How to protect your community from the toxic lead lurking in soil

How to protect your community from the toxic lead lurking in soil

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Lead poisoning is often treated as if it’s a problem of the past. But its harmful legacy lingers today, particularly in the soil of urban centers across the United States. 

This story also appeared in Grist

One in every two American children under the age of 6 tested between late 2018 and early 2020 had detectable levels of lead in their blood. Studies show soil exposure is a major reason. 

The lead pumped out of exhaust pipes and industrial smokestacks decades ago can still be found in soil. Lead paint used extensively throughout the first half of the 20th century remains on the interior and exterior walls of many homes, degrading to chips and dust that also end up in soil. And although the U.S. began phasing out lead in automobile gasoline and consumer paint in the 1970s, new lead pollution continues to be dumped on communities every year from industrial sites and the aviation gas used by small aircraft

Yet while the threat of lead exposure via paint and water is well documented, soils aren’t systematically tested and mapped to prevent exposure to this invisible neurotoxin.

The Center for Public Integrity and Grist have created a toolkit to help fill these information gaps and arm journalists and community members with the skills needed to do their own testing and analysis. The detailed guide walks readers through how to test the soil, map their results and investigate potential sources, both present and past. 

As part of this effort, Public Integrity and Grist will host several training workshops on the major tools and takeaways from the new guide. For journalists interested in coverage ideas and information about testing, join us either April 23 or April 25, both at 1 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. Pacific).

For those interested in learning more about how to tackle soil lead contamination in their communities, join us April 30 at 1 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. Pacific). Register here. You’ll also get an invitation to an additional brainstorming session to further tailor these approaches to your area.

Experts say that identifying the environmental sources of contamination is key to preventing lead poisoning in children. Once a child has been exposed, the damage cannot be reversed, which makes environmental testing and mapping imperative. 

Decades of research have shown the lasting harm for children exposed to lead, from brain development impacts — the capacity to learn, focus, and control impulses — to later health risks like coronary heart disease. No amount, scientists say, is safe

Our toolkit offers suggestions no matter what stage you’re at in your journey to learn about soil lead contamination. If you’d like to know what existing data indicates, for example, this map referenced in the toolkit shows how common elevated lead levels are in children by census tract or ZIP code in 34 states. Public health agencies fail to adequately test children’s blood for lead exposure, research shows, but existing data can point to potential trouble areas for soil, paint, or water exposure.    

If you’d like to know whether the soil in your city might be contaminated but don’t have the resources to conduct widespread testing, you can start small by testing in your backyard or a handful of properties in your neighborhood. The toolkit includes information about the online portal Map My Environment, an initiative that allows you to send in test samples to be analyzed for free. You’ll also see recommendations on lead interventions.

The post How to protect your community from the toxic lead lurking in soil appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

The Farm Bill Fight

Where the 2024 presidential candidates stand on Indigenous issues

Pauly Denetclaw

WASHINGTON — Marianne Williamson, a 2020 presidential hopeful, promised before an auditorium of Indigenous leaders, elders and voters that under her administration the White House would formally apologize and atone for the horrific treatment of Native Americans by the federal government, alluding to genocidal policies enacted by the United States.

In 2019, Williamson was one of 11 presidential candidates who attended the historic Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City.

Williamson is one of three Democratic candidates running for president of the United States in 2024. She’s also in the race against incumbent President Joe Biden and Cenk Uygur, co-founder and host of The Young Turks, a progressive news program.

“Biden’s done some good things in Indian Country, but not everybody’s happy with everything,” said Mike Stopp, a Republican political consultant. “Even Deb Haaland, who I like, even though we disagree on a lot of policies, has irritated a lot of people in Indian Country. Just because you are Native doesn’t mean you’re going to do what everybody wants all the time. We’re very diverse.”

The 2024 presidential election also has two Independent candidates, political activist Cornel West, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late Robert F. Kennedy and an environmental attorney.

There are 9 Republican candidates:

  1. Former president Donald J. Trump
  2. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
  3. Biotech investor and newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy
  4. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
  5. Megachurch pastor and businessman Ryan Binkley
  6. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
  7. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
  8. North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum
  9. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott

Most of the presidential candidates mention nothing publicly about what their policies are for tribal nations, leaving voters to speculate what it could be from past legislations, social media posts, comments and speeches. ICT has created a database of presidential candidates that includes information specific to tribal nations. The database gives users a brief overview of each candidate and their engagement with tribal nations.

The presidential race is stacked this election but the two frontrunners are, obviously, Biden and Trump.

“I see Trump/Biden 2.0 in 2024, and I don’t think that makes anybody happy, but I think that’s where we are. I think what we’re going to see is a lot of Democrats turn out because they’re anti-Trump and they’re not super excited about Biden either, but he’s the president and the candidate,” Stopp said. “You’re going to see a lot of Republicans, quite a few of them were very pro-Trump, but a lot of ’em are really anti-Biden that are coming out. They would like to see someone more practical than Donald Trump.”

Current polling shows Biden leading with more than 60 percent. Williamson at around 5 percent and before Kennedy changed parties he hovered around 15 percent in the Democratic primary.

“I do believe that President Joe Biden is going to go down in history as one of the most supportive advocates for tribal sovereignty that we’ve seen in a U.S. president,” Angelique EagleWoman, a scholar of Indigenous law and policy. “I say that because of his ability to see the grassroots support for appointing the first Native person as the US Secretary of the Interior. So by appointing Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, who’s Laguna Pueblo, into that role, he set a standard that we haven’t seen at that level for a U.S. president.”

Trump is dominating the packed Republican primary. He stays around 60 percent in the polls with DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamay trailing behind.

“Now, when it comes to Indian policy, Donald Trump actually had some decent advisors when he did it,” Stopp said. “I was one of them. There were a few others that I worked with in making sure that federal Indian policy didn’t take a step back.”

Another was Tyler Fish, Cherokee, who was a White House senior policy advisor and tribal liaison during the Trump administration. Texas federal judge Ada Brown, Choctaw, was nominated by Trump. She became the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. On her father’s side she is a descendant of the Muscogee Creek Freedmen.

Trump signed the CARES Act that allocated $8 billion in funding for tribal governments and an additional $2 billion for the Indian Health Service. Many nations used this funding to provide direct support for their citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSantis started off as a strong contender against Trump but his polling has since lagged. He stays around 15 percent.

“I don’t see any standout on the Republican side that has a knowledge basis or the ability to embrace tribal nations, our issues and our sovereignty,” EagleWoman said.

DeSantis supported the Seminole Tribe of Florida on the road to having a monopoly on sports betting in the state. The Seminole Tribe donated millions to DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaigns. Unfortunately, the tribal gaming compact has been caught up in legal challenges and will likely head to the Supreme Court for review.

“We see in Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida, the absolute elimination of Native Americans in history or understanding the role of Euro-Americans in causing harm,” EagleWoman said. “A great nation should be able to understand its mistakes and its faults to do better.”

Trump stopped hosting the White House Tribal Nations Summit, rarely did meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, released budget requests that cut funding for IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and supported energy projects that were incredibly unpopular in tribal nations.

“We have the former U.S. President Donald Trump who before entering politics opposed tribal casinos and tribal gaming and tribal business development,” EagleWoman said. “During his administration, he tried to rescind a reservation for the Wampanoag. He put on hold the ability of Alaska Native villages, as tribal governments, to take land into trust. He mocked tribal historical figures. He refused to engage in consultation. So, there’s just not many pluses I can find for that former administration.”

Recently, former Vice President Mike Pence was the first high-profile candidate to drop out of the race, saying it was clear that it wasn’t his time. Others that have dropped out are Miami mayor Francis Suarez, former Cranston, R.I. mayor Steve Laffey, and former Texas congressman Will Hurd.

A Republican candidate with lots of experience with tribal nations is North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum. The state has five federally-recognized tribes, these include the Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nation (Three Affiliated Tribes), Spirit Lake Nation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation.

“Doug actually has had very good relations with tribes,” Stopp said. “Actually, a good friend of mine who used to be the staff director for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs actually is advising on his campaign because he worked for him as governor and in the Indian Affairs office.”

In May, with the support of Bergum, North Dakota codified the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state law as the Supreme Court wrangled with the constitutionality of the act. He displayed tribal flags at the state Capitol; doubled Native American scholarships to $1 million; signed legislation that would bring IT and cybersecurity to tribal schools and colleges; and went into oil tax revenue-sharing compacts with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“I do think he is probably the most pro-tribal, pro-Indian candidate in the Republican mix right now,” Stopp said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see him getting very far. I actually find him to be a very practical person, and in today’s environment, practicality loses to sensationalism.”

Biden administration

The difference between the top two contenders is stark when it comes to tribal nations. The Biden administration has poured unprecedented amounts of funding into tribal governments, appointed more Native Americans to key roles than any other administration, continues to do meaningful consultation, hosted the first-ever Native American Heritage Month reception at the White House, and nominated an Indigenous woman to be a federal judge.

Biden also selected the first Native American person to ever be part of the president’s cabinet, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the first Native American U.S. Treasurer, Chief Lynn Malerba, Mohegan.

Last year, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both made speeches at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. Around half of the cabinet members were walking around during the summit talking with tribal leaders.

Any candidate would have a difficult time matching Biden’s commitment to tribal nations.

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Can USDA’s efforts on equity help Black farmers overcome ‘toxic debt’?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Black farmers protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on March 1, 2023. (photos: Matt DeRienzo / Center for Public Integrity; audio Ileana Garnand / Center for Public Integrity)

It was nearly a quarter century ago when thousands of Black farmers filed a class action discrimination lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to receive financial compensation. More than 15,000 got $50,000 lump sum payments, and a small number were approved for larger payments. Some had hoped that it would finally help them get out from under debt to the department.

This story also appeared in Reckon

But for some farmers, the funds weren’t enough. And a second version of the settlement reaching other Black farmers in 2010 didn’t solve the underlying problem either.

“The toxic debt just continues to stick around,” said Sylvia Stewart, research communications director and senior research associate for the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, who’s conducting a study on the impact of the lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman and its settlement for Black farmers.

After Black farmers filed the Pigford suit, Native American, Latino and female farmers filed similar lawsuits claiming discrimination by the department in loan and benefit programs. All ended with settlements.

And yet, nearly 25 years later, USDA officials said they are still trying to address disparities stemming from discrimination in farm loan lending.

But the USDA of today, under the Biden administration, said it wants to correct racial discrimination by taking a broad-based approach to equity that targets all borrowers in financial distress and finds any discriminatory actions that have affected farmers of all races in its farm loan programs. Black borrowers are the racial group that most struggles to get out from their USDA debt.

The USDA is grappling with how to identify which individuals should get compensation for historical injustice done to groups of people many years ago, and how that gets done in legislation that is specific to contemporary phenomena, like COVID. But it’s also up against the context of one side of Congress being controlled by Republicans who deny the existence of racial inequality as a modern-day problem. Their idea of a “colorblind” government and justice system that denies any responsibility for righting injustices based on past discrimination was buoyed by a recent Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action in college admissions.

“Race is not the only factor that we consider as we’re trying to reach equity,” said Dewayne Goldmon, senior advisor for racial equity to the secretary of agriculture.

Given the history of USDA, it’s difficult to make “significant improvements” without at least acknowledging that there are “disparities that exist among the different races of customers that we’re trying to assist, and try and figure out a way to address those disparities in a very transparent and productive way,” Goldmon said.

“Race is not the only factor that we consider as we’re trying to reach equity.”

Dewayne Goldmon, senior advisor for racial equity to the secretary of agriculture

Dewayne Goldmon poises for an official government photo while wearing a suit and the American flag in the background.
(Photo credit: USDA website)

The current administration is attempting to address disparities through new programs included in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 that do not rely on racial identification to help farmers get out from under their USDA debt.

However, the efforts came after a federal judge blocked implementation of debt relief to farmers of color in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a COVID-relief bill, on grounds that it discriminated against white farmers. As a result, Congress changed course.

One of the programs in the Inflation Reduction Act provides debt relief for borrowers of any race who are considered economically distressed. Congress appropriated $3.1 billion for borrowers who are behind on loan payments or face other financial risks. Financial assistance includes loan payments of past due amounts and the next installment of loan payments.

The USDA began releasing payments in October 2022 and as of May 23, it has distributed $1.1 billion in debt relief payments.

In another program in the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress appropriated $2.2 billion in financial assistance to farmers of any race who experienced discrimination in USDA’s farm loan programs prior to Jan. 1, 2021. For this program and others, USDA is working closely with community-based organizations, which are trusted by the diverse populations it’s trying to reach, said Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, the arm of the USDA that manages loans.

“We’ve been intentional about developing and cultivating relationships with outside NGOs to ensure we’re reaching the folks that may need a little extra hands on technical assistance to meaningfully participate in all of our programs,” Ducheneaux said.

The discrimination program will potentially reimburse farmers for federal payments that were garnished, or offset, to repay loans that are found to be tied to discrimination in the agency’s farm loan programs.

Farmers who fall delinquent in their loans may see federal payments like Social Security checks, income tax returns, pensions and farm subsidies garnished, or offset, and put toward their debt. A loan becomes delinquent after a borrower fails to make a scheduled payment on their loan.

An ‘ill fate’

In 1997, Timothy Pigford filed the initial suit that eventually became a class action lawsuit. Known as Pigford vs. Glickman, the civil case alleged the federal agency engaged in racial discrimination against Black farmers in how the agency allocated its loan programs by delaying or denying loans to Black farmers. It also claimed that the USDA had consistently failed to address official complaints about that discrimination.

The case never went to trial. In 1999, the parties agreed to a settlement that presented farmers with two different categories of claims — Track A and Track B. Each farmer had to pick a track to pursue as part of the settlement agreement.

Track A included a $50,000 award and the chance to have outstanding debt in a loan program forgiven if it was connected to the claim of discrimination. But farmers who chose Track A had to show that when they applied for a USDA loan, that the loan was denied, delayed or decreased. They needed to show that a white farmer with a similar situation had been treated more favorably than they were. Finally, they’d need to be able to show that all of that added up to an economic loss.

For Track B, farmers were allowed to claim full damages, but they were also required to provide a “preponderance of evidence” of discrimination. Farmers would need to show an arbitrator that USDA discrimination had cost him more than $50,000 in damages by providing evidence including documents and present it at a mini trial. But if the farmer succeeded, they could be compensated for all of the costs tied to the discrimination they’d faced.

Despite the strict eligibility criteria, the process was full of accusations that some money went to the wrong people. The New York Times in 2013 published an investigative report that detailed massive fraud, “a runaway train, driven by racial politics, pressure from influential members of Congress and law firms that stand to gain more than $130 million in fees.”

In all, 15,645 claims were approved for Track A and 115 claims were resolved in Track B from the 22,721 eligible class members.

Among them, a small portion — about 425 people, or 2.7% of claimants — received debt relief.

Eleven years later, a second settlement was created for people who were too late to participate in the initial suit. Between both Pigford settlements, more than 60,000 people submitted claims. Roughly half won some kind of damages.

Listen to what Timothy Pigford has to say about the USDA

A clip of an interview with Timothy Pigford on March 1, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Ileana Garnand / Center for Public Integrity)

As a result of Pigford, the federal government returned more than $2 billion to claimants.

Black farmers have lost $326 billion in land between 1920 and 1997, according to a study published by the American Economic Association last year.

But since most didn’t get debt relief, many used their settlement money to pay off other debt that they had to take on to continue farming, according to the Pigford Project, a research initiative by the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis University and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.

Although USDA could not foreclose on farmers while their claim was being processed, claimants were still obligated to make payments on their loans. Meanwhile, interest accrued. The process dragged on for years. And in the end, some claimants never had their debt forgiven, according to the Project.

“Farmers applied to track A to get their debt relieved and be free and clear,” said Stewart, of Brandeis University. “However, we only have those big picture figures of how many people got [debt relief], or what [loans were] forgiven. We don’t have a strong list of who got what and why and what the reasons are.”

It’s also unclear how many of those Pigford class members who were successful in their claims were later subject to offsets, or garnishments. However, some offset payments were given back to some claimants after the claims process.

Local farmers who sat on county committees and had influence over who was deemed credit worthy and employees of the Farm Service Agency might send farmers into offset “in retaliation for applying for the Pigford claims,” said Stephon Bowens, an attorney who represented some claimants that disagreed with the settlement agreement in the lawsuit.

Offsets will factor into the amount of financial assistance that is offered to a borrower, such as a Pigford claimant who no longer has an active loan, who actually suffered from past discrimination in farm lending programs, said Goldmon, the senior advisor for racial equity to the USDA secretary.

There were outcomes that did not meet the expectations of class members. For example, when some relief was provided, and a farmer didn’t get total relief, they were subjected to offsets from loan balances that they thought would have been paid off.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with a system that will hopefully provide some financial assistance for those folks that have suffered from that ill fate,” Goldmon said. “And at the same time though, connect them with access to a more responsive, more inclusive Farm Service Agency, farm lending programs that give them better access as they go forward.”

This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

Public Integrity seeks USDA data

Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity filed a lawsuit against the USDA to learn how many Black farmers were affected by garnishments from as far back as 1995, two years before the initial Pigford lawsuit was filed. Public Integrity also wanted to know how much the federal government has seized from Black farmers since then. The lawsuit stems from a request for data — Freedom of Information Act — Public Integrity made last year.

In March 2022, Public Integrity filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the USDA for data. A FOIA request is a public records request that members of the public can make for data and documents held by federal agencies. It’s a tool often used by journalists, attorneys, advocates and members of the public.

We asked for data on loans, including the aggregate number, total dollar amount and median dollar amount for outstanding loans, delinquent loans and loans subject to different types of wage garnishments. The FOIA request also asked for that data broken down by race, gender, loan type, state, county and monthly balance. This FOIA request was specifically written to ask for records beginning Jan. 1, 1995 up to the date the agency processed the records request.

But we only received data between 2015 and part of 2022, and USDA officials failed to follow our specific request. For example, we requested that all the data be provided in a specific format (a single spreadsheet), but instead the FOIA office provided data that was broken down. Only one spreadsheet was aggregated by race. The agency provided only six years of data, instead of the 27 years we requested. And data provided prior to 2015 was mostly redacted.

Our analysis of that limited set of data showed that offsets or garnishments have had a disproportionate impact on Black farmers, which was unsurprising considering the significantly higher rates of delinquency among Black farmers as compared with their white counterparts.

Between the 2015 and 2022 fiscal years, the USDA offset about $60 million in loans to white borrowers vs. about $7 million in loans to Black borrowers. Those amounts must be considered in the context of lending to and delinquencies among those groups.

Black farmers typically held only about 1% of farm loan principal and interest in each of those years while holding about 10% of delinquent balances. White farmers held about 90% of loan balances while holding between half and two-thirds of delinquent balances.

The purpose of this FOIA request was simple: We wanted to know, on a basic level, how much money was held in delinquency, how much money was being lended out in total and how much of that total is subject to offsets. This data would have also helped us determine whether the ratios changed for each racial group over time.

There’s no guarantee the pattern we observed in the 2015-2022 data holds for the older data we requested. But USDA told us that they could not provide the complete information because doing so would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” They also said that the records we requested include information that the agency has “obtained from agricultural producers or landowners that concerns their farming or agricultural operation,” which is exempted from disclosure by another federal statute, Section 1619(b) of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008.

The post Can USDA’s efforts on equity help Black farmers overcome ‘toxic debt’? appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth

Reading Time: 10 minutes

  • Attendees, some wearing cowboy hats, sit in the stands watching the rodeo.
  • Riders on horse travel down the street as residents watch.
  • A group of young men perform with drums in the street as a group of people sit on the sidewalk to watch the performance.

BOLEY, Okla.

The biggest weekend of the year in this tiny town kicks off with an hours-long parade. Cowboys and cowgirls trot their horses along downtown blocks lined with watchful spectators and vendors selling their juiciest barbecue meats.

This story also appeared in Reckon

Inside a squatty stone community center, a vintage photography exhibit documents Boley’s better days, when a pair of banks and dozens of homegrown businesses on those same streets bustled as the town center of a prosperous agricultural region.

The parade kicks off the Boley Rodeo & Barbecue Festival, one of the nation’s more well-known celebrations of Black cowboy culture, taking place as it does in the largest of what once were 50 Black towns in the state.

Only 13 still exist.

The rodeo celebrates a certain Black presence in Oklahoma and the history of the Western frontier, as well as its place in Black farming, past and present.

Nearly half the Black-operated farms in the nation today are beef cattle ranches. In Oklahoma, it’s two of every three. And most of the Black farms are in the eastern part of the state, where Boley is located.

Yet, the Memorial Day weekend festivities also celebrate a place Boley, other Black towns, and the Greenwood section of Tulsa — home to the “Black Wall Street” destroyed in 1921 — occupy in America’s history.

Black folks, “not only farmers, but doctors, lawyers, and craftsmen of all kinds,” came here seeking “greater opportunities and more freedom of action than they [were] able to find in the older communities North or South,” Booker T. Washington, the noted Black educator and civil rights leader, wrote after visiting the town just two years after its official establishment in 1903.

Back then, Black folks by the thousands came west. Land was plentiful, and so were the cattle. The soil was fertile. Cotton, the region’s king crop, was high.

“Boley, like the other negro towns that have sprung up in other parts of the country, represents a dawning race consciousness, a wholesome desire to do something to make the race respected,” Washington wrote, “something which shall demonstrate the right of the negro, not merely as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating.”

Boley town marker. (Boley Facebook page)

The land that made Boley

Without the Trail of Tears, Boley as Booker T. Washington described it would not have been. And the Trail of Tears was a dispute over rich agricultural land.

In 1830, Congress passed and President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which effectively evicted thousands of Native Americans who made up the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast and the Plains and gave their stolen lands to white settlers.

Thousands of Native Americans were displaced to land that included what is now Oklahoma.

The Muscogee Creek Nation was one of the tribes, along with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole, rooted in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Muscogee enslaved people and brought those enslaved with them to the area around what now is Boley.

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The Muscogee aligned themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Several factors may have influenced the decision, including the tribe’s historic ties to the American South and to white Southern ancestors, religious ties, the defense of separateness and anti-Blackness as an idea and economic reality, according to David Chang, author of “The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929.”

Afterwards, in order to be accepted back into the Union, they agreed to grant Black people freedom as well as full tribal citizenship. Over time, they were forced to give up much of their land to the federal government. They were also pushed to allot land to all tribal citizens.

One of the newly enfranchised Creek Freedmen was James Barnett, and 160 acres of land was allocated to his daughter, Abigail. Boley, about 70 miles southwest of Tulsa, would rise on that land, as would the lives of those who would make it their home, place of business or ticket to success.

“At this time, the U.S. is an agricultural society. So to seek opportunity, to seek economic independence, is often to seek land ownership,” Chang said.

Black cowboys are born

Enslaved people weren’t the only thing the Muscogee brought to the land that later would become Oklahoma and part of its Black Cowboy culture. Cattle had been an essential part of their economic life in the Southeast, and they brought their herds and their know-how, too.

Some tribes in the Indian Territory had already been cattle herding, but struggling to do well. Not the newcomers. With the help of those they had enslaved, they developed a successful cattle industry on the new frontier.

After the Civil War, the Muscogee economy struggled. Next door in Texas, cattle farming was booming, and many of the large herds were driven to railheads and to slaughter on trails that went through the Indian Territory. Black cowboys became a skilled workforce for those drives.

Many had been trained as cowhands on cattle ranches prior to the Civil War, and they operated those ranches when their slaveholders went off in support of the Confederacy.

After the war, the formerly enslaved were able to move around freely, and that gave them the opportunity to work nearly every type of job on the long drives to Kansas and other key markets.

And cowboy work paid more than sharecropping, the other principal way for a Black man to make a living. They often were paid the same amount as the white men who rode beside them, and more than the Mexican vaqueros and the Tejanos whose ancestors had been so critical in the years before.

Generations in the making

Much of the land obtained by Oklahoma’s first-generation Freedmen was great for growing cotton. In other areas, the financial grass was greener on the other side — rich in coal and oil.

Abigail Barnett’s land, as it turned out, was most valuable because of its location. It was smack dab on the path of a developing railroad route west from the transportation hub of Fort Smith, Arkansas, just across the eastern border.

There were no towns in the region, so Boley became its regional business center. It would be an early 20th century town run by Black folks for Black folks, a place where local governments empowered by Black voters would control most of the essential institutions of daily life.

An edition of The Boley Progess newspaper from 1906. According to the official town of Boley website, the weekly newspaper began in 1905. The paper and various advertising campaigns circulated through the South and lured many former slaves to the new town. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

“It might be somebody who can sell the inputs that you need for your farm,” said Chang, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. “It might be a small bank, and the idea of a small financial institution is very important in this situation because of course, capitalism is about capital and you have to have access to capital. And who has the capital? The banks.”

Boley would have two, including the first nationally chartered bank in the nation owned by Black folks. Eventually, it also would have three cotton gins, its own electrical plant and more than its share of bustling, Black-owned businesses.

Its townsfolk were among Boley’s biggest boosters. They took out ads in newspapers and sent word to family and friends back East, telling them how good the living could be in this place with more promise and prosperity than persecution and punishment.

“It was a project that was generations in the making for these African American people,” Chang said. “This kind of sovereign institution, whether it be a farm or a church, or a growing store or a small bank, is an effort of taking away the fragility of many African Americans at this time.”

A raisin in the sun

As much as Booker T. Washington’s prose described Boley’s beginnings and what it could be, another Black man’s poem, written some four decades later, might well describe the condition of so many Black Americans years later, including those who’d planted their seeds of hope in Boley. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked, in his poem “Harlem.” Does it shrivel up, he wondered, “like a raisin in the sun?”

But the dream of Boley was deferred long before the town was established.

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 opened up two million acres of forcibly unoccupied land for claim by U.S. citizens, mostly white settlers, including some who rushed in to claim land before the official opening date. Those early rushers are the “Sooners” of Oklahoma lore, those claimants who acted sooner than the others.

The settlers assumed considerable governmental power when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. They used it in the same way that other states, most prominently those of the former Confederacy, did.

Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has discussed that period and process in American history as Redemption, “when the gains of Reconstruction were systematically erased and the country witnessed the rise of a white supremacist ideology that, we might say, went rogue, an ideology that would long outlast the circumstances of its origin.”

Segregation in schools and public transportation would become law, not just culture. Black voting would be suppressed and Black voters disenfranchised. The promise of a better life that had drawn Black folks to Boley and the rest of the state would seem more and more to be a return to what they had sought to put behind them.

Boley has changed through the years: Pull the slider up and down to see a historic photo (date unknown) of Boley and a current day photo from 2002 of the town. (Credits: Oklahoma Historical Society, April Simpson / Center for Public Integrity)

Boley’s Black-run local government created somewhat of a protective bubble for its residents. But other problems intruded.

“The population started declining in the ’20s when the boll weevil came along, which is a bug, and it chewed up the cotton,” said Henrietta Hicks, the town historian and Boley native. “Plus the fact, the [federal] government stopped the farmers, especially Black farmers, from growing the amount of cotton that could feed a family.”

The Great Depression hastened the town’s decline, as did the fate of the Fort Smith and Western rail line: Founded in Boley in 1899, it ceased operation in February 1939.

“And then on top of that, there’s the increasing rabidity of white supremacy across the nation, and especially in Eastern Oklahoma,” said Chang, the University of Minnesota history professor.

“The rise of outlaw elements of white supremacy, like the Ku Klux Klan, and very much legal instruments of white supremacy — like much of the government of the state of Oklahoma and all of its counties — made it difficult for these towns to really survive.”

By 1950, Boley’s population — about 4,000 several years after it was incorporated in 1905 — was 646.

Today, Boley is barely an echo of its past.

Most of the businesses are dusty, vacant shells. The schools have all shut down. Machines do much of the work that field hands did before. And the charms of city life seduce the young.

Still, a younger generation of Boley Bears, locals who’ve taken on the name of the old high school’s mascot, want to keep the town alive. Some have returned and some never left.

They know they’re investing in a Boley that isn’t what it was.

But who says it can’t be better?

This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

The post In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

USDA’s Vilsack Warns of Rural Fallout with Government Shutdown Likely

With House Republicans delaying progress on 2024 budget negotiations under an October 1, 2023 deadline, the effects of a government shutdown if an agreement is not reached could be a swift and brutal blow to rural America, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“The extreme Republicans pushing this… represent a small minority that don’t seem to care if the government shuts down,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a Daily Yonder interview. “Farmers, ranchers, and producers all across rural America are going to feel this.”

There are 12 appropriations bills that dictate spending for federal agencies that require annual approval from Congress. Negotiations over how much the government should spend is always a lengthy process, but this year especially so, as House Republicans quarrel over how much money should be allocated to agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Interior, Justice, and more.

According to Vilsack frustration toward the group of Republicans stalling progress on this year’s budget is acute. And the drawn-out negotiations could mean spending will grind to a halt come this Sunday, October 1.

Government support payments and loan applications for farmers would be put on pause, according to Vilsack. Benefits from the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program could end as early as next week, and benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would dry out at the end of October.

According to 2018 data from the Food Research and Action Center, rural Americans rely the most on SNAP benefits. Food banks would be the only other option for those who rely on these benefits, a support system not always accessible to the country’s most rural communities.

The five-year Farm Bill is set to expire on October 1. Congress is likely to extend the lifespan of the bill until the end of 2023, but Vilsack warned that progress would be slow if policymakers are also contending with a government shutdown.

“It slows [the Farm Bill] down because people aren’t there to work on it,” Vilsack said. “We’ll be focused on getting the government back open, and maintaining funding for the offices that service farmers and ranchers.” Commodity prices could skyrocket with a delayed Farm Bill, affecting food prices for consumers across the country. These are just some of the concerns at the top of policymakers’ minds as negotiations on the 2024 budget continue to stall.

Thousands of federal employees could be furloughed come Monday without pay, national forests and parks would be closed, and new homebuyers would be unable to access loans. Many publicly funded assistance programs that require annual budget approval would halt payments if their money ran out during the shutdown as well.

“It’s so unfortunate that a small handful of Republican extremists want this when no one else does,” Vilsack said.

The post USDA’s Vilsack Warns of Rural Fallout with Government Shutdown Likely appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Dianne Feinstein dies, leaving a complicated legacy on climate issues

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died on Thursday evening at the age of 90, leaves behind a long and complex legacy on climate and environmental issues. Feinstein represented California as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate for more than 30 years, becoming the longest-serving woman in Senate history, and during that time she brokered a number of significant deals to protect and restore the natural landscapes of the West. In recent years, as politics shifted, she found herself on the receiving end of criticism over her approach to tackling the climate crisis.

After taking office in 1992 following a decade as the mayor of San Francisco, Feinstein established herself as a champion for conservation. She worked to pass legislation that would protect millions of acres of California wilderness from development and extractive industry, using her deft skills as a negotiator to bridge disputes between competing interests. She succeeded in that conservation effort where her predecessors had failed, spearheading a 1994 bill that created the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks, which encompass millions of acres. She later passed bills to protect Lake Tahoe, the California redwoods, and the Mojave Desert.

Feinstein also supported action to reduce carbon emissions for much of her Senate career, and she was a key backer of a cap-and-trade bill that failed to pass the Senate during the first years of the Obama administration. She also authored successful legislation on automobile fuel economy standards, and pushed forward new regulatory standards for oil and gas pipelines following a 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people.

Even so, as a compromise-oriented legislator from California, she often had to weigh the competing interests of farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists, and at times she angered all of them. This tendency toward centrism was evident in her legislative work on water in the state’s Central Valley. She brokered a monumental restoration agreement on the valley’s overstressed San Joaquin River in 2009, but then helped override species protections for fish on that same river in 2016.

“That is wrong, it is shocking,” her colleague Senator Barbara Boxer said at the time, according to E&E News.

Even so, as the pace of the climate crisis advanced, Feinstein attracted criticism from the left for not supporting more ambitious policies to tackle climate change, and her reputation as a broker of compromise came back to haunt her. In early 2019, a group of activists with the Sunrise Movement confronted Feinstein in the Capitol building, urging her to support progressive calls for Green New Deal legislation.

Feinstein rebuffed the protestors.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’ve been doing,” she said in a viral video. “You come in here and say it has to be my way or the highway.” Her office later released a statement on the incident that mistakenly referred to the protestors as part of the “Sunshine Movement.”

In the following years, following reports that Feinstein was experiencing a loss of her mental faculties, some politicians called for her to step down from the Senate. She resisted those calls and instead said she would retire at the end of her current term, which would have lasted through next year’s election.

The senator’s death will create even more turmoil in Washington, D.C., as lawmakers tangle over a looming government shutdown. The Senate has moved closer to passing a resolution to fund the federal government over the course of the week, but it’s unlikely to pass the House of Representatives thanks to a revolt from hardline Republicans.

Feinstein cast her final vote on Thursday morning on a procedural item relating to the Federal Aviation Administration, but she didn’t vote on an environmental bill later that afternoon. In the vote she missed, Republican lawmakers tried to override President Biden’s veto of a bill that would have rolled back endangered species protections for the prairie chicken. The final vote total was 47 Republicans to 46 Democrats, not enough to override the veto.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the outcome of a vote on endangered species protections.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Dianne Feinstein dies, leaving a complicated legacy on climate issues on Sep 29, 2023.

Eddie Slaughter, longtime advocate for Black farmers, dies

Eddie Slaughter tears up. He is wearing a black baseball cap, mask around his chin and eye glasses.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

At six or seven years old, John Slaughter remembers getting up at night to use the bathroom and seeing his father, Eddie, asleep on the couch with his boots still on.

“I took his boots off when he was still asleep, being exhausted all day, trying to farm and work the job that he had at the time,” John Slaughter said. “He fell asleep trying to figure it all out.”

It wasn’t just the on- and off-farm work. Black farmers like him faced decades of discrimination from the federal government, and he was a tireless advocate pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make it right.

He battled for that — in particular, for farm loan debt relief for the Black farmers who needed it — until the very end. Slaughter died suddenly Wednesday morning after experiencing shortness of breath at his home in Buena Vista, Georgia, according to friends and family.

He was 72.

Slaughter spoke at length with Public Integrity as a source for stories about discrimination against Black farmers. He is featured in the upcoming season 3 of Public Integrity’s The Heist podcast, in partnership with Pushkin Industries. In episode four, Slaughter said he was still actively fighting for Black farmers.

“Till the day I die, or we receive justice,” Slaughter said. “Whichever come first.”

Errick Thornton, one of Slaughter’s stepsons, was grieving both his loss and the unfinished battle.

“He said, ‘For us to get out of this debt, we’re going to have to die.’ And that’s so overwhelming,” Thornton said. “He never saw what he was pushing for.”

Slaughter was born in Buena Vista but mostly grew up in Miami.

“I was like a fish outta water,” Slaughter told the Center for Public Integrity last year. “I was country when country wasn’t cool.”

Every summer break from school, he would return to Buena Vista. Eventually, in his early 30s, he moved back for good. He wanted to be a farmer. And relatives showed him the ropes.

“When you finally get stuff up and it’s growing and you finally are able to harvest it and eat it, you become full circle,” Slaughter said. “And I wanted to learn so much more about it.”

Slaughter got a loan from the USDA. But as his lending relationship with the department grew, so did his debt. He alleged that he was encouraged to open more loans, buy more equipment and take on more debt, to meet department guidelines.

“That was the worst mistake I made because when you get into it with them, you fight them forever,” Slaughter said.

In 1997, Slaughter testified at a congressional hearing the Congressional Black Caucus held on USDA lending discrimination. He also became a claimant in Pigford v. Glickman, a class action lawsuit against the USDA that resulted in a settlement for Black farmers in 1999. Slaughter always contended that the $50,000 he received as part of the settlement was too little to cover his damages.

Although he said he was able to settle his debt under the Trump administration when he asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for a debt compromise, he continued to advocate on behalf of other Black farmers still tangled up in loans they saw as predatory. He organized Zoom meetings with them and alerted members of Congress to challenges they were facing with the USDA in his home state.

Politically, he was tough to pin down: He felt both Democrats and Republicans had failed Black farmers. At the local level, constituents have better contact with their elected officials, but Slaughter thought it could be tough to hold federal officials accountable, John Slaughter said. They could be too far removed from the people they’re serving and those like Eddie Slaughter, who didn’t fit neatly as a Democrat or a Republican, John Slaughter said.

Beyond his advocacy, friends and family say they will remember Slaughter’s service as a local pastor and his love of both God and his expanding family. He had six children with his first wife, Angeline, who died in 2017. About four years ago he married Gloria, who was also a widow and has nine children. Their families had known each other for years. With Gloria by his side, several family members said Slaughter’s faith in God grew.

Over time, though, Slaughter’s body started to fail him.

He was a double amputee. He told the Center for Public Integrity that he had been on dialysis for 12 years. In 2013, he had a kidney transplant. He was blind in his left eye. He had stents put in his heart. He’s had gangrene.

None of that stopped him from farming.

“He would go out there and get on that tractor and he’d plow them acres,” said Thornton, his stepson. “The biggest part that will tie me to Mr. Slaughter is probably going to be his ability to work even after some people would have call it quits.”

The post Eddie Slaughter, longtime advocate for Black farmers, dies appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

Can Biden’s climate-smart agriculture program live up to the hype?

A new kind of food may soon be arriving on grocery store shelves: climate smart. Under the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, a nascent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, this amalgam of farming methods aims to keep the American agricultural juggernaut steaming ahead while slashing the sector’s immense greenhouse gas footprint.

This spring, the Biden administration began allocating $3.1 billion to hundreds of agriculture organizations, corporations, universities, and nonprofits for climate-smart projects. These entities will pass most of the money on to tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners, including growers who manage thousands of acres and underserved and disadvantaged farmers who often have much smaller operations. The first agreements have now been signed; the money is starting to flow.

The USDA estimates that the 141 funded projects will, collectively over the project’s five-year lifetime, eliminate or sequester the equivalent of 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, on par with removing more than 2.4 million gas-powered cars from the road over the same period. They will achieve this by paying growers to adopt practices thought to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or capture carbon dioxide from the air. These practices include reducing or eliminating tilling of soil, planting “cover crops” that grow during the off-season and are not harvested, improving how farmers use fertilizer and manure, and planting trees.

Drip irrigation, like the system seen here at a vineyard near Porterville California, is more efficient than sprinklers and flood irrigation. It also reduces runoff and evaporation. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.

More importantly, the agency aims to catalyze new, premium markets for products such as climate-smart corn, soybeans, and beef, which it hopes will spur farmers to continue these practices far into the future. “People want to know that when they’re spending their dollar at the grocery store that they’re not hurting the environment; they want to be helpful,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last December when announcing projects that received funding. The emerging market for climate-friendly products, he added, represents “a transformational opportunity for U.S. agriculture.”

The idea has enthusiastic supporters. The market that Vilsack envisions “is potentially massive — much bigger than any federal program could be,” says Ben Thomas, senior policy director for agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund. “And it’ll last as long as the conditions that create the market still exist.”

But the high-profile effort has also come under fire. Some researchers fear that the agency lacks a workable plan for measuring and verifying the impacts of the practices federal dollars will be paying for. Others say science has yet to prove that climate-smart practices truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “We don’t have that understanding yet for most climate-smart management practices,” says Kim Novick, an environmental scientist at Indiana University.

“It’s a greenwashing scheme. It’s going to allow nothing to get done.”­

Sylvia Secchi, University of Iowa

The program’s harshest critics assail it as a giveaway to rich corporations that will do little to rein in climate change — and might even exacerbate it. “This program is just pork for big polluters,” says University of Iowa economist Sylvia Secchi. “It’s a greenwashing scheme. It’s going to allow nothing to get done.”­

For decades, efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions have focused on power plants, factories, and automobiles, not farmland. “Agriculture has just not been at the table in a meaningful way,” says Thomas.

But it should be. For all of industrial farming’s success at feeding people and livestock and producing biofuel, the sector is also a major polluter, accounting for roughly 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and roughly a quarter of emissions globally. The main greenhouse gases emitted by U.S. agriculture today are nitrous oxide, which comes mainly from soil microbes that digest nitrogen fertilizer, and methane, burped by the nation’s roughly 92 million cows. Both warm the atmosphere far more, per molecule, than carbon dioxide.

Farmland itself was also once a major source of atmospheric carbon dioxide as farmers cleared carbon-rich forests and plowed up prairie soils, releasing carbon from trees and the ground. Now, climate-smart agriculture aims to recapture some of that carbon.

“A voluntary, collaborative approach is the only approach that works here. Regulation isn’t very good at asking people to adopt new practices.”

Robert Bonnie, USDA

Unlike with organic farming, climate-smart farming has no list of allowed or prohibited practices. “There is no single definition of climate smart,” says Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Instead, it comprises a mélange of practices that, studies show, can either reduce farms’ greenhouse gases emissions or increase the amount of carbon stored in their soils.

Funded projects are receiving up to $95 million over five years to help farmers take up these practices and to create monitoring and marketing programs that, it’s hoped, will keep farmers on the climate-smart track after the program ends. That all-carrot, no-stick strategy is intentional and necessary to reduce agriculture’s climate impact, says Robert Bonnie, under secretary for farm production and conservation at USDA and one of the program’s chief architects and champions.

“A voluntary, collaborative approach is the only approach that works here,” says Bonnie. “Regulation isn’t very good at asking people to adopt new practices.”

The department says the program will deliver benefits to underserved and disadvantaged farmers, a group that includes farmers of color, women, veterans, and small and beginning farmers who have, in the past, struggled to access USDA funding streams and have sometimes been intentionally excluded from them. Many of the projects whose signed agreements have been made public, for example, will direct at least 20 percent of funds to underserved farmers.

Champions of the program also note that expected benefits go beyond increasing carbon sequestration and reducing greenhouse gases from farm fields. By encouraging farmers to reduce tillage, plant cover crops, and take other measures, “we’re improving water quality; we’re reducing erosion,” says Adam Kiel, executive vice president of AgOutcomes, which is managing a $95 million climate-smart partnership led by the Iowa Soybean Association.

But as the climate-smart commodities program gets underway, many experts are warning that even its most-touted practices often fall far short. For example, some cover crop studies have found that the practice did not sequester significant amounts of carbon in soils, while other studies that did find gains also had gaps or methodological problems that diminished confidence in the results. And an analysis published in May in Nature Sustainability found that yield losses resulting from cover crops in the United States could erase as much as 70 percent of their climate benefits if farmers cut down trees elsewhere or plow up grasslands to compensate for those losses.

Better manure management is among the climate-smart practices the USDA is funding in the partnerships. Here, manure is put into a digester to be turned into biofuel at Vanguard Renewables in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

“I wouldn’t say we should pause everything, because there are some real benefits to cover cropping,” says David Lobell, a food security researcher at Stanford University and a coauthor of the Nature paper. “But I think we should be much more vigilant about maintaining productivity” as more farmers start using cover crops.

Other projects aim to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of beef and dairy herds by more carefully managing how these animals graze pastures, so their manure can feed perennial grasses and other plants whose roots pull carbon deep into the soil. But grass-fed cows can also emit significantly more methane over their lifetimes than those that spend more of their lives in feedlots. Some projects plan to feed cows experimental additives that could reduce those methane emissions.

Measuring and modeling nitrous oxide emissions accurately is also notoriously difficult. And practices thought to reduce such emissions — like applying some fertilizer in the spring, just before planting, rather than applying all fertilizer in the fall — sometimes backfire. In fact, few long-term assessments of any climate-smart practices have been conducted on working farms, says Novick, making it hard to tailor practices to particular soil types, climates, and situations.

“It doesn’t appear that funding decisions from this program were necessarily made in a way that maximizes climate mitigation,” says Novick, who led a team that last fall authored a report on how science can inform nature-based climate solutions. “Ideally we would have first invested in the data tools necessary to understand when and where a practice is likely to succeed as a climate solution.”

There’s also the question of how to measure the program’s benefits. Funded groups are required to take measurements that will allow the USDA to assess the impacts of the practices farmers are implementing. But the agency is also relying heavily on a computer model that was designed to estimate greenhouse gases for planning large-scale projects and that cannot accurately quantify emissions and carbon capture from individual farms, notes Jon Sanderman, a soil scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Bill Hohenstein, director of the USDA’s Office of Energy and Environmental Policy, acknowledges that the science behind climate-smart agriculture remains a work in progress. But he says it’s mature enough to take action. “We could wait a decade and probably understand these benefits better,” Hohenstein says. “But our view is that we would end up with generally the same recommendations.”

In addition to the technical challenges of measuring carbon and greenhouse gas changes, the Climate-Smart program will have to get farmers to stick with new practices after payments have ended. Officials say that payments to cover the startup costs for enrolled farmers are essential. “If this stuff was free, folks would already be doing it,” Bonnie says. But once they’ve bought equipment like seed drills for no-till planting and climbed the learning curve, he and Hohenstein say, reduced input costs, yield increases resulting from healthier soils, and premiums for climate-smart products will start to pay for themselves.

Many experts view such projections as overly optimistic. Hanna Poffenbarger, a soil scientist at the University of Kentucky, says it may take a decade for cover crop benefits, such as reduced need for fertilizer and increased soil organic matter, to translate into profits. That aligns with the experience of early adopters like Trey Hill, a farmer in Maryland who says that even after planting cover crops for more than 20 years, he’s still seeing yield losses in some of his corn fields and an unclear impact on his bottom line. “When you talk about improving soils,” he says, “we’re talking about a 10-year commitment before you would really even see anything significant.”

Details on the projects themselves have been slow to emerge. Though the projects receiving the bulk of the funding were announced last September, the USDA has so far shared fewer than a quarter of the signed agreements on its website. For the remaining projects, the department has published scant information. For example, a $61-million project led by the agribusiness giant Tyson to create and market “climate-smart beef” comes with only a two-sentence description that does not explain what practices will make beef climate smart. In response to an interview request, a Tyson representative linked to a blog post lacking substantive information on how the company’s claims will be verified.

The vagueness troubles observers like Goswami, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who says that without clear standards, companies will define “climate smart” in different ways, potentially confusing customers. “If Tyson comes in and says farms and ranches who we’re buying cows from have implemented X amount of cover cropping, does that make their beef climate smart?” she asks.

Even people who received funding fear that the program could overwhelm or confuse farmers who are suddenly inundated with competing climate-smart offers. “In Iowa alone, there are 17 different climate-smart projects” that will be recruiting farmers, Kiel notes. At the same time, another branch of the USDA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been tasked with disbursing nearly $20 billion injected by the Inflation Reduction Act into farm programs, including ones that pay farmers to grow cover crops or set aside land for conservation. Private-sector carbon markets are also courting farmers. And many of these initiatives require that farmers not take money from competing programs, to avoid double counting of climate benefits. “There’s going to be farmer confusion,” Kiel says. “It’s unfortunate, but at least there’s going to be lots of choices.”

Secchi, meanwhile, questions why some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in industrial agriculture are receiving additional federal money. She would have instead liked to see the government insist that growers already receiving government subsidies through other programs do more to reduce their climate impact. “Why can’t we ask farmers who are getting crop insurance subsidies to plant cover crops at zero extra cost for the taxpayer?” Secchi asks. She’d also like to see more of the funds directed toward minority, Indigenous, and other disadvantaged farmers.

Bonnie, the USDA undersecretary, responds that catalyzing large-scale change requires working with companies big enough to reach thousands of growers farming millions of acres. Building a program that will create new markets rather than new regulations and policies, he adds, insulates climate-smart agriculture from future Congresses and administrations that may be less climate friendly.

One thing is certain: As the government looks to steer the ocean liner that is American farming in a direction that’s climate friendlier yet still highly profitable, a lot of eyes — both hopeful and skeptical — will be watching closely.

This article was produced in collaboration with Yale Environment 360. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact

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Supreme Court affirms ICWA

The Supreme Court handed down a major decision Thursday in the Haaland v. Brackeen case, affirming the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act by a 7-2 vote.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were the lone justices to dissent.

The decision represents a major victory for federal Indian law and tribes across the nation.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1978 and its purpose is “”…to protect the best interest of Indian Children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture…,” the Bureau of Indian Affairs website states.

For years, tribal leaders and Native organizations have long seen ICWA as the “gold standard” for child welfare.

Oral arguments on the landmark case took place in November. Indigenous people from around the country traveled to Washington, D.C. for the hearing.

Kimberly Jump-CrazyBear, Osage and Oglala Lakota, was one of many who showed up to show support for the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“I’m just here on behalf of all of you who can’t be here today. To help lend my voice,” she told ICT before the oral arguments for Haaland v. Brackeen began. “Without our children, we don’t have a people anymore.”

Tribes, Native organizations, advocates and allies cheered for the decision reposting sentiments like “tribal sovereignty wins” or “ICWA stands!” 

This is a breaking story, check back to Buffalo’s Fire for updates.

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