This Pennsylvania town is rewriting the law to stop fracking waste


This Pennsylvania town is rewriting the law to stop fracking waste

“We thought they would protect us. They wouldn’t.”

Melissa Troutman, one of the directors of the forthcoming documentary Invisible Hand, next to the site of Grant Township’s public meetings. CREDIT: Joshua B. Pribanic for Public Herald

By Jeremy Deaton and Mariana Surillo    July 25, 2017

There only about a dozen countries on Earth that don’t recognize the right to a healthy environment. The United States is one.

Now, a small town in rural western Pennsylvania is asserting the legal right to clean air and water. In doing so, it’s challenging the foundation of U.S. environmental law.

In 2012, Grant Township became a destination for fracking waste. Oil and gas producer Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) applied for a permit to pump wastewater from drilling operations into an injection well beneath the community. Residents were alarmed. Injections can induce earthquakes, and wells can leak, contaminating water supplies. The chemicals used in fracking have been linked to cancer, infertility, and birth defects.

“Water is life, and without water, you don’t have a life.”

“We live in an area that doesn’t have public water. We all live off springs and private wells,” said Judy Wanchism, a 74-year-old native of Grant Township. “You ruin our water, our home is no good anymore. Nothing. You have to have water in order to live, to water your plants, to drink, to bathe, everything… I don’t know how else to say it. Water is life, and without water, you don’t have a life.”

During the permitting process, Wanchism and her neighbors shared their concerns with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to no avail. Regulators must listen to the public, but they don’t have to take those concerns into account. The EPA issued the permit to PGE.

“We thought they would protect us. They wouldn’t,” Wanchism said.

Wanchism enlisted the help of Chad Nicholson, an organizer with the Community-Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a public interest nonprofit law firm based in Pennsylvania. Nicholson is a fierce critic of environmental laws.

“They don’t actually stop the harm from being inflicted on the environment. They regulate the rate or the flow of the harm,” Nicholson said. “Why are we left arguing over the terms of the permit and how much harm we are going to get? Why can’t we just say ‘no’?”

The group worked to craft an ordinance that asserted the “residents of Grant Township, along with natural communities and ecosystems within the Township, possess the right to clean air, water, and soil.” The ordinance banned activities—including the operation of injection wells — that infringed on those rights.

“You have to figure out ways to protect yourself, and that is basically what we did,” Wanchism said.

Major environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, protect human health and property, but they don’t recognize the intrinsic value of ecosystems. “If you want to try to protect a river from pollution upstream, you have to say that you own property on the river and your property values are being decreased,” said Nicholson. “If you don’t have an immediate property interest or economic interest that’s being harmed, it’s very difficult for you to try to use those other laws.”

“We shouldn’t be fighting the DEP. The DEP should be protecting us and helping us.”

The town drafted laws that prohibit pollution “not based on how many trucks per day, not based on how much impact it’s going to have on the waterway or things like that — but prohibit it as a violation of the rights of the people that live in the community,” said Nicholson.

“They have rights to clean air and clean water. They have rights to self-government. They have rights to a sustainable future,” he said.

In 2015, a federal judge overturned the part of the ordinance blocking the operation of an injection well. Grant Township, she said, had exceeded its authority as a second-class township. Residents responded by adopting a home-rule charter, which gave the community more legal authority. The charter asserts “the right to be free from activities which may pose potential risks to clean air, water, and soil.”

In an ironic twist, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is now suing Grant Township, arguing its home-rule charter violates state law. “We shouldn’t be fighting the DEP,” said Wanchism. “The DEP should be protecting us and helping us.”

Grant Township is countersuing the DEP for failing to protect the community. A state court will hear oral arguments this fall. Residents are also dealing with the legal fallout of the original ordinance. PGE claims Grant Township owes the company for damages incurred by blocking the injection well.

“Sometimes, I talk about it as sustainability actually being illegal,” Nicholson said. “If you try to put into place sustainable energy policies for your community, you can be sued by the industry that would be aggrieved by these sustainable policies.”

“We draw a distinction between legal and legitimate.”

At the root of the conflict is a question of rights. Corporations are protected by state and federal laws. They are legally permitted to pollute. But Nicholson contends that laws protecting polluters are not legitimate because they violate citizens’ right to clean air and water.

“We draw a distinction between legal and legitimate,” he said. “If the state or federal government is implementing policies that would allow corporations or other actors to engage in activities that violate rights, then those policies are illegitimate.”

This argument appears to be gaining traction. A group of young Americans is currently suing the federal government for failing to address climate change, which threatens the rights of U.S. citizens. “This intergenerational injustice violates the rights of young people and future generations to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and property, without due process of law,” said Sophie Kivlehan, one the plaintiffs.

Polluters can only operate with the consent of the government. And Grant Township isn’t playing along. Civic leaders are using every available tool to stop polluters. Last year, they legalized nonviolent direct action. Residents can now prevent trucks full of fracking waste from accessing the injection well. The town isn’t backing down from this fight.

“This requires an exhaustive amount of time and energy, mostly on the computer doing research, just trying to figure out who do I call, where do I get help,” said Wanchism. “You have to just keep going.”

Jeremy Deaton and Mariana Surillo write for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.

10 mega myths about farming to remember on your next grocery run

Washington Post-Speaking of Science

10 mega myths about farming to remember on your next grocery run

By Jenna Gallegos        July 24, 2017

Most of us don’t spend our days plowing fields or wrangling cattle. We’re part of the 99 percent of Americans who eat food, but don’t produce it. Because of our intimate relationship with food, and because it’s so crucial to our health and the environment, people should be very concerned about how it’s produced. But we don’t always get it right. Next time you’re at the grocery store, consider these 10 modern myths about the most ancient occupation.

  1. Most farms are corporate-owned

This myth is probably the most pervasive on the list. It is also the furthest off-base. Nearly 99 percent of U.S. farms are family-owned. The vast majority of these are small family farms, but the bulk of our food comes from large family farms.

  1. Food is expensive

Americans spend a considerably smaller percentage of their income on food than they did in the 1960s. Americans also spend among the least amount worldwide on food as a percent of income. We spend less of our money on food than people in many other developed nations.

Between 10 and 20 percent of the cost of food actually reaches the farmer. That means when commodity prices rise or fall, food costs remain relatively constant, buffering consumers from spikes in their grocery bills.

That’s not to say that food isn’t difficult for some American households to afford, and nutrition and obesity experts worry about the relatively high cost of nutrient-rich versus calorie-dense foods.

  1. Farming is traditional and low tech

Self-driving cars are still out of reach for consumers, but tractors have been driving themselves around farms for years. And driving tractors isn’t the only role GPS plays on a farm. Farmers collect geospatial data to monitor variations across a field in soil type, water and nutrient use, temperature, crop yield and more. The average farmer on Farmer’s Business Network, a social media-like platform for farm analytics, collects about four million data points every year. Artificial intelligence helps sort through all this data and maximize performance within a field down to the square meter.

The seeds farmers plant are also carefully crafted by years of state-of-the-art research to maximize yield and efficiency. Gene sequencing and molecular markers help track the best traits when breeding new crops. Chemical mutagens and radiation speed up evolution by introducing new mutations. And genetic engineering enables scientists to move genes between species or turn off genes for undesirable characteristics.

Organic farms are not necessarily any less high-tech. Except for genetic engineering, all the above technologies improve yields on many USDA-certified organic farms.

With all this technology going into modern farms, the demand for skilled workers in the agriculture sector is also rising. In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that jobs in food and agriculture outnumber degrees granted in those fields nearly two to one. Of those job opportunities, 27 percent are in science, technology, engineering or math.

That’s why I switched from a largely pre-med major to plant biology for my PhD. I grew up in a farm and ranch community on the dry eastern plains of Colorado. There, slim margins prevent many farmers from investing in the newest technologies, so I wanted to help make better seeds more affordable.

  1. A pesticide is a pesticide is a pesticide

Pesticide is a generic term for a range of compounds. Different classes target certain types of pests: herbicides for weeds, fungicides for fungi, insecticides for insects, rodenticides for rodents. Some kill very specifically. For example, certain herbicides target only broad-leafed plants, but not grasses. Others, like certain insecticides that can also harm larger animals at high doses, cross categories.

Pesticides fight bugs and weeds in organic and conventional fields. The difference is that organic pesticides cannot be synthesized artificially. This does not necessarily mean they are less toxic. Toxicity depends on the specific compound and a person’s exposure to that compound. Some pesticides, especially older ones, are toxic at relatively low levels. Others are safe even at very high doses. Pesticides also differ in how quickly they break down in the environment.

Different regulations apply to different pesticides. Permits are required to purchase some agricultural chemicals, and many farmers call on crop consultants to diagnose problems in a field and prescribe the proper treatment.

  1. Organic farmers and conventional farmers don’t get along

Adjacent farms have to cooperate regardless of how they grow their crops. For example, potentially damaging herbicides applied to one field can drift onto a neighbor’s crops. Poorly managed weeds or insects can also spread from one field to another.

But many farm families actually grow organic and conventional crops on different fields. Organic and conventional agriculture are different business models. It typically costs more to grow crops organically, but farmers can sell these crops for a higher premium. Some crops are easier to grow organically than others depending on the type of pests they face. Whether a given crop can be grown with more sustainability by conventional or organic methods also differs by crop and by region.

  1. A GMO is a GMO is a GMO

Farmers and plant scientists find the term “GMO,” or genetically modified organism, frustrating. There are many ways to genetically modify a crop inside and outside of a lab. Yet the term GMO and the regulations that go with it are restricted to particular types of genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is a tool that can be used in many different ways. The technique has produced virus-resistant papayas, grains that can survive herbicide application, squash unpalatable to insects and apples that don’t brown. Each of these traits can lead to very different outcomes. For example, herbicide-resistant crops allow an increased use of certain herbicides, while insect-resistant crops enable farmers to use less insecticides.

Each GMO food crop currently or soon to be on U.S. shelves (these include canola, corn, papaya, soybean, squash, sugar beets, apples and potatoes) has been individually tested for safety. Collectively, this research spans two decades and nearly 1,000 studies by multiple independent organizations from all over the world.

  1. Only meat with a “hormone-free” label is hormone free

No meat is hormone-free, because animals (and plants) naturally produce hormones. Use of added hormones is prohibited in all pork and chicken operations. Hormones like estrogen can be used to help cows reach market weight more quickly, but the average man produces tens of thousands of times more estrogen every day than the amount found in a serving of beef from a hormone-treated cow. For a pregnant woman, that figure is in the millions.

  1. Only meat with an “antibiotic-free” label is antibiotic free

All the meat in your grocery store is antibiotic-free. An animal treated with antibiotics cannot be slaughtered until the drugs have cleared its system. The label “ no antibiotics added” or “raised without antibiotics” means that an animal was raised without receiving any antibiotics ever. Overuse of antibiotics in animals that have not actually been diagnosed with a bacterial infection fuels antibiotic resistance and is a major public health concern. On the other hand, forgoing antibiotic treatment if an animal is sick would be inhumane. Labels stating “no sub-therapeutics added” or “not fed antibiotics” mean antibiotics were only used as necessary. 

  1. Foods labeled “natural” are produced differently

Speaking of Science newsletter

The latest and greatest in science news.

Natural food labels don’t actually mean anything. Not yet, anyway. The FDA took public comment last fall and will be discussing whether to regulate “natural” in food labels in the future. Where to draw the line between natural and unnatural is a tough call, and many experts argue it’s irrelevant, because naturalness is not an indication of quality or safety.

  1. Chemicals are the biggest threat to food safety

Biological contaminants are by far the most common food safety issue. Harmful bacterial like E. coli, salmonella or listeria, viruses and parasites can contaminate meat or produce. Thorough cooking, cleaning, and proper food storage are the best defense against these pathogens. For raw vegetables, washing can reduce but not eliminate threat of exposure. Certain raw vegetables, such as those fertilized with manure and those that grow in warm and humid conditions, like alfalfa sprouts, are a higher risk. Diseases such as mad cow disease can also be a food safety concern, but only in extremely rare cases.

Chemicals make their way into foods much less often. These include mycotoxins which are naturally produced by fungi, industrial pollutants, or heavy metals that are naturally found in soils. The Agriculture Department monitors food for pesticide residues annually and per its latest report, “pesticide residues on foods tested are at levels below the tolerances established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and pose no safety concern.”

Read More:

This quiet agricultural ‘moonshot’ could change the future of food

This controversial pesticide could threaten queen bees. The alternatives could be worse.

Nutrition science isn’t broken. It’s just wicked hard.

Punishing drought takes toll on crops across Northern Plains

Miami Herald

Punishing drought takes toll on crops across Northern Plains

The Associated Press     July 23, 2017

Billings, Mont. A punishing drought that stretches across much of the U.S. Northern Plains could cause farmers to lose 64 million bushels of wheat production this year, according to federal officials.

That dire projection comes as northeast Montana experiences the worst drought in the country, with similar dry conditions in neighboring North Dakota and South Dakota. The federal government has declared numerous counties in the three-state region to be disaster areas and authorized haying and grazing on land meant for conservation to help alleviate the conditions.

Federal agriculture officials have labeled as poor or very poor more than half of Montana’s 2017 crops of spring wheat, lentils and durum. Combined, the three crops were valued at more than $600 million in 2016.

A scant 1.2 inches of rain have been recorded since April 1 in the small town of Nashua on the edge of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Ranchers also will lose in this drought, said Ed Hinton, an auctioneer who drives down from Scobey for the weekly sale at the Glasgow Stockyards. Ranchers turn up every Thursday to sell off an animal or two, usually a heifer who didn’t get pregnant, or a belligerent steer not worth the trouble, or the hay now selling for $180 a ton.

There’s nothing like crop insurance for livestock. In times of drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opens up grasslands previously off limits for conservation. After that, there’s low interest loans.

The Thursday sale the week before the Fourth of July brought a thousand cattle to the stockyards, Hinton said, at a time of year when a few hundred cattle at a sale is respectable.

Small farmers push for USDA reforms

The Hill

Small farmers push for USDA reforms

By Sumner Park        July 23, 2017 

Small farmers push for USDA reforms

© Getty Images

Small farm and ranch companies and animal rights activists flew to Washington to meet with lawmakers and push for legislation they say will bring needed reforms to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

At issue are mandatory USDA fees for so-called checkoff programs. Farmers and ranchers are required to pay for federal programs that help market industry products. The funds have been used for such popular and iconic campaigns as the “Got Milk” ads and the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign.

But critics say those programs promote policies for industrialized agriculture, not small farmers and ranchers. The fly-in July 19-20 was organized by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Humane Society Legislative Fund.

“The least we are asking for is transparency,” Eric Swafford, Tennessee HSUS state director and a former state representative told The Hill. “No one can see how these checkoff dollars are being spent, and there is no accountability. The system is inherently broken.”

One of the bills, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, would enforce greater transparency on how the funds are used.

The bill has bipartisan support and was introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Reps. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and Dina Titus (D-Nev.) also are working on companion legislation in the House.

“Federal checkoff programs — which impose a mandatory tax on farmers and ranchers — are in desperate need of reform,” Booker told The Hill. “Checkoff programs need to do a better job of spending their dollars in ways that benefit small family farmers, and the legislation that Senator Lee and I have introduced will increase transparency and help restore trust in checkoff program practices.”

The OFF Act would require checkoff programs to publish all budgets and expenditures of funds and to submit periodic audits by the USDA inspector general.

In 2005, checkoff dollars were ruled as government taxes rather than producer fees, but there is no system for auditing those funds.

Those promotional ad campaigns have helped boost American agriculture, but smaller farmers and ranchers say their needs are not being met. They say the funds are also used to lobby for legislation that promotes the interests of big producers and blame lax oversight at the Agriculture Department.

“These funds are being used to lobby for control over the perceived voice of the American farmer,” Swafford said. “Young and alternative farmers are seeking a voice, but are being deprived of the opportunity.”

One example the fly-in attendees pointed to were the Country of Origin Labeling, which required companies to provide labels informing customers where their meat originated. Small ranchers and farms backed the rule, but it was opposed by larger companies.

Congress repealed the rule in 2015.

“The current system forces responsible farmers to pay into a system of taxes that is used against them,” Mike Weaver, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, told The Hill. “It’s a game of survival for independent family farmers.”

“We are so behind in our food system because it has taken on an industrialized approach,” Pete Eshelmen, owner of Joseph Decuis Farm in Indiana, told The Hill.

Amanda Carter, owner of a private family farm in North Carolina, said there has been a false narrative against alternative agriculture.

Another reform bill, the Voluntary Checkoff Program Participation Act, introduced by Lee and Brat in the House, would take the OFF Act a step further by prohibiting the compulsory checkoff programs altogether.

Many of the attendees were hopeful the Trump administration would back their push.

“If the Trump administration is serious about draining the swamp, fighting for free enterprise and getting rid of regulations,” Eshelmen said. “Then this is the chance for them to prove it.”

Weed killer turns neighbor against neighbor in farm country

ABC News

Weed killer turns neighbor against neighbor in farm country

By Andrew Demillo, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — July 17, 2017

In this Tuesday, July 11, 2017, photo, East Arkansas soybean farmer Reed Storey looks at his field in Marvell, Ark. Storey said half of his soybean crop has shown damage from dicamba, an herbicide that has drifted onto unprotected fields and spawned

In this Tuesday, July 11, 2017, photo, East Arkansas soybean farmer Reed Storey looks at his field in Marvell, Ark. Storey said half of his soybean crop has shown damage from dicamba, an herbicide that has drifted onto unprotected fields and spawned hundreds of complaints from farmers. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

A longtime Arkansas soybean farmer, Mike Wallace thought of his neighbors as a community and always was willing to lend a hand if they faced any hardships with their crops.

“Mike would do anything for any farmer,” his wife, Karen, said. “If there was a farmer who got sick in harvest time or planting time or whatever, he would say, ‘What can I do to help? Here’s my equipment. Here’s my guys. Let’s go do it.'”

But across much of farm country, a dispute over a common weed killer is turning neighbor against neighbor. The furor surrounding the herbicide known as dicamba has quickly become the biggest controversy of its kind in U.S. agriculture, and it is even suspected as a factor in Wallace’s death in October, when he was allegedly shot by a worker from a nearby farm where the chemical had been sprayed.

Concern about the herbicide drifting onto unprotected crops, especially soybeans, has spawned lawsuits and prompted Arkansas and Missouri to impose temporary bans on dicamba. Losses blamed on accidental chemical damage could climb into the tens of millions of dollars, if not higher, and may have a ripple effect on other products that rely on soybeans, including chicken.

The number of complaints “far exceeds anything we’ve ever seen,” Arkansas Plant Board Director Terry Walker recently told lawmakers.

Dicamba has been around for decades, but problems arose over the past couple of years as farmers began to use it on soybean and cotton fields where they planted new seeds engineered to be resistant to the herbicide. Because it can easily evaporate after being applied, the chemical sometimes settles onto neighboring fields. Some farmers illegally sprayed dicamba before federal regulators approved versions that were designed to be less volatile.

The chemical “has made good neighbors look like bad neighbors,” said Reed Storey, an Arkansas farmer who says about half of his soybean crop has shown damage from drifting dicamba.

As the herbicide was put into broader use, complaints began pouring in from farmers in Arkansas and other states. Crops near many dicamba-treated soybean fields turned up with leaves that were cupped and crinkled. The Plant Board has received more than 630 complaints about dicamba so far this year, many more than the 250 or so total complaints normally received in a full year. Complaints have also been registered in Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee.

The issue illustrates the struggle to control agricultural pests as they gradually mutate to render the chemicals used against them less effective. And while some farmers fear damage from their neighbors’ dicamba, others are worried that their fields will be defenseless against weeds without it.

The drifting herbicide has been particularly damaging for soybeans. A group of farmers in Arkansas filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against BASF and Monsanto, which make dicamba.

The chemical has hurt other crops too, including vegetables and peanuts. As the damage piles up, dicamba has also made it more difficult for one company, Ozark Mountain Poultry, to find non-genetically modified soybeans to use as feed for chickens because more farmers are relying on seeds engineered by Monsanto to resist the herbicide. Non-modified soybeans are needed to market chicken as non-GMO.

Dicamba’s makers insist the problem is not with the herbicide but how some farmers apply it. They say the states should focus on other restrictions, such as limiting spraying to daytime hours.

“It is premature at this point to conclude that it is a fault of the product,” Dan Westberg of BASF told lawmakers this month.

Farmers say the herbicide is desperately needed to kill pigweed, which can grow and spread seeds rapidly, threatening a soybean farmer’s yield.

“We cannot lose this technology,” Perry Galloway, an Arkansas farmer who has used dicamba and dicamba-tolerant soybean seeds. “We’ve come too far at this point to just throw it away.”

It’s not clear what states will do about the herbicide after this year. Missouri lifted its sale-and-use ban for three dicamba herbicides after approving new labels and restrictions for its use. The ban on other dicamba products will be in effect until Dec. 1. Arkansas’ ban expires in November. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said a task force needs to study the issue further.

“This debate will continue into future planting seasons, and Arkansas needs a long-term solution,” he wrote in a letter last month to state agriculture officials.

Wallace’s relatives said they are glad the herbicide will be banned for the time being in Arkansas. For them, too much damage has already been done.

Farm worker Allan Curtis Jones, 27, is accused of shooting Wallace, 55, in a confrontation over dicamba, which Wallace believed had drifted from the farm where Jones worked to damage his soybean crop.

Jones told authorities that Wallace called him to talk about the spraying. Jones brought his cousin with him as a witness because he believed Wallace wanted to fight, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in October.

When the two men met, Jones told police, Wallace grabbed him by the arm. Jones said he pulled a handgun from his pocket and fired “until the gun was empty,” Mississippi County Sheriff Dale Cook told the paper. He is set to go on trial this fall.

Wallace “did not want to hurt his neighbor, and he could not understand why people would spray things that would hurt others,” said Kerin Hawkins, his sister, who has also seen crops damaged by dicamba. “He could not understand because you were supposed to be a good neighbor.”

American farmers are facing a political paradox because of Republicans’ hard line on immigration

Business Insider

American farmers are facing a political paradox because of Republicans’ hard line on immigration

Dana Varinsky        July 8, 2017

  • US dairy farmers tend to be conservatives, but many depend on immigrant workers to keep their operations running.
  • Republicans’ tough stance on immigration has created a political rift between some farmers and their representatives.
  • This disconnect highlights the complicated place farmers hold in American politics.

MAURICE, Iowa — The congressman who has represented northwest Iowa for 15 years once suggested that Mexican immigrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes” from smuggling drugs across the border. He has been seen with a Confederate flag on his desk (though Iowa supported the Union Army), and he tweeted in March that the US “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

He even built a model of a border wall on the floor of Congress in 2006 — nearly a decade before Donald Trump adopted the cause.

But on the farms that fill Steve King’s district, his constituents have more nuanced, complicated politics than the Republican congressman’s rhetoric might suggest.

Thousands of immigrants have moved to northwest Iowa in recent decades, attracted by farms and meat producers in need of workers willing to raise pigs, milk cows, or butcher animals. Between 2000 and 2015, the Latino population in Sioux Center, one of the larger cities in the district, more than tripled. According to the census, King’s district is now home to nearly 50,000 people who consider themselves Hispanic or Latino — about 6% of the area’s population.

That means that even some of King’s supporters — he took 61% of the vote in November — are being forced to reconcile their conservative politics with a business reality that has taken on a moral weight. They rely on immigrants, and some will go to extraordinary lengths to support them.

‘They’ve done everything as a citizen should’

Maassen Dairy sits on a rural, unpaved road in Maurice, Iowa, less than half an hour from the South Dakota border. The Maassen family started producing milk on the land with about 15 cows during the 1920s. Five generations later, that number has grown to more than 1,300, and the animals spend their days in a covered, open-air barn, a pile of food easily reachable through a metal gate.

Lee Maassen grew up on the farm and started working there full-time soon after he got married at age 20. He now runs the operation with his sons.

On nearly every issue, Maassen is a reliably conservative voter. He supported King and Trump in the latest election. He agrees with King’s positions on limiting environmental regulation, he said, and on what Maassen refers to as “morality issues” like abortion.

But on immigration, they diverge. For the past 30 years, the Maassen family has been hiring more and more immigrant workers — of the 26 employees currently at Maassen Dairy, 16 are immigrants, mostly from Mexico. The family has even sponsored many to apply for citizenship. Often, that involved accompanying the workers on the more than two-hour drive to the Mexican consulate in Omaha, Nebraska, since there isn’t one in Iowa.

Maassen estimates his family has successfully helped half a dozen immigrant workers become citizens since they hired their first Mexican employee in 1985.

“All of our workers, they’ve paid their full amount of federal income tax, full amount of state tax. They’ve done everything as a citizen should,” he told Business Insider. “So why shouldn’t they be granted that? That’s why we need some reform.”

Maassen knows, however, that his idea of reform doesn’t align with the one espoused by King and other Republican politicians — especially since Trump’s election.

“The stance is sometimes really negative: Anybody that’s not classified, an immigrant, we’re going to send them all back, we’re going to close down the border, whatever,” he said of those with hardline stances on immigration. “But I’m thinking, do you really understand what the full impact of that would be?”

Immigrants or robots

Farmers are fairly accustomed to occupying a unique, complicated place in American politics.

They make up less than 2% of the US population, but their work has a dramatically disproportionate effect on the country’s economy. Environmental regulations affect them heavily, yet a changing climate can threaten their livelihoods. They generally vote Republican, but plenty of crop farmers utilize government insurance subsidies, and many in the industry are wary of big business and increasing consolidation.

Plus, free trade has proved a boon for agriculture — the value of US dairy-product exports more than quadrupled from 2004 to 2014, and pork exports have increased nearly eleven-fold since 2000 — but farmers were left in a lurch after both Democrats and Republicans came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the 2016 election.

However, nowhere is farmers’ complex political position clearer than on immigration.

The Department of Agriculture estimated that only about 22% of the country’s crop farm workers in 2013 and 2014 were born in the US. Immigrants also permeate many other agricultural sectors that get less attention. Dairy workers aren’t employed seasonally. They don’t toil in fields picking delicate fruit like grapes or strawberries. And many don’t work anywhere near the Mexico-US border.

No nationally gathered statistics are available about laborers in livestock industries. But in a report put together for the National Milk Producers Federation in 2015 based on a survey of 1,000 dairy farms around the country, responses indicated that immigrants accounted for 51% of all dairy labor in the US, and that dairies employing immigrants produced 79% of the country’s total milk supply.

It’s the physical nature of dairy farming, Maassen said, that has made it almost impossible to fill positions with Iowa natives.

“We can’t find enough employees to fulfill the job role,” he said. “We need immigrant labor in order to do that.”

A crackdown on immigration would dramatically affect Maassen’s business — and the dairy industry overall. The NMPF report estimated that eliminating immigrant labor would cause the total number of dairy farms in the US to drop by over 7,000 and retail milk prices to increase by 90%.

“We’ve thought about that and considered what’s our disaster program if that would happen,” Maassen said of that worst-case scenario. “It would affect us greatly. We’d have to make some adjustments to how we’d hire the labor in order to do it. We’d have to switch over to all robots.”

Some dairy farms around the US have installed robotic milking machines to eliminate the problems that come from labor shortages and employee management. But for now, Maassen is sticking with his workers.

‘What more could one want, right?’

The cows at Maassen Dairy get milked three times a day, seven days a week. There are shifts around the clock.

Pilar Garrido spends her eight-hour shift in the farm’s milking parlor with two other employees, Mexican radio playing as groups of well-trained cows file onto elevated platforms. Garrido and her colleagues walk by each cow and coat her udders with a disinfecting cleaner, which stimulates the cow to let her milk down, the same way a nuzzling calf might.

After the cows have been cleaned and wiped, the workers attach milking tubes to each teat. The tubes pop off when the supply of milk is exhausted, and then the workers clean the udders once more before the cows leave and a new group is herded in.

“It’s hard because you’re working the whole eight hours, moving your feet, arms, the whole body,” Garrido, who emigrated to the US from Pachuca, Mexico, 15 years ago, told Business Insider in Spanish while the cows were being milked. “You arrive [home] wanting to bathe and go to sleep and not think about anything.”

Garrido and the others who do this work must power-wash the parlor several times per day. Other workers must also replenish the cows’ food and push it back into accessible piles. A few are in charge of herding the groups into the milking parlor. And then there are the cows ready for artificial insemination, since dairy cows are kept in a nearly permanent postpartum state. And there are the inevitable calves that need tending to.

Garrido said she grew up in a humble, country family and enjoys being with animals. But the work was all new to Mirza Salazar, who shares a shift with Garrido.

“I had an office career,” Salazar said in Spanish as Garrido tended to the cows behind her. She moved from Mexico City to Iowa in 2005, she said, because she had family in the area.

“Here, I learned to milk, about the outdoors, about maternity, I learned all of this,” Salazar said. “It’s very different. It’s tough. It’s simple, but it’s also humble, and it’s a job.”

Salazar and Garrido both fled abusive husbands — Salazar left hers in Mexico, and Garrido separated from hers in Chicago. Each is now raising kids solo. Garrido earns $11.25 an hour and manages to send money back to her parents in Mexico every month or two on top of providing for her kids.

“What more could one want, right? To improve and continue moving forward,” she said. “This is a lovely job, very honorable, and I like it.”

Fear, dialogue, and compromise

Step off Maassen’s farm, and there’s more fear. Garrido said she respected Trump and his decisions but had heard of many in the immigrant community losing hope.

“It causes a lot of remorse to go out into the street, and you don’t know if you’re going to return,” she said. “It’s almost as if you’re like, ‘Oh God, help me to get to work, and God help me to return home.'”

Maassen knows his employees have a heightened awareness of immigration politics since the presidential election. He, too, worries about Trump’s and King’s positions on the issue.

“I had some fear,” he said of King’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. “That’s why we met with Steve King a number of times, just to say, ‘Do you realize?'”

Maassen Dairy is part of an industry group called the Western Iowa Dairy Alliance, which has organized discussions between the state’s dairy farmers and their political representatives. Through those efforts, Maassen attempted to explain his situation to King a couple of years ago. He has also met with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.

King did not return Business Insider’s request for comment on those meetings, and WIDA representatives said they didn’t believe the conversations led to any noticeable changes in King’s position. But Maassen believes the group did have some success in conveying to King what the consequences of an immigration crackdown would be for his voters. He thinks Trump, too, has been tempered since the campaign.

“Even from a conservative approach, there’s compromise being done already on that as we’re working through it, working for an alternative,” Maassen said.

He might be right — Trump told farmers at a roundtable in May that he would make sure his tough immigration-enforcement policies wouldn’t harm the agriculture industry. And despite King’s years of inflammatory comments, the congressman hasn’t succeeded in enacting many laws that have changed how Maassen goes about his business or his hiring.

That leaves Maassen free to base his vote on the other issues that matter to him — abortion, regulation, taxes. And it leaves King free to keep stepping into the bright spotlight of controversy, all the while hanging onto a decade-old model of a wall that’s unlikely to be built.

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Damage From Wayward Weedkiller Keeps Growing

NPR   Food For Thought

Damage From Wayward Weedkiller Keeps Growing

Dan Charles    July 6, 2017

Two weeks ago, in a remarkable move, the State Plant Board of Arkansas voted to ban the sale and use of a weedkiller called dicamba. It took that action after a wave of complaints about dicamba drifting into neighboring fields and damaging other crops, especially soybeans.

That ban is still waiting to go into force. It requires approval from a committee of the state legislature, which will meet on Friday.

Estimates of dicamba’s damage, however, continue to increase. Since the Plant Board’s vote, the number of dicamba-related complaints in Arkansas has soared to 550. Reports of damage also are increasing in the neighboring states of Tennessee, Missouri and Mississippi. The total area of damaged soybean fields could reach 2 million acres.

“I’ve never seen anything even close to this,” says Larry Steckel, a weed specialist at the University of Tennessee. “We have drift issues every year in a handful of fields, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Dicamba is not a new weedkiller; it’s been around for 50 years. It’s being used in a new way, though, because the biotech company Monsanto is now selling new soybean and cotton varieties that have been genetically altered to tolerate dicamba.

Farmers are spraying dicamba on those new crops, and they report that it’s working great, killing weeds that farmers have struggled to control lately.

The problem is, dicamba doesn’t always stay where it’s supposed to. In hot weather, dicamba turns into a gas that apparently can drift for miles. And soybeans that haven’t been specifically engineered to tolerate dicamba are extremely sensitive to it.

According to Steckel, soybean farmers in western Tennessee are in one of two camps. Perhaps 60 percent of them are spraying dicamba, because they invested in Monsanto’s new dicamba-tolerant crops. The rest, with soybeans that are vulnerable, likely have seen some fields damaged.

Steckel says it’s difficult to predict how much this will take out of farmers’ pockets. Some of the injured soybeans may recover and produce a normal-size harvest. Others probably will not. Some fields have been hit by drifting dicamba multiple times.

Tom Burnham, who farms land in Mississippi County, Arkansas, and across the state line in Missouri, is one of the farmers pushing for a ban on dicamba spraying. “This technology cannot be allowed to exist,” he says. “It cannot co-exist with other crops.”

In theory, if every farmer bought Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant soybeans, then their crops all would be safe from dicamba drift. But Burham says “it’s ludicrous to expect everybody to plant this, just to defend themselves. And that doesn’t address vegetable growers, people with orchards, people with vineyards. They’re going to be economically harmed, too.”

Other farmers, meanwhile, who’ve bought dicamba-tolerant seeds and want to use the chemical, have argued for their right to spray dicamba.

Monsanto’s head of crop protection, in an interview posted on the site of CropLife, an industry website, said that farmers were still learning how to use dicamba safely. The current problems, he said, were “just part of the learning curve.”

Amish farmers square off against Big Organic in milk battle

Washington Post Business

Amish farmers square off against Big Organic in milk battle

By Peter Whoriskey    July 5, 2017

KALONA, Iowa — This small town has become a landmark in the organic-farm movement, and it has nothing to do with foodies or hippies.

Instead it has been Amish farmers who, in their suspenders and wide-brimmed hats, have helped develop one of the densest clusters of organic farms in the United States. More than 90 operations certified by the Agriculture Department have emerged within a 10-mile radius, producing, among other things, corn, soybeans, eggs and, perhaps most important, milk.

“This is our living and our way of life,” said Eldon T. Miller, 71, an Amish dairy farmer here. A little over 20 years ago, Miller began holding informational meetings in his basement about organics, and the idea slowly spread across the area.

The question for small organic dairy farmers is how long they can hold out against growing competition from very big dairies producing large volumes of organic milk that, in the view of many here, does not deserve the label.

A glut of organic milk has sunk prices across the United States, threatening livelihoods and rekindling long-standing suspicions that some of the large organic dairies that have emerged are swamping the market with milk that does not meet organic standards. Over the years, some of these very large dairies, most of them in the West, have been cited for violating organic rules by the USDA or inspection agencies. To the chagrin of many here, most have been allowed to continue operating.

[How millions of cartons of ‘organic’ milk contain an oil brewed in industrial vats of algae]

Then, last month, The Washington Post reported that one of the nation’s largest dairy producers, Colorado-based Aurora Organic Dairy, a supplier to Walmart, Costco and Albertsons, appeared to fall short of organic grazing standards.

“Nobody’s real happy right now,” said James Swantz, an Amish father of eight who milks about 70 cows here. “We’d like to know what our milk check will be, and right now we can’t tell.”

Over the past year, the price of wholesale organic milk sold by Kalona farms has dropped by more than 33 percent. Some of their milk — as much as 15 percent of it — is being sold at the same price as regular milk or just dumped onto the ground, according to a local processor. Organic milk from other small farmers across the United States is also being dumped at similar rates, according to industry figures.

“At first, when the prices started falling, the guys here were just really mad,” said Phil Forbes, a liaison between the Amish farmers here and the company that buys their milk and sells it under a brand called Kalona SuperNatural, which can be found at Whole Foods and similar grocers. “But it’s been going on so long, they’re telling me, ‘I can’t keep going much longer at these prices.’ What kills me is the customers of those big brands think it’s something like a small Amish farmer who is producing the milk. But the reality is quite different.”

What makes milk ‘USDA Organic’?

The central issue in the debates over whether the mega-dairies are producing legitimately organic milk revolve around the concept of “grass-fed.”

Organic cows are supposed to be grass-fed during grazing season, and many consumers prefer grass-fed milk in the belief that grazing is more natural, is better for the cows and produces higher-quality milk. It is one of the reasons that people pay roughly double for milk with the “USDA Organic” label.

Organic dairies, on the other hand, have an incentive to skimp on grazing: A grass-fed cow produces less milk; keeping a cow in a feed lot eating grain boosts production. Adding to the suspicions about the industry, there is statistical evidence of a curiously large increase in the amount of milk each organic cow is producing.

Between 2008 and 2015, the number of organic cows in the United States rose from 202,000 to 229,000, a jump of about 13 percent. The amount of organic milk products, however, rose from 1.8 billion pounds to 2.4 billion pounds, a 35 percent jump, according to USDA statistics.

Why did the amount of organic milk rise almost three times as fast as the number of organic cows? Some of the increase in production is attributable to better practices, said Edward Maltby, chief of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. Some of it could be from the larger dairies reducing the amount of grazing to the very minimum required by the regulations.

“But the reason for such a large jump,” Maltby said, also has to do with “the increase in those mostly larger herds where the cows are fed in the barn instead of going out to pasture as the organic regulations require.”

Questions about enforcement

Another reason for skepticism about whether the milk from these large dairies is truly organic arises from the perception that enforcement of “USDA Organic” standards has been lax.

To manage enforcement, the USDA relies on inspection agencies hired by the farmers. The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based watchdog group representing small farmers and consumers, has filed repeated complaints against some of the massive dairies out West. But even when violations are reported, punishments can be mild.

Ten years ago, for example, the USDA found “willful violations” of organic standards at Aurora because of, among other things, a lack of grazing. In 2008, an inspection agency found that the Rockview Farms operation in Nevada was violating the organic pasture requirement and suggested that related dairy records could have been falsified. In 2010, an inspection agency proposed suspension of a large Arizona dairy, known as Shamrock, for denying pasture to its herd.

In those three cases, however, the USDA did not fine the dairies for the violations of organic rules even though the agency has the power to do so.

These investigations all began with Cornucopia, not the USDA or the inspection agencies. “The USDA has shown a remarkable lack of interest in whether these big organic dairies are really organic,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute. “Most times, they don’t even investigate. And when they find a problem, there’s very little punishment, if any. It’s a gross betrayal of the spirit of the organic law.”

Many retailers, thus far, have continued to trust the “USDA Organic” seal on milk from the large mega-dairies. The Post reported last month that, based on visits to pastures and a chemical analysis of the milk, Aurora appears to be falling short of organic grazing requirements. In response, Aurora said it operates according to organic standards.

Reactions from the major retailers that use Aurora milk as their house-brand milk were varied. Walmart would not say whether it will continue to use Aurora’s organic milk.

Costco said it has “investigated” but will continue to use Aurora: “Costco Wholesale has discussed with Aurora and otherwise investigated recent media statements concerning Aurora,” John Sullivan, a company senior vice president and general counsel, wrote in an email. “Costco has satisfied itself that its continued reliance on the [National Organic Program] certification of Aurora’s organic milk remains appropriate.”

From Albertsons: “Aurora is a minority supplier to Albertsons for our O Organic brand today and we will continue to ensure through our agreement with [inspection agency Quality Assurance International] that they are compliant with all Organic standards.”

The USDA said it is reviewing the information provided in The Post’s reporting, but others said the agency ought to be doing more enforcement. “The USDA ought to have boots on the ground at Aurora,” said Richard Mathews, former assistant deputy of the USDA office that oversees the organic program and other efforts. “But they don’t. They should be looking at farmers. They should be looking at certifiers. If they’re not doing that, they’re not doing it right.”

Bigger herds need bigger pastures

While consumers might picture organic milk coming from a small family farm, the reality is often quite different.

Much of that milk is being produced by huge dairies with thousands of cows, including a few with herds of more than 10,000 animals. By contrast, the average herd at an organic dairy is about 100 cows, and in Kalona the herd sizes are even smaller. The large dairies are staffed by employees rather than family members.

The difference between the mega-dairies and the typical organic dairy is not just a matter of scale. Most of the large, new dairies have emerged in Western states — Colorado, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico — where the weather is drier and pasture is harder to grow, but where the land is cheaper.

But it is the vast scale of the mega-dairies out West that raises suspicions around Kalona.

The larger the herd, the more pasture is required to feed it. But at a certain point, the acreage needed to feed a herd grows so large that it’s impractical to expect a cow to walk all the way to the pasture’s outer edges to graze and then back to the barn, typically twice day, to get milked. Some farms do have multiple milking facilities.

[The surprising number of American adults who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows]

“We know with that high concentration of cows that it’s impossible to meet the grazing rule,” Swantz said. “They’re not organic. No way.”

During a break driving a steel-wheeled tractor over his fields, Amish farmer Glen Mast asked, “Fifteen thousand cows out there, and that’s certified organic?”

“The cows would go hungry looking for grass,” Miller said, asserting that the Iowa pasture is better than any out West. “Those cows probably get as much cactus as grass.”

The Kalona farmers say the organic movement dovetails with Amish ideals. The higher prices on organic products allow their small farms to turn a profit, allowing community members to stay on the farm and away from town. (Their tractors have steel wheels to lessen the temptation to head off the farm, too.) And some said they had harbored doubts about the health effects of the chemicals they had used on their fields before going organic.

“The Amish are more inclined to doing things naturally,” Mast said as his oldest son worked a tractor. Mast, 38, has seven children, ages 1 to 14. “We have large families, and we have a close connection to the soil.”

But critical to the future of organic dairy, several here said, is for the USDA and the inspection agencies to enforce the organic rules on the large players in the industry.

“The little guy is getting hurt here,” said Bill Evans, who shares ownership with a trust of Amish farmers of the processing company behind the Kalona SuperNatural brand. “The USDA really needs to apply the rules. Otherwise, it’s not a fair game.”

Peter Whoriskey is a staff writer for The Washington Post handling projects in business, healthcare and health. You can email him at:

Deny ‘Til You Die


Deny ‘Til You Die

Scott Pruitt and Co. can talk all they want. The storms are coming.

By Charles P. Pierce    June 20, 2017

It seems that it’s too hot in Phoenix these days for airplanes to fly, or at least that’s what USA Today tells us.

Extreme heat affects a plane’s ability to take off. Hot air is less dense than cold air, and the hotter the temperature, the more speed a plane needs to lift off. A runway might not be long enough to allow a plane to achieve the necessary extra speed.

The Phoenix area is going to experience heat in excess of 115 degrees for a while. This is not merely uncomfortable; it’s damned near uninhabitable. But at least, unlike Portugal, Phoenix isn’t burning down at the moment. From the BBC:

The week’s highest temperatures of around 38C (100F) are expected on Tuesday and together with windy conditions could reignite fires already quelled. Civil protection officials say although 70% of the fire is under control, what remains is a source “of great concern”. At least 64 people have died in the fires since Saturday. The latest of the victims was identified as a 40-year-old firefighter who died in hospital. Many died inside their cars or a short distance away from them as they tried to flee. More than 130 other people have been injured.

Here is where I remind you that we have a president* committed, at least rhetorically, to reviving the dead coal industry, and who was loudly applauded by the members of his party—and quietly applauded by the CEOs who own them—for pulling the US out of the Paris climate accords, and who installed at the Environmental Protection Agency an extraction industry sublet who doesn’t even believe that Carbon dioxide and climate change have anything to do with each other. In turn, this cluck appointed a former lobbyist for various polluters to head the enforcement division of the EPA, which, in any case, is savaged in the new proposed federal budget.

Hugely anomalous and destructive weather events are going to be the new normal in no small part because a hugely anomalous and destructive political event took place last November. Some day, that whole election may be looked on as a crime against humanity.

Oh yeah, Louisiana has the first bull’s-eye of the season painted on it.

Report: 1 In 5 Plants In Danger Of Extinction

MintPress News

Report: 1 In 5 Plants In Danger Of Extinction

The number one cause of plant extinction, according to the study, is habitat destruction.

By Amelia Kinney     June 20, 2017

Experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew have just published their second ever State of the World’s Plants report. They reveal there are 390,000 known species of plants, with over 30,000 being used by humans. Unfortunately, the report also says that 1 in 5 plant species are in danger of extinction.

“Plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind. Plants provide us with everything – food, fuel, medicines, timber and they are incredibly important for our climate regulation. Without plants, we would not be here. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.” said Prof. Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew.

The biggest driving factor behind plant extinction is the loss of habitat. Loss of habitat is caused by farming, deforestation and infrastructure expansion. Climate change isn’t currently a major contributor, but the report warns that it will have a dramatic impact on plants within the next 30 years.

On a positive note, new scientific discoveries offer hope. “I find that really encouraging and exciting. We are still finding new species of trees, new species of food: five new species of onion were found last year, for example.” says Prof. Willis.

She went on to say, “There are huge areas of the world where we just don’t know what is growing there. They may hold the key to the future of food. Genetic diversity in our foods is becoming poorer and poorer.”

The report references the global challenges of “population size, land-use change, plant diseases and pests” and says preserving biodiversity is urgent, as well as finding and conserving wild relatives of crops.

Major agriculture companies like Monsanto put world food security in jeopardy by propagating homogenous crops, known as “mono-cropping”. This is in contradiction with natural evolutionary processes which promote strong diverse crops with area-specific defenses and characteristics.

“As the global population rises and the pressure increases on our global food system, so does our dependence on the global crops and production systems that feed us. The price of failure of any of these crops will become very high.” says Luigi Guarino, senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

According to the report, “Having access to this large and diverse genetic pool is essential if we are to furnish crops with the valuable traits that enable resilience to climate change, pests and diseases, and ultimately underpin global food security.”

Watch State of the World’s Plants 2017 by Kew: