U.S. House Ag panel mulls safety net changes in farm bill amid soaring costs

Gov. Cooper’s budget on environmental issues: what it contains and why it matters

Gov. Cooper’s recommended budget, apportioned by topic area (Source: Governor’s Office)

Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his $29.3 billion budget yesterday, 3% of which is devoted to natural and economic resources. 

Here are some highlights of the environmental sections and why they’re important:

Department of Environmental Quality

  • $2.49 million to address emerging compounds with additional staff and testing

Why it matters: Are you tired of PFAS yet? Well, PFAS aren’t tired of you. These toxic compounds have seeped into every day life: drinking water, carpet, clothing, fast food containers, furniture, cookware. They’re in blood, in pee, in breast milk.

This money would pay for more specialized staff — chemists, hydrogeologists, engineers — to meet the increasing need for groundwater testing, as well as permitting. What it will not pay for: the legislature’s political will to allow DEQ to establish a legally enforceable drinking water standard.

  •  $160,000 for a “project liaison” to collaborate with the Department of Commerce and Economic Development Partnership related to permitting and site development; plus another $500,000 for support positions

Why it matters: Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan often said that it’s possible to have both economic development and environmental protection. That’s a sunny talking point, but In Real Life government and economic development leaders chase tax dollars from polluting industries while giving short shrift to the people who have to live next to the contamination. Those people are usually non-white and/or low-income. And once the first polluter enters a community, then it’s open season. (The NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed cumulative impacts of multiple polluters at a meeting earlier this week.)

At the risk of using corporate lingo, state agencies are stuck in “silos”: For example, Commerce recruits a company to locate in North Carolina, but until recently no one has considered the environmental — or environmental justice — implications of that department’s efforts.

If the legislature actually includes this line item in their budget (don’t hold your breath), watchdogs should track how it plays out. If the legislature nixes the governor’s recommendation, DEQ and Commerce could still communicate about their respective concerns. The phone call is free.

  • $15 million for low-income households to reduce energy costs and afford clean energy sources

Why it matters: The national average residential electricity rate was up 8% in January from a year earlier, according to The New York Times, which reported it is the biggest annual increase in more than a decade. Low-income households are particularly hard-hit, as are renters. While this budget recommendation would help homeowners, how it would trickle down to renters remains to be seen. According to the NC Housing Coalition, there are 27 counties where renters average more than 8% of their household budget on energy. Renters tend to earn lower wages than homeowners, and since they have to answer to a landlord, they can’t upgrade their homes to make them energy efficient or outfit them with heat pumps or solar panels.

Department of Agriculture

  • $2 million for a forest development program

Why it matters: The importance of forests and trees can’t be overstated. They provide critical wildlife habitat, store carbon, provide shade, and absorb and hold flood waters. The forest development program in the governor’s budget would restore 18,200 acres of forestland — about the size of Durham County — and plant up to 6 million trees. That sounds admirable until you realize North Carolina’s wood pellet plants consume more than that each year.

Map: Lisa Sorg, based on DEQ database of swine farms and NC Division of Emergency Management flood plain data

  • $18 million for the swine farm buyout program

Why it matters: The Coastal Plain, with its sandy soils, high water table and proliferation of swamps, are not well-suited for CAFOS — Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — and their open-air waste lagoons and spray fields.

Dozens of these farms lie within the 100-year flood plain, making their lagoons vulnerable to overtopping or breaching during a hurricane or prolonged storms. This money would help fund the voluntary buyout program, up to 19 swine farms. The land is put in a conservation easement, but farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

As Policy Watch reported in 2019, the buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. In 2018, the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

  • $10 million for peatlands and pocosin conservation and inventory

Why it matters: First, peatlands are cool, at least when they’re not on fire. In this part of the world, they are the result of decomposed Sphagnum moss, shrubs and sedges. In Scotland, smoldering peat is used to dry malt that is used to make whisky. (Laphroig will knock your socks off.)

However, burning peat releases carbon dioxide, a major driver of greenhouse gas. North Carolina has coastal peatlands; those of you around in 2008 might remember when, during a severe drought, lightning struck a peat bog, igniting it. The bog burned for weeks, and the smell — and pollution– traveled west all the way to the Triangle.

Restoring peatlands — re-wetting them — can reduce carbon emissions and wildfire risk, as well as promote flood resilience and water quality, all very important not just to coastal communities but the planet.

These funds will also help the Natural Heritage Program inventory Coastal Plain wetlands that have been previously excluded from other counts. Wetlands can control flooding, filter pollution and provide key habitats. Finding, acquiring and protecting wetlands, particularly in the flood-prone Coast Plain, can build resiliency against future hurricanes and severe storms — events that are very likely because of climate change.

(Creative Commons)

Other appropriations

  • $10 million to the Department of Transportation so the state can receive matching federal grants for the first portion of the S Line: commuter rail that would link Wake, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties. Another $10 million would go to a local government program that would to provide matching funds for bike and pedestrian projects.

Why it matters: Transportation is responsible for 60% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, electric cars won’t solely dig the planet out of the climate crisis. As long as we continue to put more cars on the road, including electric, that sparks road widening. And road widening requires asphalt, whose manufacture and trucking emits greenhouse gases. More highway lanes often require massive clear-cutting of trees, which are carbon stores. (Exhibits A and B: I-40 in Wake County, I-95 in Cumberland County.)

As for the S Line, it’s years away, but a north-south rail line could alleviate the daily logjam on U.S. 1 and Capital Boulevard. 

Another way to get cars off the road is to make cities and suburbs safe and pleasant for walkers and bicyclists. Protected bike lanes, greenways, sidewalks that connect neighborhoods: People would more likely walk or bike to a coffeeshop if they didn’t have to cheat death by crossing four lanes of traffic.


State’s first case of avian influenza in poultry found at Johnston County farm; 32,000 turkeys killed

A photo of farmed turkeys

(Photo: USDA)

A commercial turkey operation in Johnston County has tested positive for High Path Avian Influenza, the state Agriculture Department announced today, forcing the farm to kill 32,100 birds to prevent the spread of the disease.

This is the first case detected in a domestic poultry farm in North Carolina.. The agriculture department did not name the farm.

The positive sample was first identified by the department’s veterinary diagnostic Lab in Raleigh and confirmed by the USDA APHIS National Veterinary Services Lab in Ames, Iowa.

The HPAI virus has been found in 48 commercial farms in 12 states and 32 backyard flocks in 13 states. More than 100 hunter-harvested wild birds have tested positive for HPAI in North Carolina. The N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission has reported four wild birds have died from the virus, according to the agriculture department.

State Veterinarian Mike Martin said in a press release that the affected birds are being composted at the farm to guard against additional spread. “Under HPAI protocols, we will be actively testing other flocks within the 10-kilometer zone or about 6.2 miles in collaboration with our federal and industry partners,” Martin said.

The zone includes Johnston County and portions of Sampson and Wayne counties in Eastern North Carolina.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the HPAI virus a low risk to people. However, it is highly contagious to other birds, including commercial and backyard flocks of poultry. The virus is also not considered a food safety threat.

“The threat of high path avian influenza is statewide,” Martin said.

Commercial operations and backyard flock owners should continue to follow strict biosecurity measures, he said. This includes keeping birds enclosed without access to wild birds or other domestic flocks.

The warning signs of HPAI include:

  • Reduced energy, decreased appetite, and/or decreased activity
  • Lower egg production and/or soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
  • Swelling of the head, eyelids, comb and wattles
  • Purple discoloration of the wattles, comb and legs
  • Difficulty breathing, runny nares (nose), and/or sneezing
  • Twisting of the head and neck, stumbling, falling down, tremors and/or circling
  • Greenish diarrhea

Farmers who see their birds are sick or dying should immediately report the incidents to their local veterinarian, the state’s Veterinary Division at 919-707-3250, or its Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System at 919-733-3986.

For those who spot dead migratory birds, hunting, or wild waterfowl, contact the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission: 866-318-2401 or [email protected].

Although forever optimists, family farmers are fighting for a future

Hogs on an Iowa farm – Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images

Even though the cards are often stacked against us, farmers are the ultimate optimists.

I’m a 4th generation cattle and grain farmer, and, right now, I’m optimistic that, for the first time since Teddy Roosevelt with the Packer and Stockers Act of 1921, we have a president that is trying to take on corporate control of our farm and food system.

Why is this necessary? JBS, Cargill, Tyson and National Beef (Marfrig) control 85% of the beef market; four meatpackers control 54% of the poultry market; and, four meatpackers, JBS, Smithfield, Tyson and Hormel control 70% of the pork market. JBS and Marfrig are Brazilian, and Smithfield is Chinese.

Just this month, JBS is paying $52.5 million to settle a price-fixing lawsuit accusing JBS and other meatpacking companies of conspiring to limit supply in order to inflate prices and boost profit. Included in this antitrust litigation are Cargill Inc, National Beef Packing Company and Tyson Foods Inc.

In the seed market, the Big 6 have consolidated into the Big 3 — Monsanto/Bayer is a German corporation, ChemChina/Syngenta is a Chinese corporation and Dow/Dupont is domestic.

In fertilizer, Mosaic controls 80% of the phosphorus used in the US. Phosphate fertilizer costs have gone up as much as 200%, and Mosaic’s August phosphate fertilizer earnings were up $200 million over 2020 profits. CF Industries, which owns 3 of the top 5 nitrogen urea plants, had revenue for the quarter ending September 30, 2021 of $1.362 billion, a 60.8% increase year-over-year. For the twelve month period ending September 30, 2021, CF’s revenue was $5.1B, a 25.28% increase year-over-year. While the market giveth to farmers, monopolistic control of our inputs taketh away.

The biggest injustice is seen in beef, and the effect on both farmers and consumers is most visible right now.

The beef industry is the largest sector of U.S. agriculture. In 1980, the top 4 meatpackers controlled 36% of the market. Since then, deregulation and lack of antitrust enforcement has resulted in historic concentration in the meatpacking industry. Today the top 4 meatpackers control 85% of the beef market. Currently, consumer prices are at historic highs, while cattle prices remain low.

Corporate Ag public relations firms and lobbyists blame the pandemic and increased input costs for rising consumer prices, but, if that were the case, then their profit margins would be relatively flat. Instead, corporate meatpackers are raking in historic profits. White House economic advisers recently said that the biggest meat-processing companies, using their market power in the highly consolidated U.S. market to drive up meat prices, have tripled their own net profit margins since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Despite receiving huge amounts of public taxpayer dollars over the last two years, corporate Ag did little to expand their capabilities or streamline the process to address the ongoing calamity. They chose instead to offer stock buybacks and pay dividends. Recently these meat packing companies paid $1 billion in new dividends and stock buybacks. And that is on top of more than $3 billion paid to shareholders since the pandemic began.

We need our Congresspeople to actually represent us and pass laws and policies to rein in corporate control of the food industry.

For example, the bipartisan “American Beef Labeling Act” would require that meat be labeled where it was born, raised and processed. The “50/14 Spot Market Bill” would require large meatpackers to purchase 50% of their supply on the cash market and not own the livestock for more than 14 days before processing — this would help stop meatpackers from being able to manipulate the price of cattle. “The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act” would stop mega-mergers of food and agribusiness companies.

Additionally, we need to strengthen and enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, which was adopted to protect farmers and ranchers from the unjustly discriminatory and monopolistic practices we have today.

Darvin Bentlage is a fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer from Barton County, Missouri, a member of Missouri Rural Crisis Center and a regular contributor to the Missouri Independent, which first published this essay.

USDA pledges $1B for ‘climate smart’ ag products

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a $1 billion grant program to boost agricultural and forestry products that are made with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. (Screenshot from USDA video)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to spend up to $1 billion to foster the creation of climate-friendly agricultural and forestry products by offering grants to facilitate their production and the markets to sell them.

The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in those industries.

“Agriculture is such an exciting but challenging, critical but dynamic space. It’s easy to make the case to young people to get engaged in this,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Monday in his announcement of the program at Missouri’s Lincoln University, a historically Black university with a robust agricultural program. “It’s at the heart of our fight against climate change.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions — which are key drivers of a warming climate — come from agriculture, especially livestock production. Cattle are agriculture’s primary emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The USDA’s new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program will provide up to $100 million for individual pilot projects to plan and implement emission-reducing practices, create new markets to sell the products that result from those practices, and quantify the effectiveness of the practices.

Measuring livestock emissions has long been a tricky proposition for federal regulators. An example: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suspended its enforcement of the Clean Air Act as it might pertain to animal confinements about 16 years ago as it seeks to develop a reliable way to measure the buildings’ emissions.

Beef production is potentially a bigger quandary because the animals are often raised in open-air lots. However, researchers have been able to estimate the average annual methane production from cows and how much it can be reduced with specialized diets.

The new USDA grant program is open to a wide variety of entities: Businesses, non-profit organizations, governments, Native American tribal governments and organizations, and colleges and universities.

The department has set an April 8 deadline for proposals that range from $5 million to $100 million and a May 27 deadline for those that would cost less than $5 million, according to the department’s public Notice of Funding Opportunity. Small and “historically underserved” agricultural producers and “minority-serving institutions” will get priority, the notice says.

“This might look, for example, like a group of small farmers working with a nonprofit to implement and quantify climate-smart practices in partnership with a retailer,” Vilsack said. “Or it could be a network of commodity organizations recruiting specialty crop farmers to quantify reduced emissions and market the resulting products. It may be a farmer-partner organization working with universities to test innovative approaches to monitor and verify climate benefits to aid in marketing. It could be all of that or any of it, along with a lot of other ideas and concepts.”

Vilsack did not say whether the products would bear a “climate smart” label that is subject to USDA certification, similar to organic foods.

Jared Strong is a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, which first published this report.