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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bacteria Plumes

Monday, December 12th, 2005

In the latest issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene there is an article on bacterial plumes that emanate from the air surrounding swine confinement operations (no link yet). The researchers measured bacteria in the air plume at upwind and downwind locations around confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

The data show a marked increase in bacterial CFUs/m3 inside the facility (18,132 CFU/m3 average) versus upwind (63 CFU/m3 average) and a steady downwind decrease out to approximately 150 m. Staphylococcus aureus was found to account for 76% of the organisms recovered.

Attempts to litigate against CAFOs based on the nuisance of unpleasant odors have had mixed success in the courts. Perhaps cases based on excess bacterial loads in the air would be more successful.

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.

A Mining Boom

Sunday, July 10th, 2005

A common misconception among urbanites is that rural is synonymous with agriculture. While some rural communities are affected by the structure and trends of agriculture, other rural communities rely on mining, forestry and manufacturing.

Rural communities that have ties to mining are currently witnessing rapid changes in the industry. Coal mining in particular is being driven to expand by increased foreign demand and high oil prices. This expansion is resulting in high wages and significant labor shortages.

Coal industry and union executives are concerned that Pennsylvania soon could face shortages of skilled coal miners that already are cropping up elsewhere in the other Appalachian Basin states of Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky.

Mining employment grew briefly in the 1970s, but collapsed again in the 1980s and has remained depressed until recently.

The lack of hiring in the past two decades — exacerbated by new technology that eliminated many mining jobs and increased the skills needed to be a miner — has left the industry with outright labor shortages in some industry strongholds, such as southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and a rapidly aging work force in others, including Pennsylvania.

Most of the people in the available labor pool aren’t trained to be miners, and universities and trade schools have scaled back or eliminated mining programs in recent years. To combat the labor shortage mining companies have increased salaries by $10,000 in recent years, but even that is not helping.

Average salaries of from $68,000 to $87,000 (for coal miners), health benefits, life insurance and vacations are not enough to lure people to this grime-and-dirt work. […]

The job is not sexy, to say the least. Women are reluctant to move to remote mining towns despite high salaries, making it a predominantly male profession. And, it is an instable industry. Today’s boom is tomorrow’s bust.

Despite the current labor shortages more mines are slated to open and other previously shuttered mines will reopen in the coming year.

Additional mine openings will bring additional jobs to often depressed rural economies, but whether these jobs bring more benefit or harm in the long-term remains an open question. Many rural communities today are facing clean-up bills from an environmental mess left behind by the last round of mines to go bust.

Few can blame those looking for a job, but I would argue that we would be better off investing tax dollars today in sustainable rural development, rather than tomorrow cleaning up after another round of busted mines.

Last Chance for Last Chance

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

Nuclear waste—coming soon to a rural area near you.

Last Chance, Colorado (photo here) is an unincorporated town on the eastern plains of Colorado. Located in Washington County, population 5,000 (or a very low 1.95 people per square mile), Last Chance is so named because it was once the last chance to fuel up before a long drive across the barren plains of Colorado.

Yesterday Clean Harbors Environmental Services received clearance from the Rocky Mountain Low-Level Radioactive Waste Board to begin shipments of radioactive waste from a tri-state region to the Last Chance area. The site will begin by accepting waste from a Superfund site in the Denver area, but the company has expressed hope that they will ultimately be able to bring in waste from other areas and industries as well.

As I see it there are two ways that these sorts of waste dumps end up in rural areas.

In some cases these rural communities have suffered repeated economic setbacks. Out of desperation they court landfills, radio active waste, jails and other generally undesirable industries. This brings jobs to otherwise desolate communities and allows residents to pay the bills. The situation presents a double edged sward to say the least.

In other cases politicians from urban/affluent areas push these industries into low income and rural areas. Neither scenario is acceptable, but the latter seems worse.

This from the Associate Press.

Pam Whelden, a rancher who lives two miles north of the site and worries about water and soil contamination. She said residents were told when the dump opened in the 1980s that no radioactive waste would be stored there.

“It is a bogus and arrogant move by the Colorado Department of Health and Clean Harbors,” said Whelden, a member of Concerned Citizens of Eastern Colorado, which opposes the radioactive-waste permit.

She said state and Clean Harbors officials failed to take residents’ concerns into consideration.

“We have to become watchdogs in our area to keep us safe,” Whelden said. “They don’t listen.”

The site still has to receive approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but approval is expected.

Global Warming Comes Home to the Ranch

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

The Fort Collins Coloradoan reports that rising CO2 levels may threaten grassland, thus cutting into the bottom line of ranchers.

Rising carbon dioxide levels could mean higher feed costs for ranchers and fewer wild ruminants such as antelope and deer, suggest studies by a U.S. Department of Agriculture research team in Fort Collins.

“This has huge implications for grasslands all around the world,” said Jack Morgan, a research leader and plant physiologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Fort Collins.

For ranchers, diluted nitrogen would mean lower-quality forage for livestock and more reliance on feed supplements like hay and alfalfa. But the issue, which could take decades to develop, isn’t on the radar of most ranchers.

Poor forage quality could lead to impacts similar to those that ranchers faced during the drought, when some sold off their herds or turned to hay as pastures deteriorated.

Left leaning blogs in the west have been making the point for some time now that growing environmental concerns in the red-state west should give Democrats a handhold in coming years.

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