About IATP

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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About Think Forward

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.



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Rural Communities

January 13, 2010

Water consumption questions for biofuels—irrigated or non?

It is well accepted that consumptive water use in ethanol distilleries ranges from 3 to 4 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, but this is only part of the story. Water consumptive use for crop growth differs by climate regime and  must be differentiated between rain-fed agriculture—where irrigation, if used at all, may supplement rainfall only during periods of extreme drought—and irrigated agriculture, as practiced west of the 100th meridian (essentially west of the Missouri River for the northern states).

If one calculates ethanol water use on a “gallons per mile” basis (a hard term to use because it depends on assumptions and vehicle fuel efficiency) the values are startling—up to 62 gallons of water are used per mile driven if irrigated corn is used for ethanol production. 

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne, quoted in a recent issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine stated: “To reach our ethanol production target of 7.5 billion gallons per year by 2012 will require 30 billion gallons of water a year to process, or the amount of the annual water needs of Minneapolis, Minn. And if just 25 percent of the new corn crop requires irrigation, ethanol will demand more water than the combined annual usage of all cities in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. As we increase ethanol production, we must have a holistic approach that takes into account its impact on water supply.”

Yet, we are now slated for over 12 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2012 and the U.S. already has a total capacity, as of September 2009, of over 13 billion gallons per year, which according to the Renewable Fuel Standard, is set to grow quickly to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.

While ethanol from cellulosic sources is slated to overtake ethanol from corn, the difficulties of developing commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants are considerable. And there is no indication that cellulosic crops will actually lower water use. What is of concern is that the increasing push for ethanol from corn will result in corn production stretching beyond the usual rain-fed agricultural regions, where more of the land must be irrigated. For example over 80 percent of the corn land in Nebraska is currently irrigated and there are calls for increased land for irrigated corn production.

The title of a November 2009 GAO report stated it well: “Many Uncertainties Remain about National and Regional Effects of Increased Biofuel Production on Water Resources.” These uncertainties need to be better understood to ensure that biofuel production does not put our water resources at risk.

Dennis Keeney

January 12, 2010

BCAP boondoggle

By Loni Kemp, a consultant to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

While the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) designed to help farmers plant new energy crops languishes in administrative limbo (the BCAP that family farm, sustainable agriculture advocates and others fought so hard for in the 2008 farm bill) —the other BCAP has grown into a monster. What started out as a couple of paragraphs in the law to help pay for collection, harvest, storage and transportation of biomass has, under the hand of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Services Administration, morphed into another commodity entitlement program, this time for the wood products industry. I first identified these concerns in October.

Now, BCAP has caught the eye of the Washington Post, and the unintended ripples from the biomass subsidy program went public. It turns out that the vast majority of the 300-some renewable energy facilities approved on FSA’s BCAP list are pulp, paper and wood companies—most of which have burned their own wood wastes for energy for decades. Some have seen declining sales to biomass energy facilities which are now turning to cheaper energy supplies. USDA gave away $24 million last year in matching biomass payments, and announced they are giving away $514 million this year—the vast majority of which won’t support any new biomass or new renewable energy, but instead is free money for a struggling pulp and wood industry. They didn’t lobby for it, Congress certainly didn’t intend it, yet once the loophole was opened, the industry has come rushing in for it.

In a flash BCAP went from an estimated $70 million cost over five years, to $514 million in 2010 alone, and that is without the core program to help farmers plant energy crops.

Yet not all industry is happy. Composite wood manufacturers charge that BCAP is taking their feedstocks away by paying double the established market price for residual wood that can also be made into furniture, flooring and construction material, according to the Composite Panel Association. Others are concerned that established markets for all biomass are being destroyed, and will result in chaos when each facility comes to the end of their two year eligibility period.

How could FSA have gone so far astray? They seem to have interpreted the law itself in a number of unusual ways. They claim the program is an entitlement and that they have to make the full payments, despite the fact that BCAP says they “may”—not “shall”—provide payments of  “not more than $45 per ton.” They could have limited payments to biomass with no higher-value products, no adverse environmental impacts from over-harvest and biomass not already being used for energy. The draft environmental impact statement failed to consider impacts from the matching payments. Requirements for biomass removal only under a Forest Stewardship Plan or conservation plan do not seem to be monitored or enforced.

The opportunity for the Obama Administration to fix all of these problems is at hand. A draft rule covering both the matching payments and crop establishment is going to be released in the next couple of months. While the money for 2010 will probably be gone by then, USDA could put in place requirements for a sensible program that furthers renewable energy without the pulp and wood products boondoggle.

Ben Lilliston

December 08, 2009

How U.S. climate policy treats agriculture

We can expect that the U.S. government's position on agriculture at the global climate talks in Copenhagen will reflect how agriculture has been treated in climate bills being written by Congress. Thus far, Congress has seized upon agriculture and forestry-related sequestration as a key tool to reduce the country's overall greenhouse gas emissions. Thus far, legislative proposals have set no caps for agriculture emissions.

IATP's Julia Olmstead writes in a new issue brief that instead of considering agriculture in its entirety—such as what practices might be good not only for the climate, but also for farmers, consumers, the soil, air and water—U.S. climate policy reduces agriculture to a carbon storage coffer, enabling other sectors to avoid real emission reductions. The paper critiques U.S. policy proposals regarding agriculture offsets and argues for a different approach that recognizes the multifunctionality of agriculture. Such an approach would provide predictable and sufficient payments to farmers for climate-friendly practices; ensure flexibility for farmers as climate science evolves; hold agriculture accountable while accounting for scale and types of operation; and strengthen rural resilience.

You watch a video interview below with author Julia Olmstead. Julia will be in Copenhagen to report on the global climate talks.

Ben Lilliston

October 28, 2009

Monsanto and Pioneer duke it out over biotech corn, farmers take the hit

There is an old African saying “Whether elephants make love or war, the grass suffers.” The two elephants in the agricultural seed business are now making real war, although they have been wary of each other for years. Monsanto, a relatively recent entry into the business, has become the “dominant male” in the battle after moving to acquire a large number of formerly independent seed companies. Pioneer, content for years to be the premiere corn breeder in the world, has found itself suddenly defending its turf and trying to find ways to move into the new biotech ball game. The Des Moines Register recently covered this ongoing saga.

Monsanto has long been targeted as a corporate villain. From dioxin-laced Agent Orange for Vietnam to the industrial chemical, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), Monsanto was known as producer of persistent, deadly chemicals.  Lassotm, the alachlor-based pre-emergent grass herbicide with a long list of toxicity issues, was their first foray into agricultural chemicals.

Monsanto’s bottom line was being hurt by lawsuits and clean-up costs associated with dioxin and PCB pollution. Enter Roundup™ (glyphosate), launched in 1976. This is the chemical that made Monsanto the powerhouse it is today. Glyphosate is a broad spectrum nonspecific herbicide that has low acute toxicity and does not persist in the environment. It should be noted however that many questions remain regarding the long-term toxicity of glyphosate.

By 1982 they had the first genetically modified plant cells. Depending on definitions, humans have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years. More correctly, these are termed transgenic crops, which involves inserting a gene that is not acquired by pollination. I have used genetically modified (GM) because it has become the standard term. Now plant life is patented, permitting GM companies to control technology, and prohibit use of seed from the GM crop.

In 1926, Henry A. Wallace and others founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company in Des Moines to develop and market the expanding hybrid seed corn business. Pioneer was added to the name in 1936. They moved into soybean seed operation in 1973, and soon became the leading corn and soybean seed producers. Pioneer gained the number the one corn seed sales spot in 1982 from its longtime rival, Garst. Pioneer, when I first came to the Leopold Center in 1988, was a family company: friendly, environmentally aware and benevolent. Its advances were based on classic plant genetics, not biotechnology. It was not to last.

Monsanto bought its way into the seed business by acquiring established companies including the number two seed corn producer, Garst. This predatory approach (Monsanto often paid more than market value for the seed companies) combined with its big breakthrough—developing genetically modified corn and soybeans resistant to glyphosate—gave them a huge market advantage. This initiated the trend to GM crops that is now dominant in the seed industry.

The predator habits of Monsanto long made Pioneer nervous. Patented Roundup Ready soybeans were first introduced by Monsanto in 1996. One year later, Pioneer had biotech corn and soybeans on the market, buying the technology from Monsanto. Pioneer Hi-Bred was purchased by DuPont (20 percent in 1997 and the remainder in 1999). Lawsuits began soon after.

By 2000, corn borer protection had been added by Monsanto (called YieldGardtm) and Pioneer had to enter into agreements to use the Monsanto technology in its corn. Pioneer paid big bucks to use the Roundup Ready and YieldGard traits. Now Monsanto is suing Pioneer over infringement of these patent rights and Pioneer is moving ahead with a new set of seed traits called Optimum GAT. Monsanto saw red, and has countersued. Monsanto also became very unhappy when Pioneer recently co-sponsored an anti-Monsanto seminar in St. Louis, the home of Monsanto. The issues are complex, and involve “stacking” of seed traits. This means that genetic characteristics for two or more traits are included in a single seed. Often these stacked seeds have not had full evaluation regarding their safety and efficacy. In the meantime, Pioneer slipped to No. 2 in seed sales.

Monsanto now licenses these traits to about 200 seed companies. Their powerful monopoly has blocked competition. They will not even allow experimenters to evaluate the seed corn for efficacy in other environments.

During this time, the price of seed corn and Rounduptm escalated rapidly. But now Monsanto is starting to lose money on its Roundup herbicide, mainly because it is off patent and others are now undercutting Monsanto on price. Furthermore, the pent up demand for glyphosate in South America had raised prices earlier, but this market now is being met.

So what does all this mean? I first encountered Monsanto in the early 1970s when at a regional research meeting in St Louis they invited the committee to tour their operations. At that time they were just getting into biotech and no one really saw its potential to make money.Then, about the time I was getting the Leopold Center programs underway, Roundup Ready soy field trials were under way on a site east of Ames. I had a tough decision to make on funding for field work that might involve GM materials, and decided we would not fund such work, but it soon became hard to delineate the lines between GM and non-GM. When Pioneer went over to Roundup Ready, and then both companies began stacking genes, I knew the game was lost. 

Genetically modified corn and soybeans dominate, especially in countries with high input agriculture. Claims that GM crops will “Feed the World” abound, especially around the time of the World Food Price presentations earlier this month. Other claims include the lowering of pesticide use and lessening of soil erosion. 

Monsanto now bills itself as a Sustainable Agriculture company! 

These are issues deserving of future blogs. I worry about how the world’s farmers are being shortchanged in the quest for improved and adapted seed varieties at reasonable costs. Now they cannot save seed for fear of the Monsanto cops taking them to court and ruining their lives. The seed industry is no longer competitive because about 90 percent of it is in the hands of two companies and the cost of seed is out of reach of small farmers. I worry about how the food system is now dependent on genetically engineered corn, soybean, cottonseed, canola and sugar beets (recently taken back off of the market). GM wheat, rice and other staple crops could follow as pressure continues to adopt these crops. The industry essentially says "We build it, you will use it."

We need to be smarter about these crops, question each claim and insist the government enforce antitrust laws. We should  resist the claims that they will solve the food shortage in countries where their use will do more harm than good. Specifically, this means the next food frontier, Africa, must not become a new “Green Revolution” based on the failed western world high technology model, rooted in GM crops.

Dennis Keeney

October 02, 2009

Biomass program rolls out, raises eyebrows

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

Andrew Ranallo

September 01, 2009

Farmers and the Health Care Debate

Farming is one of the most dangerous jobs out there, with a fatality rate nine times higher than the average job. Farm families, including children, are also at risk for injuries and death. So, the stakes are particularly high for farmers in the current debate over national health care.

In an August analysis, the USDA's Economic Research Service breaks down the health risks to farmers: "Farmers face risks from working with machinery and animals as well as from potential exposures to high concentrations of hazardous substances associated with agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. As a result, farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related respiratory diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure."

As far as health insurance, farmers are on their own. The challenge of finding affordable insurance is why many farmers themselves, or members of their family, take off-farm jobs. Among non-elderly whose primary occupation is farming, the USDA found that one in five (and 5 percent of seniors) did not have health insurance; not surprisingly one in five farmers struggle with medical debt, according to the Access Project.

The current health care debate rivals the farm bill in its complexity—but one of the key issues is whether a public option from the government will be included. A public option would compete with private insurers and could provide particular benefits for individuals who are not part of an employer plan—like farmers. The Center for Rural Affairs makes a strong case for why a public option plan is good for rural communities overall.

With so much at stake for farmers, where do the two biggest U.S. farm groups come down on health care? The American Farm Bureau Federation is against a public option. The National Farmers Union is for it. Does the Farm Bureau's position reflect its heavy investments in the private insurance industry (among other industries) laid out in a 2000 report by Defenders of Wildlife?

The failings of the our health care system affect all farmers—big and small, conventional and organic. Maybe we need a new variation on a popular bumper sticker: "No healthy farmers, no food."

Ben Lilliston

August 31, 2009

A life in the (commodity futures) pits

My Aunt Kathryn is the only person that I know who successfully and consistently invested in the commodities futures markets. During a visit to her and Uncle Claude's farm, as a 15-year-old, I tried to understand why she needed all those newspapers, a calculator and notebooks spread out on the kitchen table. She tried to explain to me, with increasing frustration, what she was doing; using the analogy of investing in the stock market, which we were studying in high school. She explained how traders made verbal deals on the trading floors (the "pits") of Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and Kansas City, and how commodity futures markets helped to set the cash prices for what Uncle Claude produced. Then she looked an uncomprehending me straight in the eye and said, "Stevie, the next stop after commodity futures is Las Vegas." Even a callow youth could understand that explanation. 

Aunt Kathryn turned 90 a few days ago and soon my parents and I will go down to Iowa for a big birthday bash paid for by a trust fund filled with her killings in pork belly and corn futures. She wouldn’t recognize the markets now. The traders and "pits" are gone, replaced by Bloomberg "Market Masters" and other marvels of 24/7 round-the-clock and round-the-world electronic trading. In February, the last open outcry called out in the pits of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, which I had first visited as an employee of IATP fourteen years earlier. I ran across my earnest notes from that visit: e.g., “speculators add enough liquidity to the market so that other speculators (farmers included) can get in and out of trades.”

Today liquidity is far in excess of what is required to clear trades. Huge financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, dominate the market, after having successfully lobbied for a decade to deregulate and de-supervise their industry. Among their achievements was the removal of the speculative position limits to which traditional speculators (such as Aunt Kathryn) had been subject. IATP joined other members of the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition (CMOC) in an August 5 letter to the Congressional leadership, calling for the same aggregate position limits for all market participants and other measures.  

We also sent an August 12 comment to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in support of aggregate position limits. IATP noted that since the CFTC would be in charge of regulating the carbon emissions permit trading envisioned in the House of Representatives “American Clean Energy and Security Act,” (ACES) that the CFTC should hold hearings on how to write rules to prevent excessive speculation in carbon markets. If the CFTC fails to prevent excessive speculation in the carbon markets, the result could be more than the extreme price volatility affecting the market since 2007 (with a concomitant rise in food and energy insecurity). Speculators could jump in as short sellers to drive down the price of carbon emission futures, thus discouraging investment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change. Excessive carbon speculation could fuel an increase in GHG emissions and the economic damage forecast to result, after a two-degree centigrade increase in the global average temperature.

There are at least some signs that the CFTC recognizes the need to address position limits. On August 19, the CFTC withdrew letters permitting Deutsche Bank’s commodity service and Gresham Investment Management to exceed position limits in wheat, soybean and corn futures. These limits apply to traders who use the futures markets to protect themselves against price volatility in commodities they trade or use for manufacture (commercial traders). For a decade these limits had not applied to “non-commercial” traders, such as investment banks. During a CMOC conference call discussing this CFTC action and others, one CMOC member said, “two down and 700 to go.” 

Even if Congress acts to prevent excessive speculation in the commodity and financial markets and the CFTC continues to withdraw the hundreds of “No Action” letters that enabled excessive speculation, the process of restoring fairness to the market will likely be slow. Deutsche Bank and Gresham had already reduced their positions in advance of the CFTC ruling. According to The Wall Street Journal, the two financial institutions will have until October 31 to comply with the rulings, but both were confident that they could already meet their clients’ trading needs within the new limits. 

The late Al Krebs, in his indispensable The Corporate Reapers:The Book of Agribusiness (Essential Books, 1992) wrote, “No one enduring myth in American agriculture has taken deeper root than that which says that the law of supply and demand is the determining factor in establishing fair prices for agricultural commodities.” He documented how speculators in the1970s and 1980s determined prices by providing far more liquidity than what was needed to clear futures contract trades, 41 times as much liquidity in the case of soybean speculators. Al would not be the least bit surprised by the dominance of energy futures over agricultural futures in today’s commodity index funds—nor by the current spike in oil prices at a time when oil reserves are full to overflowing. 

I like to think that if Al had met my Aunt Kathryn (in the 1980s they lived fewer than 200 miles apart in Iowa), he would have advised her to get out the market until the CFTC started to provide a level trading field for commercial traders, such as Aunt Kathryn, with the financial speculators. And I like to think that she, despite the thrill of trading, which Al documents so eloquently, would have taken his advice.

Steve Suppan

August 12, 2009

Midwest Rural Assembly In Pictures

Thank you to anyone who submitted pictures of the Midwest Rural Assembly this week. A special thanks to Shawn Poynter of Rural Strategies. If you are interested in submitting photos, please upload them to Filckr and tag them "midwestruralassembly" so they will appear in the same photostream.

Andrew Ranallo

August 11, 2009

Live from the MRA: Herseth-Sandlin and the Blue Dog Democrats

South Dakota Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin gave members of the Midwest Rural Assembly a window into the so-called Blue Dog Democrats—most of whom represent rural districts. She recently voted against the health care and climate change bills in the U.S. Congress. In both cases, she acknowledged the real need to address both issues—but felt that the concerns of rural America were not addressed in either piece of legislation.

On health care, Herseth-Sandlin criticized current Medicare reimbursement rates, and the inclusion of that same rate within a public health care option. She argued for a more equitable reimbursement rate for rural communities. She also emphasized the need to address the loss of primary health care doctors in rural America.

On energy and climate change policy, Herseth-Sandlin talked about how rural issues—both in agriculture and rural utilities—were not considered until the end of the legislative process. And again, she did not view the last minute additions as adequate for rural communities.

Judging by some of the questions Herseth-Sandlin took after her presentation, not all participants agreed with her positions on health care and energy and climate change; however, the central point that rural concerns have been largely left out of these two national debates seemed to resonate.

Ben Lilliston

Live from MRA: Making Ideas Happen

"When people love something, they take care of it together." This was the message of Minnesota Secretary of State, and IATP founder, Mark Ritchie at the Midwest Rural Assembly this morning as he linked together community pride, patriotism and rural revitalization. 

For rural communities, Ritchie talked about the importance of marrying short-term and long-term goals. He hearkened back to the farm crisis of the 1980s, where there was a need to address foreclosures and farmer suicides in the short-term, but also a long-term vision to plant the seeds for renewable energy in the form of wind farms and ethanol plants.

In facing current challenges, Ritchie emphasized that government officials are often more accessible and more interested in partnerships than many citizens recognize. He encouraged participants to reach out to government officials, particularly the USDA, and tell them what you need.

"In nearly every small community in Minnesota, you can find common interests," said Ritchie. He pointed out how in meetings with an Indian tribe in northern Minnesota and the Chamber of Commerce in the Twin Cities, he heard participants define civic participation as a love of country and community.

"They defined patriotism as love—so strong that we need to take care of what we loved," said Ritchie. "We say it and we share the responsbility of taking care of each other. It may be the land, community or family. If we can demonstrate this type of patriotism, we can help become a healing force for our society."

Ben Lilliston

August 10, 2009

Live at the MRA: Success Stories for Working Landscapes

Rural communities are part of the vanguard of new ideas promoting small-scale sustainable production and use of energy and food. One of the challenges in expanding and scaling up these ideas is getting success stories out there and allowing others to benefit from their experience. At the Midwest Rural Assembly this afternoon, four communities shared their stories.


Cheryl Landgren of Milan, Minnesota described the town's efforts to launch a Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) in partnership with IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy.Milan is a small farm town with a growing immigrant community. They are hoping to host the country's first rural, smalltown SEU—a community-led initiative to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. An SEU is designed to be a one-stop shop to secure advantages of the new green economy encompassed in energy efficiency, renewable energy and biomass production. The SEU will identify funding resources, engage in public education, set up a revolving loan fund and invest in energy savings. Milan is in the early stages of developing an SEU, but ultimately it will be community governed and controlle, thereby allowing Milan to control its energy future.


Martin Kleinschmit discussed a three-year test project with 10 Nebraskan farmers focused on carbon sequestration. In this project, farmers grew a number of different crops to store carbon in the soil—emphasizing crops with longer root systems and longer growing seasons. He emphasized that there are more than just climate benefits in building carbon in the soil; these types of crops can help retain water and build the soil for future crop production.


Jacob Limmer gave his unique perspective as the owner of the Cottonwood Bistro in Brookings, S.D. and the operator of nearby Glacier Till Farm. Jacob talked about the challenges of sourcing local foods (usually from multiple farmers with different billing methods), the challenges of farming for local markets and the need to find off-farm work to keep the farm going. He emphasized the need for improving collective local food distribution systems—which would allow buyers to more easily source local foods and provide larger, more consistent buyers for farmers.


And finally, Linda Meschke of Rural Advantage told attendees about efforts in Madelia, Minnesota to use renewable bioindustrial processing to provide a market for new crops (outside of the corn/soybean rotation). The town went through a public process to set priorities for the new facility and agreed to emphasize both community investment, perennial crops and local sourcing (within 25 miles). The project could bring multiple benefits to the community, including: water quality, renewable energy, habitat preservation, greater sustainable agriculture, and keeping wealth within the community.


There are many stories like these being shared at the assembly—where interesting ideas continue to grow.

Ben Lilliston

Live from the MRA: USDA's Tonsager Outlines Rural Agenda

At the Midwest Rural Assembly this morning, USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager got everyone's immediate attention by emphasizing that the agency has twice as much money as it had last year—and it needs to get that money out the door and into the countryside. But perhaps most impressive was his emphasis on government as a partner with rural communities and a clear belief that government can play an important role in improving peoples' lives.

Tonsager outlined his top priorities for USDA's Rural Development office as:

1) Improving collaboration between communities within the same region to better leverage resources.

2) Capitalizing on the economic benefits of local food systems.

3) Improving the effectiveness of community development programs already at USDA.

4) Expanding economic opportunity from bioenergy; including biofuel, biomass and cellulose.

5) Increasing broadband access to rural communities (See Julia's blog on this topic).

6) Identifying and working with strategic partners on the ground in rural communities.

7) Improving the flow of capital into rural communities to make important investments.

We sat down with Under Secretary Tonsager for a short interview to find out more:

Ben Lilliston

Live from the MRA: Broadband and Rural Communities

"If urban America has the technology and we don't, what does it say about democracy in this country?" — Loris Taylor, Native Public Media

Many of us who live in urban areas take for granted the digital access we have in our homes and workplaces. We use our lightning-fast connections for everything from reading the news, looking for jobs, doing our work and keeping in touch with friends. That's not the case for much of rural America, something I'm learning more about in a breakout session here at the Midwest Rural Assembly.

It's a great panel of four speakers: Beth McConnell from the Media and Democracy Coalition; Joshua Breitbart from the People's Production House; Loris Taylor from Native Public Media; and Edyael Casaperalta from the Center for Rural Strategies, who've all been discussing the digital divide—lack of access in rural areas to broadband technology, and particularly the lack of access that minority and lower-income populations have to high-speed internet service.

According to the speakers, this is an issue that goes beyond email and Facebook to actually strike at the heart of civic engagement. If rural Americans cannot get online, they cannot get the same access to news (something that's becoming ever-more important as print media collapses), to political tools and information, to healthcare information (as well as telehealth—something that's becoming an important part of rural healthcare strategies), and as important, to conversations that help build more vibrant rural communities.

Julia Olmstead

The Best of the Midwest Rural Assembly

Today and tomorrow, we'll be with government and community leaders in Souix Falls, South Dakota at the Midwest Rural Assembly to talk about the challenges and opportunities facing rural communities. We will hear from government officials like Dallas Tonsager, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development at USDA, U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, among others. In turn, they will hear from community leaders focused on retaining young adults, expanding health care access and building working landscapes that promote environmental stewardship and healthy food.

Throughout the next few days, we'll be blogging from the Assembly, reporting on the presentations as well as interviewing participants. Look for more here soon.

Ben Lilliston

July 31, 2009

Join Government and Rural Leaders at Summit

Mra75 No part of the U.S. has been spared from the current financial crisis, but rural communities—already among the nations poorest—have been hit particularly hard. Rural unemployment exceeds urban and exurban unemployment, according to a report by the Daily Yonder.

On Monday, August 3, the Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop will conduct a webinar focusing on rural demographics and political shifts in rural districts. The webinar will be from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. CST. Reserve your webinar seat now and learn more about the past and future of rural politics.

Bill's webinar is a lead-in to the Midwest Rural Assembly, scheduled for August 10–11 in Souix Falls, South Dakota. The assembly, sponsored by over 25 Midwest groups, will bring together national, state and local-level policy makers and rural residents to discuss the challenges facing rural communities—and opportunities for change. It will feature USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager; USDA Deputy Under Secretary of Rural Development Victor Vasquez; state rural development directors from Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota; U.S. Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin; and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

The assembly will focus on rural health care, education, sustainable working landscapes, rural technology access and leadership development.

The registration deadline is Monday, August 3—so register and join us in Souix Falls!

Facebook users: Become a fan of the Midwest Rural Assembly.

Ben Lilliston

May 21, 2009

Seeing the forest through the corn

Forest land home to rare bird species isn't the usual image that comes to mind when we think of Iowa. But the Yellow River Forest area in northeast Iowa totals 135,000 acres of unfragmented forest. The area is part of the Driftless area, which includes northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin.

Rh woodpecker It is also home to an unusually large number of threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Mississippi River tributaries like the Yellow River provide vital migration corridors for more than half of North America's bird species. Northeast Iowa is home to a number of rapidly declining bird species including the rare cerulean warbler, red-shouldered hawk and red-headed woodpecker.

Much of this important forest area is privately owned, so forest management by private landowners is critical to protecting these species. IATP's Forestry program announced today the first Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified land in Iowa: 77 acres in the Yellow River region owned by Jack Knight. FSC is an independent standards-based certification system that ensures forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable way. In this case, FSC certification verifies that Knight's forest management protects this important bird habitat, including the ecology, soils and native vegetation.

"Forestry is often focused just on trees to produce lumber, but it is much more than that," said IATP Forestry Director Don Arnosti. "Jack's forest management is a model for what Iowa's landowners can do to protect wildlife and native plants while still growing trees for lumber."

Iowa resident and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney often reminds us that Iowa has the the most altered natural environment in the country. Jack Knight's FSC certification reminds us of what is possible.

Ben Lilliston

December 17, 2008

New Ag Secretary Faces Big Challenges

Here's our press release from today on President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Tom Vilsack as the next Secretary of Agriculture:

President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack must quickly shift the agency’s focus toward stabilizing volatile agriculture commodity prices, improving market competition, supporting sustainable farming systems and encouraging the production of healthier food, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

“As Iowa’s Governor, Vilsack has shown a fairly conventional perspective on agriculture—particularly related to biotechnology and the siting of factory farms—that seems to indicate a status quo approach,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “But these are unconventional times, and with his charge to implement the national vision for agriculture of President-elect Obama, he has an opportunity to address the concerns of farmers—big and small, organic and conventional—and consumers, as well as environmental challenges facing the country.”

The number one challenge in agriculture is extreme price volatility—the spikes and drops in farm gate and food prices causing enormous problems for farmers, consumers and the environment. Farmers could face a very difficult 2009 with commodity prices dropping, while fertilizer, land and seed costs remain high.

“His first test will be to address the volatility that has caused havoc in agriculture over the last several years,” said IATP’s Rural Communities Program Director Jim Kleinschmit. “We can’t make the changes we need in agriculture, like expanding environmentally sustainable farming systems or greater production of healthier food, without stabilizing prices for farmers and consumers. Efforts to fix deregulated agriculture markets will have to include greater antitrust enforcement and market transparency, such as the ban on packer ownership of feedlots. ”

The U.S. agriculture economy is undergoing a transition on many fronts. Other key challenges facing new Secretary Vilsack include:

  • The bioeconomy is trying to rapidly transition from corn-based ethanol toward more sustainable feedstocks. But what was once a primarily farmer-owned industry is increasingly being dominated by absentee corporate owners, providing fewer community benefits
  • Consumers want more organic, locally produced and healthier food, but government programs still offer relatively little support and multiple obstacles to meet this market demand.
  • As the number of farmers declines and the average farmers’ age rises, significant barriers prevent much-needed new farmers from entering the sector.
  • Along with adapting to climate change, agriculture is being identified as both a contributor and possible mitigator of climate change. The USDA will have to lead a shift toward a climate-friendly agriculture.
  • A rising number of major food recalls and internal government audits have exposed serious weaknesses in the USDA’s food safety oversight.

“Secretary Vilsack faces a tall order. We look forward to working with him,” said Harkness.

Ben Lilliston

October 29, 2008

African Immigrants Finding a Home in Rural Minnesota

Minnesota has always attracted new immigrant populations. The wonderful movie Sweet Land tells the more traditional immigrant story of the Minnesota plains and the culture clashes of the 1920s. Over the last decade, the state has become one of the country's most popular destinations for African immigrants, now estimated at 80,000 people. Minnesota also hosts the largest Somali population in the United States.

About 20,000 new African immigrants live in Minnesota's rural communities many working in meat and poultry packing plants around the state. New immigrants in rural communities often feel isolated as they face the challenges of a much colder climate and a new language. On a day-to-day basis, rural communities have their own unique hurdles for new immigrants in transportation, housing, health care and jobs. IATP's Garat Ibrahim discusses some of the challenges for new African immigrants in Minnesota on this past podcast from Radio Sustain.

Garat To help connect African immigrants in Minnesota to discuss common strategies for overcoming the challenges they face, IATP hosted the first Rural African Summit in St. Cloud, Minn. earlier this week. The meeting attracted about 150 participants, including community leaders from many smaller rural towns like Owatonna, Pelican Rapids and Willmar.

At the opening reception, the Reverend David Ostendorf of the Center for New Community gave a sobering history of the U.S. meatpacking industry and issued a call for people of all faiths to work together. "Meatpacking, more than any other industry that I know of, has perfected the ability to exploit race," said Ostendorf. He traced the history of meatpacking in the U.S., from the South Side of Chicago around the turn of the 20th century to rural communities today. When most of the country's meatpacking was based in a solid square mile of Chicago, the companies pitted different ethnic groups against one another, said Ostendorf. And when the unions started to grow, they brought in African-Americans from the south. Eventually, the companies moved to rural areas in the 1980s and began to hire Latinos and now African immigrants to do the very demanding work. Those two communities of new immigrants are currently being pitted against each other in some rural towns. "It is our responsibility to build relationships between workers. The companies won't do it," said Ostendorf.

Hussein Samatar, of the African Development Center based in Minneapolis, examined the history of new immigrants in Minnesota, pointing out that in the late 1800s there were 23 foreign languages on voting ballots, and in 1920, 60 percent of the population was foreign-born. Samatar urged the participants to recognize that "this is your state too"and that the African immigrant population generates considerable economic activity and real buying power within the state.

Discussion Throughout a number of separate sessions, presenters discussed in-depth the issues that new African immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, face in the workplace, such as the need for prayer breaks, clothing restrictions and how to advance beyond entry-level jobs. As interesting were discussions about economic development, where new immigrants need to learn about how the American financial system works. Understanding how to build a credit history, improving financial literacy, as well as figuring out access to Islamic-financing (which forbids interest) were all discussed. Public safety, affordable housing, human rights, public health and education were also covered in lively sessions.

Jim and Fowzia "We are not leaving," Fowzia Adde of the Immigrant Development Center in Fargo told participants. "There shouldn't be a delusion that we are going back. We have to be part and parcel of these communities. We opted to be here so we have to be productive. We have to integrate, we have to see democracy."

You can find more background about African immigrants in Minnesota in a short report by Neal Remington. Look for more on the summit, including materials, photos and videos on IATP's Rural African page soon.

Ben Lilliston

September 26, 2008

A 21st Century New Deal?

I’ve probably heard and read dozens of times over the past two weeks that this is the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Our stock market and confidence in the banking system are allegedly on the brink of a 1929-style collapse.

But what is fascinating and somewhat alarming is how our collective perception of the economy has shifted in the past 75 years. In the early 20th century, agriculture was the backbone of the country. When commodity prices went south, people suffered. And the effects went well beyond the farm gate because farm income provided the capital for businesses in rural communities all over the country. The lack of jobs and farm income resulted in poverty and hunger.

Now, instead of an economy built on the labor of farmers and manufacturing, the backbone is perceived to be Wall Street. Debt and financial instruments are the new wheat and corn. The rising costs of housing, food and gasoline have been a concern for a few years, but it took the collapse of financial institutions to create a national panic. The proposed solutions to this crisis by Congress and the Bush administration are much different than the response in the 1930s.

Seventy-five years ago, the New Deal focused on getting people back to work and getting farmers a fair price for their commodities. Nowadays, the solutions largely revolve around assuring adequate assets in financial markets, and bolstering domestic and global confidence in our financial institutions. I’m glad that a poor farm economy, like the downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, no longer devastates the country, but perhaps we’ve drifted too far from a Main Street focus to a Wall Street focus.

I have no idea if using $700 billion to provide Wall Street this assurance is the best way of avoiding a financial crisis. But it is striking how much the current focus is on a top-down approach of fixing global markets rather than the previous grassroots approach of getting adequate income back into workers’ pockets. With such an emphasis on financial indicators such as stock prices, currency valuations and interest rates rather than focusing on the well-being of workers and families, the 21st century New Deal may be missing the forest for the trees.

Mark Muller

September 10, 2008

China Meets Lou T Fisk

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I drove out to Western Minnesota to check in on Ms. Shi Yan. She has been working at the Earthrise Farm, an organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, since early April, as part of IATP’s ongoing relationship with the School of Agriculture and Rural Development at People’s University in China. Shi Yan’s blog posts (read translated posts here) have been wonderful. She opens a window not only into the everyday life of a CSA farm but also into the heart of a young Chinese woman from a city of 20 million coming to the U.S. for the first time and finding herself on a farm. Reading the blog, it seemed that Shi Yan had fallen in love with this doubly foreign environment, but I had enough experience with farm work and Chinese politeness to worry that she might be having a harder time than she let on.

Lou_t_fisk_5Pulling into the driveway of Earthrise Farm around supper time, I was dismayed to see broken trees, damaged crops and big piles of brush and tree limbs scattered around the yard. A big storm had come through a few days before, with hail and 90 m.p.h. winds, and although no one was hurt, it clearly hit the farm hard. One casualty of the storm was Lou T Fisk (see right), the town mascot of Madison, MN. (pop. 1654). A Norwegian-American community worthy of A Prairie Home Companion, Madison calls itself the Lutefisk capitol of the world, and old timers still say, “Takk,” instead of, “Thanks.”

After exchanging greetings, Nick, one of the full-time farm managers at Earthrise, said, “We have just been dealing with downed trees and other storm damage for the past few days. Tomorrow’ll be the first time we can actually get back into the fields.”

Shi Yan came up and gave me a big, un-Chinese hug. She looked right at home in work clothes, with an armful of vegetables she had picked for supper. She was happy to see the Chinese ingredients I had brought from Minneapolis, but quickly put them aside and joined in with the meal preparation. I got an introduction to the farm from Nick and Joan (the other manager) over supper, and met the other intern, Emma.

Only after dinner, back at the small farmhouse where the interns sleep, was I able to talk with Shi Yan alone about her experience. And to my relief, she was just as excited about organic, community-supported agriculture in person as she had been in her blog posts. She spoke with admiration about the kindness and dedication of the Fernholz Sisters, founders of Earthrise; the hard-working Nick and Joan; and her friendships with her fellow interns, one of whom had already left for school. It has been a momentous summer back in China, with the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake and the triumphant Olympic Games in Beijing, but thanks to the internet Shi Yan has been in touch with her boyfriend and family almost daily.

Above all, organic farming has been a revelation to her. She described her plans for managing a CSA farm on a plot of land owned by her university in Beijing’s northern suburbs, how she would use student labor and get organic certification and sell vegetables on campus. And she asked about visiting farmers’ markets and grocery co-ops when she comes to Minneapolis on her way back to China, in October.

Weeding_5 When I asked what she liked most about working at Earthrise, she beamed and said, “Weeding.” 

It was wonderful to see how Shi Yan has taken to rural Minnesotan life, and how the people of Chippewa County have taken to her. Thanks to the rarity of Chinese nationals in those parts, and a long profile of her in the local paper, Shi Yan is a bit of a local celebrity, but she is also clearly well-liked by those who have met her.  When we visited another farm, a local Fair Trade coffeeshop or a County Board meeting, people already knew her and there were always hugs all around.

Pakistani_farmer In tiny Rogers, MN (pop. 194), Shi Yan met a kindred spirit, a Pakistani-American gardener raising the Asian vegetable bitter gourd (see right).

As we weeded the storm-damaged pumpkins and carrots at the farm, Shi Yan would look up and wave at every pickup that rumbled past. (And they’d wave back.) This last point might not sound odd to most readers, but take my word for it: it’s not standard operating procedure in China. Social relationships there are more formalized, and there is a much sharper distinction between people you have a relationship with and strangers. (Hence the incredibly strong Chinese family unit and gracious spirit of hospitality to guests on one hand and the regular spectacle of shoving matches or fights between strangers waiting at ticket windows or bus stops on the other.)

Intellectually, Shi Yan is getting more focused on the comparative research that she will take back with her, honing in on the aspects of her American sustainable farming experience that are and are not relevant to small farmers back home in China. But her summer as a Minnesota farmer has also been a wonderful cultural exchange that I think neither she nor the people of Chippewa County will soon forget.

Jim Harkness