Dust storms, high winds, droughts may impact Midwest agriculture long term


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Grace Smith | June 24, 2022

Wind gusts up to 70+ mph, dry cropland, and a thunderstorm with high winds created a haboob, or a large and intense dust storm, in Northwest Iowa on May 13. The haboob was a part of a larger aggregate of thunderstorms traveling through Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and both North and South Dakota. This haboob and other windy conditions in the Midwest cause major problems for soil. 

Wind traveling through dry cropland unearths crops and soil in and on the ground. During a study by Texas-based erosion specialist Chris Coreil at the beginning of May, high winds and droughts caused farmers to lose soil anywhere between three to 29 tons per acre in South Dakota. The haboob erosion estimates were similar, with estimates of up to 12 tons of lost soil per acre in South Dakota. 

And the extreme temperature doesn’t appear to be ending soon. Climate change is causing an increase in precipitation and an increase in droughts, which will harm soil and agricultural practices. 

One way to combat these high winds and drought conditions is with a crop cover, which right now, only 3-5 percent in most states own a cover. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released an announcement in January expanding services and opportunities for “climate smart agriculture,” and has a goal of crop covers protecting 30 million acres of corn and soybean land in the U.S. by 2030.

The USDA Plans to Send $1.4 Billion Into Rural Communities


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Josie Taylor | February 3, 2022

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack, announced Wednesday that the USDA is investing $1.4 billion into rural economies. They are doing this through job training, business loans and the expansion of technical assistance.

Eight programs will give out 751 awards across 49 states. Vilsack believes these programs will help create wealth in rural communities.

“The rural economy, which plays an important role in our national economy, has historically lagged behind the urban and suburban counterparts,” he said, “That’s why it’s important for us to focus on building back that rural economy better.”

The grants and loans will assist with many needs such as housing, the expansion of small businesses and family farms, and providing capital for new small businesses owners. 

One of the programs, the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program, allocated $8.4 million in grant awards and $1.7 million in loans.  In Iowa, the Pella Cooperative Electric Association received a $300,000 grant from that program to replenish the association’s revolving loan fund. That money will help fund the construction of a women’s housing and health care facility. 

Several universities also received those grants, such as The Ohio State University, which received nearly $200,000, and the governing body at the University of Nebraska, which was awarded $200,000. 

Vilsack announces $500 million in loans to increase competition in meatpacking industry


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 13, 2021

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack announced plans to provide $500 million in loans and grants to increase competition in the meat processing industry, on Friday.

In his speech, Vilsack emphasized the negative effects of four major meatpacking companies dominating over 80% of the beef market. Noting, 89.6% of farms do not generate the majority of income for the families who own and operate them. The loans and grants are aimed to help small and medium sized packing operations expand over time. 

The announcement occurred on the same day President Biden signed an executive order which requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add rules to the Packers and Stockyards Act in an effort to allow farmers more sway in determining prices for livestock. 

Both Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voiced cautious optimism for the efforts to address the anticompetitive practices in the livestock markets. However the United Food and Commercial Workers International, a major union for meatpacking company employees say the aid is necessary. Adding, meatpacking workers were among the most negatively impacted by COVID-19. 

Vilsack focuses on nutrition, broadband access, and racial discrimination in USDA budget request


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Elizabeth Miglin | April 15, 2021

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack announced the USDA’s goals with president Biden’s budget proposal to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday. The USDA plans to expand food insecurity and nutrition programs alongside efforts to address racial discrimination and increase rural broadband access. 

Last week, Biden revealed his 2022 budget request to Congress which included $27.8 billion for USDA, a $3.8 billion increase from last year. The budget would provide nearly $7 billion for nutritional programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Additionally, the USDA plans to relaunch the “Strike Force” program which provided $23.8 billion for 380 countries with persistent poverty established under the Obama Administration, according to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch.

A notable change however, is the USDA will end the Farmers to Families Food Boxes program established by the Trump administration by May. The USDA plans to continue efforts to distribute produce and dairy products to food banks and other beneficiaries, however noting, the Farmers to Families program has shown “significant administrative costs and inadequate accounting of where boxes were delivered.” 

This budget request comes in conjunction with the American Jobs Plan and the American Rescue Plan. The former has a proposed budget of $2 trillion which will help supplement the costs of providing rural communities access to broadband, increase the manufacturing of biobased products and community level environmental protection efforts led by USDA. The American Rescue Plan has provided a 15% increase or $3.5 billion to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $100 per household of four.

Vilsack is the first Cabinet secretary to appear this year before a House appropriations panel. 

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack Confirmed to Lead USDA for Second Time


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Maxwell Bernstein | February 24, 2021

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was confirmed by the senate in a 92-7 vote on Tuesday to head the Department of Agriculture for a second time, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack discussed his plans to meet climate change goals, food insecurity, supply chain problems, and address inequalities that Black farmers face. “I will ensure all programming is equitable and work to root out generations of systemic racism that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and People of Color,” Vilsack said. “I will build the most diverse team in the Department’s history, one that looks like America, and will extend that commitment across all USDA agencies and offices.”

Out of the seven senators who opposed Vilsack, 6 included Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida. Bernie Sanders, the independent senator of Vermont also opposed Vilsack.

According to The Hill, Sanders said, “I like Tom and I’ve known him for years. I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture…I think he’ll be fine, but not as strong as I would like.”

Tom Vilsack’s USDA Secretary Nomination Passes Committee, Moves to Full Senate


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Nicole Welle | February 4, 2021

The Senate agriculture committee approved former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s nomination as U.S. agriculture secretary Tuesday and sent it on to the full Senate for consideration.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are expected to join Democratic Senators in confirming Vilsack’s nomination. Once confirmed, Vilsack will begin his second tour as agriculture secretary, a position he previously held from 2009 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. His position under Biden will come with the responsibility of leading the department during a global pandemic that has increased the need for food assistance, and he will be tasked with urging the agriculture industry to prioritize combatting climate change as Biden’s nominee, according to a Des Moines Register article.

Vilsack fielded multiple questions about climate change and biofuels while the Senate agriculture committee considered his nomination. As an Iowa Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst took an interest in his views on ethanol and biofuel production. She asked if he would support their production as President Biden looks to shift the country to electric vehicles, a move she said would put farmers at risk.

Vilsack responded that it is necessary to advance the production of both electric vehicles and biofuels moving forward. He referenced a recent study showing that greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are 46% lower than from gasoline, and he reassured the committee that Americans need the biofuel industry for the foreseeable future as electric vehicle technology catches up. Vilsack added that expanding renewable energy can also benefit farmers. Iowa farmers and landowners receive about $69 million annually from energy companies that lease their land for wind turbines, and those opportunities could expand as demand for electric vehicles increases.

How Biden’s Pick for Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture Pertains to Climate Change


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Maxwell Bernstein | December 11, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden selected former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, according to NPR. Biden’s pick for Vilsack as secretary of agriculture will lead to a greater focus on climate change than the current secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue. As secretary of agriculture, Perdue’s USDA chose not to release a climate change response plan, according to Politico.

People are calling for Vilsack to make the USDA a sponsor of action on climate change and utilize a multibillion-dollar monetary asset called the Commodity Credit Corp. to pay farmers for practices that limit greenhouse gasses. The USDA’s budget already includes billions of dollars for programs such as one that can provide solar and wind power for rural areas or a program that incentivizes agricultural practices that capture carbon dioxide from the air. 

USDA approves hemp farming in Iowa


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Nutritional hemp seeds will soon be grown in Iowa (via flickr). 

Julia Poska | April 6, 2020

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Iowa’s hemp production plan last week. The move opens the door for Iowa farmers to begin growing the crop, often praised for its environmental advantages.

Hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant that contains very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC, which is more highly concentrated in marijuana.

Proponents of hemp often promote the crop based on its environmental footprint. Hemp grows well nearly everywhere with relatively low water, pesticide and fertilizer demands in comparison to other cash crops.

The national rise in hemp growing has been largely fueled by demand for CBD, a compound increasingly used in foods and personal care products for its alleged calming properties. The various parts of the hemp plant can produce a wide range of other products, as well, however.

Hemp seeds and milk provide plant-based protein. Hemp resin can produce petroleum-free plastic. Hemp fiber can make paper with a smaller environmental footprint than wood paper and textiles with a smaller footprint than cotton.

Industrial hemp cultivation and products are not legal everywhere however, posing regulatory challenges for those wishing to trade the crop.

The new Iowa law should become official Wednesday, when it’s scheduled to be published on the Iowa Administrative Bulletin, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. The USDA  indicated that Iowa farmers would be allowed to grow 40 acres of hemp, with THC levels below 0.3 percent.

 

Ag industry making progress on climate


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Photo via Flickr

Julia Poska| December 13, 2019

Politico report from last week offered insight into a confidential meeting on fighting climate change with agriculture six months prior. The meeting, hosted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance in Maryland, “represented a change” from farmers’ historic attitudes on climate, according to reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich.

The article explained that farmers have been long-resistant to discuss or adapt to climate change for several reasons, including the left-wing association of the issue (American rural communities are largely Conservative) and that farmers are often blamed for a number of environmental issues. But severe flooding and unyielding wet conditions this growing season, however, left a record number of American farmland unplanted in 2019, leading to huge financial losses for farmers. The article suggests that unfavorable weather in recent seasons may be raising farmers’ alarm.

At the June meeting, government, business and non-profit leaders in ag spoke and listened, brainstorming and sharing solutions. The host organization premiered a 5-minute video on the topic, released on Youtubein August, titled “30 Harvests” to represent the amount of time remaining to make transformative change in the industry.

The article referenced a number of farm industry climate action examples from around the country, including a climate-smart agriculture meeting at Iowa State University last month. Bottemiller Evich interviewed several Iowa farmers as well, including Ray Gaesser of Corning, who advocates for both his conservative political beliefs and sequestering carbon through row crop farming.

“Everybody I talk to, including farmers, they say ‘yeah we need to talk about this,” Gaesser told Politico. “We need to find ways to adapt to what’s going on. We’re seeing things we’re not used to seeing.”

Tom Vilsack to deliver lecture next month


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Tom Vilsack currently leads the U.S. Dairy Export Council. (Iowa State University)

Jenna Ladd | October 25, 2017

Tom Vilsack will deliver a lecture at Iowa State University as a part of the National Affairs Series: “When American Values Are in Conflict” next month.

Vilsack served as Governor of Iowa from 1999 through 2007. His lecture, titled “Agriculture and Climate Change,” however, will center more around his work as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the Obama administration. As USDA Secretary, Vilsack helped to develop and manage programs related to rural electrification, community mental health and refinancing farm homes, to name a few. He also managed the federal school lunch program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Vilsack currently serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, “a non-profit, independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers, proprietary processors and cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.”

Additional details about the lecture can be found here.

What: “Agriculture and Climate Change” lecture by Tom Vilsack

Where: Iowa State University Memorial Union-Great Hall

When: Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 pm

Cost: free, open to public