A Peek Behind the Curtain

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It’s refreshing when people in power pull the curtain aside, drop the feel-good rhetoric momentarily and offer a glimpse at what they are really thinking. It’s also a little frightening. After years of claiming he’s “size neutral” when it comes to agricultural policy, Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar) announced during a March 11 House committee hearing that “smaller” livestock farms are “our biggest problems” when it comes to environmental pollution.

Such a candid statement is frightening because Juhnke is the powerful chair of the House’s Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Finance Division Committee. He’s also a member of the Environment Policy and Oversight Committee. Those are two committees that hold a lot of power over this state’s agriculture, the environment, and the interaction between the two.

Juhnke made his statements in an Environment Policy and Oversight Committee Hearing while discussing his proposal (House File 2659) to weaken state environmental standards for certain kinds of agricultural operations—the largest factory farms in the state to be exact.

Under changes made during the Bush administration, feedlots over 1,000 animal units are not required to get a Clean Water Act National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit if they certify that they will not discharge to public waters. However, under Minnesota law operations of this size are still required to get a NPDES permit—something we should be proud of here in the land of 10,000 lakes. This state provision has protected our state despite the lowering of federal standards. Rep. Juhnke’s legislation undoes this protection. (For a good description of how ludicrous this proposal is, check out Mary Turck’s recent News Day blog.)

There are more than 30,000 registered feedlots in Minnesota, with about 1,200 of them larger than 1,000 animal units. In other words, the largest livestock operations make up less than 4 percent of all feedlots in the state. But because of the extremely large amounts of liquid manure they concentrate in one place, these large operations present inordinately large air and water pollution problems. It’s well documented that the nation’s biggest manure-cased fish kills have been caused by the nation’s largest livestock operations, which, by their very nature, far too often treat manure as a waste product, rather than as a valuable fertilizer. Here in Minnesota, the record for number of fish killed by a single manure spill is held by a large hog operation in Renville County.

And problems with factory farms aren’t ancient history. As we described in this blog just a few weeks ago, the gigantic Excel Dairy in northwest Minnesota is a prime example of how failure to bird-dog a factory farm can create a public health risk long into the future. And as the Wisconsin State Journal has documented, our neighbors to the east are struggling with the environmental results of allowing Big Livestock to have free-run of that state’s capitol the past several years.

Rep. Juhnke and other agricultural leaders both within and outside of government have long claimed they are “size neutral” when it comes to farming. This “rising tide lifts all boats” rhetoric has been used to justify everything from loose environmental rules to a hands-off approach to market concentration to a quashing of any and all criticism. All members of the agriculture community benefit when Monsanto or Cargill are allowed to control the vast majority of the seed and grain business, respectively, goes this argument. Even the smallest livestock farmer wins when Smithfield or Hormel buys out yet one more processor, say defenders of the “there’s room enough for everyone” school of thought.

But now people are starting to speak out of school. In Juhnke’s case, on March 11 he was trying to make the case that in fact it’s the largest 4 percent of livestock farms that do the least harm, because they are so “state of the art.” Perhaps Juhnke can be excused for being biased—his district is home to Jennie-O Turkey Store, a Hormel property which controls some of the largest poultry operations in the state. But that doesn’t give him the excuse to make these kinds of statements. Below are a few choice sound bites from Juhnke as he became increasingly frustrated that his fellow lawmakers weren’t willing to give factory farms a free pass. (Click here to listen to audio from the March 11 hearing.)

  • At the 1-hour, 37-minute, 49-second mark, Juhnke said: “Some of our main culprits in feedlots quite frankly are the smaller ones who still sit on the hillsides…and they drain right into our public waters.”
  • And at the 1-hour, 38-minute mark: “These larger ones [1,000 animal units or more] are very good stewards and they’re the ones that shouldn’t be required to do it [get the NPDES permit] if they are not discharging.”
  • It eventually becomes clear listening to the audio of Juhnke that all this candid talk is coming into conflict with all those previous statements about “size neutrality.” For example, at the 2-hour, 25-minute, 30-second mark, he said: “Over in our committee—in Agriculture—we try and be size neutral. Okay. And as was mentioned, a lot of the smaller feedlots frankly are our biggest problems because of where they are located, but again…we are trying to remain size neutral.”

Try harder.

Maybe now we know why key agricultural leaders in the Minnesota Legislature allowed budgets for two key sustainable/organic Agriculture Department programs to be slashed by a combined average of over 75 percent during the 2009 session. Keep in mind the overall budget for the MDA was cut 8 percent by that same Legislature—when a few successful programs are singled out for such disproportionately rough treatment, it’s not exactly a “we all share in the pain” situation.

Juhnke isn’t alone in his willingness to make it clear he’s no fan of family-sized, sustainable farms. Just a few days before the March 11 hearing, the Des Moines Register ran a fascinating article about how some players in Big Ag are upset over new federal government initiatives that are targeted at moderate-sized farmers and local food systems.

“USDA shifted on me,” Tim Burrack told the Register. Burrack is chair of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, and his own farm garnered over $1.5 million in crop subsidies from 1995 through 2006, according to the Environmental Working Group‘s subsidy database. His claim is that government initiatives that support local production and consumption of foods are a sign the USDA has abandoned “efficient” large-scale farms like his own.

Don’t get too excited, Mr. Burrack. Large scale farmers like you are still getting the bulk of agricultural bucks via the commodity program. Meanwhile, local food programs like “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” are just a drop in the bucket budget-wise. That same Register article described how a small vegetable producer from near Sioux City applied for a $4,000 grant to buy a high tunnel hoop house for extending the growing season.

That funding was made available this year through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), an initiative that, as we reported in this blog before, has a history of being a windfall for large-scale livestock operations seeking tax money to build multi-million gallon manure lagoons. A few thousand dollars so more Iowans can get fresh veggies longer into the fall is, again, a drop in the bucket.

But maybe when you’ve thrown your lot in with something as shaky as large-scale industrial agriculture, then even the smallest drop in the bucket is seen as a threat.

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