.

Look for the rise of food politics to continue in 2007. There is a new farm bill on the horizon, and Democrats are in control of the House and Senate. Expect much debate, and even more money to fuel that debate.

Smithfield and Organized Labor

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

The news program NOW on PBS traveled to Tar Heel, North Carolina this week to report on the twelve-year long battle to unionize the Smithfield packing plant there. It is the worlds largest packing plant, and is located in a relatively rural part of the state. The United Food and Commercial Workers have been fighting against employer intimidation and other anti-union tactics at the plant since it opened in 1990.

“[Smithfield] values the hog and the processing of that hog more than they do the safety and the well-being of their employees,” [long time employee Keith] Ludlum tells NOW. The UFCW is calling for a national boycott of Smithfield products.

You can watch the show online if you missed the local playing on PBS.

Rolling Stone magazine also has a long feature article this week on Smithfield Foods and environmental concerns associated with the concentration of livestock.

The Other Owner

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Parke Wilde at the U.S. Food Policy Blog has a good post up about recent developments regarding the pork checkoff and National Pork Producers Council’s (NPPC) “Other White Meat” advertising slogan.

I was raising pigs in 2000 when a coalition of pork producers forced a vote on the mandatory pork checkoff program, and I’ve since followed the debate over mandatory agricultural checkoff programs closely. In a story too long to tell here, and ably told elsewhere, the mandatory pork checkoff remains in place today despite a majority farmer vote against it. Since 2000 there have been court battles fought against the cattle, mushroom, and other similar agricultural checkoff programs.

The sale of the NPPC’s “Other White Meat” slogan to the National Pork Board adds another interesting wrinkle to the case.

If this all sounds a bit foreign to you, start with Wilde’s June post. With that background out of the way, read about Wilde’s Freedom of Information Act request designed to find out more details about the transfer.

Renew Rural Iowa Initiative

Saturday, December 9th, 2006

The Iowa Farm Bureau (IFB) recently launched a new initiative to Renew Rural Iowa. The effort will focus on medium and large businesses located in rural Iowa, encouraging them to expand their businesses, and create more jobs in rural communities. We need to build our rural business infrastructure, and someone needs to do sustainable work in this area. But one wonders why the Iowa Farm Bureau is focusing their efforts on expanding non-farm businesses in rural communities. Their own answer is somewhat astounding:

Why is Iowa Farm Bureau focused on this initiative?

Nearly 90 percent of farmers today derive part of their income from off-farm employment. The Iowa Entrepreneurial Report Card, released every year from Washington, D.C., shows Iowa ranks last (50th) in new business creation and long-term employment growth. That, coupled with declining population trends, puts Iowa at risk for losing even more family farmers.

The IFB is apparently worried that the farmers in Iowa might not have access to adequate off-farm income to supplement their farm-related income. Rather than focusing on agricultural policy reform that would make it possible for farmers to make a decent living by farming, the Farm Bureau seemingly wants struggling family farmers to be able to spend more time working off the farm.

Nevertheless, creating and sustaining businesses located in rural communities is important, but here careful attention to the types of businesses the IFB wants to foster is warranted. Defining their target audience the Farm Bureau writes:

1. Anyone with an existing business, or planning to start a business that will generate in excess of $500,000 in 12 to 18 months.

2. Anyone who has a business plan that demonstrates the ability of generating in excess of $5 million in 3 to 5 years through interstate commerce.

3. Anyone with a place of business located in an Iowa community that is less than 30,000 […]

This initiative hardly sounds like a program for new, small-scale, rural-entrepreneurs destine to repopulate Main Street storefronts, and bring critical services to rural Iowa.

Additionally, the IFB’s sole partner organization in the initiative is the Entrepreneurial Development Center (EDC). This Cedar Rapids-based group touts its own vision as providing “economic growth in the Cedar Rapids / Iowa City Technology Corridor through the development and expansion of entrepreneurial enterprise.” This corridor is only marginally “rural,” and EDC is backed by decidedly non-rural funders such as the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

The initiative website also hosts a press release (pdf) with praise from the CEO of the controversial company Trans Ova. Trans Ova has come under attack in recent years for genetic engineering and cloning of cows to produce pharmaceuticals in their milk.

Thus, on two more counts the motive of this initiative is called into question.

Unfortunately, this sort of behavior is hardly unexpected from the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau has long claimed to be the “largest farmer-member organization” in the country. In reality they are an insurance provider and a lobby for large agribusiness. They helped drive the consolidation of agriculture, and establish current farm policy that now makes family farmers dependent on off-farm income.

The Farm Bureau hasn’t made any move to convince me that want any more farmers, and they are not particularly concerned with new and innovative ways for current farmers to make a decent living on the land.

To people who follow the Farm Bureau and agriculture policy this is no surprise. But their Renew Rural Iowa initiative once again reveals that their real concern is not the revitalization of rural communities through an invigorated farm-economy. Perhaps they are hoping to mask the true devastating effects of the agriculture policy that they helped write.

Rural communities need a diverse economic base, and this must include more than just agriculture jobs. But in Iowa, it must also include a vibrant agricultural sector.

Note: Thanks to reader SW for additional analysis on this topic.

Giving Thanks to Farmers

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving. I’ll let NPR do the work for me today (they did a good job).

Farm Aid is as much a ritual gathering of America’s farming community as it is a fundraiser and a concert.

At the annual event, corn and pig farmers trade tips and plot lobbying strategies, and college kids listen as Dave Matthews plays a killer set. It’s a story of hard times and new possibilities, of farmers markets, of young people, whose parents were forced off the land, returning to farm again, and the beginning of new food chains.

Listen to the tribute.

This Land Not for Sale to the Army

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Military officials are seeking to expand the training base at Fort Carson, Colorado by buying up 400,000 acres of Pinon Canyon (and as much as 2.3 million acres over the next 20 years). This land in rural Las Animas County is home to a deep tradition of farming and ranching. Local ranchers, typically supportive of the Fort Carson base, are now sporting “This Land Not for Sale to the Army” signs along their property boundaries.

Precisely where that additional 418,000 acres will be located is unclear, but the zone the Army is looking at encompasses 1 million acres, perhaps 5,000 people, two entire towns, three schools, two state highways and untold historic sites, including visible wagon wheel tracks on the Santa Fe Trail and dinosaur tracks.

For those not in the sites of the expansion, even Fort Carson officials admit that the planned expansion will have little or no economic benefit for the surrounding area.

Democrats Take Control: Push Biotech

Monday, November 20th, 2006

The two Democrats poised to take control of the House and Senate Ag Committees are both signatories to a recent letter that reads in part:

The EU has avoided for too long its WTO obligations … The illegal discrimination against biotech products on nonscientific grounds must cease.

Welcome Senator Harkin. Welcome Representative Peterson. We’re so glad you’re back in charge and working on the important things first.

The outgoing chairs were also signatories to the letter.

Farmers in the Senate

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

My post below prompted me to research the history of farmers in the U.S. Senate. The following list includes U.S. Senators since 1900 who were also farmers. The parenthetical comments list their occupation(s) as taken from the Political Graveyard and/or the Congressional Bibliographic Directory site. As you can see, many “farmers” were also bankers, lawyers, sheriffs, etc. It will take significantly more research to determine which of these Senators were primarily farmers, and which were bankers who owned a farm.

Farmer-Senators Since 1900

Ellison DuRant Smith (D-SC) U.S. Senator 1909-44 (engaged in mercantile and agricultural pursuits, organizer of the Southern Cotton Association, field agent and general organizer in the cotton protective movement 1905-1908, known as “Cotton Ed”)

Obadiah Gardner (D-ME) U.S. Senator 1911-13 (engaged in the lumber, lime, and creamery business, and also in agricultural pursuits and in cattle raising)

Henry Wilder Keyes (R-NH) U.S. Senator 1919-37 (farmer, banker, and politician)

Magnus Johnson (DFL-MN) U.S. Senator 1923-25 (lumberjack, farmer, school clerk and assessor)

Lynn Joseph Frazier (R-ND) U.S. Senator 1923-41 (farmer and politician)

Hamilton Fish Kean (R-NJ) U.S. Senator 1929-35 (engaged in banking and agricultural pursuits)

John Gillis Townsend, Jr. (R-DE) U.S. Senator 1929-41 (engaged in banking, also interested in manufacturing and agricultural pursuits)

Robert Davis Carey (R-WY) U.S. Senator 1930-37 (engaged in the raising of livestock and agricultural pursuits, also interested in banking, politician)

Patrick Anthony McCarran (D-NV) U.S. Senator 1933-54 (farmer, lawyer and judge)

Harry Flood Byrd (R-VA) U.S. Senator 1933-65 (newspaper publisher, fruit farmer, politician)

Guy Mark Gillette (D-IA) U.S. Senator 1936-45 (military, engaged in agricultural pursuits, attorney)

George David Aiken (R-VT) U.S. Senator 1941-75 (engaged in fruit farming in 1912, also conducted an extensive nursery business and commercial cultivation of wildflowers)

Zales Nelson Ecton (R-MT) U.S. Senator 1947-53 (grain farmer and livestock rancher)

Earle Chester Clements (D-KY) U.S. Senator 1950-57 (farmer, sheriff and county judge)

Frank Carlson (R-KS) U.S. Senator 1950-69 (farmer and rancher)

Frank Aloysius Barrett (R-WY) U.S. Senator 1953-59 (lawyer, rancher, politician and civil servant)

Henry Louis Bellmon (R-OK) U.S. Senator 1969-81 (farmer, rancher and politician)

Summary thoughts in relation to the newest farmer in the Senate, Jon Tester (D-MT):

There are not many other Senators who were just farmers, the way Jon Tester has been just a farmer for most of his life. Not many farmer-Senators on this list rose as quickly to the U.S. Senate as Jon Tester has. Most were long-term politicians holding a variety of posts and rising though U.S. congressional positions or governor seats to the U.S. Senate.

There is a noticeable decline in the number of elected farmer-Senators about the middle of the last century with only three of the seventeen Senators listed above achieving election after 1950.

My sources profess their own incompleteness. If I missed someone, add them in the comments below.

Hi-ho, The derry-o

Monday, November 13th, 2006

There’s a farmer in the Senate
There’s a farmer in the Senate
Hi-ho, The derry-o
There’s a farmer in the Senate
Jon Tester, Farmer

The New York Times has a short profile of Senator-Elect Jon Tester today.

GREAT FALLS, Mont., Nov. 9 — When he joins the United States Senate in January, big Jon Tester — who is just under 300 pounds in his boots — will most likely be the only person in the world’s most exclusive club who knows how to butcher a cow or grease a combine.

All his life, Mr. Tester, 50, has lived no more than two hours from his farm, an infinity of flat on the windswept expanse of north-central Montana, hard by the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

For all the talk about the new Democrats swept into office on Tuesday, the senator-elect from Montana truly is your grandfather’s Democrat — a pro-gun, anti-big-business prairie pragmatist whose life is defined by the treeless patch of hard Montana dirt that has been in the family since 1916.

It is a place with 105-degree summer days and winter chills of 30 below zero, where his grandparents are buried, where his two children learned to grow crops in a dry land entirely dependent on rainfall, and where, he says, he earned barely $20,000 a year farming over the last decade.

“It’s always been tight, trying to make a living on that farm,” said Mr. Tester, still looking dazed and bloodshot-eyed after defeating Senator Conrad Burns, a three-term incumbent, by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Chouteau County, where Mr. Tester lives on a homestead of 1,800 acres, lost 8.5 percent of its population in the last five years — typical of much of rural America that has been in decline since the Dust Bowl.

To make extra money, Mr. Tester taught music to schoolchildren, and still plays a decent trumpet despite having only seven fingers (he lost the rest to a meat grinder as a child). He got into politics just eight years ago in a sustained rage over what utility deregulation had done to small farmers and businesses in Montana.

“You think of the Senate as a millionaire’s club — well, Jon is going to be the blue-collar guy who brings an old-fashioned, Jeffersonian ideal about being tied to the land,” said Steve Doherty, a friend of Mr. Tester’s for 20 years. “He’s a small farmer from the homestead. That’s absolutely who he is. That place defines him.” […]

Congress has done little to improve the lives of people living in the dying towns across rural America, Mr. Doherty said.

“When Jon talks about the cafe that’s trying to hold on, the hardware store that just closed, the third generation that can’t make a living on the farm, he is living that life,” Mr. Doherty said. […]

Mr. Tester and his wife of 28 years, Sharla, grow organic lentils, barley, peas and gluten-free grain in a county with 1.5 people per square mile. It is all earth and sky on the Tester family ground. A hundred years ago, a region with so few people was considered frontier. […]

Asked why he became a Democrat in a region that has been overwhelmingly Republican for the last generation, Mr. Tester said: “It started with my parents, who always said the Democrats work for the middle class. And in agriculture, Franklin Roosevelt did a lot of good things.”

Friends say not to worry about Mr. Tester going native in Washington. He said he planned to return home to the farm several times a month. He promised his barber, Bill Graves, that he would continue to come back to get his hair cut in the same wheat-field bristle.

Jon Tester, Farmer
There’s a farmer in the Senate
There’s a farmer in the Senate…

Update: The Political Graveyard has a list of farmer-politicians. I’m currently combing through it to find out when the last time a real farmer was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Update Two: See list above.

Wendell Berry

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

The Rural Sociological Society, of which I am a member, honored Wendell Berry at their annual meeting with their “Distinguished Service to Rural Life” award. His acceptance speech was a highlight of the conference and drew a standing ovation. From the local paper:

With a button stating “Stop Mountaintop Removal” pinned to his suit, Berry accepted a Distinguished Service to Rural Life award from the international Rural Sociological Society. The organization held its 69th annual meeting over the weekend in Louisville.

Berry said he was surprised to be honored by the group, given that much of his writing over the years has generated controversy. His books and essays are known for a theme that blames the demise of rural communities on agribusiness and the industrial economy.

“You don’t expect certain things. The things I’ve written have been controversial, and to have a whole group honor you for them is kind of a surprise,” he said, adding with a laugh, ” and kind of a relief.”

If anyone in the crowd disagreed with him yesterday, no one indicated that. Instead, he was met with a steady line of students and teachers clutching his books, all of which he happily signed.

After faulting the land grant university system for the continued degradation of farm and rural life in his acceptance speech, Berry said he believes that “someday we will look back on ‘objectivity’ in academic research as a very influential idea, but a very strange one indeed.”

The Symbolism

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

The year is 2015… The quadruple subsidy (pdf) of ethanol proves to be an insufficient method of producing enough biofuel to meet skyrocketing demands. In response, the petrol-guzzling military industrial complex plows through the Midwest on a hungry rampage consuming entire fields of corn, bucolic family farms and unused windmills in the process. Still, all the corn in the country proves to be an inadequate solution to the post peak-oil energy crisis.

Photo Credit: Sean Sheerin (2006), Land Stewardship Letter, Vol 24, No. 2.

Debating Farm Policy…

Sunday, July 9th, 2006

…Presidential debate style. That’s what the Environmental Working Group is proposing.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook today challenged one the nation’s most ardent and articulate defenders of status quo farm subsidy programs to a nationwide series of policy debates about the programs, former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-TX).

Farm Journal Editor and past National Press Club President Sonja Hillgren has agreed to moderate the first debate in Washington, DC this fall. Cook suggested further debates be held across the nation before farm and ranch audiences, including Combest’s home state of Texas. The debates would be moderated by distinguished agricultural journalists and policy experts.

From the challenge letter.

My idea for the format is simple, if it is agreeable to you. Each of us would have 20 minutes to make our case however we see fit. Call it “PowerPoint at 20 paces.” We would have a few minutes to respond to one another’s presentations, after which a moderator (or moderators) would pose questions of their own, and invite them from the audience, for another 45 minutes or so, with 3-4 minutes for each of us to summarize. We could arrange to debate specific topics beforehand, or leave the debate completely open…

EWG is a long time critic and watchdog of the current farm subsidy payment system.

Iowa Ag Sec Race

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Interested readers can listen to last Friday’s Iowa Secretary of Agriculture State House Forum online. The first hour is the Democrat’s candidates. The second hour is Republicans.

American Dreamer

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

I’m not blogging because I am reading this book.

H.A. Wallace was, of course, a native Iowan, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President and third party presidential candidate (among other things).

The book is 600 pages long. It might take me a few days.

State GMO Bills

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

In Vermont the Governor is set to veto a bill that would allow farmers to sue manufacturers of genetically modified seeds for damages if their crops are contaminated by the GMOs. The Governor says that he is worried that the bill would discourage seed companies from selling their seeds in the state. The biotech industry opposes the bill, but says that they would continue to sell seed in the state if the bill became law.

At least the state legislature in Vermont sent this bill to the Governor’s desk and not the premeption bill that is being sent to a number of other Governor’s desks.

Exurban Sprawl

Friday, May 5th, 2006

A new report (pdf) out of Colorado documents an agricultural land loss rate of 690 acres per day! Colorado is ranked third in the nation, behind Texas and New Mexico, for overall agricultural land lost in the past five years.

A major cause of the land loss is ranchette-style development of houses on lots between two and 40 acres. And now developers in the state are planning a mammoth, private road project to ease the congestion caused by the exurban sprawl.

Farming Magazine

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

I’ve added a new periodical to my already too-long reading list. My first issue of Farming Magazine arrived recently. I was sold at the subtitle, “People, Land and Community.” The rest of the magazine hasn’t let me down yet either. Unfortunately, the magazine’s website doesn’t do it justice. You can subscribe there though.

Terrible Idea

Monday, February 13th, 2006

It’s hard to believe that someone still thinks this is a good idea.

Edmore, N.D., Farmer says Animal Operations can Rescue Rural Population Decline

EDMORE, N.D. - North Dakota is prime ground for growing hogs.

“It has lots of agricultural land, lots of grain and lots of open space ,” said Kevin Tyndall, a consultant from Canadian hog producer Hytek.

Paul Ivesdal, an Edmore farmer, agrees. “I’d like to see 1 million hogs in our school district,” he said. “We could site a hog operation in each township.”

That’s a lofty goal, considering that Ivesdal has unsuccessfully attempted to get one 21,000-hog operation approved…

Frustrated by a year’s delay, Ivesdal said he might move his proposed hog operation a mile north, into Cavalier County. He said Viking Feeders also is considering a switch to a 5,000-sow farrowing operation rather than the 21,000-hog business that finishes the animals and sends them to market.

“The farrowing operation means 17 or 18 jobs, compared to the six jobs with the finishing barns,” Ivesdal said. “But the finishing uses about four times as much grain. I’m leaning toward creating more jobs over more feed.”

A farrowing operation, a nursery operation and two 20,000-head finishing sites constitute what is called a loop.

“We could get 10 loops in the school district,” Ivesdal said. “We could site one in each township. Sure, that’s a dream, but I don’t see any other business coming here.”

Although it might be a dream to Ivesdal, it’s a nightmare to others, judging by the resistance to his current plan. Most Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations meet with complaints from neighbors, but Viking Feeders has had detractors from the entire Devils Lake basin. The lake’s flooding has been disastrous to many, but the one plus is that it’s made for a great fishery and the tourism that comes with it. Some fear his hog operation will pollute the water…

“If we could have 10 loops, that would be 350 jobs,” he said. “That would be a lot of kids in our school district. We don’t have 160 kids in our whole (K-12) school now.”

He said the most basic jobs would pay $10 an hour, plus provide health insurance, retirement, vacation, other benefits and the chance to advance. “Here in rural North Dakota, that’s not bad for the lowest job on the totem pole,” he said.

Not so quick with all those numbers there. The following is from my own Master’s Thesis.

A study by the University of Missouri found that independent hog producers support three times more employees than industrial agribusiness producers do (Ikerd 1994). Research in Virginia showed that 5,000 sows held by many local producers as opposed to two or three industrial agribusiness operations provided 10% more jobs, a 20% greater increase in local retail sales and a 37% greater increase in per capita income for those employed by the operations (Thornsbury et al. 1994)…

In addition to these factors, several studies have shown that the presence of industrial scale animal production depresses the value of nearby real estate, reduces tax revenue for local governing entities, and is associated with an increased dependence on government social programs (Trom 2005). A family farm system of agriculture is also more compatible with rural tourism than an industrial agribusiness system is.

Furthermore, measurements of economic growth are not always a reflection of desirable trends. When measured strictly in terms of gross national product or per capita income, a growing economy is not necessarily a reflection of improved circumstance for the majority of individuals in a society. More important indicators, such as income distribution and standard of living indexes, are a more accurate reflection of the benefit of growth to the majority of people.

The reporter, unfortunately, doesn’t explore this angle—at all. (Full citations available upon request.)

New Dean at Iowa State

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Iowa State University has a new Dean at the College of Agriculture. Dean Wendy Wintersteen. Not a single one of the news stories about the appointment includes a mention of Wintersteen’s involvement in the recent controversy at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

More Pigs from the Big Guys

Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

There is an interesting tidbit in the Corporate Farming Notes section of the latest newsletter from Center for Rural Affairs.

According to Successful Farming Magazine, the largest 20 hog producers in the United States have added over 140,000 sows to their numbers in the last year. Fifty-seven percent of those were added through consolidation, larger production companies purchasing smaller operations. But approximately 61,000 of those sows are new – about half being added by converting existing nurseries to gilt development units. Iowa Select Farms is adding 20,000 sows through this type of conversion.

As a result, finishing barns are going up throughout the Midwest. The Farmers Cooperative Society in Sioux Center, Iowa is pushing to build 60,000 new hog-finishing spaces this year.

Update: The Iowa DNR pushes back.

Jeff Vonk, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said his staff has been concerned about record confinement construction over the past few years.

Some of those projects have been built in areas vulnerable to groundwater pollution. Others were constructed in areas where no land was available nearby for manure application, so the producers trucked the wastes more than 35 miles, risking a leak, Vonk said. Other manure is spread on slopes where it probably runs off into rivers and lakes, he said.

“We want to make sure these confinements are getting the proper scrutiny,” said Vonk […]

The department is filing an emergency rule that, by Dec. 30, would give Vonk the power to block or change plans for additions to confinements or for new buildings.

It’s about freaking time.

Pharma Crops, Farmers and Rural Communities

Monday, December 12th, 2005

A new report written by Iowa State Economics Professor Robert Wisner and commissioned by the Union for Concerned Scientists examines the potential benefits and risks of pharmaceutical crops for farmers and rural communities. The report website is here.

To gain support for pharma crop production at the state level and state subsidies for their industry, pharma crop proponents have touted the substantial benefits that these new crops would bring to farmers and rural America. However, these claims were never backed up by economic analyses.

To fill this gap, UCS commissioned Dr. Robert Wisner, University Professor in the Department of Economics at Iowa State University, to take a close look at the economic benefits and risks of pharma crops to growers and rural communities. Dr. Wisner, one of the nation’s leading agricultural economists, found some drug and biotechnology companies may profit from “pharma crops,” but farmers and rural communities are likely to see few if any benefits.

After careful review of Dr. Wisner’s report, UCS concludes that pharma crop proponents’ claims are inflated and, importantly, whatever benefits do materialize, most farmers will not be major beneficiaries.

I’m reading through the report summary now, and it seems to be well done.

Tough Row to Hoe

Sunday, December 11th, 2005

It is going to be a long time before things start to look up in the agriculture and rural communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This story from the Christian Science Monitor provides a sketch that illustrates the much larger problems.

This is the time of year when Emmett Fowler would be pulling bright navel oranges, sweet satsumas, and juicy grapefruit from his citrus trees. Instead, Mr. Fowler expects he will be plowing under his 2,000 lifeless fruit trees.

“The state will have to test the soil for salt and crude oil,” says Fowler as he looks out at his groves […] and talks about whether he will be able to recover. “Most of the trees were under 14 feet of water.”

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have left similar scenes of devastation across the state. State economists now estimate the losses to Louisiana’s farm economy at $1.6 billion - ranging from strawberry fields that were washed away to entire forests that had 10 to 15 years’ worth of timber destroyed. And, because of the salt-water flooding, agriculture experts say the damage could stretch on for years. […]

“There was nothing that we grow that was not impacted.”

And in a particularly ironic turn, some farmers are faced with losses from a lack of rain since the storms.

[S]ome farmers whose crops withstood the wind and floods watched their produce wither after weeks without electricity meant they couldn’t irrigate. “We’re still in a drought situation,” says Professor Bracy. “We’ve had no significant rain since Katrina or Rita.”

For farmers, the problems seem never-ending. After the hurricanes, there were shortages of diesel. This prevented farmers from using their generators, which could have powered their irrigation pumps. Dairy farmers, also without electricity, lost milk sales.

Food and Class Status

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

There’s a good post and accompanying discussion in the comments section over at Gristmill where Tom Philpott has written a post about the sustainable food movement’s “class problem.”

Food and class

The sustainable-food movement has a class problem.

Slow Food, for example, is an essential organization, with its declaration of a universal “right to taste” and its mandate to …

“… oppose the standardisation of taste, defend the need for consumer information, protect cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguard foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defend domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.”

The group has undeniably done important work internationally toward those goals; yet its U.S. branch tends to throw pricey events accessible only to an economic elite.

The rest is here.

Say What?

Monday, November 21st, 2005

From the Brownfield Ag Network.

Vertical integration protecting against bird flu

Because nearly all commercial poultry production in the United States is company-managed — a system known as vertical integration — production processes are safer and more efficient, said Todd Applegate, Purdue Extension poultry specialist. […]

“The poultry industry is the most vertically integrated of all of our livestock industries,” Applegate said. “As we try to reduce the risk of bird flu in this country, having full control over the entire production process is probably a good thing.” […]

While wild fowl carrying the virus could enter the U.S., it is unlikely those birds could come in contact with chickens and other commercially raised poultry, Applegate said. In vertically integrated companies, poultry are carefully monitored to ensure optimum health and production quality, he said. Biosecurity measures are tight throughout the production process, especially on the parent farms and hatcheries, Applegate said. […]

Ops. He forgot to mention that the reason these operations are so “carefully monitored” and require such “tight biosecurity” is that if a bird flu outbreak did occur within the U.S. poultry industry the extreme confinement of animals will contribute significantly to the challenge of reigning the disease in.

In fact the high level of concentration (just four companies control over 50% of US poultry production) is in part to blame for the emergence of this new strain of bird flu.

Emergence of variant strains of both infectious bursal disease and avian bronchitis viruses add to the problems of selecting appropriate vaccines and programs for administration. It is evident that a high concentration of poultry in close proximity allows dissemination of variants. Within three years of the emergence of the Delaware variants of IBDV, virtually the entire industry east of the Mississippi was affected with these strains. There was evidence that the Delaware IBD viruses are now the predominant serotypes in Central America, requiring adjustment of both parent and broiler vaccination programs.

The Washington Post wrote as early as February of this year that the growing concentration in South East Asia poultry production is contributing to the spread of bird flu.

[With] chickens now packed into farmyards alongside other livestock, international health experts warn that conditions are set for a bird flu pandemic that could kill millions worldwide if the virus developed into a form capable of spreading among humans.

Writing in response to the Post, Applied Anthropologist Robert Nigh wrote the following for the Effect Measure blog.

The picture that is emerging, though, is that the rapid development of the confined poultry industry and associated technological changes and export trade has resulted in the appearance and rapid propagation of new, highly virulent strains of poultry diseases, some of which affect humans. These new strains not only represent a major threat to the future of poultry production but have resulted in serious potential threats to human health with very high costs for society.

The solution to this problem is not more of the same, i.e. more high tech solutions, drugs, “biosecurity ” and ” best practices ” applied to confined poultry operations, but rather to reverse the trend, back up from this dead end, abandon large chicken confinements and return to decentralized production in small flocks widely distributed in the countryside. This also implies that long-distance, ” global ” trade in poultry products would be largely abandoned.

Such conclusions may fall outside of Purdue Extension poultry specialist’s preview, but these conclusions are likely more palatable in the long run than any increased biosecurity measures can ever be.

Mad Cow Disease & Milk

Saturday, November 19th, 2005

I’ve written before about the USDA and FDA’s seeming inability to enforce their own regulations aimed at stemming the spread of mad cow disease.

Now this.

A new study in Canada suggests that the prions that cause mad cow disease can be passed through milk.

New research into prions, the infectious agents that cause mad cow-like diseases, has found them in the mammary glands of some sheep, raising questions about whether milk and milk products from infected animals could transmit the pathogens.

Prion experts were quick to insist the current potential risk to human health is low and may even be nil.

But they suggested the findings are a warning that if prion diseases in livestock aren’t rigorously hunted for and rooted out, milk and products like cheeses and yogurt could be a potential route of transmission of prions to humans.

In humans, prions — highly infectious misfolded proteins — cause the brain wasting variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

The story broke two days ago, but has been carried primarily in the foreign press so far. I can’t find it in any major U.S. papers yet. There is a growing concern over food safety in this country, and I think this could be potentially explosive if picked up by major U.S. media outlets.

“Playing Politics”

Sunday, November 13th, 2005

Being on the Iowa State University Campus, Drew Miller is in a good position to have casual conversation about the Leopold Center with folks in-the-know.

I talked to someone close to the Ag College at ISU, who said that Dewitt and Wintersteen are close friends, and that Wintersteen likes to play politics. She’s apparently done it before - when a search committee had decided on a candidate, she overruled them and forced them to ask one of her friends first.

The rest is here.

Have You Written a Letter Yet?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

Have you written a letter to Iowa State University Administration yet?

One More

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

This week’s Cityview (Des Monies, Iowa Alternative Weekly) also has a story.

Mother Earth

Imagine you’re an administrator and you’ve got this employee who’s catching a lot of attention. A guy who left a family legacy to move across state lines and take on your institution’s mission as nothing less than a personal crusade. An employee who travels so tirelessly for his job that you simply say the word “Iowa” anywhere across the country and folks in the field recite his name with a certain reverence. A director who members of your own board call “a world and national leader,” who constituents say “symbolized strength and hope.”

What do you do with an employee like that? Demote him. And do it with a 48-hour ultimatum. […]

And thanks to such potential conflicts of interest, there have been calls from the grassroots to “break the Leopold Center free” from Iowa State, a concern Kirschenmann had openly addressed with administration, asking “pointblank, is this a center of the university or a Center at the university.” So concerned about the power dynamics, he’s even gone to Paul Johnson, who helped craft the original legislation, and discovered that there were fears from the start that locating the center at Iowa State “would eventually corrupt it.”

According to a protest letter addressed to university officials circulating among activists last week, concern is mounting that Kirschenmann’s demotion is clear evidence of such corruption: “By removing Dr. Kirschenmann from this position, Iowa State University is allowing outside business interests to effectively control the agenda of a prominent American university, thereby further eroding the once unique independent status of academic institutions in American life.” And to be perfectly honest, Kirschenmann can’t say he entirely disagrees.

“This issue is not just about me or the Leopold Center,” he says. “It’s an issue about whether or not public institutions can still have intellectual pursuits without being hampered by outside pressure.”

Again, the link is good for a week. The entire story is copied below the fold.

(more…)

Farm News Story

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

A couple of more news stories tonight for anyone who hasn’t seen them. First from the Farm News in Iowa.

Leopold leader asked to step down
By RANDY MUDGETT- Managing Editor

AMES — Fred Kirschenmann is no longer the director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames. Last week, Wendy Wintersteen, interim dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture, asked Kirschenmann to either resign his post or accept a position as a distinguished fellow for the Leopold Center.

The above link will only work for a week. The entire story is coppied below the fold.

(more…)

It’s Time to Act

Monday, November 7th, 2005

No new posts tonight. We know enough to act.

Instead of you reading what I have to say I want the administration at Iowa State to read what you have to say. If you haven’t yet written a letter please do so now.

Send your letter to all of the following people:

Wendy Wintersteen
Interim Dean, College of Agriculture, Iowa State University
138 Curtiss Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-1050
Phone (515) 294-2518, Fax (515) 268-9995
Email: wwinters@iastate.edu

Benjamin J. Allen
Provost, Iowa State University
1550 Beardshear Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-2021
Phone (515) 294-9591, Fax (515) 294-8844
Email: provost@iastate.edu

Gregory L. Geoffroy
President, Iowa State University
1750 Beardshear Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-2035
Phone (515) 294-2042, Fax (515) 294-0565
Email: president@iastate.edu

Click for “more” below to see some talking points and the letter I am sending. Modify these to reflect your personal position. Tell them what perspective you are coming from, what troubles you about the situation and what you would like to see done to remedy it.

Oh, and expect to get a whitewashing response from Wintersteen. She sends the same damn response to every single person—identical down to the formatting errors.

Update: After you have written your own letter please send this link to others and encourage them to write a letter as well.

(more…)

A Distinguished Fellow

Sunday, November 6th, 2005

A nice column by Alan Guebert in today’s Lincoln Journal Star.

Farm and Food: A distinguished fellow

In the big, slow move from the big, painted house in town this past summer my worn copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac went missing.

Truth be told, the lovely little book of simple, powerful essays explaining mankind’s deep connections to the land never made the move with Emerson, Thoreau, McPhee and the rest of my literary family.

The most likely explanation of its disappearance is that I lent it out years ago and, unlike the waterfowl, songbirds or wildflowers Leopold wrote so powerfully and poetically about on his Wisconsin farm, the book that pioneered “the land ethic” never returned.

I know that’s what happened to some of my other great possessions—a drywall T-square, an expensive gear-puller, my pruning saw. The last time I looked they were there to be employed and enjoyed; the next time I looked they were sadly, madly, gone.

I hope that’s not the case with Fred Kirschenmann who, until Oct. 28, was the director of the Leopold Center, Iowa State University’s globally-recognized research and education center for sustainable agriculture.

Officially, Kirschenmann was promoted from his administrative post, a position he held since 2000, to “a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center” where, according to the ISU press release, he “will devote his time to national sustainable agriculture priorities affecting broad segments of U.S. agriculture.”

Unofficially, say many of his peers, he was shuffled off to the academic gulag by powerful farm and commodity groups in Iowa who worried the Kirschenmann-led Center’s authoritative research and growing reputation undermined their agribiz-or-bust approach to farming.

The way the Kirschenmann coup occurred, they suggest, confirms it.

The rest is worth a read.

Former-Former Director Speaks Out

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Yesterday a letter from Dennis Keeney (Leopold Center Director prior to Kirschenmann) began circulating online. Here are the highlights.

In a way, I am probably closer to the Center than anyone, because I was the first director in 1988 and the one who set it on course. […]

As we know, the Center is now in the midst of change, more rapid than usually happens in academia where leadership change occurs normally with slow transition from retirement or job change. […]

Much of the activist farm and environmental community are viewing this change with alarm. Are there ulterior motives in Dr. Kirschenmann’s removal? I am convinced that this is not the case. The situation in the Center had reached a point where change was needed. […]

The past two years it was obvious to me that the Iowa agricultural community was not being engaged by the Center. These are the obvious groups; the chemical and other input providers, main line agricultural organizations such as Farm Bureau, and the important commodity groups. […]

The change will be good for the Center and for the state. Dr. Jerry DeWitt is one of the most qualified persons nationwide to step in and lead the Center. […]

I wish that the leadership change had not been a necessary action. I want more than anyone to see the Center succeed over the long run. It was my life for 12 years. […]

Dennis Keeney
Former Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Iowa State University

The very first email about this matter named the Farm Bureau as a group potentially behind the ouster of Kirschenmann. Keeney also names the Farm Bureau. Now both an opponent and a supporter of the ouster cite the Farm Bureau.

Draw your own conclusions.

Update: For anyone unaware, the Farm Bureau isn’t much of a farmer’s organization, and it certainly isn’t a supporter of sustainable agriculture. Rather it is an insurance company and rather large lobbying machine for financial and corporate agribusiness interests.

Divergent Views of Sustainability

Friday, November 4th, 2005

There was likely more than one reason why Interim Dean Wintersteen took the action that resulted in Kirschenmann’s resignation as Director of the Leopold Center one week ago today.

I can’t yet put my finger on each of the seperate reasons, but one factor is certain to be diverging views on just what “sustainable” agriculture is.

Wintersteen herself trumpets soil and water conservation.

“There was a significant number of folks who felt like they didn’t have significant connection to the center,” she said.

Among those who complained of Kirschenmann’s performance are corn and soybean producers who wanted more research on issues the center had historically dealt with, such as water quality and conservation research, Wintersteen said.

Others agree.

Hamilton said the center needs to do more on environmental issues, both for smaller and larger farmers. DeWitt, he said, will have a positive impact there.

Kirschenmann has a deeper understanding of what sustainability is. Our food system needs to be environmentally sustainable, but is also (and just as importantly) needs to be socially and economically sustainable. This notion is reflected in Kirschenmann’s Ag of the Middle work.

Some of the board members that Wintersteen left out of her decision agree with Kirschenmann’s approach.

Marvin Shirley, the former chair of the advisory board, said he believed Kirschenmann was doing a good job carrying out the center’s mission. “A lot of the problems and solutions to agriculture are beyond Iowa’s borders,” said Shirley, who represents the Iowa Farmers Union on the advisory board. “You can’t lose focus of Iowa, but to solve those problems, you have to be involved in a larger area than just Iowa.”

This debate is being played out as an “Iowa focus” versus a “national focus” disagreement. Wintersteen and folk are arguing that the Center needs to be more Iowa focused. This discussion of increasing the Center’s “Iowa focus” appears in tandem nearly every time with discussion of increasing the Center’s “soil and water conservation” research, and reaching out to a more diverse set of stakeholder groups.

As if to reassure those of us who might be catching on Wintersteen follows up with this:

Wintersteen said that as a distinguished fellow, Kirschenmann will work on national sustainable agriculture issues, the decreasing number of medium-sized family farms, and niche-marketing opportunities.

I don’t doubt that this is true, but he won’t be doing it as the Director of the Leopold Center any more. These things, unfortunately, do make a difference.

Iowa Farmers Union Steps Up

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Iowa Farmers Union (IFU) came out swinging in a press release sent out earlier today.

KIRSCHENMANN’S REMOVAL SIGNALS QUESTIONABLE DIRECTION FOR SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE IN IOWA

AMES–Iowa State University’s administration is moving in a questionable direction by removing renowned sustainable agriculture champion Frederick Kirschenmann from the position of director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says Chris Petersen, president of Iowa Farmers Union. […]

“Taking Fred Kirschenmann out as director of the Leopold Center sends a questionable message,” says Petersen. “Is it that ISU’s administration is not comfortable with the strong stance Fred has taken for years opposing the economic and environmental abuses of corporate agriculture in Iowa and across the country?” […]

Dr. Kirschenmann’s efforts have evidently angered agri-business interests, who for more than a year have lobbied the dean’s office in the College of Agriculture to stop his work on sustainable agriculture and other projects that benefit family farmers and the land, Petersen said.

“Fred’s tenure brought hope and opportunity for Iowa’s farmers,” Petersen said. […]

In keeping with the principles of academic freedom, Dr. Kirschenmann was originally hired through a legally mandated search committee, Petersen said. “We are concerned that this process was not followed in naming the Center’s interim director,” he said, “and we urge that the Leopold Center be allowed to operate without strings attached, as the Legislature intended. We have great respect for Jerry DeWitt and hope he can keep the Center focused on its mission without administrative or corporate interference.”

Interim Dean Wintersteen has said that part the motivation behind her action was that some of the stakeholder groups in Iowa were not happy with Kirschenmann. IFU is obviously not one of these dissatisfied groups. Perhaps Wintersteen would like to clarify who these unhappy groups are.

More News Stories

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

From the Ames Tribune we get Director’s removal shocks board members.

Several advisory board members to the Leopold Center at Iowa State University said they were shocked to hear of the removal of the center’s director, noting they were not aware of any problems with his leadership.

“As far as I could tell, everything seemed to be pretty even-keeled,” said Kelly Donham, a farmer and representative on the board of the University of Iowa. “I didn’t have any inkling or suggestions there were some concerns or problems at that time.”

Marvin Shirley, the former chair of the advisory board, said he believed Kirschenmann was doing a good job carrying out the center’s mission.

“A lot of the problems and solutions to agriculture are beyond Iowa’s borders,” said Shirley, who represents the Iowa Farmers Union on the advisory board. “You can’t lose focus of Iowa, but to solve those problems, you have to be involved in a larger area than just Iowa.”

From the Des Moines Register we get ISU ag director: I was forced to resign.

Fred Kirschenmann said he was forced to resign as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture because of differences over how much the Iowa State University center should focus on Iowa. […]

Advocates of sustainable agriculture are protesting Wintersteen’s decision and have started a letter-writing campaign.

Weisenbach said sustainable agricultural advocates like and respect DeWitt and the work he has done, but she said there are a lot of questions about why Kirschenmann was removed as director.

“There is a lot of shock and concern, a lot of mystery and suspicions about why Fred was replaced,” she said.

And this interesting comment from Board Member Neil Hamilton

Neil Hamilton, director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center, has been on the Leopold Center’s advisory board since it began in 1987. If some farm groups pressured Wintersteen to remove Kirschenmann, Hamilton said, he wasn’t aware of it.

“This is not a question of big agribusiness trying to undo what the center was trying to do,” Hamilton said. “The center needs to focus on Iowa farming and sustainable agriculture and this is a positive development for Fred, sustainable agriculture and the state of Iowa.”

Hamilton said the center needs to do more on environmental issues, both for smaller and larger farmers. DeWitt, he said, will have a positive impact there.

More commentary later.

Others Chime In

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

The folks over at Grist have a post up.

The highlights

Seedy business: A sustainable-ag champion gets plowed under at Iowa State

Plunked down in the land of huge, chemical-addicted grain farms and the nation’s greatest concentration of hog feedlots, Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has always had a tough row to hoe. […]

Now, however, a sudden purge at the top has called the Center’s much-prized independence from industrial agriculture into question. […]

Last Friday, the college issued a press release announcing that the Leopold Center’s director of five years, Fred Kirschenmann, had “accepted a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center.” […]

Kirschenmann himself, however, tells a more interesting tale than what’s contained in the press release’s bland prose. He says his move from director to “distinguished fellow” came suddenly and without his own input.

“On Wednesday [Oct. 26] I received a letter from the interim dean asking me to resign by Friday and decide by then if I would accept the position of distinguished fellow at the center,” Kirschenmann told me yesterday.

“I wrote her [the interim dean] back telling her I thought she was moving too fast, that there wouldn’t be time for a smooth transition. She wrote back that it was a done deal — she had already named a new director.”

Kirschenmann says the interim dean, Wendy Wintersteen, had been on Leopold’s advisory board for years and had served on the search committee that hired him in 2000. “She was always very supportive of what we were doing,” Kirschenmann says. “Until about two years ago. Then she became very critical.”

Her critique centered on the idea that in its work the Leopold Center was neglecting “key stakeholders,” Kirschenmann adds. “But she never really clarified who those stakeholders were.”

Might she have been refering to agribusiness interests? “You can draw your own conclusions,” Kirschenmann says. […]

Read the whole post over at Grist.

Questions to Ask

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

In the Iowa State Daily story Interim Dean Wendy Wintersteen stated that there was a “significant number of people who felt they did not have a significant connection to the center.” Her following statement suggests that this might include some of the large commodity groups. What groups and/or individuals complained that they did not have adequate communication with the Leopold Center?

The Ames Tribune story reveals that Wintersteen made the “executive” decision to give Kirschenmann 48 hours to resign or take a new position within the Center. Wintersteen is currently four months into a six month stint as Interim Dean of the College of Agriculture. Interim deans don’t often take it upon themselves to topple nationally known scholars. If anything this sort of thing occurs after a permanent dean is appointed. Did Wintersteen act on her sole discretion in making her decision? Was she subject to directive, pressure or demands from others in the College, University or ag community?

Iowa Code, Section 266.39, dictates that the Leopold Center Board of Directors is to assist in the selection of the Center’s Director. When will the board convene to begin this process? Two years from now is not an acceptable answer.

Add your questions in the comments.

Too Big for His Britches

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

It is becoming clear why some people wanted Kirschenmann out of his leadership post. I started to see hints of it yesterday in statements from Interim Dean Wintersteen. From yesterday’s Ames Tribune story

Wintersteen stressed the Leopold Center is an Iowa center.

“As such, it is critically important that there are very clear projects and programs here in the state,” she said.

Wintersteen said projects and programs that begin in Iowa could then be used to solve similar issues across the country in such areas as water quality and soil conservation.

With his move into issues of national policy, and work like his ag in the middle project, Kirschenmann was becoming a voice to be reckoned with. Kirschenmann’s powerful ideas ran up against powerful politics and the latter walked away the winner.

This morning’s Iowa State Daily has a story that all but confirms my worst suspicions.

Frederick Kirschenmann, who has held the position since July 2000, was removed from his position Tuesday concerning complaints from Iowa agriculture groups accusing Kirschenmann of not communicating with them, Wintersteen said.

“There was a significant number of folks who felt like they didn’t have significant connection to the center,” she said.

Among those who complained of Kirschenmann’s performance are corn and soybean producers who wanted more research on issues the center had historically dealt with, such as water quality and conservation research, Wintersteen said.

Kirschenmann was fired demoted because he didn’t placate the big commodity groups with feel-good “water quality” research. Everyone is for water quality and soil conservation. Kirschenmann outgrew his britches when he tried to move the conversation from water quality to more systemic socio-economic issues that underlay the most significant problems faced by our farm and food systems.

Other Recent Changes

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

I had forgotten about this.

In July of this year Mike Duffy, Associate Director of the Leopold Center, left the Center to “pursue teaching and research opportunities in the ISU Department of Economics on a full-time basis.”

Duffy had been with the Center for 13 years.

Administration Duties

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

If there is a hint of legitimacy in asking for Kirschenmann’s resignation as director of the Leopold Center it swirls around the issue of administrative duties.

From an email sent to graduate students in the sustainable ag program at Iowa State by Interim Dean Wintersteen

The new arrangement is meant to allow Dr. Kirschenmann to focus his excellent work and service, while placing the main administrative duties in the hands of another nationally recognized authority in sustainable agriculture, Dr. DeWitt.

This is just a snippet of a longer, very carefully crafted email. It is the only statement in the email that seems like it could be a hint at the possibility of a real story.

That being said, even if this is true a whole series of questions regarding the abrupt nature of the move, the involvement of an interim dean, the lack of involvement of the board, the appointment of an interim director for a two year term, and so on remain unanswered.

If you have a good (and well liked) visionary who isn’t up to par as a manager there are much better ways of dealing with the situation than sending the interim dean to fire them on short notice.

I remain agnostic on the matter for the time being.

Update: In a forthcoming post I will make an argument that Kirschenmann’s forced resignation is not related to this point, but rather appears to be politically motivated.

Interim Director….?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Although I am still seeking final confirmation on the matter I have heard from at least two people in a position to know that Interim Dean Wendy Wintersteen has appointed Jerry DeWitt as Interim Director of the Leopold Center for a two year term.

That seems like a pretty long “interim” appointment to me (especially considering that Wintersteen herself is only Interim Dean).

In fact, this may be construed as an attempt to circumvent the legally mandated process for selecting a new director for the Center.

Iowa Code, Section 266.39 which deals with the Leopold Center states

The board shall provide the president of Iowa state university of science and technology with a list of three candidates from which the director shall be selected. The board shall provide an additional list of three candidates if requested by the president. The board shall advise the director in the development of a budget, on the policies and procedures of the center, in the funding of research grant proposals, and regarding program planning and review.

While the code does not say anything about the appropriate length of time that interim directors should be appointed, I think it can be safely said that two years is longer than usual. Whether or not there is a real legal issue I’ll have to leave to a lawyer.

“Iowa Focus”

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

The first mainstream story comes from the Ames Tribune.

Leopold director told to resign

After leading Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture for five years, Fred Kirschenmann was told to resign his position as director last week to clear the way for a leader who would be more focused on Iowa issues and provide a stronger Iowa presence.

The Leopold Center is indeed a state funded initiative. What this does or should mean about their research “focus” deserves a bit more fleshing out. The cynic in me suggests that perhaps this is another way of saying that Kirschenmann had become too powerful of a national voice.

After receiving notice on Wednesday morning, the surprised Kirschenmann was given 48 hours to decide whether to accept a distinguished fellow role to remain with the center.

Wendy Wintersteen, the interim dean of ISU’s College of Agriculture who made the executive decision, has appointed ISU professor Jerry DeWitt as interim director of the center. DeWitt previously served as coordinator of the university Extension’s sustainable agricultural program.

Why is the interim dean making executive decisions and implementing 48 hour deadlines just two months before her term is over? Aren’t matters of this nature typically left to an incoming dean? Why was the Board of Directors not involved?

“We wanted to find a mechanism to take advantage of Fred’s leadership, but have somebody in the position of interim director that could manage the day-to-day affairs of the center and provide a clear Iowa focus for the center,” said Wintersteen, who took over interim duties as dean of the College of Agriculture on Aug. 1. “What better way than to bring these two folks together to serve the center’s mission.”

I would humbly suggest that a better way might not involve executive decisions by an interim dean and surprise 48 hour deadlines.

Kirschenmann said he is uncertain whether the new structure will work.

“If I can continue to fulfill the center’s mission, I will work hard to do that,” he said. “If it turns out I am not given that freedom, I will probably move on to something else.”

The center, formed in 1987 through the Groundwater Protection Act, works to research the negative impacts of agricultural practices, assist in developing alternative practices and works with ISU Extension to inform the public of the center’s findings, according to its Web site.

Kirschenmann, who has long been a national and international leader in sustainable agriculture, said the reasons why he was told to resign were never made specific to him. He added that Wintersteen had been “somewhat unhappy” with his performance during the past couple years because he was not sufficiently engaged with Iowa’s stakeholder groups.

The rest is below the fold. (more…)

More Later

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

I’ll post some more significant commentary on Fred Kirschenmann and the Leopold Center later this afternoon. I have other commitments to attend to first.

Graduate Program in Sustainable Ag

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Rumor has it that the Graduate Students in the Sustianable Agriculture program at Iowa State are not happy about the unexpected announcement regarding Fred Kirschenmann.

If I have time tomorrow I will try to catch up with some of them.

More on Kirschenmann

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Following up on the previous post.

Iowa State University released a Friday press release on the matter with a considerably different slant.

KIRSCHENMANN NAMED DISTINGUISHED FELLOW; DEWITT TO BECOME INTERIM DIRECTOR OF LEOPOLD CENTER

Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, has accepted a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center.

Jerry DeWitt, coordinator of ISU Extension’s sustainable agriculture program and its Pest Management and Environment Program, has been named interim director of the Leopold Center, effective Nov. 1.

As a Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow, Kirschenmann will devote his time to national sustainable agriculture priorities affecting broad segments of U.S. agriculture. He will lead Iowa State’s participation in a multistate project to address the diminishing number of mid-sized farms, many of which are family farms.

“Dr. Kirschenmann’s service to the center has greatly enhanced Iowa State’s reputation in sustainable agriculture,” said Wendy Wintersteen, interim dean of the College of Agriculture. “His emphasis on marketing and food systems, ecology and policy will continue to guide the center’s programs.”

“We look forward to his continued leadership on critical national issues,” Wintersteen said. “We are committed to continuing the excellence in research and education that the Leopold Center has demonstrated for the past 18 years.”

Kirschenmann, who was named center director in 2000, is a longtime leader in national and international sustainable agriculture. He was the second director of the center and the first farmer to hold the position. He is a professor in ISU’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.

I used google news and did individual checks on all the likely news outlets, and it appears that no one has carried this story yet.

Update: I have confirmed that the IA State press release was a late-Friday-afternoon dump.

Fred Kirschenmann Removed as Director of Leopold Center

Monday, October 31st, 2005

I’m sure that many readers know Fred Kirschenmann and/or the work being done by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

I received the following email late today.

Folks,

Last week, Fred Kirschenmann was given 48 hours to resign as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and to accept a position as the “Distinguished Fellow” of the center. A new director was appointed before Fred was given notice. Over the past five years, Fred has worked tirelessly and with great dedication to the vision and work of the center. He has been highly respected by the Center’s staff.

The reason for Fred’s removal from the directorship of the Center seems clear. Fred had not placated agribusiness. They’ve been ferociously lobbying the dean’s office for the past year and a half to get him to stop his work on Ag in the Middle and other projects that benefit farmers and the land.

[snip]

The acting dean (Wendy Wintersteen) has caved in to the demands of powerful corporate interests instead of standing for a clear vision for the future and the best interests of Iowa.

Some think that Ms. Wintersteen fired Fred in exchange for the Farm Bureau et. al.’s support for her becoming the next Dean.

Letters can be sent to:

Benjamin J. Allen
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
Iowa State University
Office of the Provost, 1550 Beardshear Hall, Ames,
Iowa 50011-2021
Phone 515-294-9591, provost@iastate.edu

Gregory L. Geoffroy
President, Iowa State University
1750 Beardshear Hall
515) 294-2042
president@iastate.edu

Thanks,

xxx xxxxxxx

I have corroborated the information as “accurate” with someone close to the Leopold Center. I am working to obtain more information.

Montana, Iowa, and Our Future

Tuesday, July 26th, 2005

This recent story in the Des Moines Register reported the following.

In Iowa, we’ve always been able to take for granted that the land will provide.

But think about this: Almost half of the state’s farmland is owned by people older than 65. A quarter belongs to people over 74.

As much as 50 percent of the state’s farmland must be sold or passed on in the next 10 to 15 years.

“What is occurring in Iowa is occurring across much of the country,” said Michael Duffy, an economist who tallied the figures for a 2002 survey of farmland ownership at Iowa State University.

Iowa and other Midwestern states will be forever changed by the transference of that much farmland. An unprecedented proportion of farmland owners won’t live in rural areas anymore; thousands, in fact, won’t live within the state.

More than nostalgia is at stake.

A couple of things made this report hit home for me. First, I grew up on a relatively small family farm in northwest Iowa. Second, I just returned from driving home across the great plains of Montana, and in particular the golden (wheat) triangle.

Montana’s wheat belt appears to have undergone significant change in recent years. As I drove aimlessly down mile after mile of gravel road southeast of Shelby only a few houses broke the proverbial amber waves of grain. About three fourths of these houses were abandoned. Now, I am used to seeing abandoned houses in rural areas, but what struck me about Montana’s wheat country was that a large percentage of the abandoned houses seemed to have been abandoned in just the last 10-15 years. Abandoned farmsteads in other parts of the country have been empty much longer.

It was harvest time, and wheat fields hosted trios of large combines moving across them. In one particular case each of three combines was buttressed by a grain truck or wagon. Campers sat at the edge of some of the fields, and fuel trucks delivered petroleum to the fields. It took me a bit to put it all together. The fuel trucks were required because the nearest farmsteads were much too far away to fetch fuel from, and the campers provided a place for these laborers to sleep.

Back on the interstate headed for Wyoming we repeatedly passed harvester crews headed for the field. A crew typically consisted of two or three grain trucks, three combines being pulled on flatbeds, and often a camper all traveling as a group down the road. These crews (presumably custom operators and not just local farmers) can move across wheat country harvesting thousands of acres at a time, and leaving little reason for anyone to occupy the remaining farm houses.

Wheat country has always been more well suited to this type of industrialization, but corn and soybean territory, like my home state of Iowa, is by no means immune to the trend.

With nearly half of all farmland in Iowa owned by people over 65, and no clear new generation of farmers there is reason for grave concern.

I return not with renewed hope, but at least with a renewed sense of urgency for the battle that must be fought if the future of our farm and rural communities is to be anything but dim.

Indeed, “More than nostalgia is at stake.”

Conservation Security Program

Monday, July 11th, 2005

National Public Radio had an excellent report on the Conservation Security Program (CSP) on Morning Edition this morning. Check out the web extra and listen to the report later today here.

The federal government is expected to pay $24 billion in farm subsidies this year. Critics, including quite a few farmers, say taxpayers shouldn’t pay for corn or cotton surpluses. Instead, they say the funds should go toward things that benefit the public, such as cleaner water and a healthier environment.

The CSP is a new initiative. It pays farmers to give the environment a helping hand. Farmers can qualify for payments if they can show that they’ve done a good job protecting the environment in the past. They must also show that they’re preventing manure or other fertilizer from running into streams, and that they’re conserving soil and minimizing pesticide use.

Once they qualify, farmers can get extra points — and higher payments — for doing additional things that provide habitat for wildlife or protect streams and groundwater. They include cutting back on fertilizer or pesticides, converting crop land into permanent pasture, or building windmills to supply the farm with energy.

The CSP—if fully enacted—would go a long way toward needed reforms in U.S. farm subsidies. This includes the current debate over cotton subsidies.

Good Rural Development

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

Much of the federal money spent on farm and rural programs is directed toward activities that do little to encourage meaningful development at the local level.

That’s a large part of the reason why this is so encouraging.

Woodbury County to consider tax breaks to organic farmers

SIOUX CITY, IA - Woodbury County may provide tax incentives to farmers who switch from conventional production to organic.

Rob Marqusee, the county’s rural economic development director, is scheduled to present the Board of Supervisors with a proposal Tuesday to offer farmers property tax rebates if they go organic.

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., said Woodbury County may be the first local government to offer such incentives to farmers.

Marqusee said the goal of the program would be to build on local agriculture to spark economic development. The program would help build a thriving organic farming industry that would attract organic food processors and other businesses to the area, he said.

At a time when demand for organic foods is soaring this is a tax break that has a real chance of paying off in increased economic activity generated by tapping into the booming organic trend.

Generally speaking, we need to look toward local and regional governments for direction on farm and rural policy more often.

Mad Cow Case Confirmed

Friday, June 24th, 2005

As you have probably heard

Tests Confirm 2nd Case of Mad Cow Disease in U.S.

The Agriculture Department said today that tests conducted on an animal that died in November, suspected of having mad cow disease, had turned out positive, confirming the second case of the disease to be found in the United States in the last two years.

As long as the FDA, USDA and beef industry continue to drag their feet on the implementation of new safety standards this will continue to happen.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

This story from last week just came to my attention.

USDA plants its own pro-CAFTA news

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has churned out three dozen radio and television news segments since the first of the year that promote a controversial trade agreement with Central America opposed by labor unions, the sugar industry and many members of Congress, including some Republicans.

Amid an intense debate over government-funded efforts to influence news coverage, the pre-packaged reports have been widely distributed to broadcast outlets across the country for easy insertion into newscasts.

Readers will recall that this is not the first time this administration has drawn attention for muddling in news reporting. A number of these reports incorporate sound bites from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and other top officials at the USDA.

In one radio segment, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said that passing CAFTA should be an easy decision for members of Congress.

“I can’t imagine how any senator or House member from ag country could stand up and vote against CAFTA,” Johanns said. “It makes no sense to me. It’s voting against our producers.”

In another radio segment promoting CAFTA, Allen Johnson, a top U.S. trade official, dismissed the sugar industry’s “dire forecasts” about CAFTA’s impact as “a Chicken Little sort of thing that isn’t real.”

These “news” releases come complete with a recorded disclaimer at the end of the tape, conveniently placed for cutting.

“These releases, which are produced and distributed with taxpayer dollars, are provided to 675 rural radio stations and numerous televisions stations where they are run, without disclosure of their source, as news reports,” the senators wrote. “We are concerned that many listeners in rural America may believe these releases are objective news reports […]

[…] USDA spokesman Ed Loyd defended the practice, noting that the reports are all clearly identified as coming from the USDA.

“They are reports about what the secretary of agriculture has said,” Loyd said. “We clearly state that we are the source. We’re not disguising that we are the source.”

But the taglines disclosing the USDA’s role generally are at the ends of the reports, and Akaka and Landrieu said some news stations drop those taglines.

One radio producer says

“I use a lot of their stuff verbatim,” he said. “Everything I’ve been able to use has been pretty well-balanced as far as I can tell.”

On more controversial issues such as CAFTA, Molino said he normally follows up the USDA report with a comment from a Louisiana member of Congress who opposes the trade deal.

Bush needs all of the help he can get to bolster CAFTA. Like other administration proposals, Bush has struggled to get support for the trade agreement since its proposal last year. For years Washington policy makers have been advising farmers that more trade is the answer to our agricultural surplus. The tactic hasn’t really worked yet, and more and more farmers are becoming wary of additional trade agreements as a way to raise commodity prices.

If anyone has ever heard/seen one of these things that included the disclaimer leave a note in the comment section.

Late Update: You can listen to some of the USDA’s “news” releases on their website. The so-called disclaimer reads as follows, “In Washington, I’m [reporter’s name] reporting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” It’s a quick little bit that could easily be missed by all but the most discerning ear. Even if you catch it, the significance may remain unclear.

Mad Cow

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

Never mind the most recent case.

Instead think back to last year after the first (documented) case of mad cow disease in the U.S. Remember the sweeping new rules announced by the USDA and FDA that were supposed to further restrict the use of animal byproducts in cattle feed? Well it appears that those rules are passing quietly into the night.

This story appeared on page 29A of my paper today.

American cattle are eating chicken litter, cattle blood and restaurant leftovers that could help transmit mad cow disease — a gap in the U.S. defense that the Bush administration promised to close nearly 18 months ago.

“Once the cameras were turned off and the media coverage dissipated, then it’s been business as usual, no real reform, just keep feeding slaughterhouse waste,” said John Stauber.

Chicken litter is significant because cattle remains are used in poultry feed, feed that inevitably ends up in the litter.

And what does the FDA have to say for itself?

Today, the FDA still has not done what it promised to do. The agency declined interviews, saying in a statement only that there is no timeline for new restrictions.

There are some short term winners here. Cattle feedlots like their cheap feed supplies, and the slaughter industry garners additional profits from selling rendering for use in other feed products. I don’t think anyone wins long term though.

Cotton Subsidies

Friday, June 17th, 2005

Last September (and again this March) the WTO ruled that U.S. cotton subsidies violated international trade agreements and ordered that they be lifted by July 1. As the deadline draws near the fervor around the issue is growing.

Yesterday Brazil threatened to retaliate if Washington doesn’t come forward with a plan.

BRASILIA, Brazil - 06/17/05 - Brazilian lawmakers have said that they are seriously considering removing protections on the intellectual property rights of US companies operating in the South American country if Washington fails to explain how it intends to move on plans to modify the existing US cotton subsidy mechanism.

Brazil isn’t the only country waiting to hear from Washington.

World cotton prices have dropped 30 percent in the past 18 months, increasing rural poverty in many African countries. Even in Egypt, for which cotton is not a crucial commodity, this shift has caused farmers to switch to growing rice, despite the fact that Egyptian long-staple cotton is considered to be one of the best in the world—whereas Egyptian rice has no particular competitive advantage. According to the British-based anti-poverty NGO Oxfam, “This system [of U.S. cotton subsidies] pits a typical Malian producer, farming two hectares of cotton, who is lucky to gross $400 a year, against US farms which receive a subsidy of $250 per hectare.”

“For the past three years, African cotton producers have not been able to make a decent living because of American subsidies,” said Sero Zorobouragui of the African Cotton Producers Organization.

U.S. cotton growers can be relatively assured that they will receive their check this fall, and it’s difficult to imagine that changing drastically in the near future. However, in 2003 the Bush Administration was forced to lift protective legislation aimed at the U.S. steel market after a similar ruling by the WTO.

Withdrawing from such free trade agreements seems to be one solution, though that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Shifting more subsidies to the unregulated “green box” category is another. The Conservation Security Program falls into the “green box,” but this program has seen little support in our current political climate.

Whatever happens in coming months the issue of agriculture subsidies will continue to be a growing issue. Any win-win solution will take significant work on the part of multiple players.

Update: The KickASS (Kick all Agricultural Subsidies) blog reports that Paul Wolfowitz, while in Africa, said that key to helping Africa’s poor cotton growers was to cut the subsidies paid to US and agriculture producers.

Farm Policy Talk

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

Bush was at the Pennsylvania State FFA (formally Future Farmers of America) Conference today to talk about Social Security reform. He also had a thing or two to say about his administration’s “successful” farm policy.

You see, we tried to reduce government interference in the agricultural market, and at the same time, create incentives for sound conservation practices.

I wonder if those “incentives for conservation” could be the new Conservation Security Program (CSP). The CSP was championed by family farm groups, and was considered a bright spot in an otherwise dim farm bill. To date the Bush Administration has prevented the program from being fully implemented. Current funding is capped at $202 million (total farm bill expenditures exceeded $11.5 billion in 2003). Properly funding the CSP would require at least $2-3 billion.

And speaking about tax relief, in order to make sure our farms stay within our farming families, we need to get rid of the death tax once and for all. […] For the sake of family farmers, Congress needs to get rid of the death tax forever. (Applause.)

Right. Except any farm large enough to be subject to the estate tax is quite likely anything but a family farm. In fact, the estate tax more than likely helps preserve family farms by leveling the playing field through taxes on the largest farm estates.

None of this should be a surprise from this administration. Instead, think of it as motivation to fight their poor ag and rural policy. Remember this was a speech to a captive group of young aspiring farmers. People who should be on our side.

The entire relevant excerpt of from the speech appears below the fold, including a bit about the upcoming vote in congress on CAFTA.

(more…)

Not COOL

Saturday, June 11th, 2005

The U.S. House voted this week to postpone the implementation of mandatory County of Origin Labeling (COOL). Opponents claim that the cost of implementing COOL would harm U.S. producers.

The labels “would present a nightmare” of record-keeping and legal costs that consumers would have to bear, said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, who voted against the labeling.

The industry estimates it could cost as much as $4 billion in the first year.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Agriculture Committee chairman, said the labels would do the opposite of what was intended, adding $10 per head of cattle to ranchers’ costs.

“It will make our producers less competitive with foreign meat producers, not more competitive,” said Goodlatte, R-Va.

Depending on who is doing the calculations, estimates for the beef and pork industries combined range from just $200 million to over $7 billion annually. Even the figure cited in the article is for first year expenses. One can assume that the price tag would be significantly less in subsequent years.

But none of this should be a surprise. Food processors and retailers, who oppose the legislation, have given tens of millions of dollars to candidates in recent years.

Update: better add the additional millions given by meat processors in recent years. Money given almost exclusively to Republicans.

Bush’s Budget and Rural America

Monday, March 14th, 2005

The irony abounds. Residents in rural areas voted overwhelmingly for George Bush. Their reward—across the board cuts of money previously allocated for rural development and agriculture programs.

The Center for Rural Affairs reports that rural America may loose more than one-third of the federal dollars currently allocated to rural economic and rural community development. This is in addition to significant cuts to direct farmer aid including a 50% slashing of the Conservation Security Program and an across-the-board reduction of five percent for all farm program payments.

Read the Action Brief (pdf here) from the Center for Rural Affairs or catch the highlights below the fold.

(more…)

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