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

Conservation Reserve Program amended to support new farmers


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Buffer zones curb soil erosion and help to filter nutrients before they enter waterways. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 30, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified a national conservation program in order to support beginning farmers.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers a yearly rent for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Most contracts last 10-15 years. Previously, if farmers broke the contract early, they were required to return all the rental payments with interest. With the policy change, farmers may now end their contracts early without penalty if they sell or lease the land to a beginning farmer.

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam announced the policy change, which will take effect January 9th, at the Joe Dunn farm near Carlisle in central Iowa. Dunn’s son-in-law, Aaron White, is a beginning farmer on a small acreage near Carlisle.

White said, “I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access. This program would help alleviate some of those problems.” Lanon Baccam agreed, he said giving the next generation of farmers a chance at success makes perfect sense.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-land conservation effort in the country. It is unclear how the program’s stated goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and protecting habitat for endangered species will be effected by putting environmentally sensitive land back into production for beginning famers.

More information about the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa can be found here.

On The Radio – Fairfield receives $25 million loan from U.S. Department of Agriculture


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Jake Slobe | November 7, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the $25 million dollar given to Fairfield to better their wastewater facility.

Transcript: The city of Fairfield has received $25 million dollars in order to make enhancements to its wastewater facility that will improve the water quality in southeast Iowa.

 This is the Environmental Focus.

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program is awarding a $25 million direct loan to the City of Fairfield that will help rehabilitate the city’s existing wastewater facility and bring it into compliance with Iowa Department of Natural Resources requirements.

 The existing plant was originally constructed in 1966, with updates and improvements added in 1984 and 2013. Still, the plant is not able to meet pollution limits and overflows into local streams during heavy rain events.

This loan, the largest USDA Water and Environmental Program loan ever issued in Iowa, will allow city leaders to implement a master plan over the next 10 years to make improvements to the treatment plant, repair much of the collection system, and address high flows during heavy rains.

Treatment plant upgrades will include new trash screens, new grit removal systems and pumps, as well as an enlarged flow equalization basin.

 For more information about the Fairfield project, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

 From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

New ‘Environmental Working Group’ database analyzes $30 Billion Spent On U.S. Conservation Programs


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Soil erosion is common in Iowa following heavy rains along steep slopes. (Flickr)
Jake Slobe | November 2, 2016

The Enviromental Working Group recently revealed a new database showing the details of  USDA conservation expenditures.

The database allows Americans to see, for the first time, exactly where billions of dollars in conservation funding have gone.

According to the group, even with the $29.8 billion that has been spent on U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation efforts over the past decade, these expenditures are not leading to clean water, clean air and a healthy environment.

Iowa is the leading recipient of USDA conservation funds with more than $4.36 billion since 1995.  However, the states has seen little change in the level of surface water pollution caused by nitrates, bacteria, algae and sediment.

Most USDA conservation payments go to landowners and farmers who convert cropland to grassland for a specified length of time under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

The USDA says CRP has kept pollutants out of the water, reduced soil erosion, and provided valuable wildlife habitat.

The Environmental Working Group stated in its report that landowners between 2007 and 2014 withdrew 15.8 million acres from CRP in response to high crop prices.

The Environmental Working Group database shows that counties in the Raccoon River watershed have a lower participation in CRP and that the majority of CRP payments go to residents within counties that are not mission critical for the state’s highest environmental priority — reducing nutrient pollution in the waters of Iowa and farther downstream.

 

 

 

 

USDA awards two Iowa businesses innovation research grants


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Two Iowa firms recently received agricultural research grants from the USDA as a part of a national program. (Brain Abeling/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 8, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded two Iowa companies with small business innovation and research grants.

In total, $7.4 million dollars was granted to 76 businesses in 35 states. Former Iowa Governor and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the grants are meant to provide support for innovative agricultural research and bolster rural communities. Vilsack said,”This program basically focuses on ag innovation, the innovation that can impact and affect production of crops and livestock or the protection of crops and livestock.” He added, “An idea, a thought basically then is developed and the assistance we provide here will allow that idea and thought to potentially get up to scale, to get commercial-sized and to get out in the marketplace.”

Both of the Iowa companies are receiving $100,000 from the grant program for work on specific projects. The first, Accelerated Ag Technologies of Urbandale will use the funds to help develop reliable maize pollen preservation techniques. Vilsack said that this research is linked to corn production. An Ames company will recieve the second $100,000. Vilsack said, “Gross-Wen Technologies of Ames is working on developing a new biobased product from wastewater that will essentially result in a slow-release, algae-based fertilizer.”

In an interview, Vilsack said, “we cannot underestimate the role that small business innovation has played in bringing jobs back to their hometowns.” He added that these businesses are crucial, especially while much of rural America is still recovering from one of the worst economic recessions the U.S. has seen.

On The Radio – USDA, EPA aim to curb food waste


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(Food Recovery Hierarchy/Environmental Protection Agency)
Jenna Ladd | July 18, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment covers a call to action released by the USDA and EPA to reduce food waste nationwide. 

Transcript: USDA and EPA announce food waste reduction goal

The United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have announced the first food waste reduction goals in U.S. history.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Released on July 1st, the U.S. 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal: A Call to Action by Stakeholders seeks to galvanize farmers, food manufacturers, grocers, consumers, and policy makers to reduce food waste by 50 percent before 2030. The initiative outlines best practices as identified by stakeholders including the creation of markets for aesthetically unappealing produce, implementation of community composting systems, and the development of new food storage technology that would prevent spoilage. The document is the direct result of a Food Recovery Summit that was held last November in Charleston, South Carolina.

Iowa City Recycling Coordinator Jen Jordan organizes the commercial composting program at the Iowa City Landfill.

Jordan: “Fifteen percent of what goes into the Iowa City landfill is food waste so the city is definitely on board with efforts to help individuals and businesses reduce food waste, and not only to save the food waste from going to the landfill but to save money as well.”

Participation in the national 50% reduction goal is voluntary, but states like Massachusetts and Vermont have already instituted commercial food waste bans. Food waste makes up a majority of U.S. landfills and quickly generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. EPA notes that food loss reduction would help to mitigate climate change, address food insecurity, and save producers money.

For more information about food waste reduction in the U.S., visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus dot org.

For the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

USDA announces funds for biomass research and production


Switchgrass is an example of a biomass source grown and harvested in Iowa. (Noble Foundation/Flickr)
Switchgrass is an example of a biomass material grown and harvested in Iowa. (Noble Foundation/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 27, 2015

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that up to $8.7 million in funding will be available for bioenergy research and education efforts. The announcement was made during the Growth Energy Executive Leadership Conference in Phoenix, Ariz.

Additionally, funding will go toward publishing the final rule for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) which aims to provide incentives for farmers and forest landowners interested in growing and harvesting biomass to be used as renewable energy. The final rule is expected to be published in today’s edition of the Federal Register. BCAP provides up to $25 million annually in financial assistance for owners and operators of agricultural and non-industrial private forest land.

“USDA’s support for innovative bioenergy research and education supports rural economic development, reduces carbon pollution and helps decrease our dependence on foreign energy,” Vilsack said in a press release. “These investments will keep America moving toward a clean energy economy and offer new jobs and opportunities in rural communities.”

Those interested in grants for research and education can apply through the USDA’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Past organizations and agencies to receive funding through this grant include Quad County Corn Cooperative in Galva, Iowa; Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in Findlay, Ohio; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Materials that can be used as biomass include wood chips, corn, corn stalks, soybeans, switchgrass, straw, animal waste and food-processing by-products. Research examining the potential of biomass in Iowa and abroad dates back to the mid-1990s.

USDA awards nearly $70M to farmers for alternative energy and energy efficiency upgrades


Nick Fetty | September 23, 2014
Wind and solar energy work side-by-side in Germany. (Wikimedia)
Wind and solar energy work side-by-side in Germany. (Wikimedia)

Farmers in Iowa will be able to take advantage of recently announced U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and loans aimed at promoting renewable energy and other energy efficiency measures.

The USDA has awarded $68 million for 540 different projects across the country, 50 of which are in Iowa. The funding was made available through the USDA Rural Development’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Eligible projects include energy improvement projects as well as renewable energy systems such as solar, wind, renewable biomass (including anaerobic digesters), small hydroelectric, ocean energy, hydrogen, and geothermal.

“These loan guarantees and grants will have far-reaching impacts nationwide, particularly in the rural communities where these projects are located,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “Investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency will continue the unprecedented increase in home-grown energy sources and American energy independence we’ve seen in recent years. This is creating jobs, providing new economic opportunities and leading the way to a more secure energy future.”

The project also aims to create jobs, particularly for installation of solar panels and many of these positions are expected to be filled by military veterans. The job training program will begin at three military bases this fall and hopes to train approximately 50,000 by 2020.

An 18-page document identifies all of the individuals and businesses applying for funding through REAP.

Earlier this month, the USDA awarded $105 million to a California-based company that will study a way to “convert municipal solid waste into bio jet fuel.”