A truck outside Mike Farm Enterprises south of Dayton. A variety of farm and nutrition programs are at risk since the Farm Bill expired Oct. 1.
Remember the Farm Bill? The omnibus law that funds food stamps, crop insurance, and a slew of farm subsidies? At midnight Monday, a nine-month extension of the latest version of that bill expired, which means for the moment, the law reverts to its 1949 version.
MacKenzie Bailey with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association says the ongoing insecurity over the bill makes life harder for organic farmers.
“Farmers rely on programs like farmers market promotion programs that help put investments in our local farmers markets, the national organic cost share program, which helps alleviate the costs of organic certification,” she said.
This expiration won’t immediately affect food assistance or crop insurance. But a safety net program for dairy farmers that keeps down the price of milk, support for seniors to shop at farmers markets, and international food aid in the bill are among the programs to be suspended. If no new bill is passed by Jan. 1, 2014, consumers could see those changes on the shelves.
The two houses of Congress had been playing ping-pong with the bill after the House stripped out the food stamp program, known as SNAP, and sent the Senate two separate bills. The House version of the SNAP program included $40 billion in cuts rejected by the Senate, which proposed around $4 billion in cuts and insisted on keeping the farm programs and nutrition programs in one bill.
The federal-government shutdown and the looming debt-limit fight have dominated the headlines the past week.
But a constituency that includes small farmers has been dealing with consternation caused by a different federal concern. Dozens of programs that create jobs, invest in the next generation of farmers and protect the environment lost their federal funding when farming legislation expired at midnight on Monday.
The most-profound effects could be years away, when new businesses, products or farming innovations fail to come to market for lack of funding.
“Enough is enough,” MacKenzie Bailey, policy program coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in Columbus, wrote in a statement. “Farmers have been without a farm bill for a year.”
Congressional funding for nutrition and crop-insurance programs, which account for about 90 percent of the farm-legislation budget, is permanent and not affected by the lapse.
However, funding for programs that help specialty-crop growers, new farmers and farmers markets, as well as farm-related conservation, must be renewed by a farm bill, typically every five years. The most recent farm legislation expired a year ago, and a nine-month extension expired on Monday.
In spite of a partial government shutdown, some work on a new farm bill is being done in Washington, D.C., said Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of legislative and regulatory policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
Programs for dairy farmers won’t be affected until the end of the year, and those for farmers who grow commodities such as grain and cotton, next spring.
However, farmers who want to enroll new acreage in agricultural-conservation programs will have to wait for new funding from Congress. So will farmers who use agricultural-export programs.
The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which provides low-income seniors with coupons that can be exchanged for food at farmers markets, roadside stands and community-supported agriculture programs, also has lost its funding.
Toledo Farmers Market used a grant from the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, now unfunded, to recruit vendors, establish and promote an electronic benefit-transfer system for food-stamp recipients, and build relationships with community partners that provided additional funding and support, said the Ecological Food and Farm Association’s Bailey.
And a three-year, $740,096 grant from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program enabled Ohio State University Extension to help new farmers — many of them women, minorities, immigrants and the disabled — to start tilling tracts of abandoned land in and around Cleveland. That program stopped taking grant applications on Monday.
The OSU Extension Cuyahoga County project helped create the 40-acre Stanard Farm and its Cleveland Crops business, which employs developmentally disabled people to pick, pack and sell produce grown on the farm, said Marie Barni, the project’s director.
The grant also helped establish an incubator farm to train new farmers, build hoop houses that extend growing seasons and set up a food-processing center that soon will employ people to process food grown on the farm and sell it to local schools, restaurants and institutions, Barni said.
“We would be so much farther behind” without the grant, she said.
A $16,000 Value-Added Producer Grant — another farm bill-supported program that has temporarily closed — helped Abbe Turner, owner of Lucky Penny Creamery in Kent, develop cajeta, a Mexican caramel sauce made from goat milk.
“We’ve already been funded,” Turner said, “but it’s going to affect other small, agricultural producers who are trying new, entrepreneurial ventures.
“That’s the sad thing,” she said. “If this program doesn’t get funded, then we won’t see these fantastic and important projects come to fruition.”
Mardy Townsend waited an hour for the hay man, and when he didn’t show, she turned to her 90 creatures of habit, now mooing with attitude.
Mardy Townsend of Windsor walks out to her cattle on Friday, August 16, 2013. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Honestly, you’d think cattle had wristwatches.
Townsend unhooked the electric fence at her Ashtabula County farm and stepped over the bottom wire. That was the signal for the black and white Hereford Angus herd – each animal 1,000 pounds at maturity – to close in on her fast.
She walked a few hundred feet to open the gate to a fresh field of grass. They swirled past her, like in a cowboy movie, some kicking their heels in the air.
“Those are the young ones,” she said of the unnamed group.
“I just call them all Sweetie Pie.”
Mardy Townsend of Windsor guides her cattle to a fresh pasture on Friday, August 16, 2013, checking for health issues as they pass. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Maybe a male farmer wouldn’t call them Sweetie Pie, maybe they would. But Townsend, with her smooth, toast-colored complexion shaded by a baseball cap, is clearly doing a job long associated with a man.
Despite one broken finger and a lot of bruises, it suits her fine.
Just as it suits a growing number of women.
Statistics extrapolated this spring by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2007 census figures showed a startling change: There are nearly three times as many women farmers as there were 30 years ago.
In three decades, women have gone from 5 percent of all farmers to 14 percent. The numbers from that census also shows Ohio in the top 10 among all 50 states with 29,060 women farm operators and 9,127 principal farm operators.
Women have always been integral to agriculture, but they have not always been counted. Up until 1978, U.S. census forms only had room for the name of one operator, and that usually went to – surprise – the male head of household.
Now that the government is counting all chief farm operators, the growth of the female ranks is evident. Some even call it a movement.
“I fully expect that results of the 2012 census [due out in 2014] will show even stronger data for women,” said Sharon Sachs, who helps run Central Ohio’s Women Farm, a consulting and support group. “One, I think it’s true. And, two, I think women are getting better at reporting into the census.”
Sachs, among many others, cites the growth of the local food movement as a job engine for all small farmers, especially women.
“You can farm on a smaller scale and be successful in a business,” she said. “You can have a small plot, a half acre or an acre, and make a contribution to the local food market.”
Success is not guaranteed, of course, and it won’t make up for the loss of millions of farmers since the 1930s who were absorbed by larger, industrial farms. But it is one of those rare upticks in agricultural numbers.
The USDA study showed that today’s female farmers may not yet have as much land or income as their male counterparts, but large percentages of them are grabbing a head start by making a beeline into higher profit forms of farming such as livestock and specialty crops. These women are older and more educated than male farmers, and more of them are coming into the business than going out.
They are now a million strong.
We talked to three of them working the land in Northeast Ohio, each with her own success story: Townsend at Marshy Meadows Farm in Windsor, Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm near Wooster, and Diane Morgan of Maggie’s Farm on the West Side of Cleveland.
Mardy Townsend, Marshy Meadows Farm, Windsor
While she has a master’s degree in agronomy from Ohio State University, it’s not like Townsend craved a life with beef animals. But she discovered her 226-acre property along the Grand River was suited to it. In spring, floods often cover a large section of the east side, and storms had a way of washing the topsoil off the higher sloping land to the west. If nothing else, the grass grew well.
“It’s the best way to cheat the environment,” she said, explaining that she can make a living off the land without damaging it.
And it’s not like Townsend comes from a long line of farmers. Her late father, Norman, ran Judson Manor, the deluxe retirement home in Cleveland. Townsend describes her mom, Marge, as one of the original “back-to-the-land hippies.” Marge bought the property in 1972, raising crops, chickens and hogs, eventually moving there from Shaker Heights. Townsend, 57, and Marge, now 85, live in a white frame ranch on the property and rent out an older home across the street.
“I’m not your typical farmer,” said Townsend, noting that farmland is traditionally transferred to sons. Both her brothers followed careers out of state.
After all the time she spends with cattle — calving, castrating, spreading manure, making hay, eradicating invasive multiflora roses and performing the routine of field rotations — Townsend can describe the animals well.
“They’re always hopeful and curious,” she said. “They could watch chickens for hours.”
The life looked good to her after two tours of duty as a relief worker in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“I vowed I’d never do it again,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking, especially when people are so poor.”
Farming isn’t as hard, but it isn’t easy, either. She’s grown her herd on her own, starting with 12 animals in 2002. Last year’s drought raised the price of hay, forcing her to sell off about a quarter of her stock. Her farm is certified organic, but the cattle are not, because she can’t afford the higher price of organic feed.
In the past few years she’s been leading an anti-fracking campaign in her neighborhood. Five injection wells have been operating in Windsor Township, taking in wastewater from Pennsylvania fracking operations. She worries about the toxicity of the chemicals used in that water and its effect on the only ground water she has for her animals.
Things are brightening, though. Fracking has slowed with the lower price of natural gas. She has a contract with Heinen’s supermarkets to sell her grass-fed beef. She will start supplying the Chardon and Bainbridge stores within the next two weeks.
It will relieve her of the job of going to a farmers market, for which she says she doesn’t have the time.
“But they’re going to put my picture up in the store,” she said with a groan.
Because she doesn’t pay a mortgage, she was able to spend money to erect a hoop barn for young cattle.
She said she’s happy producing for customers who want a product considered leaner, therefore healthier, that comes from a more humane operation than a muddy feedlot and helps put money back into the local economy — all elements more closely associated with local, rather than conventional, agriculture.
“I’m thinking about starting a marketing cooperative for grass-fed beef farmers in Ohio,” she said. She’s already taken a workshop at Kent State University and is now in touch with a consultant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“A cooperative would give us more leverage with buyers,” she said. “And we could work toward having a year-round supply of consistent product.”
Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm, Wooster
Three years ago, when Wooster opened Local Roots Market & Cafe, Ohio’s first all-local food store, farmer Monica Bongue had a chance to pay $50 and become a member. She ponied up $1,000, believing strongly in what she calls food sovereignty and food security. It’s another way, she said, to feed ourselves better. She’s now on the board of directors.
This coming spring, she and two other women farmers — Martha Gaffney and Jennifer Grahovac — will launch a new business, Farm Roots Connection (www.farmrootsconnection.com), a farmer-owned local food buying club, or community supported agriculture (CSA) group that will grow food in Wooster and sell to the Cleveland market.
Monica Bongue of Muddy Forks Farm in Wooster arranges her display of fresh produce at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
“We’re maxed out here,” said Bongue, 51, of the customer base in her rural county. “And we have worked with CSA groups who buy from us. We don’t get the best prices; the customers don’t always know which farm the food came from, and the farmers don’t always know how the food was handled.”
Apparently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees. Bongue and her partners received a $22,500 federal Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) grant this year to launch their cooperative. About 10 farms are expected to participate, with plenty of room for growth.
In designing the farmer-owned cooperative, Bongue hopes to simplify the farmers’ jobs. Instead of raising a wide variety of produce for customers, each farmer can narrow his or her focus to a few crops. Teamed with other farmers, they can continue to offer diversity without having to do a wide variety of labor themselves.
Bongue, a native of Colombia, is married to David Francis, an agricultural researcher who moved to Wooster for work at Ohio State University. She has her own agricultural history, studying nutritional microbiology at the University of California at Davis.
She has always farmed at home, including her years raising three daughters.
“I had this idea [for the cooperative] 10 years ago,” she said. “But I didn’t have the money.”
So far, part of the grant has paid for marketing materials and attorney fees to set up by-laws. The rest will be used to acquire a refrigerated truck and pay for a part of Bongue’s salary managing the operation.
Muddy Forks Farm produce sold at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Farmer Monica Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
“We’re a little behind,” she said of the current season. “We only have a few customers. But it’s a good practice run to work out the kinks before we launch next spring. We hope to make this a pretty substantial business.”
Diane Morgan, Maggie’s Farm, Cleveland
Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side collects a variety of potatoes on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Surely this isn’t the only farm ever born in a meltdown moment. The way Diane Morgan tells it, she was living in her grandmother’s old neighborhood (Cleveland’s Stockyards) south of Clark Avenue. She had a good job at a computer company, but it really wasn’t what she wanted. Her husband Russ, a chef, was between jobs.
“I came home one day,” she explained in her sweetly lilting voice. “He was just sitting there and I started stamping my foot. I almost screamed, saying, ‘You’re doing what I’m supposed to do.’”
What she was “supposed” to do is look for her next opportunity.
“It’s funny when I think about it now, but it was a great experience,” said Morgan. “It made me ask myself, ‘Why are you mad at him about something you should do?’ It gave me the courage to do this.”
Today, Russ has a job in food at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Diane has 10 city lots to her name. Or to her dog’s name. The “Maggie” of Maggie’s farm is her pet, and relevant to the lyrics of the old Bob Dylan song about seizing your destiny, “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”
“It’s always interesting to see who gets it,” she said, adding that it’s usually a surprising number of young people.
Morgan doesn’t own all 10 lots, but she manages them as growing plots for a spectrum of people: churches, neighborhood groups, two dozen volunteers who help her do the work, the community supported agriculture members who pay her at the beginning of the season, wholesale buyers, and the customers who show up at her farmers market booths and her Friday and Saturday farm stand, 3164 W. 61st St.
“Neighbors Feeding Neighbors,” is her slogan.
Volunteers who work get paid in “Maggie Bucks,” her handwritten pieces of paper they can redeem for food.
Who participates? The employed, unemployed and the underemployed – all kindred spirits.
A week ago that group included Diana Mitchell of Lyndhurst, who was on vacation from her troubleshooting job at Progressive Insurance. Mitchell, 60, cleaned baby beets in a donated sink under a volunteer-built canopy and tore weeds out of some of the raised beds. Her reasons for being there made a long list: chance to do something different, love of organic food, Earth-friendly operations, chance to learn, chance to help.
Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side, passes freshly picked carrots to Arelis Latimer, a summer employee, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Arelis Latimer, 18, worked beside Mitchell at the sink. The Puerto Rico native got introduced to Maggie’s Farm during a Youth Opportunities Unlimited program for work and mentoring. When Morgan needed help, Latimer stepped up again before starting civil engineering studies at Cleveland State University. Her little brother likes to make smoothies from the carrots she brings home from the farm, 10 blocks away.
“I didn’t even know there were purple carrots,” said Latimer. “And they taste sweet.”
And there’s Christina Keegan, 28, whose new job starts soon, but passes the time until then at Maggie’s.
“I love to work outdoors, and I don’t like working with chemicals,” said Keegan, who is trained in traditional construction trades and in alternative forms such as straw bale houses.
“And I have a 3-year-old who eats a lot,” she said.
All three describe Morgan as a great teacher and businesswoman.
“Want to see my spreadsheets?” Morgan asks.
There have been failures at Maggie’s Farm. Groundhogs ate all the green beans last year. A phone was stolen at the market. A hazelnut tree crop failed.
And Maggie’s Farm isn’t where Morgan wants it to be quite yet.
“The business model we have is a cooperative but we’re still too small,” said Morgan. “This is our second year and we haven’t made any money yet. But when we do, people who work the farm will share in it.
“I’m a firm believer that human equity is just as important as financial equity. That probably sounds anti-capitalist, but I value the work and assistance I’ve gotten, and this seems the only fair way to go.”
Morgan taught herself how to farm organically, but she started networking that way, too. She attended the first Sustainable Cleveland conference and picked people’s brains. Her first “farm” was really a community garden. She sidestepped the usual method of handing out individual plots and told all the farmers that they were all working together to grow for one another. The group, she said, has continued nicely without her.
And while Maggie’s Farm still isn’t in the black, there is plenty in the plus column. It sells to a local food aggregator, Fresh Fork Market. It obtained the equipment to take food stamps as payment for local foods. And it built a refrigerated room and indoor market space.
The farm will be selling its granola bars this winter at the Rooted in Cleveland stand at the West Side Market.
And it hasn’t run out of volunteers yet.
Morgan recently put a notice on the farm’s Facebook page to talk about an upcoming art project to call attention to the market.
“Oh yay!!,” responded Kayla Kelsey. “This is right across the street from my house! Let me know if you ever need help with anything! My boyfriend and I are more than willing to lend a hand!”
The recent addition of the Double 7 Herringbone milking parlor have helped Kyle with milking on the farm.
By Matt Reese
There is little doubt that the Sharp family of Fairfield County has made a tremendous impact in Ohio agriculture off of the farm.
Don influenced the lives of countless young people as a 4-H Extension agent for 11 years, coach, and school board member. His sons Scott, Adam and Kyle have also been very involved in serving Ohio agriculture. Kyle was formerly the editor of “Ohio’s Country Journal” and teaches agricultural and writing courses at Ohio State University and Ohio Christian University. Adam serves as the Ohio Farm Bureau vice president for public policy and Scott is an area ag-ed teacher. While these men clearly have a passion for serving agriculture in many ways off of the farm, they also work together to carry on the family tradition of producing food from the land on their Fairfield County grass-based organic dairy farm that is this year’s Ohio Dairy Producers Association Environmental Steward Award winner.
Don’s father purchased the farm in 1947 and started milking cows soon after. In 1967 they added a three-unit milking parlor on the top of a hill surrounded by rolling pastures.
“When grandpa built that, it was fine. That is how things were done, but dad and Kyle knew the facilities needed a major update, so a lot has changed in the last few years around here,” Adam said.
Through the years, the hilltop landscape has offered environmental challenges with the potential for run-off from the cattle manure into nearby streams. To address this challenge, the Sharps, with the help of Dave Libben, Natural Resources Conservation Service District Conservationist, have taken great steps to keep the manure (and the nutrients it contains) on the farm and out of the water.
The farm’s water management strategy capitalizes on the topography of the hilltop milking facility and uses a u-shaped waterway that wraps around the building. The newly refurbished building collects all rain water and funnels it into the waterway that forces the run-off to take the very scenic route away from the steep hillside at the front of the barn and down and much more gradual and gently sloping course to a distant creek. Any nutrients and sediment in the runoff are captured in the vegetation of the waterway. Water quality tests conducted as the water leaves the farm clearly demonstrate how effective the system is at removing any nutrients and sediment from the water.
The Sharps also added a combination manure storage and winter pen pack structure that allows confinement of the cows for up to 120 days when needed in the winter months, though the cows are on pasture whenever possible. This structure provides adequate storage of manure to eliminate the need for spreading in the winter months and keeps the cows off the pasture when it is not suitable for grazing.
“We tried to eliminate any rain water coming down on standing manure,” Don said.
They have also installed a settling basin and filter strip to treat the milk house water. Rather than running down the steep hill to a creek, any waste water is piped directly from the milk house into the settling basin where the liquids are filtered off into a wetland area that ties directly into the u-shaped waterway that collects every drop of water that falls on or in the facility.
The recent addition of the Double 7 Herringbone milking parlor with auto take-off added a key component to the water management strategy for the farm and it also made some tremendous changes for efficiency. After suffering from health issues that limited his ability to continue milking, Don had to decide what to do about the future of the dairy farm and its aging 1967 facility. As Don’s condition worsened, Kyle made the decision last year to take over the full-time (and then some) duty of milking the 75 cows twice every day.
With just few days of operation in the new parlor, Kyle had already seen huge improvements with the 14-unit facility that replaced the three-unit facility.
“The cows aren’t used to it yet, but it has already cut six hours of milking down to three so far,” Kyle said. “So that went from 12 hours of milking a day down to six hours and I hope we can decrease that even more.”
Kyle currently milks 88 head of Jersey and Holstein cows which graze in 14 small paddocks that cover 70 acres of pasture.
“They are generally moved every day, but it has rained so much we have been able to leave them in for two or three days this year,” Don said. “We have been rotationally grazing for around 30 years. They are fed outside before they go in for milking now and then they go back out onto the pasture.”
The Sharps have constructed livestock access roads and watering systems to make the rotational grazing system work more efficiently and provide the cattle access to water without going back to the barn. They have also added stream and creek exclusion fences built from locust wood from the farm, and paired the fencing with riparian filter strips.
Since 2006, the farm has been certified organic and the milk is marketed through Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Wisconsin. The transition to organic was not really too tough for the dairy that has long been grass based.
“Things really didn’t change that much,” Don said. “We had to quit using antibiotics, but we really hadn’t been using them all that much anyway. Now, if we get a cow with a bad quarter, we just have to milk her separately, let her go dry and hope she is maybe better when she comes fresh again.”
The premium associated with the organic production has helped fund the environmental improvement projects on the farm and the new milking facility.
“We will typically see an extra $10 or $12 or so per hundredweight,” Don said. “That really helped when milk was down to $10 or $12 bucks.”
Adam, Don, and Kyle Sharp work together on their organic grass-based dairy farm in Fairfield County. Kyle gets a little help from daughter Kylee too.
The Sharps also produce nearly all of their own feed. Kyle makes hay on certified organic ground and they also grow some spelt, oats and corn. In addition, they have been feeding the spent brewing grain from a nearby organic brewery. The brewery needed a place to get rid of the spent grain and it works well to supplement the feed needs on the dairy farm.
“We pick it up there and feed it as soon as we get it,” Don said. “We get 1,500 pounds once a week or so and they are planning on doubling their brewing capacity.”
Kyle is now the third generation milking on the farm. Scott and Adam handle crop production on the total 500 acres of the farm, 196 of which are certified organic.
The farm regularly hosts tours to educate various groups, including new employees of Natural Resources Conservation Service for orientation. The measures the Sharps have taken to improve the situation on their farm, in turn, come full circle to bring real relevance to the great agricultural work the family has been so well known for off of the farm.
CHATTING WITH DAVID BRANDT outside his barn on a sunny June morning, I wonder if he doesn’t look too much like a farmer—what a casting director might call “too on the nose.” He’s a beefy man in bib overalls, a plaid shirt, and well-worn boots, with short, gray-streaked hair peeking out from a trucker hat over a round, unlined face ruddy from the sun.
Brandt farms 1,200 acres in the central Ohio village of Carroll, pop. 524. This is the domain of industrial-scale agriculture—a vast expanse of corn and soybean fields broken up only by the sprawl creeping in from Columbus. Brandt, 66, raised his kids on this farm after taking it over from his grandfather. Yet he sounds not so much like a subject of King Corn as, say, one of the organics geeks I work with on my own farm in North Carolina. In his g-droppin’ Midwestern monotone, he’s telling me about his cover crops—fall plantings that blanket the ground in winter and are allowed to rot in place come spring, a practice as eyebrow-raising in corn country as holding a naked yoga class in the pasture. The plot I can see looks just about identical to the carpet of corn that stretches from eastern Ohio to western Nebraska. But last winter it would have looked very different: While the neighbors’ fields lay fallow, Brandt’s teemed with a mix of as many as 14 different plant species.
“Our cover crops work together like a community—you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.
But Brandt’s not trying to go organic—he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food—even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.
THOSE ARE BIG PROMISES, but standing in the shade of Brandt’s barn this June morning, I hear a commotion in the nearby warehouse where he stores his cover-crop seeds. Turns out that I’m not the only one visiting Brandt’s farm. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that grew from Dust Bowl-era efforts to preserve soil—is holding a training for its agents on how to talk to farmers about cover crops and their relationship to soil.
Inside the warehouse, where 50-pound bags of cover-crop seeds line one wall, three dozen NRCS managers and agents, from as far away as Maine and Hawaii, are gathered along tables facing a projection screen. Brandt takes his place in front of the crowd. Presenting slides of fields flush with a combination of cover crops including hairy vetch, rye, and radishes, he becomes animated. We listen raptly and nod approvingly. It feels like a revival meeting.
“We want diversity,” Brandt thunders. “We want colonization!”—that is, to plant the cover in such a way that little to no ground remains exposed. While the cash crop brings in money and feeds people, he tells the agents, the off-season cover crops feed the soil and the hidden universe of microbes within it, doing much of the work done by chemicals on conventional farms. And the more diverse the mix of cover crops, the better the whole system works. Brandt points to the heavy, mechanically operated door at the back of the warehouse, and then motions to us in the crowd. “If we decide to lift that big door out there, we could do it,” he says. “If I try, it’s going to smash me.”
For the agency, whose mission is building soil health, Brandt has emerged as a kind of rock star. He’s a “step ahead of the game,” says Mark Scarpitti, the NRCS state agronomist for Ohio, who helped organize the training. “He’s a combination researcher, cheerleader, and promoter. He’s a good old boy, and producers relate to him.” Later, I find that the agency’s website has recently dubbed Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.”
One government agency website called Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.”
Soon, we all file outside and walk past the Brandt family’s four-acre garden. Chickens are pecking about freely, bawk-bawk-bawking and getting underfoot. In an open barn nearby, a few cows munch lackadaisically. I see pigs rooting around in another open barn 30 or so yards away and start to wonder if I haven’t stumbled into a time warp, to the place where they shot the farm scenes in The Wizard of Oz. As if to confirm it, a cow emits a plaintive moo. Brandt’s livestock are something of a hobby, “freezer meat” for his family and neighbors, but as we peer around the barns we see the edges of his real operation: a pastiche of fields stretching to the horizon.
Before we can get our hands in the dirt, Brandt wants to show us his farm equipment: the rolling contraption he drags behind his tractor to kill cover crops ahead of the spring and the shiny, fire-engine-red device he uses to drill corn and soy seeds through the dead cover crops directly into the soil. As some NRCS gearheads pepper him with questions about the tools, he beams with pride.
Finally, we all file onto an old bus for a drive around the fields. An ag nerd among professional soil geeks, I feel like I’m back in elementary school on the coolest field trip ever. An almost giddy mood pervades the bus as Brandt steers us to the side of a rural road that divides two cornfields: one of his and one of his neighbor’s.
We start in Brandt’s field, where we encounter waist-high, deep-green corn plants basking in the afternoon heat. A mat of old leaves and stems covers the soil—remnants of the winter cover crops that have kept the field devoid of weeds. At Brandt’s urging, we scour the ground for what he calls “haystacks”—little clusters of dead, strawlike plant residue bunched up by earthworms. Sure enough, the stacks are everywhere. Brandt scoops one up, along with a fistful of black dirt. “Look there—and there,” he says, pointing into the dirt at pinkie-size wriggling earthworms. “And there go some babies,” he adds, indicating a few so tiny they could curl up on your fingernail.
Then he directs our gaze onto the ground where he just scooped the sample. He points out a pencil-size hole going deep into the soil—a kind of worm thruway that invites water to stream down. I don’t think I’m the only one gaping in awe, thinking of the thousands of miniature haystacks around me, each with its cadre of worms and its hole into the earth. I look around to find several NRCS people holding their own little clump of dirt, oohing and ahhing at the sight.
Then we cross the street to the neighbor’s field. Here, the corn plants look similar to Brandt’s, if a little more scraggly, but the soil couldn’t be more different. The ground, unmarked by haystacks and mostly bare of plant residue altogether, seems seized up into a moist, muddy crust, but the dirt just below the surface is almost dry. Brandt points to a pattern of ruts in the ground, cut by water that failed to absorb and gushed away. Brandt’s land managed to trap the previous night’s rain for whatever the summer brings. His neighbor’s lost not just the precious water, but untold chemical inputs that it carried away.
ASIDE FROM HIS FONDNESS FOR WORMS, there are three things that set Brandt’s practices apart from those of his neighbors—and of most American farmers. The first is his dedication to off-season cover crops, which are used on just 1 percent of US farmland each year.
The second involves his hostility to tilling—he sold his tillage equipment in 1971. That has become somewhat more common with the rise of corn and soy varieties genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, which has allowed farmers to use chemicals instead of the plow to control weeds. But most, the NRCS’s Scarpitti says, use “rotational tillage”—they till in some years but not others, thus losing any long-term soil-building benefit.
Brandt is “a combination researcher, cheerleader, and promoter. He’s a good old boy, and producers relate to him.”
Finally, and most simply, Brandt adds wheat to the ubiquitous corn-soy rotation favored by his peers throughout the Corn Belt. Bringing in a third crop disrupts weed and pest patterns, and a 2012 Iowa State University study found that by doing so, farmers can dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.
The downsides of the kind of agriculture that holds sway in the heartland—devoting large swaths of land to monocultures of just two crops, regularly tilling the soil, and leaving the ground fallow over winter—are by now well known: ever-increasing loads of pesticides and titanic annual additions of synthetic and mined fertilizers, much of which ends up fouling drinking water and feeding algae-smothered aquatic “dead zones” from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico.
But perhaps the most ominous long-term trend in the Corn Belt is what’s known as peak soil: The Midwest still boasts one of the greatest stores of topsoil on Earth. Left mostly unfarmed for millennia, it was enriched by interactions between carbon-sucking prairie grasses and mobs of grass-chomping ruminants. But since settlers first started working the land in the 1800s, we’ve been squandering that treasure. Iowa, for example, has lost fully one-half—and counting—of its topsoil, on average, since the prairie came under the plow. According to University of Washington soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, it takes between 700 and 1,500 years to generate an inch of topsoil under natural conditions. Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimentel reckons that “90 percent of US cropland now is losing soil faster than its sustainable replacement rate.” Soil, as Americans learned in the Dust Bowl, is not a renewable resource, at least on the scale of human lifetimes.
Then there’s climate change itself. Under natural conditions—think forests or grasslands—soil acts as a sponge for carbon dioxide, sucking it in through plant respiration and storing a little more each year than is lost to oxidation in the process of rotting. But under current farming practices, US farmland only acts as what the USDA has deemed a “modest carbon sink”—sequestering 4 million metric tons of carbon annually, a tiny fraction of total US greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news, says eminent soil scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, is that if all US farms adopted Brandt-style agriculture, they could suck down as much as 25 times more carbon than they currently are—equivalent to taking nearly 10 percent of the US car fleet off the road. (Lal, a member of the Nobel-winning International Panel on Climate Change, is so impressed with Brandt’s methods that he brought a group of 20 Australian farmers on a pilgrimage to Carroll two years ago, he tells me.)
If all US farms adopted Brandt’s methods, we could save as much carbon as if we took 10 percent of cars off the road.
In the middle of his cornfield, holding a handful of loamy, black soil, Brandt explains that he habitually tests his dirt for organic matter. When he began renting this particular field two seasons before, its organic content stood at 0.25 percent—a pathetic reading in an area where, even in fields farmed conventionally, the level typically hovers between 1 and 2 percent. In just two years of intensive cover cropping, this field has risen to 1.25 percent. Within 10 years of his management style, he adds, his fields typically reach as high as 4 percent, and with more time can exceed 5 percent.
Building up organic matter is critical to keeping the heartland humming as the climate heats up. The severe drought that parched the Corn Belt last year—as well as the floods that have roared through in recent years—are a harbinger of what the 2013 National Climate Assessment calls a “rising incidence of weather extremes” that will have “increasingly negative impacts” on crop yields in the coming decades.
As Ohio State soil scientist Rafiq Islam explains, Brandt’s legume cover crops, which trap nitrogen from the air and store it in nodules at their roots, allow him to grow nitrogen right on his farm, rather than importing it in the form of synthetic fertilizer. And the “complex biological systems” created by cover crops marginalize crop-chomping bugs and disease-causing organisms like molds—meaning fewer insecticides and fungicides.
Nor is Brandt any less productive than his chemical-intensive peers, Islam says. Quite the opposite. Brandt’s farm regularly achieves crop yields that exceed the county average, and during last year’s brutal drought, his yields were near the normal season average while other farmers saw yields drop 50 percent—or lost their crop entirely.
THE MORNING AFTER OUR FIELD TRIP, we reconvene in Brandt’s barn to take in a series of simple soil demonstrations. I don’t say “we” lightly—by now, I’ve been more or less accepted into the NRCS crew’s soil geek club. At a table at the front of the room, an NRCS man dressed in country casual—faded jeans, striped polo shirt, baseball cap—drops five clumps of soil into water-filled beakers: three from farms managed like Brandt’s, with cover crops and without tillage, the others from conventional operations. The Brandt-style samples hold together, barely discoloring the water. The fourth one holds together too, but for a different reason: Unlike the no-till/cover-crop samples, which the water had penetrated, this one was so compacted from tillage that no water could get in at all. The fifth one disintegrates before our eyes, turning the water into a cloudy mess that the NRCS presenter compares to “last night’s beer.”
Other demos are equally graphic—including one that shows how water runs through Brandt’s gold-standard dirt as if through a sieve, picking up little color. In the conventional soil, it pools on top in a cloudy mess, demonstrating that the soil’s density, or compaction, can cause runoff. The presenter recalls a recent Des Moines Register article about how a wet spring caused a torrent of nitrogen runoff into the city’s drinking-water sources, prompting health concerns and expensive filtration efforts.
As I watch, I imagine the earnest agents fanning out across the Midwest to bring the good news about cover cropping and continuous no-till. And I wonder: Why aren’t these ways spreading like prairie fire, turning farmers into producers of not just crops but also rich, carbon-trapping soil resilient to floods and drought?
While 66 percent of farmers polled believe climate change was occurring, just 41 percent believe that humans had a hand in causing it.
I put the question to Brandt. His own neighbors aren’t exactly rushing out to sell their tillers or invest in seeds, he admits—they see him not as a beacon but rather as an “odd individual in the area,” he says, his level voice betraying a hint of irritation. Sure, his yields are impressive, but federal crop payouts and subsidized crop insurance buffer their losses, giving them little short-term incentive to change. (For his part, Brandt refuses to carry crop insurance, saying it compels farmers “not to make good management decisions.”) Plus the old way is easier: Using diverse cover crops to control weeds and maintain fertility requires much more management, and more person-hours, than relying on chemicals. And the truth is, most farmers don’t see themselves as climate villains: Iowa State sociologists found that while 66 percent of farmers polled believed climate change was occurring, just 41 percent believed that humans had a hand in causing it.
Longer-term, though, Brandt does see hope. Over the next 20 years, he envisions a “large movement of producers” adopting cover crops and no-till in response to rising energy costs, which could make fertilizer and pesticides (synthesized from petroleum and natural gas), as well as tractor fuel, prohibitively expensive.
The NRCS’s Scarpitti concurs. He acknowledges that in Brandt’s corner of Ohio, the old saw that the “prophet isn’t recognized in his own hometown” largely holds, though a “handful” of farmers are catching on. Nationwide, he adds, “word’s getting out” as farmers like Brandt slowly show their neighbors that biodiversity, not chemicals, is their best strategy.
Sure enough, during the NRCS meeting, another local farmer stops by to pick up some cover-crop seeds. Keith Dennis, who farms around 1,500 acres of corn and soy in Brandt’s county, and who started using cover crops in 2011, says there are quite a few folks in the county watching what Brandt’s doing, “some of ‘em picking up on it.” Dennis has known about Brandt’s work with cover crops since he started in the 1970s. I have to ask: If he saw Brandt’s techniques working then, what took him so long to follow suit? “I had blinders on,” he answers, adding that he saw no reason to plant anything but corn and soybeans. “Now I’m able to see that my soil had been suffering severe compaction,” he says. “Because it wasn’t alive.”
As the House and Senate begins conferencing the final 2013 Farm Bill, the undersigned groups, representing millions of members across the country, urge you protect grasslands, wetlands, healthy soil and clean water by supporting a national sodsaver provision and re-coupling basic soil and water conservation measures to premium subsidies for crop insurance. Both of these provisions, included in the Senate bill, ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to incentivize risky or environmentally destructive practices. Conservation compliance and sodsaver are among the top farm bill priorities for our groups, and both will be determining factors as we consider our support for a final bill.
For decades, in exchange for a publicly funded safety net, farmers have committed to adopt land management practices that successfully reduced soil erosion and protected wetlands. By shifting subsidies away from direct payments and towards a strong crop insurance safety net, this new farm bill creates a loophole in the longstanding requirements that those who receive subsidies take minimal steps to protect the public good. Without these key protections, billions of taxpayer dollars spent on crop insurance over coming years will subsidize soil erosion that will choke our waterways, increase the cost of water treatment and dredging, and reduce the long term productivity of farmland. It will also allow for the destruction of tens of thousands of acres of valuable wetlands, resulting in increased downstream flooding, loss of wildlife habitat and decreased water quality. To keep these protections in place, it is critical that the final farm bill re-couple conservation compliance with crop insurance premium subsidies and does not weaken existing wetland conservation provisions.
Native grasslands across the country are disappearing at an alarming rate, threatening grassland-dependent wildlife species as well as the ranching and hunting industries dependent on those lands. From 2011 to 2012 alone, nearly 400,000 non-cropland acres were “broken out” for crop production. These acres are being lost across the entire country. In fact, over this period, more than 65 percent of these losses occurred outside of the Prairie Pothole Region states. A nationwide sodsaver provision will reduce taxpayer-funded incentives to destroy these critical grassland resources. Most of the land that is being converted from native ecosystems to cropland is marginal, highly erodible, or prone to flooding. Bringing this marginally productive land into crop production provides little benefit to taxpayers, increases long-term costs due to erosion and nutrient loss, and ultimately leads to reduced water quality, less capacity to reduce flooding and the loss of valuable wildlife habitat. Sodsaver does not prohibit farmers from breaking out new land; it ensures that if they do, they do so at their own risk by partially reducing the cost to taxpayers. It is critical that sodsaver apply to the entire country. A regional approach, such as included in the House bill, is not adequate to protect our nation’s remaining native grasslands.
We thank you for your efforts to complete the 2013 Farm Bill, and we strongly urge you to support soil, water, and wildlife habitat conservation in the final bill by including a national sodsaver provision, re-linking basic conservation measures to eligibility for crop insurance premium subsidies, and opposing efforts to weaken existing wetland protections. Doing so will save money and ensure long term farm productivity by protecting our nation’s vital natural resources.
American Bird Conservancy
American Farmland Trust
Amphibian Survival Alliance
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
Bridging The Gap
Center for Rural Affairs
Chicago Botanic Garden
Clean Water Action
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Defenders of Wildlife
Ecological Society of America
Environmental and Energy Study Institute
Environmental Defense Fund
Environmental Working Group
Farm Bill Primer
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
National Association of Clean Water Agencies
National Audubon Society
National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative
National Bobwhite Technical Committee
National Center for Appropriate Technology
National Parks Conservation Association
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
National Wildlife Federation
Natural Resources Defense Council
North American Falconers’ Association
Pesticide Action Network
Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation
SAVE THE FROGS!
Soil and Water Conservation Society
The Conservation Fund
The Izaak Walton League of America
The Nature Conservancy
The Tortoise Reserve
The Wildlife Society
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
Watchable Wildlife, Inc.
Water Environment Federation
Wildlife Management Institute
World Wildlife Fund
Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
Alliance for the Great Lakes
Appalachian Conservation Biology
Central Flyway Council
Chapped Rapids Audubon Society
Delmarva Ornithological Society
Environmental Law & Policy Center of the Midwest
Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
Friends of the Upper Delaware River
Great Lakes Environmental Law Center
Gulf Restoration Network
Lake Champlain Committee
Midwest Environmental Advocates
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service
Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG)
Northern Great Plains Working Group
Northern Prairies Land Trust
Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides
Northwest Watershed Institute
Ohio River Foundation
Ozark Regional Land Trust
Quail & Upland Game Alliance
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
The Wetlands Initiative
The Wildlife Society-Central Mountains and Plains Section
Total Resource Management
Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
State and Local Groups:
Arizona Wildlife Federation
Northern Arizona Audubon Society
Wild At Heart
Arkansas Public Policy Panel
Arkansas Wildlife Federation
Enviroscapes Ecological Consulting
California Climate and Agriculture Network
Endangered Habitats League
Roots of Change
Slow Food California
Wild Farm Alliance
Audubon Society of Greater Denver
Colorado Wildlife Federation
Grand Valley Audubon Society
Izaak Walton League of America, Pike’s Peak Chapter
Southern Plains Land Trust
Florida Wildlife Federation
Izaak Walton League of America, Cypress Chapter
Izaak Walton League of America, Florida
South Florida Audubon Society
South Florida Wildlands
St. Johns River Alliance
Georgia Wildlife Federation
Oconee Rivers Audubon Society
Friends of Camas NWR
Henrys Fork Chapter Idaho Master Naturalists
Intermountain Aquatics Inc.
Pend Oreille Chapter of the Idaho Master Naturalists
Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc.
Committee on the Middle Fork Vermilion River
Illinois Ornithological Society
Illinois Stewardship Alliance
Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation
Prairie Rivers Network
The Nature Institute
Geist Fall Creek Watershed Alliance
Hoosier Environmental Council
Indiana Assoc. of Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Indiana Chapter of The Wildlife Society
Indiana Park & Recreation Association
Indiana Wildlife Federation
Save the Dunes
Sycamore Land Trust, Incorporated
Tippecanoe Audubon Society
Citizens for a Healthy Iowa
Des Moines Water Works
Driftless Chapter of Trout Unlimited (Decorah)
Iowa Bowhunters Association
Iowa Chapter of the American Fisheries Society
Iowa Environmental Council
Iowa Farmers Union
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation
Iowa Wildlife Federation
Izaak Walton League of America, Maquoketa Valley Chapter
North Bear Chapter of Trout Unlimited (Des Moines)
Quad City Audubon Society
Spring Creeks Chapter of Trout Unlimited (Iowa City)
Trout Unlimited, Iowa Council
Wagner Conservation Coalition
Audubon of Kansas
Kansas Rural Center
Kansas Wildlife Federation
Frankfort Audubon Society
Kentucky Conservation Committee
Kentucky Waterways Alliance
The Wildlife Society, Kentucky Chapter
America’s WETLAND Foundation
Friends of Maine’s Seabird Islands
Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative
Western Foothills Land Trust
Fox Haven Farm and Learning Center
Izaak Walton League of America- Maryland Mid-shore Chapter
Izaak Walton League of America, Free State Chapter
Maryland Ornithological Society
Broad Brook Coalition
Massachusetts Audubon Society
Dwight Lydell Chapter, IWLA
Huron River Watershed Council
Michigan Farmers Union
Michigan United Conservation Clubs
Michigan Wildlife Conservancy & Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation
Michigan Young Farmer Coalition
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council
Brainerd Lakes Area Audubon Society
Cannon River Watershed Partnership
Central Minnesota Audubon Society
Friends of the Mississippi River
Izaak Walton League of America, Cass County Chapter
Izaak Walton League of America, Jaques Chapter
Land Stewardship Project
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Minnesota Conservation Federation
Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union
Pioneer Heritage Conservation Trust
W. J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America
Mississippi River Trust
Mississippi Wildlife Federation
Conservation Federation of Missouri
Missouri Coalition for the Environment
Missouri Coalition for the Environment
Missouri Farmers Union
Missouri Parks Association
Missouri Prairie Foundation
Missouri Stream Team
Missouri Stream Team 3762
Ozark (Missouri) Council Trout Unlimited
Social Services/Rural Life, CCCNM
Montana Wildlife Federation
Audubon Society of Omaha
Izaak Walton League of America- Grand Island Chapter
Nebraska Chapter of the Wildlife Society
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society INC-NSAS
Nebraska Wildlife Federation
Western Nebraska Resources Council
Bear-Paw Regional Greenways
New Jersey Wildlife Society
Church Women United of New York State
Buffalo Audubon Society
Eastern Long Island Audubon Society
Save The River, the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper
Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester Justice & Peace & Global Environment Committees
The Wetland Trust
Land Trust for the Little Tennessee
North Carolina Trout Unlimited Council
North Carolina Wildlife Federation
Resource Institute, Inc.
Izaak Walton League of America, Buckeye All-State Chapter
Izaak Walton League of America, Headwaters Chapter
Izaak Walton League of America, Wayne County Chapter
Izaak Walton League of America, Western Reserve Chapter
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
Ohio Environmental Council
Ohio Farmers Union
Ohio Spider Society
Ohio Wetlands Association
Shaker Lakes Garden Club
Silvertip Productions, Ltd
Izaak Walton League – Oregon Division
Izaak Walton League – Silverton Chapter
Izaak Walton League of America, Mary’s Peak Chapter
Kalmiopsis Audubon Society
Lane County Audubon Society
Salem Audubon Society
Lake Erie Region Conservancy
Lehigh Valley Audubon Society
Pennsylvania Chapter of The Wildlife Society
Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs
East Greenwich Municipal Land Trust
Coastal Conservation League
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History
South Carolina Wildlife Federation
Black Hills Sportsmen Club
Delta Waterfowl, the Sioux Falls, SD Chapter
High Plains Wildlife Association
Huron(SD) Puddle Jumpers Chapter of Delta Waterfowl
Izaak Walton League of America, Rapid City Chapter
Living River Group- Sierra Club
Northern South Dakota Chapter of Pheasants Forever
South Dakota Agriculture Conservation Coalition
South Dakota Chapter of the Sierra Club
South Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society
South Dakota Farmers Union
South Dakota Grassland Coalition
South Dakota Wildlife Federation
Tennessee Clean Water Network
Tennessee Ornithological Society
Houston Audubon Society
Texas Conservation Alliance
Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park
Fredericksburg-Rappahannock Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America
Shenandoah Valley Network
U.S. Trail Riders
Virginia Association for Biological Farming
Virginia Conservation Network
Virginia Food Works
North Cascades Audubon Society
Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network
Izaak Walton League of America, Mountaineer Chapter
West Virginia Highlands Conservancy
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, Inc.
Wisconsin Society for Ornithology
Wisconsin Soil and Water Conservation Society
Wisconsin Wildlife Federation
Wyoming Chapter of the Wildlife Society
Wyoming Outdoor Council
On a breezy autumn morning in West Salem, Mike Haley pulls back leaves in his soybean field, admiring how the crop has outgrown the grass and weeds underneath.
“Right now we’re looking at soybeans that are about a foot taller than the grass. The soybeans were able to get above the canopy the grass was creating to the sunlight and absorb the full effect of the rainfall.”
These are soybeans that grew from genetically-modified organisms or GMO seeds.
Genes modified for higher crop yields The seeds are genetically-altered to resist Roundup, the world’s most popular herbicide, marketed since 1976 by the food giant Monsanto.
In the mid-90s when Monsanto first modified soybean seeds to stand up to Roundup, Haley bought the new seeds even though they were a little more expensive. He saw it as a way to increase his yield and stay competitive.
“Over in the corner field, there’s a little patch of giant ragweed. That’s where I missed spraying a spot. Don’t criticize me too much for that. But that weed was almost impossible to control in soybeans before Roundup. I remember growing up my Mom’s job was walking the fields and hand-spraying the giant ragweed with Roundup.”
Today, Haley says Roundup-ready seeds save him time, money and painstaking labor.
“We can go in there and we can spray the weeds in the field without hurting the soybeans.”
Haley says GMO seeds also helped him weather last year’s drought, and improve his soil quality.
“In order to control the weeds we’d have to do a lot more tillage which would mean more erosion. The way we’ve adapted our farm we feel it’s a lot better for our farm than it was 30 years ago.”
He’s heard others express concern about GMOs.
“Is there a reason for concern? It’s hard to say. I think that as the technology evolves we’re going to see a lot more benefits, not just to the farmer but also to the consumer.”
An organic farmer has another opinion About 50 miles southeast of the Haley Farm, at Creekview Ridge Farm in Minerva, organic farmer Kip Gardner couldn’t disagree more.
“GMOs help preserve a system of agriculture excessively dependent on chemicals. That is damaging to our soils and our environment. That system needs to change if we’re going to continue to feed our population.”
Compared with Haley’s 2,000–acre spread, Gardner’s farm is tiny, just 26 acres. He keeps 100 chickens, and grows fruit, vegetables and alfafa for hay.
Unlike Mike Haley, Gardner wasn’t born to farm. He’s an ecologist and molecular biologist teaching environmental science at Stark State College.
Three years ago he moved his family to a farm that dates back to 1875.
“When we bought the farm, it was a conventional corn and soybean farm. We are transitioning it to a diversified, certified-organic farm.”
His chickens lay about six dozen eggs a day and Gardner’s customers tell him they’re glad he feeds the hens only non-GMO grain.
“And they know that conventional chicken feed, because of the huge percentage of soybeans and corn that’s grown GMO, is going to contain GMO grain.”
There’s a nutritional difference in the eggs Gardner’s hens lay compared to what you get in the supermarket. Research shows chickens raised without GMO feed lay eggs with higher omega-3 fatty acids.
No tests on humans Gardner says the uncertain impact on human health is his biggest problem with GMOs.
“Here in the United States, we’ve pretty much allowed them to develop unregulated. There are currently roughly 100 crops approved for use in the United States, more in the pipeline, many we don’t know what the effects are going to be.”
Although GMO staple crops like soy and corn have become ubiquitous, there have been no human trials of GMO foods.
“In the United States,” says Gardner, “most of the research is done by the companies that develop the crops.”
A French study last year on rats showed those fed GMO grain developed tumors earlier than and twice as quickly as a control group.
“There’ve also been concerns about some anecdotal reports of allergic responses and other things,” says Gardener. “So we don’t know yet.”
Consumers can’t tell GMO from non-GMO Most of the European Union outlaws GMOs and where they’re legal, they’re labeled.
Maine and Connecticut recently enacted labeling laws and 20 other states are considering it.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Mark Udall last month urged the FDA to require labels on GMOs marketed as food.
But back in West Salem, Mike Haley remains confident that GMOs are good for his soil and his crops.
“We’re able to move forward way faster with using bio-technology than with traditional breeding because they’re able to evaluate the different genetics and work with them so much quicker instead of working years to isolate the genetics through traditional breeding techniques.”
He says the latest innovation is heart-healthy.
“Omega-3 soybeans. They’ve altered the oils in the soybeans so that it’s heart healthy. So when French fries are deep-fried at McDonald’s, it’s going to be heart-healthy oils, very similar to an olive oil. So I’m kind of excited about being able to grow more nutritious crops because of the new technology that’s coming around.”
But research scientist-turned farmer Kip Gardner wonders at what cost to the environment.
Still uncertain: the long-term environmental impact New weeds that even Roundup can’t kill have been popping up.
“So now they’re talking about creating GMO corn and soybeans that are resistant to more powerful herbicides like 2-4-D. Now we’re going to see that back in the environment, where the use of 2-4-D has been pretty severely limited in recent years.”
Gardner empathizes with farmers who think chemicals and GMOs are essential. He just thinks they’re wrong.
“For those folks who are in that system of agriculture, it is solving some immediate problems. But we’re saying we are working on a different model, hopefully one that we can demonstrate is as effective.”
Organic farming is growing stronger with consumers increasingly concerned about nutrition and food safety.
But with 7 billion of us on the planet now and another 2 billion expected by 2050, the higher yield potential of GMO’s attracts powerful support.
Last month, the editors of Scientific American came out against labeling GMO foods, saying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proved they’re neither toxic nor allergenic. The editors write: “In the growing battle over GMO foods, science is being used as a weapon.”
The agricultural sector of our economy continues to be vibrant and strong. In recent years, there has been an uptick in individuals and families interested in building careers in farming or ranching. Despite significant hurdles such as limited access to affordable land, high start-up costs, and lack of training, there are hard-working and talented people who want to start their own farm or ranch businesses.
With the appropriate policies in a 2013 Farm Bill, you can support successful new farmer start-ups and also mitigate some of the major obstacles new producers confront. By supporting new farmer opportunities with public policy we can strengthen the economic base and vitality of many of our rural and urban communities. As you begin conference negotiations on a new farm bill, we urge you to build upon the best provisions in existing bills to adopt the strongest possible measures for new and aspiring farmers. These include:
Supporting New Farmer Training Through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP)
1. Sustain needed funding at no less than $20 million per year. Funding for this program has been absent since 2012 and without future investments we risk losing the focus and base of organizations and institutions assisting tens of thousands of beginning farmers across the country.
2. Refrain from creating a “state grants” subsection within the BFRDP focused solely on farm safety. While farm safety is an important training effort, it should be integrated into the existing purposes for which grants can be offered to groups, rather than prioritized in a block-grant that would divert funding away from the thirteen other critical program purposes.
3. Ensure a set-aside of 25 percent of yearly funds is available for socially disadvantaged producers, limited resource producers and military veterans. This set-aside has been a critical component of the program since its inception and is important in ensuring diverse and broad populations have access to this program.
Expanding Access to Farmland, Credit and Conservation Assistance
1. Provide $50 million for the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentives Program which allows new producers and retiring landowner to collaborate to make more farm and ranch land available.
2. Prioritize conservation easements at agricultural use value for beginning farmers through the Agricultural Land Easement Program in order to increase the availability of affordable land, especially in areas facing growing development pressure.
3. Authorize a microloan program, including intermediary lending, in order to expand credit options and simplify the Farm Service Agency loan application process for new farmers.
4. Increase the advance payment option within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which would make it easier and financially viable for a new farmer to adopt conservation practices on their operations.
Additionally, we encourage provisions that ensure outreach to our nation’s military veterans interested in starting farming as well as robust funding for outreach and assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
This farm bill process has already dragged on for far too long. Every day Congress fails to proceed forward with a bill is a day we miss the opportunity to make better investments in the next generation of American farmers and ranchers – this delay has both short-term on long-term consequences for our communities. We urge you to move deliberately and swiftly in finalizing a farm bill that incorporates these beginning farmer measures.
Agribusiness Incubator Program
Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association
Alden Economic Development Committee
Alternative Energy Resources Organization
Angelic Organics Learning Center
Beau Chemin Preservation Farm
Beginning Farmers LLC
Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association
California Certified Organic Farmers
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
Catholic Charities of Louisville, Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas Center for Rural Affairs
Chicago Botanic Garden
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Community Food & Agriculture Coalition
Community Food and Justice Coalition
Cultivate Kansas City
Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship
Dakota Rural Action
Delta Land & Community
Ecological Farming Association
Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm
Family Farm Defenders
Farley Center Farm Incubator Farm
Fresh Rhode Island
Farmer Veteran Coalition
Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc
Fay-Penn Economic Development Council
Finger Lakes – Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training
Food & Water Watch
Food Democracy Now!
Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming
Hawthorne Valley Farm
Hmong National Development, Inc.
Hope Farms/Bethany Christian Services
Illinois Stewardship Alliance
Independent Living Services of Northern California
Institute for Washington’s Future
Intertribal Agriculture Council
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement
Iowa Farmers Union
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
Just Food KAKOO OIWI
Kansas Rural Center
Kauai Community College Kerr Center Inc.
Land For Good
Land Stewardship Project
Leeward Community College
Liberty Prairie Foundation
Local Food Hub
Local First Lutheran Social Services/New Lands Farm
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Maine Rural Partners
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
Michigan Farmers Union
Michigan Food and Farming Systems
Michigan Land Use Institute
Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance
Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service
Minnesota Citizens Organized Acting Together
Minnesota Farmers Union
Minnesota Food Association
National Catholic Rural Life Conference
National Farmers Organization
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
National Women In Agriculture Association
National Young Farmers Coalition
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society INC-NSAS
New England Farmers Union
New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
New Farmers Network
New York Bee Wellness
North Country Sustainability Center
Northeast Organic Farming Association, Interstate Council
Northeast Organic Farming Association, New Hampshire
Northeast Organic Farming Association, New York
Northeast Organic Farming Association, Rhode Island
Northeast Organic Farming Association, Vermont
Northeast Pasture Consortium
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG)
Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides
Northwest Farm Bill Action Group
Northwest Michigan Council of Governments
Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network
Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
Oklahoma Farm and Food Alliance
Okmulgee County Farmers and Ranchers
Onslow County Farmers Market, Inc
Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success
PMJ Capital Corporation
Practical Farmers of Iowa
Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery
Pushing the Envelope Farm
Rogue Farm Corps
Root ‘N Roost Farm
Rural Advancement Foundation International School Food FOCUS National
Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee
Slow Food California
Slow Food Nebraska
Slow Food USA
Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership Inc.
Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
Sustainable Farming Association
Texas Mexico Border Coalition CBO
The Brice Institute
The Land Connection
Tilth Producers of Washington
Truly Living Well
United Farmers USA
Vermont Land Trust
Virginia Association for Biological Farming
Walk Farm, Incorporated
Washington Young Farmers Coalition
Wisconsin Farmers Union Women, Food and Agriculture Network
World Farmers Inc
Wren’s Nest Farm
Columbus, OH—While farmers wait to see if the U.S. House of Representatives will enter conference committee with the Senate to work out the details of a new Farm Bill, the current Farm Bill extension expired today.
Congress’ failure to pass a new Farm Bill will have a disproportionately negative impact on beginning, sustainable, and organic farmers. Unlike crop insurance subsidies which have continued funding, many organic, local food, and conservation programs are not permanently authorized and funded.
“As consumer demand for organics continues to grow, Congress needs to help organic farmers succeed,” said MacKenzie Bailey, Policy Program Coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). “Although organic programs are a very small part of the hundreds of billions of dollars that will be invested through this Farm Bill, they are critical programs that address unique needs. The failure to fund organic programs is counter-intuitive when consumers are demanding more sustainably grown food.”
Farmers have been without a full Farm Bill since October 1, 2012. In January 2013, Congress passed a partial one year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill that excluded funding for nearly three dozen Farm Bill programs. The Senate has passed a Farm Bill twice, but disagreements about funding and eligibility for nutrition programs in the House have created roadblocks to passing a full Farm Bill reauthorization.
Dozens of programs that create jobs, invest in the next generation of farmers, and protect the environment are without funding. Some key programs without funding until Congress passes a full Farm Bill include:
The Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP) provides funding to community supported agriculture programs, farmers’ markets, and farm markets to develop marketing information and business plans; support innovative market ideas, and educate consumers. For example, the Toledo Farmers’ Market used FMPP funding to recruit new vendors, help establish and promote an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system for SNAP recipients, and build relationships with community partners to leverage additional funding and support. As a result, SNAP sales increased from $500 in 2008 to $50,000 in 2011, the market added 1,000 new EBT customers, overall market sales increased by 20 percent, and the number of vendors at the market grew by 38 percent.
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program invests in the next generation of farmers and food entrepreneurs by helping them access land, credit, and crop insurance; launch and expand new farms and businesses, and receive training, mentoring, and education.
The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program reimburses participating organic producers and handlers for 75 percent (up to $750) of their certification fees. This program helps make organic certification affordable, enabling farmers and processors to meet the growing demand for organic food. In 2011, 251 Ohioans utilized cost-share funds, or about 40 percent of the state’s organic operations.
The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative is a competitive grants program dedicated to the growing needs of the organic community.
The Organic Production Market and Data Initiative is a multi-agency organic data collection initiative that collects information vital to maintaining stable markets and tracking production trends.
Value-Added Producer Grants provide funding for feasibility studies and business plans, marketing value-added products, and farm-based renewable energy projects.
“Enough is enough. Farmers have been without a Farm Bill for a year. Congress needs to act now to pass a full and fair five year Farm Bill that will invest in the future, create economic opportunities for family farmers, protect precious natural resources, reform farm subsidies, and ultimately align farm policy with the good health of our families, friends, and neighbors,” said Bailey.
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) was founded in 1979 and is a grassroots coalition of farmers, backyard gardeners, consumers, retailers, educators, researchers, and others who share a desire to build healthy food systems. For more than 30 years, OEFFA has used education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to promote local and organic food systems, helping farmers and consumers reconnect and together build a sustainable food system, one meal at a time. For more information, go to www.oeffa.org.
The Honorable Sherrod Brown
United States Senate
713 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-3503
Dear Senator Brown,
The undersigned organizations are concerned with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) draft rule related to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal and tribal lands, and we urge you to consider our concerns and share them with the BLM and Obama Administration. We ask you to advocate for:
The prohibition of fracking in critical/sensitive areas, including National Forests, land contiguous to National Parks, and source water areas, among others
Banning the use of open waste pits
The full disclosure of chemical inputs and thorough pre-drilling water testing
And banning the use of diesel and other toxic chemicals
The rule provides much needed guidelines for drilling activities on federal and tribal land that the BLM has jurisdiction over, and the current draft rule is actually in its second iteration, as the first version elicited approximately 175,000 comments to the BLM. Despite that most of these comments were likely critical of the rule’s deficiencies, the BLM, instead of correcting these deficiencies based on received comments, yielded to industry pressure and weakened the rule in its second version
The BLM holds more than 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights across the United States, and while much of the land attached to these rights is in the western US, there are parcels of land that would be affected in the east and, specifically, Ohio. In Ohio, the most notable impacts will occur in the Wayne National Forest, Ohio’s only National Forest. But the BLM also holds mineral rights within non-federal lands, and it appears to intend to lease these lands for fracking as well; it is currently pursuing leasing in Blue Rock State Forest.
The rule is supposed to be a comprehensive attempt at providing proper regulation to ensure a greater level of protection from fracking that occurs on federal and tribal lands, and update the existing regulations, which are recognized as inadequate. However, the current version of the rule falls short of achieving even minimal protection for a variety of reasons. It is also important to recognize that although significantly updating existing regulations will provide more protections against the harms of drilling, these regulations cannot eliminate the environmental and public health risks that fracking poses.
Perhaps the most concerning deficiency with the rule is that it fails to address or recognize that certain areas, such as Wayne National Forest, might be too sensitive or critical for fracking activities. Inherent in the practice of fracking is land industrialization, inevitable air pollution, eventual water pollution, and an enormous increase in traffic and water use. For lands that have been designated or set aside because of their ecological value, or because they contain a drinking water source, there must be some mechanism to make them “off limits” to fracking activity. In fact, the importance of a provision to protect certain unique and sensitive areas was outlined as a recommendation by President Obama’s shale gas advisory subcommittee in its August, 2011 90-Day Report.
The rule is devoid of many basic best-management practices and requirements. Perhaps the most glaring of these is the failure to prohibit the use of fracking waste pits. These pits are highly problematic for a number of reasons, including that animals can easily access them, the risk of failure/contamination relative to other containment methods (e.g. closed-loop systems), and the lack of requirements related to liner integrity. The BLM even recognized these and other risks related to open pits in a 2012 Instructional Memorandum advising BLM employees to attempt to have drillers utilize closed-loop systems.
The draft rule also does an inadequate job in regards to chemical disclosure. The chemical disclosure requirement in the rule relies on FracFocus, which has been shown to be a flawed method of disclosure. In the current version of the rule, drilling companies do not need to provide the chemical constituents of their drilling fluid until after a well is fracked, they have the ability to shield themselves from disclosure based on trade secret provisions, and they do not even need to provide the exact inputs for each well, but rather merely provide the inputs for a representative well. This is unacceptable and poses considerable risk to the environment and human health. Instead, every chemical that is injected into each individual well should be disclosed before fracking occurs, trade secrets provisions should be completely eliminated, and thorough baseline water testing should be conducted prior to drilling. The use of diesel fluid, as well as other toxic chemicals that have been proven to be dangerous, should also be prohibited.
The BLM rule also fails to address well construction guidelines and setbacks for specific areas such as houses, schools, and campgrounds. Studies indicate that all well casings will fail at some point, and a significant number fail in the beginning of their lives. Thus it is essential that stringent well construction rules are adopted within this rule, recognizing that even thoughtfully designed well construction rules cannot prevent the failure of well casings over time. Responsible siting of wells is also important. Sufficient set backs should be adopted to protect homes, schools, campgrounds and recreational areas, water sources, and other sensitive locations.
Finally, air pollution regulations should be incorporated into the rule, as fracking sites are responsible for a substantial volume of concerning air contaminants, including methane, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds. These emissions pose a grave risk to human health as well as the health of our climate. The current BLM rule does not address these concerns, and should be altered to prevent the practice of flaring and require “green completions.”
Thank you for considering our recommendations to limit damage from fracking on public lands. Although our recommendations will not mitigate all the risks associated with fracking, they provide much more meaningful protections than the current version of the BLM’s fracking rule. Again, we urge you to contact the BLM directly, as well as the Obama Administration, and share our, and your, concerns about these rules.
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
Sierra Club Ohio Chapter
*A full list of organizations that signed on is available through the Sierra Club Ohio Chapter.
 Bureau of Land Management, US Department of the Interior, “Oil and Gas: Hydraulic Fracturing on Federal and Tribal Lands,” 43 CFR 3160; available from http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/wo/Communications_Directorate/public_affairs/hydraulicfracturing.Par.91723.File.tmp/HydFrac_SupProposal.pdf.
 U.S. Department of Energy, Shale Gas Production Subcommittee, Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, “The SEAB Gas Production Subcommittee Ninety-Day Report,” August 11, 2011.
 U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, “Instruction Memorandum No. 2013-033,” December 13, 2012, available from http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/regulations/Instruction_Memos_and_Bulletins/national_instruction/2013/IM_2013-033.html.
 Kate Konschink, Margaret Holden, and Alexa Shasteen, “Legal Fractures in Chemical Disclosure Laws,” Environmental Law Program Policy Initiative, Harvard Law School, April 23, 2013, available from, http://www.eenews.net/assets/2013/04/23/document_ew_01.pdf.
 Anthony Ingraffea, “Fluid Migration Mechanisms Due to Faulty Well Design and/or Construction: An Overview and Recent Experiences in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Play,” Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, October, 2012, available from http://www.damascuscitizensforsustainability.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/PSECementFailureCausesRateAnalysisIngraffea.pdf.