8 Presidents Who Most Shaped the U.S. Food System

Civil Eats

8 Presidents Who Most Shaped the U.S. Food System

Every president has played a role in making the food system what it is today, but these eight stand out, for better and for worse.

Nathaniel Currier lithograph, 1852.

By Karen Perry Stillerman – Commentary, Food Justice, Food Policy

February 19, 2018

As we prepare to observe Presidents Day, I’m thinking about a president’s role in shaping the way we grow food in the United States, and how we eat. Quite a few of our past presidents were farmers or ranchers at some point in their lives, and some had infamous relationships with certain foods, whether cheeseburgers or jelly beans or broccoli.

But a small number of presidents spanning the history of the republic have had particular influence on our food supply and culture, and its impact on the health and well-being of all Americans, including farmers. And notably, as we’re also observing Black History Month, the interventions of those past presidents in our food system have often particularly affected African Americans.

1. George Washington: First farmer, innovator, and slaveholder

Whether or not young George chopped down that famous fruit free, the post-presidency Washington grew cherries, along with apples, pears, other tree fruits, and a whole lot of other food at his Mount Vernon estate, which comprised five neighboring farms on 8,000 acres. An innovative farmer who kept meticulous records, Washington was an early proponent of composting for soil health, and eventually phased out tobacco (the plantation crop of his day in Virginia) in favor of a diversified seven-crop rotation system including wheat for sale, corn for domestic consumption, and fertility-enhancing legume crops. (Sounds like a good idea.)

The grim reality behind Washington’s farming success, though, is that his farms were worked by slaves. A slaveowner since age 11, when he inherited ten slaves from his father, Washington bought and sold Black people throughout his life (reportedly treating them severely and separating family members through sale), and 317 slaves worked on his estate at the time of his death.

The devastating legacy of racial injustice and inequality at Mount Vernon is still with us, but it is being gradually undone. The 126-acre historic Woodlawn estate—originally part of Washington’s farm network—was purchased by northern Quakers prior to the Civil War, expressly to prove that you could farm profitably without slavery. Today, the site is occupied by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Agriculture, whose work includes a mobile market delivering fresh, healthy, affordable food to food-insecure neighborhoods like this one in the Washington DC area.

2. Thomas Jefferson: Experimentation, failure, and a legacy of slave-centered agriculture

The third president has been called America’s “first foodie” for his love of the table, and of French cuisine in particular. He ate a lot of vegetables, and introduced many new ones to the United States. On his Monticello estate, Jefferson introduced and experimented with a vast variety of food crops, including 330 varieties of eighty-nine species of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of the fruits. An avid experimenter, Jefferson’s trials often resulted in failure, leading neighbors to call him “the worst farmer in Virginia.” But in truth he promoted techniques to build soil health through adding organic matter, and by sharing seeds and techniques widely, he promoted commercial market gardening and spread new crops that expanded the young nation’s food traditions and palate.

Perhaps even more than Washington, Jefferson’s legacy is marred by the stain of his complicity in slavery, and his racial views. He embodied the inherent social contradictions at the birth of this nation that we have yet to resolve, by denouncing the institution of slavery while simultaneously profiting from it—he owned some 600 slaves who worked on his Monticello farm and other holdings, employed brutal overseers, and fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings through a relationship that, by definition, could not have been consensual. His goal of “improving” slavery as a step towards ending was misguided, as it was used during his time as an argument for its perpetuation.

3. Abraham Lincoln: The USDA and the land-grant college system

Born in that legendary log cabin on his father’s farm in Kentucky, Lincoln was, as he put it, “raised to farm work.” His father farmed frontier land in southern Indiana before moving the family to Illinois, where Abe later got his political start in the state legislature. A believer in technological progress in agriculture, Lincoln advocated for horse-drawn machines and steam plows to take the place of hand labor. As president, he advocated for and signed legislation creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he later called “The People’s Department,” since about half of all Americans at the time lived on farms. And Lincoln’s early belief in the value of educating farmers came to fruition in 1862 when he signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which facilitated the transfer of public land to each of the states to establish colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts.

Lincoln fought a war over slavery (perhaps we’re finally coming to agreement on that point?), issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and submitted the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery to the states for ratification just a few month before his violent death in 1865. But it would be another quarter century before freed slaves in the former Confederate states would get the benefit of a land-grant education Lincoln envisioned. A second Morrill Act in 1890 required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion for its land-grant colleges, or else to designate a separate institution for students of color. (See some of the achievements of some of the institutions known as 1890 schools here.)

4. Theodore Roosevelt: Cattle ranching and conservation

Teddy Roosevelt’s is known as one of the nation’s great conservationists, but that legacy was born out of a series of calamities. On a hunting trip in the Dakota Territory in 1883, the passionate outdoorsman discovered that native bison herds had been decimated by commercial hunters. Cattle ranching on the region’s vast grasslands was booming in bison’s wake, and he became interested in the cattle business, investing $14,000 (a huge sum at the time) in a ranch. Returning to politics in New York, Roosevelt was struck by tragedy with the death of both his mother and his wifeon the same day in 1884, and he turned to the West and the ranching life to forget. But cattle in the Badlands at the time was itself a looming disaster: a boom with no regulation quickly led to massive overgrazing, and a scorching summer followed by a harsh winter in 1886-87 proved deadly. Tens of thousands of cattle, about 80 percent of the region’s herds, froze and starved to death in a blizzard. Roosevelt himself lost over half his herd, and soon got out of the business.

But his experience with agricultural disaster helped shape the future president’s views on the importance of conservation and led to an inspiring conservation legacy. Using his presidential authority, Roosevelt gave federal protection to more than 230 million acres of public land, creating the National Forest Service (now part of the USDA) and five national parks, and setting aside 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, and four national game preserves. In his words in 1908: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.” (Nah, that couldn’t happen, could it?)

5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Dust Bowl and soil conservation

In the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, FDR inherited economic and ecological catastrophes that hit farmers particularly hard. The Dust Bowl was caused by massive-scale plowing up of grasslands (the Great Plow-Up of the 1910s and ’20s) followed by four distinct drought eventsin the 1930s. It scorched the Plains and literally blew away its soil, leaving millions of acres of farmland useless, driving farmers into bankruptcy and off the land, and worsening the banking and unemployment crises.

An amateur forester, Roosevelt understood the importance of soil conservation, and soon after taking office he established the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Erosion Service. The latter (now the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) was the first major federal conservation effort to focus on privately owned natural resources. FDR also launched the Plains Shelterbelt Project effort that planted millions of trees, creating windbreaks (now at risk) on farms from the Canadian border to Texas. And he initiated farm policies to help farmers manage future boom-and-bust cycles by preventing overproduction. The Agricultural Adjustment Act enacted on his watch would grow into today’s wide-ranging farm bill, which still struggles with how to deal with overproduction while providing livelihood for the nation’s farmers and conserving soil and water.

6. Richard Nixon: Turning farming into big business

Nixon was a contradiction. Scholars continue to dissect his deep character flaws and divisiveness, but also his achievements. Among the latter, he created the EPA and signed the National Environmental Policy Act (both of which, one hopes, will survive the current administration’s manyassaults), and he made dozens of other environmental proposals.

But his lasting legacy in agriculture continues to haunt us. That’s because Nixon gave his blessing to his agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, to essentially undo decades of FDR’s supply management policy. The Nixon years would be all about maximizing and consolidating farm production. “Get big or get out,” Butz told farmers in 1973, and boy, did they. His policies encouraged farmers to plant as much corn and other commodities as they could, on every possible bit of land. Today, one might argue, we have Nixon and Butz to thank for persistent fertilizer pollution in our nation’s waterways, for high-fructose corn syrup and the power and deception of the food industry, and for our enduring crisis of obesity and diet-related disease. (Read the full story of Secretary Butz, entertainingly told by Tom Philpott back in 2008.) Buzz’s obit recounts how a nasty racist comment ended his political career.

7. George W. Bush: Justice for Black farmers denied

While George W. Bush spent a lot of his presidency clearing brush on his Texas ranch, he wasn’t particularly known for his agriculture policy. But during his administration, a long-simmering dispute between the USDA and Black farmers came to a head. The background: in 1997 a group of Black farmers sued the USDA, citing years of racial discrimination by the department, which denied Black producers loans and other assistance and failed to act on their claims for years. The farmers prevailed in 1999, winning a $2.3 billion settlement from the government, the biggest in civil rights history. But there were limitations on who could collect under the Pigford settlement (named for lead plaintiff Timothy Pigford, a Black corn and soybean farmer from North Carolina), and what kinds of documentation they would need to provide.

Under W’s watch, many of the 22,000 farmers who had joined the Pigford suit were denied payment; by one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought damages were denied. And the Bush Department of Justice, representing the USDA, reportedly spent 56,000 office hours and $12 millioncontesting farmers’ claims. Many farmers believed their claims were rejected on technicalities.

8. Barack Obama: Justice and healthy food, served

Much of the Obama food and farming legacy (which is hers as much as his) is well known: the now permanent White House kitchen garden (which, incidentally, includes a section honoring Thomas Jefferson with favorite varieties from his own garden at Monticello) along with the (possibly less permanent) improvements to school meals that resulted from the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act they championed, and the Let’s Move! campaign. The USDA under the Obama administration also made other efforts to improve our nation’s food system by promoting local and regional farm economies, increasing agricultural research, and strengthening federal dietary guidelines.

He also fixed a lingering problem with the Pigford discrimination settlement described above. Failure to effectively notify and communicate with Black farmers eligible for payout under the 1999 settlement meant that many farmers were left out. Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder advocated for a fix, and in 2010, the administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement of the so-called “Pigford II” claims.

And now what?

These eight former presidents have made their mark on U.S. agriculture and food, delivering both progress and setbacks. Bottom line this Presidents Day? We still have a lot of work to do to achieve a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in this country.

Next time I’ll look at what happens when the occupant of the White House is not only not a farmer, but seems puzzlingly (if not cynically) indifferent to farmers’ concern. And when, instead of a healthy food advocate, he’s an unabashed proponent of the same processed and fast foods that are damaging the health—and even shortening the lives—of our nation’s children.

This post originally appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists blog and is reprinted with permission.

Trump Budget Would Undo Conservation Gains on Farms and Ranches

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Trump Budget Would Undo Conservation Gains on Farms and Ranches

Funding for farm conservation programs would be slashed by $13 billion over 10 years, impacting the environment and farmers alike.

By Ashley Dayer and Seth Lutter – Agroecology, Climate, Environment, Food Policy      February 16, 2018

Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are starting to shape the 2018 Farm Bill–a comprehensive food and agriculture bill passed about every five years. Most observers associate the farm bill with food policy, but its conservation section is the single largest source of funding for soil, water, and wildlife conservation on private land in the United States.

Farm bill conservation programs provide about $5.8 billion yearly for activities such as restoring wildlife habitat and using sustainable farming practices. These programs affect about 50 million acres of land nationwide. They conserve millions of acres of wildlife habitat and provide ecological services such as improved water quality, erosion control, and enhanced soil health that are worth billions of dollars.

Sixty percent of U.S. land is privately owned, and it contains a disproportionately high share of habitat for threatened and endangered species. This means that to conserve land and wildlife, it is critical to work with private landowners, particularly farmers and ranchers. Farm bill conservation programs provide cost shares, financial incentives, and technical assistance to farmers and other private landowners who voluntarily undertake conservation efforts on their land.

President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request would slash funding for farm bill conservation programs by about $13 billion over 10 years, on top of cuts already sustained in the 2014 Farm Bill. In a recent study, we found that it is highly uncertain whether the benefits these programs have produced will be maintained if they are cut further.

Jim and DeAnn Sattelberg received Conservation Reserve Program funding to plant ‘filter strips’ that protect water sources on their Michigan farm. (Photo credit: USDA)Jim and DeAnn Sattelberg received Conservation Reserve Program funding to plant ‘filter strips’ that protect water sources on their Michigan farm. (Photo credit: USDA)

Funding Cuts and Future Prospects

Conservation on private land produces tangible benefits for wildlifewater qualityerosion control, and floodwater storage. The public value of these improvements extends far beyond the boundaries of any individual landowner’s property.

Studies have shown that farmers appreciate the direct benefits they receive from participating in these programs, such as more productive soil and better hunting and wildlife viewing on their lands. Conservation programs can also provide farmers with an important and stable income source during crop price downturns.

Congress made substantial cuts in farm bill conservation programs in 2014–the first reductions since the conservation title of the bill was created in 1985. In total, the 2014 farm bill reduced conservation spending by 6.4 percent, or about $3.97 billion over 10 years.

(Chart source: USDA/ERS.)

These cuts reduced the number of farmers who were able to enroll in the programs. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of agricultural production and convert cropland into ecologically beneficial grasses. In 2016, due to budget cuts, it accepted just 22 percent of acres that farmers offered for enrollment.

The Conservation Stewardship Program, which focuses on working lands in agricultural production, offers farmers financial incentives and technical advice for conservation measures such as cover crops or efficient irrigation systems. In 2015 USDA funded only 27 percent of CSP applications.

The Trump administration’s proposed cuts have drawn criticism from conservation groups and farmers. Meanwhile, these programs appear to have bipartisan support in Congress.

In a June 2017 hearing, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said:

“I’ve heard repeatedly from farmers and ranchers about the importance of these programs, how they successfully incentivize farmers to take conservation to the next level, and the need for continued federal investment in these critical programs.”

In October 2017, Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, introduced a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which fosters private-public partnerships in regions of high conservation priority. The Trump administration has proposed to eliminate this program, along with the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Funding will be tight for the 2018 Farm Bill, as USDA has acknowledged. A set of guiding principlesthe department released on January 24 pledged to provide “a fiscally responsible Farm Bill that reflects the Administration’s budget goals.” Congress will soon face funding decisions that will have critical implications for conservation outcomes and landowners.

USDA employees help South Dakota cattle ranchers repair and replace ponds for watering livestock, an initiative of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. (Photo credit: USDA/NRCS South Dakota)USDA employees help South Dakota cattle ranchers repair and replace ponds for watering livestock, an initiative of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. (Photo credit: USDA/NRCS South Dakota)

Without Funding, Fewer Farmers Will Conserve

Further budget cuts in farm bill conservation programs would undermine environmental protection in multiple ways. Less land and wildlife would be protected, and fewer farmers would be able to enroll in these programs. Moreover, as our study concluded, landowners are unlikely to continue their conservation efforts when payments end.

Texas farmer Taylor Wilcox received USDA funding to flood his fallow rice fields, creating habitat for black-necked stilts and other birds. (Photo credit: USDA)Texas farmer Taylor Wilcox received USDA funding to flood his fallow rice fields, creating habitat for black-necked stilts and other birds. (Photo credit: USDA)

Federal agencies and environmental organizations generally would like to see owners keep up conservation practices even when they no longer receive federal incentives. We call this phenomenon “persistence.” Designing incentives so that they produce lasting behavior changes is a challenge in many fields, including agricultural conservation.

Our search of relevant scientific publications found very limited research on landowner behavior after incentive program contracts end. What research has been done indicates that persistence is highly variable and often does not occur.

Studies have found that after contracts expire, the percentage of landowners who continue conservation management can range from 31 to 85 percent. Persistence also depends on the practices landowners are required to perform. Structural actions like planting trees are more likely to have lasting effects than measures that landowners need to perform frequently and may abandon, such as treating invasive plants with herbicides.

Little is known about why landowners do or do not persist with conservation behaviors after incentive programs end. But we have identified several mechanisms that could support persistence behavior.

As landowners participate in conservation programs, they might develop positive views of conservation. They also may continue to use conservation practices because they want to be perceived as good land stewards. Practices that involve repeated action, such as moving cattle for prescribed grazing, might become habits. Finally, landowners with sufficient financial and technical resources are more likely to persist with conservation behaviors.

Long-Term Costs Of Defunding Conservation Programs

Our research shows that it is hard to predict how farmers and ranchers will respond if they are unable to re-enroll in farm bill conservation programs. Some might continue with conservation management, but it is likely that many landowners would resume farming formerly protected land or abandon conservation practices.

To promote conservation more effectively over time, it would make sense to consider farm bill policy changes such as issuing longer-duration contracts and designing post-contract transitions that encourage continued conservation. Further budget cuts will only reduce future conservation on private land, and could undo much of the good that these programs have already achieved.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Top photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.

Can the Leopold Center be Saved?

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Can the Leopold Center be Saved?

A year after the influential center for sustainable agriculture research was defunded, farmers and students are urging Iowa’s legislators to reinstate its budget.

By Lisa Held – Agroecology, Climate, Farming, Food Policy                February 14, 2018

Nearly a year ago, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, one of the country’s preeminent research centers for sustainable agriculture, was defunded via budget cuts made by Iowa’s state government. Now, a grassroots coalition is fighting to revive the Center and to educate the public on why its work matters more than ever.

Last Tuesday, students, farmers, and community members called for a “fully funded, fully staffed, re-imagined” Leopold Center during a press conference at the Iowa State Capitol building and in meetings with legislators and staff members at the governor’s office.

“The work is far from done,” said Liz Garst, a conventional row crop farmer who’s been involved in Leopold Center research on several topics, including prairie hay and cover crops. Because these practices are uncommon in a state where most farmers grow only corn and soybeans in otherwise bare soil, and most university-level research in the area focuses on that system, losing any hub for alternative information is significant. “As a practicing cover crop farmer, I have way more questions than answers,” added Garst.

The Iowa Sustainable Ag group—which also launched a website that includes a petition and videos highlighting the center’s work—included representatives from the Iowa Farmers Union, the Women, Food, and Ag Network, the Center for Rural Affairs, and several former students from Iowa State University’s (ISU) Sustainable Agriculture Graduate Program.

“A lot of the students received funding and support from the Leopold Center, and some of them came to ISU to study because the Center was there and it has an international reputation,” said Debbie Bunka, a representative from the Iowa Farmers Union.

The participants in last week’s event signify the Leopold Center’s wide reach. Iowa Farmers Union president Aaron Lehman, who farms both organic and conventional row crops, spoke alongside several other farmers who talked about how the Center had supported their work in the fields. Third-generation organic crop and livestock farmers Ellen Walsh Rosmann and Daniel Rosmann spoke about how the Center supported their creation of a food hub that now links over 40 producers in western Iowa to institutions like schools and grocery stores.

Daniel Rosmann said the hub was one tool for supporting Iowa’s struggling rural communities, a topic the Leopold Center had advanced in many ways. “They have created an understanding of what rural communities need to survive and thrive,” he said.

Between 1987 and 2017, the Center awarded more than 500 research grants to study pressing agriculture issues like conservation buffers, rotational grazing, and building local food economies. While Leopold’s focus was on Iowa’s specific food and farm landscape, many of its findings have had national and international impact.

An Iowa State University student collects water infiltration data in a field with cover crops, as part of a Leopold Center supported research project studying the long-term impact of cereal rye on cash crop yields. (Photo courtesy The Leopold Center)

In fact, the day before the press conference, the results of a new Leopold Center study made the news, promising “transformative” change for the dairy industry. The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, identified a new technique for differentiating between milk from grass-fed cows and that from cows fed grain. Fluorescence spectroscopy, the researchers found, measures the amount of chlorophyll metabolites in the milk and found that they were higher in milk from the cows fed grass—a fact that could make it easier for the industry to monitor whether producers using the “grass-fed” claim are truly grazing their cows on pasture.

“This project was started a couple of years ago,” said Leopold Center director Mark Rasmussen. “It was totally coincidental that it came out the very week that the advocacy event happened.”

A Long, Slow Shutdown

Last week’s advocacy event marked a bright moment during a tough year for Rasmussen, who, since the funding disappeared last May, has been presiding over shutting down most of the Center’s operations.

The staff’s first order of business was figuring out how to manage the grants that had already been awarded. They moved up the end dates of some projects so that they could be completed before the end of last year, and transferred 20 projects to the Iowa Nutrient Research Center for completion. Twelve projects were cancelled outright, although four of those found alternative funding.

After dealing with the grants, five of the Center’s staff members were let go, leaving just two: Rasmussen and distinguished fellow Fred Kirschenmann. The duo moved into a smaller office and downsized 30 years of records, taking care to maintain the history and work of the center. They received a commitment from ISU, for example, to keep the Leopold Center’s website up and running, with all past research searchable in the university database.

Finally, they set up listening sessions around the state to hear input on what the future of the Center could be, with the goal of determining a narrower focus with limited resources.

“The old Center is gone; we have to accept that and think of a new Center, a Leopold Center 2.0,” Rasmussen said. “When Leopold Center started it was the only game in town. Thirty years later, there are a bunch of organizations that are focusing on beginning farmers, women in agriculture, you name it.” Using information from the listening sessions, an 11-member volunteer task force conducted a gap analysis to look at where the center should go from here. Findings from the analysis will be presented to the Center’s advisory board in March.

A Path to Rebirth?

If the grassroots advocacy campaign is successful, however, Leopold 2.0 won’t be a stripped-down version of its former self. At the Capitol, the activists—several of whom worked on fighting the Keystone XL pipeline—talked to lawmakers about supporting new legislation that was introduced by state representatives Charles Isenhart and Beth Wessel-Kroeschell. The bill would make $1 million in annual public funding available to the center if ISU’s president first raised the same amount in private funds. Together, the $2 million would equal the Leopold Center’s pre-cutback budget.

“This legislation would provide the opportunity for [ISU] President [Wendy] Wintersteen to demonstrate her commitment to the Leopold Center and deploy her fundraising skills to benefit the Leopold Center, advancing the cause of sustainable agriculture in Iowa,” Rep. Isenhart explained by email.

A Leopold Center-funded a grant project supported Congera Alex, originally from Burundi, shown here transplanting his crops in early spring in a community garden in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo courtesy The Leopold Center)

Iowa Farmers’ Union’s Debbie Bunka said during meetings, however, that support for the bill generally broke down along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed, a fact Isenhart confirmed. “The bill itself is not likely to be considered, unless Rep. [Pat] Grassley [the appropriations chair] is encouraged to do so by agricultural interest groups [such as the Farm Bureau],” Isenhart said. “We will, however, probably offer this as an amendment to the state’s Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environmental Protection Appropriations Bill.”

David Osterberg, the co-founder of the non-partisan Iowa Policy Project and one of the former state senators who created the Leopold Center, blames the influence of agribusiness on legislators’ unwillingness to support the center.

“I’m not sure you can follow the money and find out that each person who voted [to defund the center] also got money from agribusiness,” Osterberg said, “but in general, if you’re a rural legislator you realize that there are a lot of entities you don’t want to piss off. And this legislature seems to be willing to do anything for corporations.”

Bunka confirmed that in meetings, legislators said they perceived the Center as “bashing conventional ag,” which is one reason part of the advocacy group’s mission is educating the public education to help more people understand the Center’s mission and activities.

“This movement is not for the benefit of a small group of people,” Bunka said. “The Leopold Center is internationally known, and they do so much good work that helps conventional farmers, farmers growing organic crops … it’s a wide range of groups. We like to say it’s ‘agriculture research for the common good.’”

Top photo: Aldo Leopold during his 1936-37 trip to the Sierra Madre in Mexico. Photo by the U.S. Forest Service.

No-Till Farmers’ Push for Healthy Soils Ignites a Movement in the Plains

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No-Till Farmers’ Push for Healthy Soils Ignites a Movement in the Plains

No-till farming started as a way to keep costs down for conventional farmers in danger of losing their land. Now it has become a subculture and a way of life for outsider farmers all over rural America. 

By Twilight Greenway                                                                                                 Farming, Rural Environment and Agriculture    Feb. 13, 2018

Editors’ Note: Today, we introduce our year-long reporting series on rural America, the Rural Environment and Agriculture Project (REAP).

Jimmy Emmons isn’t the kind of farmer you might expect to talk for over an hour about rebuilding an ecosystem. And yet, on a recent Wednesday in January, before a group of around 800 farmers, that’s exactly what he did.

After walking onstage at the Hyatt in Wichita, Kansas to upbeat country music and stage lights reminiscent of a Garth Brooks concert, Emmons declared himself a recovering tillage addict. Then he got down to business detailing the way he and his wife Ginger have re-built the soil on their 2,000-acre, third-generation Oklahoma farm.

A high point of the presentation came when the 50-something farmer—who now raises cattle and grows alfalfa, wheat, and canola along with myriad cover crops—described a deep trench he’d dug in one of his fields for the purposes of showing some out of town visitors a subterranean cross-section of his soil. After it rained, Emmons walked down into the trench with his camera phone, and traced the way water had infiltrated the soil. Along the way, the Emmons on stage and the Emmons behind the camera became a kind of chorus of enthusiasm, pointing out earthworm activity, a root that had grown over two-and-a-half feet down, and the layer of dark, carbon-rich soil.

“It was just amazing,” said Emmons in an energetic southern drawl. The water had seeped down over five feet. And the other farmers in the room—a collection of livestock, grain and legume producers mainly from Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, as well as several Canadian provinces who had gathered for the 22nd annual No-till on the Plains conference—nodded their heads in a collective amen.

Most had travelled for hours to hear Emmons and others like him share their soil secrets, their battle scars, and their reasons to hope. And they knew that getting rainwater to truly soak into farmland—instead of hitting dry, dead soil, soaking an inch or two down, and then running laterally off—is a lost art.

Jimmy Emmons on his farm in Leedey, Oklahoma. Courtesy of No-till in the Plains.

The previous morning, the controversial grazing guru Allan Savory had stood on the same stage before the enthusiastic crowd and described the enormous quantity of spent, lifeless soil that erodes into the ocean every year in terms of train cars. “A train load of soil 116 miles long leaves the country every day,” said Savory, quoting the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Or to put it another way, erosion accounts for the loss of around 1.7 billion tons of farmland around the world very year. As that soil escapes, so does an abundance of nitrogen and other nutrients that are slowly killing vast parts of our oceans and lakes. And as agricultural soil dies and disperses, it also releases greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.

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Robin Tait: The soil is the skin of the earth! How do you treat your ‘skin’?!#notill2018 #NuffieldAg #soilhealth #bieberfarms

As the world begins to zero in on the need to bring this soil back to life—as a solution to drought, nitrogen pollution, climate change, and more—farmers like Emmons and others practicing no-till in the middle of the country could play a key role. As they reshape their operations with a focus on things like earthworms and water filtration, and practice a suite of other approaches that fit loosely under the umbrella of “regenerative agriculture,” these farmers are stepping out of the ag mainstream. And while most no-till farmers see organic agriculture as inherently disruptive to the soil, they also have a great deal in common with many of the smaller-scale farmers that are popular with today’s coastal consumers.

These two groups of farmers don’t use the same language to describe what they’re doing (you’re unlikely to hear words like “sustainable” or “climate change” among the no-till set, for instance), but it’s clear that both groups are motivated by the opportunity to be responsible stewards of the land while exploring creative solutions to the status quo. And many no-till farmers are also just as skeptical as their organic counterparts are of the large seed and fertilizer companies they see as running their neighbors’ lives (and controlling their finances).

With Every End Comes a New Beginning

No-till farming has been around for more than half a century, ever since herbicides and precision planting tools allowed farmers to plant crops directly into the soil without disturbing it. But because tilling—or breaking up the soil—is primarily a means to control weeds, farmers who practice no-till have often relied heavily on herbicides to manage weeds instead. For this reason, it has traditionally found a home among conventional farmers looking for a way to improve yields or cut costs—although some no-tillers reject the term “conventional.”

But over the last decade or so, no-till has also become a kind of farming subculture—a world in and of itself. And, as the farmers who gathered in Wichita see it, putting an end to tilling the soil is often just the beginning of a whole range of practices that include growing cover crops, managed grazing, and diversification, i.e., literally increasing the number of cash crops in their rotations.

“No-till without cover crops and crop diversity is still an incomplete system,” Emmons told the crowd.

Together, however, these approaches have the ability to bring back living fungal ecosystems in the soil, retain water and organic matter, and sequester carbon. The farmers who practice them are also eligible for conservation funding from the USDA via the farm bill, and yet they are likely to see a reduction in the amount of available funds in this year’s smaller-than-average bill.

Many of these practices have also made modest gains in popularity recently. According to the USDA’s latest data, by 2010-11, no-till farming had grown to the point where roughly 40 percent of the corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton grown per year in the U.S. used either no-till or a half-step technique called strip-tilling. That works out to around 89 million acres per year. And while it’s unclear just how many of these farmers see no-till as a bridge to other practices—and therefore a way to cut down on the quantities of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers—it’s clear that the path forward is there for those who do.

Photo of dark, carbon-rich soil courtesy of North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

“Those who are truly committed to regenerative ag are trying to use plants in place of [fertilizer and herbicides],” says Steve Swaffer, executive director of Notill on the Plains, the nonprofit that hosts the annual conference. “As your soils heal and go back to a more natural state,” he says, most successful farmers are able to “wean themselves off” chemicals. But he adds that most “haven’t eliminated [herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers] from their toolbox,” entirely even if they see them as last-resort options.

“You can’t quit [synthetic fertilizer and herbicides] cold-turkey,” said Adam Chappell, a fourth-generation farmer from Arkansas who practices no-till and plants cover crops on over 8,000 of the 9,000 acres he farms with his brother. Now that he’s several years into the practice, however, he said, “I don’t need seed treatments for my cotton anymore. I’ve taken the insecticide off my soybeans. I’m working toward getting rid of fungicide … I’m hoping that eventually my soil will be healthy enough that I can get rid of all of it all together.”

Nearly all the farmers who spoke at the conference had similar stories. And while many of the environmental benefits were left implied, the financial benefits were right up front. Emmons reported cutting fuel costs by two-thirds and fertilizer costs by half. Derek Axten, a grain and pulse farmer from southern Saskatchewan, described a major reduction in fungicide use for the high-value chickpeas he grows there. “I used one application while my neighbors used five,” he told the audience. “That works out to about $100 an acre.”

For today’s farmers, many of whom are squeezed financially at every turn, this ability to spend less on inputs is hugely compelling. “It’s not always how much money you make, it’s how much you keep,” Axton told the crowd.

Since this approach requires gradual, system-level changes, however, Emmons underscored, “the first year is going to be crappy. The cover crops aren’t going to work as well as you want and you’ll want to give up. But if you can make it three to four years, you’ll start seeing fungal dominance, more diversity of living organisms in the soil, and more biomass in the system.”

Photo courtesy of No-till on the Plains.

Tension with Organic

There was a resounding disdain at the conference for large organic operations, which many no-till farmers see as “ruining the soil” by tilling it.

Jonathan Lungren, an agroecologist and entomologist who left a job with the USDA in 2015 after filing a whistleblower suit alleging the agency had suppressed his research on bee health and pesticides to start a farm and nonprofit science lab for independent research in North Dakota, is an interesting example of this perspective.

After meeting no-till veteran and minor farm celebrity Gabe Brown and cover crop expert Gail Fuller, Lungren says he was convinced to try their approach. “Some farmers are way ahead of the science when it comes to this stuff,” he said. He contends that, “Insecticides are an addiction. The more you use, the more you need,” and advocated for “changing the whole system, rather than trying to make a broken system work.”

And yet, his disdain for certified organic farms was palpable. “I’ve been on organic farms in California and I wouldn’t eat that food,” he said. “The soil is dust!”

Of course, not all organic farms are the same and while most do practice tillage, they also build fertility slowly using compost, rather than synthetic fertilizer—a fact that some research says makes their practices inherently better for the soil than most conventional systems. And many organic producers also rely on cover crops, green manure, and crop diversity to retain carbon and organic matter in the soil. For instance, a 2017 study from Northwestern University found that soils from organic farms had 13 percent more soil organic matter (SOM) and 26 percent more potential for long-term carbon storage than soils from conventional farms

But Kristine Nichols, former chief scientist for the Rodale Institute—one of the only locations where researchers have long-running plots that combine no-till with organic practices—says that the gradual breakdown to fungal communities in the soil over time in many organic systems can be a serious problem.

“Tilling can start to erode the diversity of the fungi in the soil over time. So you’re going to start getting the loss of certain keystone organisms for providing amino acids and antioxidants that can be very important for human health,” said Nichols. While at Rodale, Nichols worked with researchers at Penn State University to look at an antioxidant and amino acid called ergothioneine, which is produced by soil fungi. They saw a very strong relationship between both the concentration and frequency of tillage and loss off ergothioneine.

As scientists begin to get a firmer grasp on the human microbiome and its relationship with microbial communities in the soil, Nichole believes, “it’s going to start putting more pressure on the organic community to reduce tillage.”

Nichols, who worked with no-till farmers in Nebraska for a decade before going to Rodale, says that while organic farmers tend to see any use of herbicides as “the ultimate evil,” the no-till set feel similarly about tillage. In the same way that no-till farmers are often told to use herbicides only when no other solution is available to them, Nichols likes to challenge organic farmers to see tillage as the choice of last resort.

Steve Swaffer also acknowledged that that sweeping generalization about soil health can be hard to make. “It’s all about management, right? And it’s a human being who makes the decisions about how a farm is managed,” he explained by phone after the event.

“I think that the organic producers have been bastardized somewhat because of the large production and people capitalizing on the premiums that are available,” he said. “I’ve been on these farms where it’s a monoculture of lettuce or spinach and it certainly meets the organic standard, but the dirt that’s being used as a growing medium has no life in it. And yet those people are able to capture those premiums.” Meanwhile, he added, many of the farmers he works with aren’t able to sell the food they grow outside the commodity market. “So I think there’s probably some resentment,” he said.

That feeling is compounded by the fact that many of the farmers who gathered in Wichita are often ostracized in their own communities for stepping outside the expected rules of conventional agriculture.

Soybeans coming up in a rye cover crop. Photo by Lander Legge for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Even Jimmy Emmons, who seems about as self-assured as a farmer can be, acknowledged that he doesn’t even go to his local coffee shop anymore. If he did, he’d hear disapproval from his fellow farmers for doing things like planting his wheat directly into a living stand of plant residue without tilling or grazing his animals on cover crops.

On one panel at the conference, for instance, Adam Chappell responded to a comment made about the science of monoculture by saying, “There is no scientific evidence of the benefit of monoculture, but there is plenty of propaganda. The salesmen tell me constantly that I’m stupid, or that I’ll go broke” because he’s using fewer inputs.

Tuning out those messages, he added, has become a lot easier thanks to the network of other no-till farmers he stays in touch with online—Twitter and YouTube are popular platforms for sharing photos, observations, and videos of one another’s farms—and at conferences like No-till in the Plains.

Reaching Consumers

In some ways, the fact that this approach to farming is based on profiting by cutting costs has liberated the “soil health movement” from the need to make a premium by differentiating in the marketplace. And yet several groups are currently working to do just that through potential certification schemes for regenerative agriculture, making a label likely in the near future.

And because consumers are more likely to spend with their health in mind than the health of the environment, the success of such a label may rely, at least in part, on proving what many no-till and regenerative farmers say they’ve seen anecdotally: that healthier soil leads to more nutrient-dense food. And several of the scientists present in Wichita, like Nichols and Jill Clapperton, farmer and founder of Rhizoterra, hope to help move that research forward.

View image on Twitter

Kris Nichols: Listening to Christine Jones @Notillorg. Have work to do.

At the conference, Australian soil ecologist Christine Jones pointed to research that looked at 27 kinds of vegetables and found that since 1940, the amount of copper present in the food had declined by 76 percent, while calcium had declined by 46 percent, iron by 27 percent, magnesium by 24 percent, and potassium by 16 percent. She and others believe that depleted soil is the culprit. But rather than being deficient in minerals, argued Jones, today’s soils are often deficient in the microbes necessary to help plants access those minerals.

Nichols points to ongoing research at The University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California at Davis aimed at determining the links between soil health and nutritive content in food. And she says some of the preliminary research she has seen suggests that improved soil health could point toward solutions to the obesity crisis as well.

The diluted nutrient content in our food, says Nichols, “basically drives our bodies to have to consume more. Our gut microbiome essentially signals to our brain that it’s starving, and says, ‘eat more food.’”

She hopes that the organic and no-till communities—which are both relatively small on their own—can work together to begin to find solutions. If that doesn’t work, she says, a broader goal of saving soil could inspire unity.

“Organic farmers, conventional farmers, no-till farmers—everyone is seeing soil leaving their farms,’ says Nichols. “Reducing the amount of tillage you’re doing is a very significant way to stop that from occurring.”

Thriving Communities and Thriving Ecosystems through the Bee


Building a world of resilient communities

Thriving Communities and Thriving Ecosystems through the Bee

 By Wangui Kamonji, orig. pub. in Transition Network – January 26, 2018


Wanjiku Mwangi pours out the golden liquid onto her finger checking the flow and the colour. She puts some on her tongue, tastes and smacks her lips. “Yes, this is good honey,” she says.

Wanjiku is a co-founder and director of Porini Association. She has been integrating her spiritual path with reviving traditional nature wisdom in Kenya ever since she was introduced to the spirituality of nature through an immersion program in Botswana in 2004. Over the years Porini has hosted dialogues on indigenous environmental knowledge and laws with communities in Kenya, mapped cultural landscapes, and is now connecting bee custodians along a honey trail that runs from central Kenya to southern Ethiopia.

I sat down with Wanjiku to talk about her path and how this latest project both ensures thriving communities and a thriving environment through bees and honey.

How did you come to this work?

I had worked for government, private sector, and consultancies in Kenya, Tanzania and the UK when I was invited to the Botswana Process. That’s where the story of trying to connect with nature and questing for what African spirituality and what the spirituality in nature is really started. That brought me back to looking at my ancestral lineage and connecting with that. After the process, I and other Kenyans co-founded Porini Association and began to look for communities in Kenya that were still steeped in their indigenous knowledge and connected to nature to continue the dialogues we had begun in Botswana.

How did these dialogues go?

We had numerous dialogues with communities. But we faced a lot of resistance because what communities wanted was money in their pockets. They said “You people are always coming to talk, talk, talk but we want to see where we can do something and get money.” So that niggled me for a long time. And I could see that yes, money is important. That’s how we live today. But how is it that we could get the money and still respect nature?

How did you deal with this challenge?

My answer came rather fortuitously as I held a ritual to bless a piece of land I had bought and one of the elders present gifted me hives.

When we had our first harvest I was really touched to see how much honey the bees had been making while I was just mucking about. That really hit me. So I started the quest to understand bees. And it’s at that point that I saw the question that the communities had been asking about money or prosperity come into play. Honey can give you money. But what I really wanted to stress is that the bees actually point towards nature more than we imagine. Once you start watching the bees and you connect with your bees, you see and learn the different plants they’re going to and which water they’re drinking. So I started connecting with the bees and with time designed the current flag-bearing project for Porini which is An African Honey Trail.

Tell me about An African Honey Trail

I wanted to connect as many ‘honey peoples’ as possible because I felt that they had been forgotten. The ‘bee custodians’, as I like to call them as opposed to beekeepers, had held the space for bees throughout our previous generations. And yet the hunter-gatherer is pitched at the bottom of the strata of livelihoods. Actually they need to be at the top, because without bees the farmer will not have any pollination, the pastoralists will not have wild herbs growing, and even for the fisher-folk, the trees next to the river give flowers that the fish use to rear their young. It dawned on me that there was much need to bring them out of the woodwork and at the same time invite more people to become keepers of the bee.

At the same time I knew that the bees would drive people to be more careful about their ecosystems and their immediate environments because they have to think about what the bees are eating, so they would start to safeguard their environments. So hopefully the project will bring the two together. If somebody raises the question of money it’s there. If you raise the question of the ecosystem it’s there.

You distinguish between bee custodians and beekeepers. Could you tell me about the difference?

An elder, Ole Sikoi, told me, “Don’t go bragging that you have bees, because you don’t own the bees. The bees own you, they choose you. So if they’ve chosen you, you’re very fortunate. And the bees will make you prosperous because they will guide you and show you, and they will make your environment much richer.”

I realised that in all the material I was reading the emphasis tended to be really skewed: have beehives so you can get money, so you can pay your kids’ school-fees, buy a cow, or pay your medical bills. I relegate the word beekeeper to people who only think about the bee for commercial purposes.

You can’t just look at it as the bees making the honey for you to make money because we’re actually robbing the bee of its honey. You’ve got to respect that so that when you harvest, you don’t harvest all the honey. Or in the drought you help the bees with some clean water.

I use bee custodians to distinguish that it’s not all about the money. And the reward from the bee is to allow you to take some of the honey and cash it so that hopefully you can grow the bee some more flowers. So bee custodians is what I’m for. I champion that very much.

African Honey Trail sketch map. Map by Hanna Söderström.

How does the trail function?

We go into communities and find the bee custodians, engage with them, build trust and begin dialogues.

We’ve devised a system to track the ecological calendar. Most of the custodians actually have the calendars in their minds. They know at this time, this acacia is going to bloom. If there’s an impending drought they know so they store their honey. We thought we should start to record these ecological calendars so that new people wanting to get into bee custodianship would begin to see it. To be able to relate to your bees, you need to be in touch with the cycles of nature. You must follow the ecological calendar.

We’ve given out digital cameras for people to photograph flowers so that we can align the naming. We can figure out the botanical names and get to understand names cross-culturally.

We also encourage the custodians to keep diaries. And we say it’s for them really to get back into the pattern of reading the ecology, it’s not to report back.

Then we have quarterly gatherings and people trade their stories. And as we do this, we are collecting indigenous knowledge stories that have been around for years. We want to uplift this because indigenous knowledge has a deeper connection to the bee and to the ecosystem yet the modern bee keeper thinks that modern science is more important and traditional knowledge is not important.

I am also planning to have a beehive stop at the beginning of the trail where we can have an exhibition running, a museum, and then a shop that will sell the honey and other bee products. Honey is such a sacred thing that you don’t want to imagine that it’s going to be adulterated as some middlemen do.

This is also thinking about sustainability because grants are not sustainable. Once you don’t have the grant there’s nothing going on so one has to think about how to get money in a decent way that ploughs back in to the work and especially into the ecosystems which is where it begins.

At this beehive stop we hope to also have a place where we can start to engage children because children are very open and they will always remember. They keep the knowledge and it influences the way they think in the future.

You’ve mentioned as challenges funding coming into Porini; money for communities; people not seeing indigenous knowledge as important; ignorance about the bee and prejudice of people preferring modern technology over indigenous hives. What are some of the ways you confront these challenges?

Well, ultimately I think we are on the path regardless. Because when you look at the indigenous people they never received any funding but they keep at it because that’s their livelihood, that’s their path. So we continue.

What are some triumphs along the way?

Along the honey trail we’ve had rituals in each one of the stops, and the bees have come and occupied the hives so that’s been really good.

The enthusiasm of the younger generation has been overwhelming because I didn’t think they would find it cool enough to get into bees. Hopefully in that coolness and in that engagement they will start to safeguard the environment.

The hives we’ve installed have been well received and appreciated and some communities have gone ahead and installed more of their own. The realization that they had forgotten about the bee for me was quite a bit of an achievement. For example, when a chief in Mount Forole at the end of our dialogues said that they would now start including the bee in their traditional prayers in which they pray about the rain, the children, the livestock, etc.

smoking hives for installation. Image thanks to Porini Association

How do you take care of yourself while doing this work?

There’s always turmoil because I’m trying to hold my path on deepening my spirituality, running an organisation, being the family member that I am, and trying to balance my friendships and other relationships.

The sanctuary I built on this land is where I come and reflect, heal and recharge.

It’s amazing how quick we are to charge our phones, we carry power banks and the minute you walk into a restaurant you’re looking for Wi-Fi and battery outlets but we’re not as quick to recharge our own batteries. It’s a really important thing, and sometimes I have to stop and say – just like the phone goes off and you have to stop and charge it so you also have to stop and recharge your batteries, otherwise you could just fizzle out.

For me nature is where I go for the battery outlet, it’s where I go for the Wi-Fi. It’s where I connect and recharge and then I can pick up another day and start.

What’s your vision for the future of this work, and for Africa’s environment?

In Kenya I want to see a million hives go up. And if each country would adopt a philosophy or a policy to have more hives, the better. Give the bees more homes because at the moment there’s not enough old trees for them to hive in in the forests and our forests are dwindling.

The more people who have hives the more people will say “Oh no, don’t cut that tree. We must plant these flowers for the bees.” So catalysing more hives catalyses more safeguarding of the ecosystem. If more people got on board I think the world would certainly become a better place.

To really get the respect of the bee back and people in the frame of mind where when they see a bee they say “oh wow, wonderful, the crops are going to be pollinated”, or “wonderful, there’s going to be more honey”, not “oh wow I’m going to get bitten”. That’s really my big dream.

                              Ethiopian hives in tree. Image thanks to Porini Association

83 year old Farmer Wendy Bowman wins Goldman prize for grassroots environmental activism

Guardian Australia

December 28, 2017

This was one of our most-viewed videos on Facebook this year.

#BestOf2017: She’s had her water supply contaminated by coalmining, her milk rendered undrinkable,

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Farmer Wendy Bowman wins Goldman environmental prize

This was one of our most-viewed videos on Facebook this year.#BestOf2017: She's had her water supply contaminated by coalmining, her milk rendered undrinkable, and watched her property be coated in coal dust. Meet 83-year-old farmer Wendy Bowman, who refused to sell her Hunter Valley property to make way for a coalmine.

Posted by Guardian Australia on Thursday, December 28, 2017

Honey Bees Attracted to Glyphosate and a Common Fungicide


Honey Bees Attracted to Glyphosate and a Common Fungicide

Modern Farmer

By Dan Nosowitz                      January 12, 2018

All species evolve over time to have distinct preferences for survival. But with rapidly changing synthetic chemicals, sometimes animals don’t have a chance to develop a beneficial aversion to something harmful.

New research from the University of Illinois indicates that honey beeswhich are dying en masse—may actually prefer the taste of flowers laced with pesticides that are likely harmful. The study tested honey bee consumption of different sugar syrups, some plain and some with different concentrations of common pesticides. They found that while the bees didn’t care for syrup with extremely high concentrations of pesticides, at low levels, the bees flocked to those pesticides.

Among the pesticides tested were the ever-controversial glyphosate, the most common pesticide in the U.S., which previous studies have also shown to be attractive to honey bees. Chlorothalonil, which is ranked as the 10th most commonly used fungicide in the U.S., usually on peanuts and potatoes, also proved to attract more honey bees. (The connection between fungicides and honey bee health is not that clear; studies suggest they are not in themselves highly toxic, but in combination with other factors can be dangerous).

The bees did not universally prefer adulterated syrups; the researchers note that they avoided prochloraz, a fungicide sold under the name Sportak. And of course, laced sugar syrup is not the same as a flower in the wild. Still, it’s another alarming bit of news about our bees.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

Trump takes the wrong message to America’s farmers


The Rachel Maddow Show / The Maddow Blog

US President Donald Trump speaks to the media prior to departing on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, October 25, 2017,…Saul Loeb

Trump takes the wrong message to America’s farmers

By Steve Benen        January 9, 2018

Ahead of Donald Trump’s speech to the American Farm Bureau’s annual convention yesterday, the editorial board of the Des Moines Register published a highly unflattering piece, explaining that the president and his team have offered very little so far in the way of “policies that actually help farmers, consumers and rural America.”

“They’re just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer. The USDA is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the U.S. Department of Big Agribusiness.”

Which liberal uttered that? U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. The Republican railed on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in October for killing a rule designed to protect the rights of farmers who raise chickens, cows and hogs for large meat processors. The Farmer Fair Practice Rule was rolled out by USDA under President Barack Obama but never took effect.

The USDA, and agriculture in general, doesn’t seem to be much of a priority to Trump. Seven of the top 13 USDA officials still haven’t been nominated. Perdue is also reorganizing the department in ways that threaten to downplay rural development.

It’s against this backdrop that the president was warmly received in Nashville yesterday, though he said alarmingly little. Trump seemed to understand that he’s enjoyed strong political support in rural areas, but when it came time to present a substantive vision for how intends to help rural communities, he seemed far more eager to celebrate himself.

“Oh, are you happy you voted for me,” Trump said at one point, straying from the prepared text on his trusted teleprompter. “You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege.”

He proceeded to talk about the number of electoral votes he received in 2016 — yes, this remains an area of intense focus for the president — before badly misstating the ways in which the Republican tax plan will affect farmers and taking credit for recent gains on Wall Street. Trump even found the need to request a standing ovation after discussing changes to the estate tax, which, GOP talking points notwithstanding, has very little to do with farm owners. (I don’t recall any modern president ever asking for a standing ovation.)

Trump then signed executive orders on rural broadband that don’t appear to actually do anything.

It was, to a very real extent, a missed opportunity for the president. Because while there may be a cultural connection between rural areas and Republican politics, the New York Times  noted yesterday that some of the economic policies the Trump administration is pursuing “are at odds with what many in the farm industry say is needed.”

[S]ome of the president’s economic policies could actually harm the farm industry. New analyses of the tax law by economists at the Department of Agriculture suggest it could actually lower farm output in the years to come and effectively raise taxes on the lowest-earning farm households, while delivering large gains for the richest farmers.

And the administration’s trade policies continue to be a concern for farmers, who benefit from access to other markets, including by exporting their products. Mr. Trump continues to threaten to withdraw from trade pacts if other countries do not grant the United States a better deal, a position that has put him at odds with much of the farm industry.

This dovetails with an item of ours from last summer, after many farmers expressed disappointment with Trump’s move to kill the Trans Pacific Partnership, which was poised to be a “lifeline” to struggling farms. Rural communities thought the Republican White House might at least offer an alternative to the TPP, but the president never bothered.

How did Trump address these issues in his remarks to the American Farm Bureau? He didn’t — though he had plenty to say about the stock market.

Why depression and suicide are rampant among American farmers

New York Post

Why depression and suicide are rampant among American farmers

By Salena Zito             December 16, 2017

Retired physician Jeffrey Menn

NORWALK, WIS. — Not long ago, a local farmer here plunged into a depression so intense that he could barely muster the strength to leave his bed.

The 40-something father of eight went dark for weeks, despite the enormous amount of daily work needed to keep his family farm going.

“If you are running a small farm, you still have to get up and milk the cows. You got to go put the crops in. There are demands that nature doesn’t let you forget,” explained Jeffrey Menn, a farmer and doctor who was familiar with his friend’s crisis. “His massive depression immobilized him. He couldn’t even get out of bed for two or three weeks. Young guy, but he got himself worked into a hole.

“It’s his wife who’s taken over the operation, and she has, let me tell you. She’s a force of nature. This woman, she gets things done. You know, eight kids, mountain of debt, but she’s out there busting her butt to make things happen.”

It could have been worse for his friend, said Menn. “Depression can lead to suicide. He’s recovered from the deeper parts but in terms of the leadership in the family, that’s now been transferred to his wife.”

A retired physician, Menn is known locally as the “cowboy doctor” for his love of riding horses and western attire. In 37 years of practice, he has become all too familiar with the impact that depression and suicide have had on the lives of farmers and their families in the western counties of Wisconsin, where he works full-time at the Neighborhood Family Clinic.

He is also a farmer.

Menn sees the crippling impact of depression several times a week at the clinic. The first thing he does is make sure visitors are getting counseling “and then we utilize medication like SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) . . . which makes it harder for the patient to get to the darkest point of depression,” he said.

When he heard about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in 2016, which showed farmers take their lives more often than people in any other occupation in this country, including the military, he was not surprised. “There is particularly a lot of depression in rural society. It happens for a lot of different reasons. A lot of it is our roller-coaster economics. People outside of farming, I think, understand that farming is hard work. What they don’t understand is the depth of the lows that can hit you at any one time, with just one small problem that can lead to hundreds of little problems.

“I just had the discussion today with my son-in-law,” he explained. “We sold feeder steers. We missed by about 50 pounds what we were hoping to get. Well, that was about another $15,000 worth of income we’re not going to have. That’s a big deal, because the margins are so tough.”

His brother, who works on the ranch and keeps the books, told him that their diverse operation of crops and livestock should bring in enough money to keep the 3,500-acre ranch going next year. “You know, pay taxes, make sure you have money to pay people, pay for your seed, your fertilizer. And hope to hell no big catastrophes hit you in the side of the head.”

The 2016 CDC study of approximately 40,000 suicides reported in the US in 2012 — the most recent year for which statistics are available — showed that the rate for agriculture workers is 84.5 per 100,000. The next occupation most at risk were construction, extraction, installation, maintenance and repair workers who had a suicide rate hovering around the 50 per 100,000 mark. Meanwhile, the suicide rate among American male veterans is 37 per 100,000, according to a 2016 study by the Veterans Affairs department.

The CDC research suggested that farmers’ exposure to pesticides might affect their neurological system and contribute to depressive symptoms, but for those in the Driftless area of Wisconsin, where Menn has his ranch, organic farming is thriving.

“So that is not a factor,” he said. But constant pressure of financial ruin and a cultural mindset that you should tough something out rather than seek mental-health treatment all contribute to the problem.

Societal changes, leading to a sense of isolation, are also to blame. It used to be that people knew their neighbors and went to church together while their kids attended the same schools.

“That sense of community — physically, spiritually and culturally — has sort of gone out the door,” Menn said.

All across rural America picturesque farms dot our landscape. These are the people who essentially provide the feasts that we will indulge in this Christmas season. The good news is that — like Menn — farmers still love what they do and love being part of this life.

“There’s just something great about seeing the land, seeing it as it is now in the brown and white season. Then it comes to life, and life just comes out of what looks like dead ground. It’s always amazing.”

As we enjoy the fruits of farmers’ labor in the coming days, we should remember their hard work. And never forget their sacrifice.

These Cutting-Edge Farms Are Pioneering Ways To Reduce Their Water


These Cutting-Edge Farms Are Pioneering Ways To Reduce Their Water

In Kansas, “water-technology farms” are developing farming methods and technology to help cut water use by massive amounts. But it might not be enough for the local aquifer to recover.

[Photo: Jonathan Brinkhorst/Unsplash]

By Adele Peters       November 29, 2017

When farmers in Kansas began drilling wells to tap into groundwater in the 1940s and 1950s, they initially thought the water–coming from the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which sprawls over 174,000 square miles in eight states–was an inexhaustible source. Now, studies suggest that the aquifer will be 70% depleted in less than 50 years. So some farmers in the area are now testing technology to help preserve water, and agriculture, as long as possible.

“With the Ogallala Aquifer in decline, it’s not a matter of if it’s going to go dry, it’s when,” says Tom Willis, who owns a farm near Garden City in southwestern Kansas, as well as two ethanol plants in the state. “That puts a severe hardship on my company here.”

Willis wants the farm to last well into the future for his son, and the ethanol plants also rely on local crops to be economically viable. So he decided to participate in a three-year pilot project that the state calls water-technology farms. “I had a very much vested interest in saying, are there technologies out there that allow farmers to be just as productive as they have been, and yet reduce the strain on the aquifer?”

On his farm, sensors now measure how quickly water is drawn from wells, and sensors deep in the soil measure moisture. “To the eye, it may seem like you need to water, but the moisture probe will say you don’t need water yet,” he says. That technology is combined with a precision drip irrigation system that can use as much as 50% less water than standard irrigation. A weather system on the farm measures precipitation, humidity, and wind. He is also experimenting with planting different crops with lower water requirements–wheat, for example, uses far less water than corn.

[Photo: Henry Be/Unsplash]The farm also uses traditional low-spray nozzles, so Willis and advisors from Kansas State Extension can study how much the shift in technology helps. Willis’s farm is one of 15 water-technology farms in the state.

Farming is responsible for more than 90% of the water that comes from the aquifer. The water in it accumulated slowly over time, and agriculture has sucked it dry much more quickly. “It accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years,” says Keith Gido, a professor at Kansas State University. “So once we have the technology to pump that water out, once it’s applied to crops and it evaporates, then it’s lost. That pool of water that’s underground becomes depleted. Just normal rainfall is not enough to recharge the system.”

That affects not only agriculture, but ecology. In a recent paper, Gido and coauthors documented that across one part of the region above the aquifer, 346 miles of streams have already gone dry, and fish habitat has disappeared.

The challenge is large: the states that can access the aquifer have no coordinated plan to save it. And even if farmers implement state of the art technology to save water, they’re prolonging the inevitable: Wells will eventually run dry–many already have.

Still, the water-technology farms can help. “We’re seeing some real farmer champions,” says Daniel Devlin, director of the Kansas Water Resources Institute. “I think that’s leading to a wide discussion there in some areas where they’ve either voluntarily reduced their water consumption, or they’re trying to plan on how to do that. So I’m pretty encouraged. I’m really seeing action out there.”

In one county, he says, farmers voted to reduce water use 20% over a five year period. They ended up exceeding their goal, while maintaining profitability. And new technology, including remote sensing from drones, has yet to be implemented.

“There’s a bunch of stuff that’s going to be available,” says Devlin, who has decades of experience in the field. “I’m frankly surprised. I’m much more encouraged today than I would have ever thought I was five years ago, for example. I see many, many irrigators that really see the problem and they’re trying to make changes, trying to make the water last for more generations than we predicted it would.”

Willis is currently analyzing some of the data from the farm, and says that he–and other farmers–want to see proof that the technology works on large-scale farms like his. That’s one reason that more farmers haven’t already switched to systems like drip irrigation. “With margins out there, they can’t afford a crop failure,” he says. “They can’t afford the capital investment without knowing for sure that it works.”

About The Author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.


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