Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Conservation; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water; Wildlife
Timberjay: Antofagasta completes Duluth Metals acquisition
Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Conservation; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water; Wildlife
By Jim VanDerPol
The Land Stewardship Project recently published a three-part expose of the federal crop insurance program. The white papers are titled: “Crop Insurance-the Corporate Connection,” “Crop Insurance Ensures the Big Get Bigger” and “How Crop Insurance Hurts the Next Generation of Farmers.”
The final paper title provides the key to LSP’s concern. The introductory article says that concerns over the lack of available land for LSP’s highly regarded Farm Beginnings graduates drove their interest in investigation and reform. The papers are short, to the point and well written. They look well researched. They should be read by every farmer, especially those who actually buy the crop insurance, like me.
Though I knew or suspected much of what was in these papers, I admit to being shocked at several points. I did not know that besides the 60-plus percent of farmer premium shouldered by the taxpayer, we citizens are sponsoring a large part of the insurance companies’ administrative costs for the program. The amount approaches $2 billion for 2008 in the example given. One particularly disturbing graph shows that administrative costs charged to the government by the companies for the program more than doubled from 2004 to 2008, while the number of policies actually written shrank by nearly 2 percent.
These companies are huge Wall Street players, their names known by most of the public. And additionally we are told that the farms benefiting are identified only by policy number, not by name. The other information required to be published makes it quite possible to identify the largest players in any area though, and a quick comparison of the policy payouts with the conventional government payouts on the commodity program shows that most of the support going to agriculture is now in the form of crop insurance to a few very large crop farms.
This secrecy is pretty obviously intentional on the part of big ag’s representatives in Washington and it certainly is in keeping with recent trends. Like the Pentagon budget and the various spy agencies, big agriculture means to be free of prying public eyes. This was deliberate; the conventional farm groups have always been furious over the idea that the Environmental Working Group was publishing government subsidy amounts for every subsidy-receiving farm in the country. It is also just one more sign of how deep our political rot has gone. The spending of public money is properly always the public’s business, and any business that requires government assistance to declare a profit needs to consider itself to be in the public domain.
We know this damage. It is not news to us except in its details and particulars. We know it every time we hear of, or stand at, a land auction where acres are going at an insane price and try not to think of how impossible it would have been for us to start with that kind of land debt.
We see it every time we drive to town and see nothing but greybeards and high school kids there and sometimes not even the kids. We know it every time we go down the road we have driven all our lives and can see in our mind’s eye all the farm places that once put kids on that bus each morning, but now are no longer there.
Some of us remember the farming that took place then, the cooperation of dozens of manure spreaders to haul out each farm’s pack manure in the spring, the threshing rings, the neighbor visit to castrate or load pigs, the silo filling rings, the neighborhood dairy bull coming home a step at a time pulled by a rope attached to the nose ring behind the John Deere “B” in granny gear. And unfortunately, some of us remember the voice of the machine salesman telling us or our fathers that buying that combine meant we no longer had to put up with those balky stuck-in- the-past neighbors. So it was. So it has gone.
Wiser voices than this one have told us for a long time that the goal of government and the academic agriculture economists and other smart men has been to drive the people out of agriculture. It started, as far as I know, with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers telling us after WWII that there were too many people in agriculture and some of them needed to be forced out to move to the cities and labor in our industrial machines.
This is the nation’s real farm program and it has been in full force from that day 70 years ago to this. Crop insurance is the latest tool. It is a handout from the public treasury every bit as much as the conventional commodity payments and every bit as vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Through the ruse of funneling the money through a “private” business such as a huge insurance company, the Congress has attempted to shroud it in secrecy and remove it from the public conversation about agriculture.
But the situation has changed. The argument that the farm population could be reduced with people replaced by machines and that the surplus people were needed in the factories was always a pretty degenerate view of the function of the economy in human life, but at the outset it was at least plausible on the surface. Now, when we have so few people on the farms that we cannot do our own barn work and stoop labor coupled with people in the cities who cannot find any work and an industrial establishment with its work being steadily sold out overseas, it makes no sense whatever.
LSP has three ideas for reform. The second one listed is that the program needs to support, not impede, a new generation of farmers. This is critical. This goes to the heart of what we think farming is about, and in more general terms to the way in which we view the economy and the people (all of us) impacted by it. Does the economy exist for the people or the people for the economy?
Those of us fortunate enough to have had some life experience with hogs, those excellent mirrors of human behavior, know something about the sow eating her own young. We have struggled with figuring out from time-to-time, when the vice pops up, what the problem is with the sow. Is she hungry, malnourished? Is she the victim of a bad diet or a bad environment that causes her to act that way? Is it the circumstance in some yet not understood way? Or is she just a bad actor that needs to go on the sausage truck?
This is a parable for our country today. Lack of meaningful and good or indeed any kind of work for far too many people, in some families for generations now with all the attendant and inevitable problems of decay, delinquency and policing. College outrageously overpriced for the young. No opportunity in industry. No affordable housing. No safety net. No attempt to work those dispossessed in the “Great Recession” of 2008 back into the working world. No support for them while they try on their own to climb. No requirement of a decent liveable wage. Virtually no controls on or discipline for Wall Street, our major predator. Our country is that sow devouring her own.
It is beyond question that powerful people and huge overwhelming institutions have pushed us into our current circumstance on the farms. Is that our “bad environment or circumstance not yet understood?” Because it is sure that we that are on the older side of agriculture today have witnessed and participated in some ways in the over-mechanization of agriculture, the extreme over-pricing of the land base and the emptying out of the countryside and the resulting huge pile of capital assets into very very few hands.
We need to tell our organizations and politicians to abolish crop insurance or modify it drastically. If it survives it needs to require strict conservation compliance. And it needs to tilt the table toward the young and the start-ups, not away from them. This generation carries some solutions to the problems my generation has created. We must let them in.
Western Minnesota farmer Jim VanDerPol is a former member of LSP’s board of directors and the author of Conversations with the Land. This commentary originally appeared in Graze Magazine, for which VanDerPol writes a regular column.
Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Green Innovation; Invasive Species; Legislature & Agency; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Outdoor Recreation; Transportation; Water; Wildlife;
The United Nations-Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. That’s fitting, given how reliant the entire world is on keeping our soil in place, as well as keeping it healthy.
But this isn’t exactly new information: years ago I happened upon a 1953 pamphlet called Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years. Written by renowned soil expert Walter Lowdermilk, it’s basically a report of observations he made while traveling the world in 1938 and 1939. It provides graphic descriptions of how care of the soil has determined the fate of some of the most powerful civilizations in history. Most of the stories don’t end well. The collapse of societies in Greece, Rome, Maya and the Middle East can be traced in large part to rampant soil erosion and degradation. The turmoil that roils countries like Syria and Iraq today in some ways is rooted in the demise of lands that were once fertile enough to feed an entire region.
Lowdermilk’s writings were a “modernized” version of what George Perkins Marsh had written about almost a century before in his seminal, and all too often ignored, Man and Nature. First published in 1864, Marsh, a polymath scholar and diplomat, made an argument that was all but unheard of at the time: we have the ability to damage nature to the point where it will threaten our own survival. Like Lowdermilk, he had plenty of evidence in the form of ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean that had brought about their own collapse via deforestation, soil abuse and other environmental degradation. Marsh felt the then young American republic might repeat these errors of the ancient world if it didn’t start viewing its resources as limited and worth conserving. Such talk fell mostly on ears made deaf by the cacophony of the industrial revolution.
Our generation has its own report from the soil erosion vs. civilization battle front. In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist David Montgomery builds on Lowdermilk and Perkins’ evidence and lays out in clear language what is at stake.
“The history of dirt suggests that how people treat their soil can impose a life span on civilizations,” he writes in the 2007 book.
Like global climate change, our destruction of soil is in general a long, drawn-out process, one that’s hard to observe on a daily basis. The lack of a visible, immediate threat makes action on the part of society even harder. It’s easy to look back on ancient civilizations and wonder what they were thinking as the resource that gave them life blew away or simply went biologically inert. But other than in the case of the Dust Bowl, seldom does soil degradation give us the kind of wake-up call that prompts a quick response.
Today’s society certainly has the tools needed to choose agroecological success. First of all, we have historical perspective, thanks to people like Lowdermilk, Marsh and Montgomery. And other researchers are using cutting-edge science to provide accurate predictions of what the future holds if current trends continue, as well as what positive outcomes will result if we make some adjustments toward a more sustainable use of land.
Finally, we have a growing group of farmers who are combining the best of organics, conservation tillage, perennial systems and biodiversity to protect and build our soil. They are working to make history a lesson, not a rerun. That’s an important point to keep in mind if we are to make the Year of Soils the call to action our very civilization’s survival requires.
The Will Steger Foundation is excited to launch Climate Minnesota: Local Stories, Community Solutions, a two-year project funded through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Climate Minnesota responds to the urgent need for increased climate literacy and sustainable behavior change among Minnesotans by sharing the knowledge of local experts and the stories of individuals impacted by climate change. The project builds on the power of media for sharing stories and the importance of personal contact to reach a broader, more diverse audience.
Opportunities for Involvement
We are looking for individuals or organizations to contribute through the following opportunities:
Submit Your Climate Story
Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate about climate change, especially when the story is told from a personal perspective. As Minnesotans we are actually experiencing climate change impacts now and they are affecting us in very real and direct ways. WSF invites you to share your personal climate change story in a blog, podcast or on a storytelling panel at one of our convenings. For more information on how to submit your climate story as a blog or podcast please visit our Climate Storytelling Collection (http://willstegerfoundation.org/climateminnesota/share-your-story) or email email@example.com.
Attend a Local Convening
For a full listing of all twelve public convenings, please visit www.climateminnesota.org. All convenings are free and open to the public.
Lead a Climate Action Team
We are developing climate action teams in each of our twelve convening locations. Climate action teams will represent a specific demographic, organization, or cause. Climate action team examples include neighborhood groups, student clubs, faith communities, educators, municipal leaders, native communities, farmers, and business owners/non-profits. A climate action team leader will bring together individuals interested in working towards a common solution and that can attend the convening as a group. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support Local Solutions
As a business, organization or non-profit you may be able to offer support for a local and specific solution for your community. For more information, please contact email@example.com.
Resource Fair Tables
A Resource Fair will be held in each community, during the half hour leading up to the public convening. Resource Fair tables will feature local resources that are aimed to build community, as well as direct or indirect solutions to climate change. The Resource Fair will accommodate approximately 8-10 tables. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volunteer opportunities are available for all twelve statewide public convenings. For more information, please contact email@example.com.
Today’s Topics: Climate Change; Energy; Legislature & Agency; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Outdoor Recreation; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; Wildlife
Brainerd Dispatch: Climate change is child neglect
Duluth News Tribune: Reader’s view: climate column makes mockery of facts
Duluth News Tribune: Reader’s view: Global-warming advice was from advocate
Grist: Climate hawks are not impressed by Obama’s methane plan
New York Times: 2014 Breaks Heat Record, Challenging Global Warming Skeptics
Duluth News Tribune: Minnesota Power wind farm in North Dakota is complete
Midwest Energy News: Is Minnesota’s largest co-op cutting carbon quickly enough? featuring MEP member groups Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy & Fresh Energy
MinnPost: The flowering of utility boxes: Turning mysterious infrastructure into public art
New York Times: Green-energy inspiration off the coast of Denmark
NPR: U.S. Solar Industry Sees Growth, But Also Some Uncertainty
Rochester Post Bulletin: Opinion: Consider greener energy sources when planning DMC changes
Legislature & Agency
Star Tribune: Rep. Tim Walz swaps Transportation for Defense, hopes to gain power
Duluth News Tribune: Antofagasta gets Twin Metals on Tuesday
Oil & Pipelines
Bemidji Pioneer: Opinion: Phil Kerpen: End oil protectionism
Brainerd Dispatch: Two men burned in North Dakota oil worksite fire
Climate Progress: Nebraskans File New Lawsuit That Could Stop The Keystone XL Pipeline
CNN: Up to 50,000 gallons of water spilled in Yellowstone River; residents told not to drink water
Grist: A whole lot of oil spilled in the U.S. in 2013
MinnPost: Keystone XL and the Violation of Lakota Treaty Rights
MinnPost: Video: Oil pipelines, oil satire and Mike Gelfand featuring MEP member group Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
MPR: Stressed bat species could threaten MN pipeline
NPR: New Justice Dept. environment chief takes helm of Gulf spill case
Star Tribune: Minnesota study finds more preparation needed for oil disasters
Associated Press: Apostle Island ice caves still inaccessible, tourism slow (In Pioneer Press)
Pioneer Press: Minnesota’s Boundary Waters are not just for summer fun
Twin Cities Daily Planet: 8 Reasons Biking and Walking Should be Part of the State Transportation Bill
Waste & Recycling
Brainerd Dispatch: Frozen septic system reaching critical mass in lakes area
MPR: Dayton proposes legislative action on waterway buffers
Vermont Digger: Lawmakers move to ban plastic scrubbing beads
Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Energy; Legacy Amendment; Parks & Trails; Pipelines; Transportation; Waste; Water; Wildlife
Agriculture & Food
Associated Press: Minnesota to get $9M for agricultural water quality program
Star Tribune: Cargill: Plastic found in Japan McNuggets didn’t come from us
Star Tribune: New Prague organic dairy affected by CapX2020
University of Minnesota CFANS: Forever Green: Alternative, off-season crops could benefit economy as well as ecology
Associated Press: Ecolab to offset its energy usage in Minnesota via solar (In MPR)
Climate Progress: Report: Forget stocks, invest in solar panels
Midwest Energy News: Minnesota solar developer to partner with construction firm
MPR: The future of Minnesota energy
Star Tribune: Drilling declines in North Dakota on low oil prices
Star Tribune: Ecolab to go all-solar in Minnesota
Parks & Trails
Associated Press: Grand Teton National Park logs record number of visitors in 2014 (In Star Tribune)
MinnPost: Franken renews push for American-made steel for Keystone
MinnPost: Counterpoint: We don’t need no stinking bike tax
MinnPost: Two for the roads: compraing the parties’ transportation funding plans
Star Tribune: DFL unveils $800 million fix for roads and bridges
MinnPost: Duluth treatment plant’s draft permit draws environmental concerns Paula Maccabee WaterLegacy
Northland’s News Center: EPA pressuring MN state agencies to crack down on Minntac’s leaking contaminants
Associated Press: Bill would remove federal protections for Minn. wolves (In MPR)
MinnPost: New studies solve some mysteries about the plague that’s killing our bats
MPR: Good news for bats: Disease spread slowing down
MPR: More restictive walleye regulations for Upper Red Lake
By Julie Lund of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS). Posted on CFANS website: http://www.cfans.umn.edu/about/solutions/forever-green
Minnesota has 27 million acres of farmland dominated by corn and soybeans. Over the years, as high-yield varieties were introduced, these food and feed crops edged out prairie and pastures, and the state’s agricultural landscape lost much of its biodiversity.
“There’s nothing wrong with corn or soybeans,” says Professor Don Wyse of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. “Over the last 75 years, the department has invested heavily in developing the wheat, corn, soybeans and barley that people were asking for. Because of their success these crops became the dominant crops in Minnesota agriculture.”
But, as summer annuals, those crops are active for only a few months, leaving fields brown much of the year. Without crops covering the land it is vulnerable to erosion, fertilizer runoff and loss of nutrients. These factors can lead to water contamination and the loss of nitrogen and other valuable soil components.
“Everyone blames the farmers. ‘Why don’t they change?’ ” Wyse says. “But you can’t expect a farmer to turn away from corn and soybeans if there is no profitable alternative.”
Now Wyse and colleagues from across the college, the Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension are bringing together almost two decades of work in plant breeding, agronomy, conservation biology, food science and other fields to develop those alternatives—new crops that could make Minnesota’s cropland more productive, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable.
Grouped under the umbrella the “Forever Green Initiative,” this research could have a dramatic impact on the state’s economy and ecology. To accelerate progress, the state legislature recently appropriated $1 million toward the effort, with additional funding coming from state and federal agencies and Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE), a partnership between the university and state.
The hallmark of the Forever Green Initiative, according to Professor Nick Jordan of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, is a system approach.
“We are trying to bring together the development of new, high-value commodities with significant opportunities for conservation,” he says. But the new crops being developed are not just for the economic benefit of individual farmers. They also are intended to be the basis for whole new industries that will diversify rural economies and bring employment opportunities back to small towns.
This new approach involves advancing and achieving sustainable commercialization.
“Efforts to incentivize farmers to plant perennials and cover crops haven’t amounted to much in the past,” Jordan explains. “With Forever Green, there is a strong emphasis on addressing the economic barriers that have existed, as well as partnering with rural communities, policymakers and business to take a more holistic approach.”
Research, conducted in part at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton and the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, has shown that rotating corn with soybeans increases yields for both crops, compared with growing either as a monoculture. Soybeans supply nitrogen to the soil, and corn thrives on that nutrient.
While this is good, Wyse and his research team think that farmers can do it one better by domesticating field pennycress—once considered a common weed—and introducing it as a relay crop into the corn and soybean rotation.
“Throughout Minnesota and the Midwest, there is nothing on the landscape between the time annual crops are harvested in the fall and the time that new plantings establish a canopy cover in June of the next year,” he explains. “That leaves a lot of bare fields for a lot of the year.”
Planting cover crops can reduce tillage and conserve soil by stemming erosion and nutrient loss, but many farmers find them too difficult to establish and hard to terminate when they don’t add to a farm’s profitability.
A relative of the mustard plant, field pennycress is a winter annual that can be planted in the fall. It survives over the winter and resumes growing in early spring, often before the snow has fully melted. Wyse has found that planting field pennycress amidst corn before it is harvested, then planting soybeans either in the pennycress in early May or following the pennycress harvest in mid-June, produces higher total yields than planting soybeans alone.
In addition to holding the soil and nutrients in place and filtering groundwater, field pennycress could be marketed as an oil seed crop. The most productive pennycress lines bred at the university are 40 percent oil by weight, with a composition that could be converted to biodiesel, aviation fuel or other industrial products. Wyse estimates that adding pennycress as a winter crop has the potential to add up to an extra $300 of profit per acre for soybean growers.
“If you want to change the landscape and add biodiversity, there has to be an economic benefit for the farmer,” says Wyse. In addition to profit, farmers also want the environmental benefits that pennycress provides—cleaner water, nutrient-rich soil and wildlife and pollinator habitat, among others.
Wyse and his colleagues will continue their breeding program to try to increase seed size, oil quality and other desirable traits, while also working on developing a market for pennycress seed oil.
“The research we’ve done thus far proves the concept of field pennycress as a value-added cover crop,” Wyse says. “Now it is moving toward commercialization.”
Farmers grow annual sunflowers throughout the northwestern part of Minnesota, producing snack nuts and valuable seed oil that can be used in trans-fat-free cooking oil. But, like corn and soybeans, annual sunflowers produce only one crop per year, leaving the soil vulnerable to erosion and nutrient loss after harvest.
One Forever Green research team is trying to develop a perennial sunflower that would be equally productive and profitable as current commercial varieties and also provide important environmental benefits.
The idea, says post-doctoral researcher Michael Kantar (’06–B.S.; ’08–M.S.; ’13–Ph.D., Applied Plant Science), is to have agricultural production more closely mimic natural ecosystems and the prairie that cropland replaced. A key characteristic of native Midwestern prairies is the number and variety of perennial plants, which have extensive root systems that reach deeper for water and nutrients than those of annuals and better withstand drought and climate variations. They also are active more days of the year and provide ground cover, soil protection and wildlife habitat when dormant.
“Obviously, there are clear direct benefits from production agriculture: food, fodder, energy,” Kantar says. “But there are a lot of valuable things that natural landscapes offer, what we call ecosystem services. These are such things as biodiversity, aesthetic beauty, soil retention and water quality.”
The challenge, says Kantar, is to develop plants that are profitable for farmers and also deliver these ecosystem services.
And it is a challenge, according to plant geneticist Associate Professor Bob Stupar of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.
“The domestic sunflower has 17 chromosomes, while the wild perennial species that we are using has 51 chromosomes. That difference presents a real obstacle. [During breeding] there’s a genetic battle going on between the domestic and native traits. It’s been hard to optimize the process to get the perfect traits together,” he says.
Now, new DNA marker technologies are making it quicker, easier and cheaper for breeders to identify important genes and combine them in different configurations to produce better crops. Kantar and others are looking at the genetics that underlie winter survival in perennial sunflowers to add this trait to existing commercially successful annual varieties.
“These new molecular technologies have dramatically reduced costs,” explains Kantar, “while greatly improving our understanding of genomic material. We can target our experiments and test our hypotheses empirically right away. That wasn’t possible a few years ago.”
“In the past, domesticating a plant could take thousands of years,” agrees Stupar. “Now, the question is, can we take the knowledge about plant genetics that we’ve developed over the past 10 years and change the paradigm to make really rapid advancements?”
Kantar and Stupar think they can.
Many new plant breeds face a chicken-and-egg dilemma: what if you develop a fantastic plant that has no market and, therefore, no one will grow it? What if, on the other hand, there is market demand for a crop that does not yet exist?Researchers working on the development of perennial intermediate wheatgrass (IWG) are trying to tackle both questions at the same time.
Although his primary area of research is spring wheat, Professor Jim Anderson of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics joined the research effort on IWG because he wanted to “see growers have other options.”
The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., has had an IWG breeding program since the 1990s. The university’s first IWG research plots were planted in 2010 on the St. Paul campus and at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca. Anderson and his colleagues are mapping the genes that produce greater seed size, bigger yields and a shortened stature so that the wheat stalk will stand up until harvest.
Seed growers seem fairly excited about IWG’s prospects, says Anderson. So do students. “There is more interest among graduate students in sustainable crops, like intermediate wheatgrass and pennycress, than there is in spring wheat,” Anderson says.
Food companies share that interest, according to Associate Professor Baraem (Pam) Ismail of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition. “Food companies are interested in producing products made from sustainable resources because consumers are interested in those products.”
Ismail and her research team are conducting chemical analyses of IWG to examine nutrient composition, including fat, gluten proteins and starch, among other characteristics. In some ways the new wheat varieties produce flour that is similar to conventional flour, but there are some significant differences as well.
“Gluten protein is what gives dough its elasticity, and the protein quality is quite different in IWG,” she notes. The new plants also have smaller seeds, resulting in a higher bran-to-endosperm (the “insides” of the wheat kernel) ratio. More bran and germ compared to endosperm means more fiber and enzymes, which can affect texture and flavor.
Baraem is experimenting making food with different proportions of IWG and regular wheat flour and will provide feedback to Anderson and other breeders, with the goal of producing flour that could be used, not just in baked goods, but also in nutrition bars, breakfast cereals and other products.
“The more of this wheatgrass that is used, the more farmers will want to grow it,” she says.
Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Legacy Amendment; Legislature & Agency; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water; Wildlife;
Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Carbon Rule; Climate Change; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Invasive Species; Keystone Pipeline; Legislature & Agency; Oil; Parks & Trails; Sandpiper Pipeline; Transportation; Wildlife;
Frac Sand Mining
Inside Climate News: Against the Grain: Minnesota’s long slog toward dealing With frac sand featuring Bobby King of MEP member group Land Stewardship Project