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The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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Rural Communities

June 13, 2011

An invitation to return

Graduation1 Rural leaders from across the country gather later this month to discuss the future of rural communities.   Paramount to the discussions at this joint gathering of the National/Midwest Rural Assembly will be the establishment of environments that attracts young adults to work, live and engage in rural communities. So it’s natural, with graduation season on our doorstep and the National Rural Assembly right around the corner, that I am weighted down with thoughts about our future education system,  the vibrancy of our rural communities and how we fit youth into the picture. 

At the heart of it

Most rural communities operate under the principle that the school is the heart of the community. It causes me to wonder, then, how we will have successful communities with dwindling school enrollment. While many of the 2011 graduating classes in rural Minnesota are large and prosperous, the future looks bleaker for class sizes coming down the pipe. As school districts foresee these smaller class sizes and simultaneously face increasingly tight budgets, action is necessary to change and adapt the system in order to remain resilient.    

So what do these small-town rural communities do when faced with future dwindling class sizes, resulting in the dismissal of qualified teachers, administration and staff who have invested in their community and served as important leaders to the students? While students may rarely think about the long term impact of the class size issue, they are indeed personally impacted in meaningful ways. In one rural community it means farewell to a beloved principal, a guiding star to both struggling students and those whom seemed to make excelling look easy; it means, for some of the students, their first real-world lesson that life is not fair

When life is not fair

When students of the Benson High School graduating class gathered this last week, all 109 of them, they faced this reality head-on. While heartfelt student speeches and Baccalaureate addresses tackled all of the classic sentiments of graduation, one leader in the community addressed an issue that weighed heavy on the hearts of not only the students, but the entire community. With elementary classes at Benson carrying half the number of students of this graduating class, cuts were inevitable. The Baccalaureate addressee—as community pastor, father of a graduate, long-time school board member and universal fan of the graduating class of 2011—offered up his sympathy for this first post-graduation life lesson, but gave it to them with a dose of reality. He offered the students a choice. He said, your beloved principal can stay if half of you stay and redirect life’s next journey to re-enter the education system at Benson High school. And while eager to take on the next adventure—to head off to college or take a job in the real world—it must have been astounding to see many of the student’s hands reach high in the air as a testimony to their principal and friend. The students’ reaction was heartfelt, though clouded with the weight of reality.  

The message to the graduates was simple, yet heavy. Deep relationships with teachers, principles, community members, underclassmen, parents and others who share their definition of home, have irreversibly changed the students. While they will carry this change with them in their character, they cannot re-live their last adventure; it is time for the next journey to begin, a journey that will continue to show them that life is neither fair, nor just. 

Circle them back

But perhaps our message to rural youth is not complete; perhaps it is not quite that simple. Our message to our rural youth empowers them to stretch their boundaries, push against their comfort zones, travel, move away and spread their wings; it prefaces that life is not fair, yet regardless they must push forward. Perhaps we also need to send along one other message in conjunction with these: that while pushing forward, it may mean that we return to where we started. Perhaps we need to extend, along with the supportive push out the door, a deliberate open-ended invitation to return home. We must emphasize that life is not a one-directional path, and circular paths don’t indicate set-backs, but instead are the most fulfilling paths we can take.   

In fact, recent studies support this trend, as discovered several years ago by Ben Winchester, a research fellow with Minnesota Extension. In a paper titled “Rural Migration: The Brain Gain of Newcomers,” Ben shared research showing that rural counties in West Central Minnesota were losing high school graduates, but were gaining college educated adults who were migrating to small towns to raise their families.

Invest and be proud

Lastly, there is a message to be heeded by the community. While the students head on to their next adventure, carrying with them a wild excitement that is only slightly dampened by sentiments of home, the rural community must carry something with them as well: pride. In rural communities that suffer daily reminders of depopulation and the out-migration of their youth, it is easy to feel helpless, but I tend to agree with Mike Knutson, of the Rural Learning Center. The reality is that "rural residents have as much responsibility for the future of their communities as free market economics or government policies. We choose where we buy our groceries. We choose how trashy or vibrant our communities look. And we choose how our young people feel about their communities by what we tell them and how we invest in them." By the actions of this graduating class of 2011, I say that many rural communities are investing well.  Furthermore, what goes around comes around; there is hope that with an invitation to return, 2011 graduates across rural America will circle back, in time, to the place they call home.   

Join us in Saint Paul for the National Rural Assembly, June 28–30, to talk about strategies and issues of concern to existing, new and returning rural residents, among many other topics pertinent to rural America (http://2011.ruralassembly.org/).

 

Anna Claussen

May 06, 2011

Ethanol subsidies: better to burn out than to fade away?

Ethanol’s main subsidy—the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC)—is on the chopping block. Given the current fiscal climate, even ethanol proponents have resigned themselves to the fact that VEETC—an annual $6 billion tax credit, set to expire at the end of this year—is probably on its last legs.

This week, those that would kill the 45-cent blenders’ credit subsidy quickly, and those that would prefer a long farewell, drew their lines in the sand. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill Tuesday that would fully end VEETC and the import tariff on foreign ethanol by July 1, 2011.

A day later, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (R-N.D.) released a bill that would gradually make the tax credit counter-cyclical over the next five years. Under their bill, VEETC would drop to 20 cents next year and 15 cents in 2013. After that, the credit would be pegged to oil prices, ranging from 30 cents a gallon when oil is at $50 per barrel or less, to zero when oil reaches about $90 per barrel. It would also keep the import tariff, but lower it to 20 and then 15 cents in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Co-sponsors of the Grassley-Conrad bill include Minnesota DFL Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

Essentially, this week’s legislative action is the culmination of efforts on two sides of a heated debate around VEETC (and corn ethanol generally, but I’ll stick to VEETC in this blog). Team A: a strange-bedfellows coalition of environmental and hunger organizations (including Friends of the Earth, Environmental Working Group, NRDC, Oxfam and others) and livestock and processed food producers (groups like the American Meat Institute and Grocery Manufacturers of America). Team B: the ethanol industry (Renewable Fuels Association, Growth Energy, etc.) and the National Corn Growers Association. Bet you can guess which team likes which bill.

Regardless of how it happens, there’s no denying it’s well past time to make a shift in our biofuels policy. The question is, will federal policy drive better, or just more, biofuels? (Even if VEETC dies, we still have a federal manadate for biofuel production). The sooner we can get to an approach that rewards performance (see our colleague Loni Kemp’s “Greener Biofuels Tax Credit” for an idea of one such approach), rather than gallons, the closer we will be to better biofuel policy.

Julia Olmstead

March 18, 2011

Learning about Brazilian agriculture

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IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

The first phase of our trip to Brazil was a success: we all arrived in Rio on time. For the Minnesota contingent, our arrival meant a sharp 50-degree swing upward in temperature. Today, was the first time the entire group met face to face. The impressive group is very diverse in backgrounds and opinions about the role of biofuel production on land use. Aside from four staff from IATP, we have representatives from Heartland Corn, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Cooperative, Frontline Bioenergy, Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative, the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota. (Photo: Bill Lee of Frontline Bioenergy and Nathanael Greene of NRDC check out land use on the Rio beach.)

In an opening meeting, everyone expressed an eagerness to learn more about Brazilian agriculture broadly and, more specifically, how the Brazillian biofuel industry operates. We'll get our chance to get a broad overview as we meet with a panel of local experts at the Rio-based Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) tomorrow. Over the next week, we'll meet with small-scale sugarcane farmers and farmworkers; UNICA (the Brazilian sugarcane association); travel to Mato Grosso to visit soybean farms and the Pantanal; and meet with a variety of Brazilian environment and agricultural officials.

Pictures from Brazil are available on IATP's Flickr page. Stay tuned for more throughout the trip.

Ben Lilliston

November 18, 2010

Clock ticking to take on big meat companies

U.S. livestock and poultry markets are some of the most concentrated in the world. Just four companies control 83 percent of the beef production, four control 66 percent of pork production, and another four control 58 percent of poultry production. You know the companies: Tyson, Cargill, Swift/JBS, Smithfield, Pilgrim's Pride.

Over the last several decades, these companies have established themselves as pillars of industrial food production. The result has been devastating for farmers, ranchers and rural communities.

Since 1980, the U.S. has lost nearly 600,000 hog farms and more than half a million cattle farms, according to USDA. Farmers and ranchers are making less and less of the food dollar spent in the grocery store. Unfair contracts, retaliation, secrecy and deception are now common in U.S. meat and poultry markets.

In June of this year, the USDA published new draft rules designed to reign in the market power of these companies and ensure fair competition in livestock and poultry markets. They are taking public comments on the draft rules until November 22. You can read IATP's comment here. We think these new rules are a good first step - and long overdue.

In a special issue of Radio Sustain, we interview poultry farmer Mike Weaver, rancher Gilles Stockton, R-CALF President Bill Bullard, and agriculture columnist Alan Guebert to find out more about the potential impact of these new rules. 

Take a listen to Radio Sustain. Then, take few minutes to send a letter to the USDA by November 22 in support of our farmers and ranchers. To build a more sustainable and resilient food system - we need more independent farmers and ranchers – not fewer.

Ben Lilliston

October 13, 2010

Stonyfield Farm and IATP reward sustainable farming

"It's hard to think green when you're in the red," says IATP's Jim Kleinschmit, as he describes the challenge for farmers routinely trapped by a precarious bottom line. In a short film by Stonyfield Farm, Jim explains how a new program created by IATP in 2006, helps companies involved in the emerging bioplastics industry to support farmers growing corn more sustainably - including no genetically modified crops, no cancer-causing pesticides like atrazine and improved soil management.

You can read more about the Working Landscapes program in our press release below.


IATP applauds Stonyfield Farm’s purchase of Working Landscapes Certificates

New program pays farmers premium for more sustainable practices

MINNEAPOLIS – The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) applauds StonyfieldFarm’s decision to purchase Working Landscapes Certificates (WLC)—a program that rewards farmers by linking sustainable corn production with bioplastics.

The adoption of the WLC program by Stonyfield, the world’s largest organic yogurt maker, in conjunction with their introduction of a new bioplastic packaging line, means support not only for better plastic, but also for better farming practices. Through the purchase of WLCs, the company is providing support for more sustainable corn productionon over 500 acres in Iowa. IATP created the Working Landscapes program in 2006.

“This innovative, market-based mechanism allows companies to link their purchase of bioplastics to support for more sustainable crop production locally,” says Jim Kleinschmitof IATP, who heads the WLC project. “This extra payment makes clear to farmers that companies and consumers care about, and are willing to pay for, more sustainable farming and its benefits for the environment.”

The Working Landscapes Certificates program was created by IATP to address a core issue: linking the emerging biobased market to more sustainable farming. Bioplastics, which are currently made from corn, provide a more environmentally sound alternative to petroleum plastics if they support sustainability goals throughout their production, use and disposal. Currently, however, direct sourcing of more sustainably produced feedstock crops for the production of bioplastics is logistically and financially difficult. So the WLC program provides an alternative mechanism for companies like Stonyfield to support farmers who want to grow corn more sustainably.

To be eligible for the WLC program, farmers agree to undertake certain production practices, including: planting only non-genetically modified seed varieties; excluding the use of atrazine and carcinogenic chemicals; and using soil fertility testing and residue management to avoid soil erosion and water quality issues.

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Page 2These sustainable practices are quantified as a “good”—a Working Landscapes Certificate—that a company like Stonyfield can purchase, in a quantity linked to the amount of corn needed to produce the bioplastics the company uses. Participating farmers were paid $60 an acre in 2010 to implement these sustainable practices. This payment is in addition to the market price the farmer receives for the corn itself.

“As a company constantly looking for ways to improve its environmental performance, this program builds more sustainable practices into our production,” said Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm Vice President for Natural Resources. “Supporting the environmentand farmers are two touchstones for our company.”

You can find out more about the Working Landscapes program at http://www.workinglandscapes.org. You can find out more about Stoneyfield’s involvement in the program at http://www.stonyfield.com/MadeFromPlants/.

Download this press release as a PDF.

Andrew Ranallo

September 29, 2010

Farmers' new normal

While floods from earlier this summer have receded in Iowa, rivers are bursting in Minnesota from last week's downpour of rain. Flooding, heat waves and other extreme weather over the last few months has had a devastating affect on agriculture in the U.S., Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, China and elsewhere. These weather events are consistent with global climate change—and they are not waiting for a new global climate treaty, or a U.S. climate bill.

In a commentary published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today, IATP President Jim Harkness writes about the need to include farmers—on the front lines of extreme weather—in developing climate policy. Jim and IATP's Shefali Sharma will be in Tianjin, China next week at the UN climate talks, connecting with more farm organizations concerned about climate change. Read the full commentary in the Star Tribune.

Ben Lilliston

September 01, 2010

Great ideas from the Midwest Rural Assembly

Last month, IATP and some of the Midwest's leading rural thinkers and doers got together for the Midwest Rural Assembly in South Souix City, Nebraska. Participants exchanged ideas on how to address the gamut of challenges facing rural communities, including the loss of jobs and young people, inadequate health care and education, and other issues related to rewewable energy, agriculture and natural resources.

At the Midwest Rural Assembly site, we've posted a series of video interviews with many participants, blog reports on the rich discussions and the fantastic photo slideshow below. Look for many of these ideas and initiatives to continue to bloom throughout the rural Midwest in the coming years.

Ben Lilliston

August 18, 2010

What health care reform means for rural communities

The challenges of providing adequate health care for rural residents has been a common theme throughout the Midwest Rural Assembly. Stephanie Larson of the Center for Rural Affairs discussed how the recently passed health reform law could benefit rural communities.

Many farmers are self-employed and must travel great distances to find health care. There are too few doctors in rural areas. Additionally, one in five farmers has medical debt. Larsen outlined several provisions in the new health care law that will help address these issues. 

Many aspects of the new health care law will take affect in 2014; however, some aspects of the law will be implemented more immediately. As of July 1, 2010 insurance companies must permit adult children under the age of 26 to remain on their parents insurance plans. Additionally, patients who fall into the Medicare “donut-hole,” a gap in prescription drug coverage that patients must cover out of pocket, will receive $250 to apply to drug costs that would not be otherwise covered. Also starting July 1, the government, at either the state or federal level depending on the state’s preference, will create “high-risk pools” for people with pre-existing and chronic conditions who have been uninsured for six months or longer. 

September 23, 2010 is another important implementation date of the health reform law. Larsen reported that after September 23, insurance companies will no longer be able to use rescissions, a term that refers to denying patients health insurance based on previous health conditions or errors in paperwork, even if their premiums have been paid. 

Additional aspects of the law will continue to be phased in beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2014.  Some of these aspects relevant to rural communities include incentives for health care providers to increase primary and preventive care, incentives for doctors practicing rural medicine, a 50-percent discount on drugs that fall into the Medicare prescription drug benefit program donut-hole, and a provision that will require nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance either through programs like Medicare or Medicaid, government provided vouchers, or private coverage. 

By Wade Hauser

Ben Lilliston

August 17, 2010

USDA says “Think regionally”

Thinking regionally and strengthening VVasqconnections with urban centers are essential to strengthening economic activity in rural communities, Victor Vasquez, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development told participants at the Midwest Rural Assembly today.  

Vasquez talked about the need to think regionally on economic development, and to institutionalize that thinking in policy discussions. In particular, it's important for rural communities to strengthen connections with larger cities. "When it comes to food or fuel, you can’t walk into a store without finding something that has a relationship to rural America," said Vasquez. "The next few years are going to be tough due to the budget situation. We’ll hear more about what we can do to improve and how we can work together."

Vasquez outlined the key areas of focus for the USDA's Rural Development program in the next several years:

1. Local and regional markets for farmers through the Know your Farmer, Know your Food program. "We’ve seen nothing but success."

2. Expanding broadband access. It will make rural communities more competitive economically. "It’s not just about technology. It’s going to change the nature of education for children who live in poor, rural communities. It will change how they perceive education and the world."

3. Renewable energy. The Department is working closely with the Department of Energy and other partners to reduce and eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil. "Ultimately, this is how we view our natural resources and the environment and do things in a better way." He anticipated an enhanced level of collaboration with DOE that could result in more announcements supporting energy efficiency in the months to come.  

4. Better land management. USDA oversees tens of thousands of acres of public land. The agency is studying how it can work better with the communities around that land, along with state and local governments, to increase economic development and better manage the land.

After outlining these key priorities, he returned to the need to think regionally, like the Midwest Rural Assembly is already doing. When asked how those outside the USDA can help support the efforts of the agency, Vasquez urged participants to continue to educate people about the importance of agriculture and rural communities to the economy and the country. "We need to convince people that agriculture and people in rural communities are a huge part of this economic engine" and continue moving forward.  

 

Ben Lilliston

Not your grandfather's energy utility

The small town of Milan, Minnesota is trying an innovative approach to reduce it's energy burden. At the Midwest Rural Assembly today, Cheryl Landgren of the Greater Milan Initiative and IATP's Shalini Gupta told participants about setting up the first rural sustainable energy utility (SEU) to help reduce the town's energy costs while supporting larger community goals of job creation and population retention.

Homes and buildings in rural communities like Milan often use a lot of energy and are a high cost for rural residents. Winter heating bills are particularly tough on low-income residents. The Greater Milan Initiative is now setting up an SEU: a model developed by the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware. SEUs create long-term community infrastructure around reducing energy usage and costs and promoting energy production where it is used.

The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is continuing work with the Greater Milan Initiative to get this new SEU off the ground. Look for more details soon.

Ben Lilliston

Navigating the Farm Bill for beginning farmers

Thinking about getting back to your roots and farming/ranching? Well you might get help from an unlikely place—the farm bill. The 2008 farm bill established several new loans and grants specifically designed for beginning farmers. There might be something for you whether or not you are looking to go organic.

Traci Bruckner (Center for Rural Affairs) sat down with several of us at the Midwest Rural Assembly to talk about provisions in the last Farm Bill focused directly on beginning farmers and ranchers. She mentioned the Land Contract Guarantee Program, Direct/Guaranteed Loan and several other programs directed towards sustainability.

She cited a South Dakota grass-fed beef rancher who was able to get reimbursed for 90 percent of his expenses to establish his grass forage, new fencing and a watering system for each paddock through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

But it may not be that simple. Lou Anne Kling and Loretta Jaus mentioned that some farmers who were eligible for various conservation programs were denied grants. And that is where the expertise of Bruckner comes into play—she works with farmers/ranchers to help them navigate the sometimes convoluted realm of Farm Bill grants and loans. 

So if you are thinking about starting up a farming or ranching operation the farm bill might be a great starting place. And if you are starting to look at the Farm Bill then Bruckner is a great resource.

By Andrew Gross

Ben Lilliston

Rural communities: Keep track of your water

The flooding in rural Iowa was terrible for the cattle, the corn and the people, but what about the wastewater treatment systems? Joe Dvorak and Dennis Siders from the Midwest Assistance Program have been thinking about Midwest wastewater system for years. At the Midwest Rural Assembly yesterday, they led a learning roundtable session to talk about the problems that rural Iowa faces and the water infrastructure challenges that we all face.

The day-to-day problems of aging infrastructure, lack of funds, declining budgets, and losing knowledgeable and skilled certified operators are all of major concern. Dvorak and Siders also noted that many small communities simply pay a flat rate for water coming into the town on a main pipe, but a lot of that water is lost to inefficient distribution systems and even holes down pipe from the main pipe meter. In a world where water is becoming the new oil, water inefficiency is no longer an option especially for rural communities.

So the answer is, well, complicated. Dvorak and Siders are clear: “keep track of your water.” And although the motto is simple, the implementation is anything but easy. Small communities are not keen on mandating water meters on end-usage sources because of the added cost. Plus local governments are not even charging the actual cost of the water usage because they don’t want to add any additional costs to struggling individuals. However, Dvorak and Siders maintain that through simple steps such as monitoring usage and plugging leaks to keep wastewater out and clean water in, small towns can lower their costs and conserve one of our most important resources.

Addressing water infrastructure in rural communities is very difficult, complicated and possibly expensive but still less than the cost of doing nothing.

By Andrew Gross

Ben Lilliston

Spinning wheels on rural broadband

At a learning roundtable at the Midwest Rural Assembly titled, "Broadband Regulation: What Title II Reclassification Means to Rural America" we tried to answer some tough questions: What does broadband access mean to rural America? How do different rural communities think of broadband access? What costs do rural communities bear that the urban areas don’t? Although, these questions are of central importance to rural America they are of little importance to the future of broadband. Why? The topic of broadband regulation has largely become a question of jurisdiction.

Pursuant to the 1996 Communication Regulation Act, the question of whether or not the Federal Communications Commission has regulatory authority over broadband has been anything but clear. Is broadband a communication service and therefore regulated by Title II or is it an information service and therefore not required to comply with Title II regulation? Without answering this question we won’t be able to talk about the more difficult questions of what to do about broadband access in rural locations, according to Parul Desai (Media Access Project) and Edyael Casaperalta (Center for Rural Strategies). We discussed the National Broadband Policy (proposed FCC regulation), but both Desai and Casaperalta stated that even if they thought the new policy to be wonderful, it will be locked up court because it’s impossible to know if the FCC has the regulatory authority to enact any of its proposals.

Desai and Casaperalta advocated for the importance of FCC regulation on broadband and mentioned some other possibilities to increase rural access to broadband. But in the end this roundtable was dominated by a single theme: The FCC needs to make clear its regulatory authority over broadband. Until this happens all wheels are simply spinning.

By Andrew Gross

Ben Lilliston

August 16, 2010

Listening to the call of your hometown

"I felt like I had nursed a low-grade feud with where I grew up" for many years, Debra Marquart told participants at the Midwest Rural Assembly in South Souix City, Iowa this morning. Marquart is an English Professor at Iowa State University and author of the book, The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere.

MidwestRuralAssembly108

The book, spurred by the death of her father and wanting to understand more about the North Dakota town where she grew up, is the culmination of 14 years of research in small town libraries, cemetaries and interviews. Marquart left the small town of Napolean at age 17, but always carried the photo of the long road leading to her house with her. She went to college, toured with rock bands and then found teaching. The book documents her journey to learn more about the hometown and farm she grew up on but didn't pay attention to during much of her childhood spent working on the farm. As she described it, people there "lived on the narrow margin of life."

Her great grandfather emigrated from Russia in 1886 and built a large house with a balcony to look out over his acreage with the hope that future generations of his family would live on the land. But growing up in the 60s and 70s, Marquart couldn't wait to leave.

Marquart's book highlights one of the central themes of the Midwest Rural Assembly: How to engage young people in ways that they see the value of small towns and the land—before they leave. Several of the panels here later this afternoon will look at this challenge more deeply. Marquart was optimistic, describing how her hometown has actually grown in the last ten years. Many people are returning who left when they were younger. Others are attracted to some of the same traits that brought her great grandfather to North Dakota: low housing and land costs and a connection to the land. 

Ben Lilliston

July 27, 2010

What's working in Midwest rural communities?

On August 16 and 17, rural community leaders in the Midwest have a unique opportunity. U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development leaders from Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas will be in South Sioux City, Nebraska at the 2010 Midwest Rural Assembly. And they want to hear about what's working in rural communities in the Midwest.

Join some of the Midwest's leading organizations working for rural prosperity, along with state and federal government officials, at the Midwest Rural Assembly. Topics covered will include how to retain young people in rural communities, cooperative business models, sustainable energy, local food systems, green job creation, rural teacher training, microenterprise programs, integration of immigrants, rural infrastructure projects and more. Policy discussions will cover federal health care reform, farm policy and broadband policy.

Find out more in the press release below, and at the Midwest Rural Assembly website.

Midwest Rural Assembly to bring together community and government leaders
Participants talk strategies for rural prosperity

Minneapolis – Rural community leaders and government officials will gather at the 2010 Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA) to exchange ideas and strategies for rural prosperity.

The MRA will be held on August 16–17 in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Along with rural community leaders from throughout the region, participants will include U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development directors from Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Keynote speakers include South Dakota state representative Kevin Killer and Iowa State professor and writer/poet Debra Marquart.

“Rural communities have been particularly hard hit by these tough economic times,” said Jim Kleinschmit, director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Rural Communities program. “But there’s also a lot of innovation, energy and ideas coming out of our small towns. This is an opportunity for rural leaders and government representatives to learn about what’s working, and as importantly, how we can join together to face many of our common challenges.”

A special area of focus is to identify strategies to attract and retain young people in rural communities. Young rural leaders from Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Kansas will share their priorities. Other leaders will discuss successful examples of increasing rural prosperity through cooperative business models, sustainable energy, local food systems, green job creation, rural teacher training, microenterprise programs, integration of immigrants, rural infrastructure projects and more. Policy discussions will cover federal health care reform, farm policy and broadband policy.

In addition to IATP, coordinating organizations include: Avera Rural Health Institute, Center for Rural Affairs, Center for Rural Policy and Development, Center for Rural Strategies, Dakota Rural Action, Great Plains Rural Policy Network, Heartland Center for Leadership Development, Iowa Policy Project, League of Rural Voters, Meadowlark Institute, National Rural Assembly, National Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Housing Developers Association, North Central Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Renewing the Countryside, Rural Learning Center, Rural Policy Research Institute, South Dakota Rural Enterprise, Inc., and West Central Initiative.

The MRA will be held at the Marina Inn Conference Center in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Registrants will receive a special MRA rate if rooms are booked before August 2. To register, and read the full agenda and speakers list, go to www.midwestruralassembly.org.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. www.iatp.org

Ben Lilliston

May 26, 2010

River subsidy sidelines Minnesota agriculture

Currently, the navigation infrastructure on the Mississippi costs the federal government an estimated $100 million a year to maintain—a subsidy that supports the export of Minnesota's agricultural products. Now, the navigation industry is pushing for more: nearly $270 million. In a new commentary, published yesterday in the Star Tribune, IATP's Mark Muller explains why increased investment in export channels like the locks and dams from Minneapolis to southern Illinois is bad for Minnesota agriculture.

“Now that the Farm Bill has encouraged all of this corn and soybean production, federal policymakers apparently feel some responsibility for facilitating the export of these crops,” he writes. “When agriculture production is narrowed down to just a couple of crops [...] economic opportunities that provide a greater return are lost. This hurts the Midwest farmers that have little choice to grow these crops even when prices are lousy, and hurts rural communities that need economic development.”

Read the entire commentary, “Don't give up on Minnesota's agriculture innovation,” here (pdf).

Andrew Ranallo

May 21, 2010

Energy Conservation Angel visits Syttende Mai in Milan, Minnesota

IATP Crew Syttende Mai (May 17) is Constitution Day in Norway. In Milan, Minnesota, out on the western prairie, hundreds of Norway’s distant sons and daughters gather on Syttende Mai to celebrate their Scandinavian heritage, language, food, music and customs. IATP joined the celebration this year in a parade that wound its way through the village and down Main Street. Our contribution to the festivities included an angel, a devil and one sinner towing the IATP banner in support of community-based energy conservation and the Milan Sustainable Energy Utility project.

Before lining up for the parade we went to the Kviteseid Smorgaas Tea in the Little Norwegian Church basement. We were welcomed by Anne and Chuck Kanten, the presiding Milan Citizens of the Year. Our own little IATP devil, Emily Barker, identified the wonderful food served in the smorgasbord, including two kinds of lefse, flatbreads, krumkaaka, spritz, Norwegian meatballs, blod klub, Gjettost with cloudberry jam, rommegrot and coffee. And then even more coffee.

Chuck Kanten provided an update on the sugar beet crop, with almost all the beets in the ground. The next week or so, when the first cotyledons appear, the sugar crop is vulnerable. Chuck explained that if a frost occurs, the young leaves fly up into the air like helicopters and the field will need to be replanted.

We took a quick side trip to Watson, Minnesota, just down the road from Milan to visit a small, but very intensive community vegetable garden owned by Aziz Ansari. Mr. Ansari and his wife ran into trouble with the town council over the garden and recently settled a law suit  with the garden staying where it is and Aziz receiving $50,000 in compensation.

Mud Boots Crew marching band Back in Milan, the IATP Energy Conservation Angel and High-Priced Energy Devil joined Electric Bill and Phantom Load Phil and lined up in the parade behind the Mud Boots Band, a group of Community Supported Agriculture farmers and farmworkers who played an incredible collection of instruments, including the bass drum, saxophone, accordion, garbage can covers and a trumpet, to name a few. Behind the IATP contingent was a 1967 lime green Mustang convertible with three women playing a variety of popular tunes on their car horn. Erik Thompson, the town banker showered our path with candy insuring applause as we passed by.

Hundreds of people lined the street and were sitting in their front yards watching the fun as we handed out leaflets inviting them to attend a series of trainings on creating a community controlled revolving loan fund to pay for conservation and renewable energy projects using the best possible resources and technology available. The dates for the four workshops are Wednesdays from 6:30–8:30 p.m. on July 21, August 25, September 22 and October 13 at the school. IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy has been leading the project and working with the Greater Milan Initiative to raise startup money and get the word out.

Not every Syttende Mai day has an Energy Conservation Angel, but in Milan you can always count on celebrating May 17 with a community that treasures its traditions and is committed  to keep their village strong and hopeful.

View all the photos from our visit to Milan for Syttende Mai here.

Dale Wiehoff

April 02, 2010

On job creation—local fruits and vegetables vs. corn and soybeans

It turns out that foods that are better for you may also be better for farmers and local job creation. A new study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University found that expanding fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest could bring significantly more economic benefits than conventional corn and soybean production on the same acreage.

The study, by Iowa State Research Scientist Dave Swenson, looked at the potential for fruit and vegetable production in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. It identified 28 kinds of fruits and vegetables that farmers are able to grow in the region. Currently, much of the fruits and vegetables in the region come from other parts of the country or even outside the country.

Some key findings on the economic impacts on the region as a whole:

  • Increased fruit and vegetable production in the six states could mean $882 million in sales at the farm level, and more than 9,300 jobs. Corn and soybean production on that same acreage would support only 2,578 jobs.
  • If half of the increased production was sold in farmer-owned stores, it would require 1,405 such stores staffed by 9,652 people.
  • Only 270,025 acres—roughly equivalent to the average cropland in one of Iowa's counties—would be needed to grow enough fruits and vegetables for the six-state region.

Previous research found that smaller sized farms (50 acres and smaller) are more likely to produce fruits and vegetables than standard-sized farms so it is likely that more, smaller farms would be needed. Researchers assumed that 50 percent of fruit and vegetable production would be directly marketed in-state by farmer-owned stores. Local and regional ownership of the food chain will be essential for maximum job creation.  

The study breaks down the numbers by state and metropolitan region so it's easy to get a sense of what your neck of the woods could be doing to create new local food jobs.

The barriers to transitioning toward more fruit and vegetable production in the Midwest are enormous. Farmland is hard to come by as values are seen as a better investment than the stock market. U.S. farm policy greatly incentivizes corn and soybean production in a number of ways, including helping farmers to manage risks and supporting research for those crops. And then there's the lack of infrastructure needed to help local food systems serve a booming market. Despite these barriers, this study gives us a guidepost for the potential economic benefits of a new model for agriculture that produces healthier and more locally grown food.


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Ben Lilliston

March 03, 2010

Farms in the balance: Countering attacks against EPA on climate

Attacks on the EPA have been coming fast and furious in the past few months. In contrast to Congress’s limp attempts to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA has begun taking steps to address climate change. Most significantly, the agency declared greenhouse gases (GHGs) an “endangerment” to public health last year—a finding that enables the EPA to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. That hasn’t sat well with those opposed to climate action.

In January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a “resolution of disapproval” in the Senate that would kill the EPA’s ability to regulate GHGs. Although the resolution’s viability is unlikely, if passed it would require Obama’s signature, setting a disturbing precedent. The EPA decision was based on science. Murkowski’s resolution is pure politics. Congress shouldn’t have the authority to usurp science just because it doesn’t like the outcome.

Murkowski’s resolution has created something of a snowball effect. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a copycat resolution in the House earlier this week, no doubt pleasing mightily his supporters in the Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers’ Association and other conventional agriculture groups who have come out strongly in favor of Murkowski’s resolution.

Those groups, of course, don’t speak for all of agriculture or rural America. To that end, IATP joined 25 other agriculture and rural organizations yesterday in delivering a letter to the Senate urging them to vote against Murkowski’s resolution. Our argument is simple: If we refuse to take action on climate change, we put at risk our nation’s food supply and farmers’ livelihoods. We feel strongly that a comprehensive legislative approach to climate policy is the best way to deal with this issue, but waiting to act—and denying the science—is terribly shortsighted. Farmers and rural residents are already feeling the negative effects of climate change. It is in all our best interests to take action now.

You can read the letter here.

Signatories include:

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, Appalachian Sustainable Development, Beyond Pesticides, California Certified Organic Farmers, California Climate and Agriculture Network, Center for Rural Affairs, Family Farm Defenders, Food and Water Watch, Iowa Environmental Council, Island Grown Initiative, Kansas Rural Center, League of Rural Voters, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, National Organic Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Northeast Organic Farming Association Interstate Council, Organic Valley, Pesticide Action Network North America, Rodale Institute, Rural Advantage, Slow Food USA and The Organic Center.

Julia Olmstead

February 23, 2010

Proposed locks for Miss River: Big price, little benefit

Imagine the federal government chucking $2 billion down the Mississippi River. Wouldn’t happen, right? Unfortunately, it could, if the Army Corps of Engineers gets the go-ahead to build seven new navigational locks it wants on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

As part of the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC), IATP co-released a report today, Big Price, Little Benefit, criticizing the Army Corps’ plan to build the new locks, concluding that the project would be not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but would also do nothing to repair devastated fish and wildlife habitats that river navigation systems have heavily damaged.

For years, the Army Corps has argued that the volume of traffic running down the Mississippi merits new lock construction. For just as long, IATP and the NIC have argued that the data just don’t bear that argument out. Since the 1970s, barge traffic has fluctuated, remaining relatively flat. Even the increase in corn production generated by the ethanol boom didn’t create increased barge traffic—most of that grain stayed local.

IATP wants Midwestern farms to thrive. It’s clear, however, that lock expansion on the Upper Mississippi will do nothing to help grow farmers’ incomes and would likely contribute to environmental degradation. Two billion dollars could go a long way toward investments in making Midwestern agriculture more diverse, more ecologically sustainable and more profitable.

Find the report and executive summary here: Big Price, Little Benefit.

Julia Olmstead