Farmers Tell FTC Chair to Block Koch Industries’ $3.6 Billion Acquisition of Iowa Fertilizer Plant

Farmers Tell FTC Chair to Block Koch Industries’ .6 Billion Acquisition of Iowa Fertilizer Plant

On Saturday, April 20, U.S. Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan attended a listening session on the pending $3.6 billion acquisition of an Iowa fertilizer plant by Koch Industries, as leaders from the Iowa Farmers Union, the National Farmers Union and State Innovation Exchange joined more than 100 farmers urging the FTC to block the sale.

The fertilizer plant, which opened in 2017 near Wever, Iowa, in the state’s southeast corner on the Mississippi River, received nearly $550 million in local, state and federal tax incentives to encourage its construction in the state and increase competition in the fertilizer market. Four companies, including Koch Industries, already control 75% of the U.S. nitrogen-based fertilizer market. Farmers are especially concerned about what the acquisition could mean for their fertilizer prices. In a 2023 U.S. Department of Agriculture public comment solicitation about fertilizer access, roughly nine in ten commenters described their concerns about high fertilizer prices and more than seven in ten expressed concerns about the power of fertilizer companies.

The proposed sale between Koch Ag & Energy Solutions, a Koch Industries company, and the Netherlands-based Orascom Constructions Industries (OCI), which owns the Iowa fertilizer plant, would likely only accelerate consolidation in the industry. The Iowa plant produces 3.5 million metric tons of nitrogen fertilizer annually, about 18% of the current national output. Moreover, the proposed sale comes at a time when production in the U.S. nitrogen fertilizer industry is expected to increase by over 50% in the coming years, driven largely by cheap domestic natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing and the war in Ukraine, which has triggered natural gas sanctions on Russia, the world’s leading exporter of nitrogen fertilizer.

Despite temperatures hovering just below freezing, more than 100 farmers from Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa showed up Saturday morning in Nevada, Iowa, to voice their concerns. National Farmers Union President Rob Larew, Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman and Democratic Iowa state Reps. J.D. Scholten, Megan Srinivas and Eleanor Levin were seated at a panel near the front of the room.

The event began with opening remarks by the panelists, including Scholten, Srinivas and Levin, who had been in Des Moines until almost 4:30 a.m. wrapping up the 2024 legislative session. The three representatives were among the 30 Iowa House Democrats who sent letters earlier this year to the FTC, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, asking them to investigate the sale.

In his opening remarks, NFU President Rob Larew spoke to the concentration of the marketplace, calling capitalism without competition “exploitation.”

“We call it fairness for farmers but it’s also about fairness for consumers and really making sure that our communities can be lifted up in the way that they should be,” he said. “We’re not talking about asking for special spaces for farmers or for the markets. We’re looking for intervention in the market. What we know to be true is that when markets become too concentrated, we know that there is action manipulation, price fixing, et cetera. And that’s what this is all about.”

Khan began her remarks discussing her initial foray into antitrust work as a business journalist, where she investigated how competition in the market was working—or not working—for chicken farmers.

Since Khan’s appointment as chair of the FTC in 2021, she has helped redefine antitrust enforcement under the Biden administration. Last year, the agency succeeded in blocking several healthcare mergers and filed a high-profile lawsuit against Amazon, alleging the company engaged in monopolistic practices to unlawfully stifle competition. In March, the FTC sued to block Kroger’s $24.6 billion acquisition of its rival grocer Albertsons, the largest-ever proposed merger in the grocery market.

Public comment began with IFU President Aaron Lehman reading a letter from a union member who wrote-in anonymously due to fear of retaliation. The farmer wrote that although from 2021-2023 there was an increase in commodity prices, fertilizer prices rose, too. The letter writer requested an investigation into “possible market manipulation” of essential fertilizer inputs.

Farmers at the event echoed these concerns.

Iowa Farmers Union president Aaron Lehman reads a letter from a union member during public comment at a listening session with FTC chair Lina Khan at the Gatherings event venue in Nevada, Iowa, on April 20, 2024. The letter writer requested an investigation into “possible market manipulation” following Koch Industries’ December announcement that it would purchase the Iowa Fertilizer Co. (Kendra Kimbirauskas, State Innovation Exchange)

LaVon Griffieon is a fourth-generation family farmer who owns about 1,100 acres of land. With a stack of papers in hand, some bills and her own research, she began naming the big players who she “has to deal with”: Cargill, Bayer, John Deere, Syngenta, DuPont.

“Every time crop prices go up, their prices go up. We recently bought new tractor tires for our tractor and it cost us $20,000, which is what my parents paid for 80 acres in 1964.” She became emotional as she described the precarious future for her sons, the fifth-generation of family farmers. “We have the land to get our sons started farming, but we really can’t provide them with much else.”

Farmer John Gilbert asked Khan to look at the bigger picture of what’s happening in Iowa, where two commodity crops, corn and soybeans, dominate the landscape. Iowa is the nation’s largest corn producer and the second-largest soybean grower.

“I’m not going to be unkind when I say that Iowa agriculture is addicted to nitrogen. Right now, Iowa has the fastest growing rates of cancer in the country. Right now, over 700 of Iowa’s waterways are on the impaired list,” Gilbert said. “We’re having such influence from the commodity cartels and the agribusiness cabals that everybody thinks that’s all we can do, is raise corn and beans.”

Derek England, a row crop and small dairy farmer who travelled from Edina, Missouri, sourced fertilizer from the current Iowa plant that might be acquired by Koch Industries. When the plant opened, England said it had a “moderating effect on the price [of fertilizer].”

“Koch has always been the highest price [anhydrous ammonia] in our sourcing area. So this was rather worrisome when this came up, because we’re thinking, if Koch is pricing their anhydrous [highly] here, what is that plant going to be charging once Koch owns it?”

Harold Beach, a farmer who also came up from Missouri, told Khan that he would like her to be “fearless and courageous, and be a Teddy Roosevelt.” He likened her to a “referee in the ball game,” who has the ability to “call balls and strikes.”

Khan jumped in to clarify how the process will work. When an acquisition is proposed, if the FTC investigates, a company cannot go through with the sale until the investigation is concluded. She added that if the FTC determines the sale violates antitrust laws, they will file a lawsuit, but ultimately the court will be the “decision-maker.”

While Khan did not take a distinct stance on the pending sale, she noted that “if there ends up being a lawsuit,” farmers should consider “weighing in directly with the courts” as well.

In an announcement on December 18, 2023, OCI Executive Chairman Nassef Sawiris commented that the sale marked “an evolutionary step in our journey to create value for shareholders, and to enhance our focus on efforts in lower carbon initiatives.” That same day, Koch Ag & Energy Solutions president Mark Luetters announced that the purchase was “an important step forward for KAES,” as they further invest in fertilizer. They have not released any statements regarding the potential FTC investigation.

David Weaver farms 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans just northwest of Des Moines. He spoke to the strength of democracy and capitalism in the United States, but is worried about its fragility, especially as it relates to smaller farmers being able to speak up.

“When you’re a little guy you don’t want to talk,” he said. “I’m a farmer of a large enough operation. And I love this. I can tell someone to go pound sand whenever I want.”

The final commenter, farmer Tony Thompson from Elkhart, Iowa, became emotional when he began discussing his earliest memories of being in the tractor or the combine with his dad, 40 years earlier. He urged Khan to “connect the dots” between industry consolidation and farmers’ struggle to make ends meet.

Khan wrapped up the event by thanking farmers for speaking out, especially given potential retaliation. In an interview with Barn Raiser, Lehman explained that potential retaliation could look like suppliers asking certain farmers to pay higher prices than others if they do not agree with their stance. Additionally, fertilizer suppliers tend to live in the same, tight-knit communities as farmers, and being outspoken on issues can be socially isolating.

“To be honest,” Lehman said, “we know there are some big players in the ag industry who have said you won’t be offered a contract at all next time.”

However, Saturday’s event proved that farmers have allies throughout the Midwest on this issue, and may even find an ally in the FTC.

“It has been such a priority for me at the FTC to ensure that our decisions are informed not just by models and economist’s assumptions about what’s going to happen, but actually by real people’s stories,” Khan said. “I’m just really looking forward to our continued engagement.”

The post Farmers Tell FTC Chair to Block Koch Industries’ $3.6 Billion Acquisition of Iowa Fertilizer Plant appeared first on Barn Raiser.

Electrifying Democracy in Rural America

This is the sixth installment of Barn Raiser’s 2024 election coverage series “Charting a Path of Rural Progress,” which features interviews with rural policy experts and organizers who came together in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2023 to forge a rural policy platform on which candidates can run—and to which voters can hold their elected leaders accountable. The platform that grew out of that Omaha meeting, A Roadmap for Rural Progress: 2023 Rural Policy Action Report, released last October, details 27 legislative priorities for rural and small town America, based on legislation that has already been introduced in Congress.

Erik Hatlestad, 33, works on rural energy issues with the Minnesota nonprofit CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) as their Energy Democracy Program Director. Founded in 1992, CURE describes itself as a rural-focused environmental group “rooted in the movement for rural social justice.” The group’s 12 employees are scattered in small towns across the state.

Hatlestad is currently on a six-month stint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) as a Clean Energy Benefits Advisor, where he leads the Empowering Rural America (New ERA) program, a historic investment in rural electrification that is based, in part, on Hatlestad’s 2019 report, “Rural Electrification 2.0: The Transition to a Clean Energy Economy,” which outlines the role of rural electric cooperatives in the transition to clean energy in rural America.

Hatlestad, grew up with two brothers on a small family farm, growing corn and soybeans, about 10 miles from New London, Minnesota (population 1,252), in Kandiyohi County, where he now lives.

Erik Hatlestad holds the first dollar earned by the New London Food Co-op in New London, Minnesota.

How did you get into rural political activism?

I grew up shortly after the farm crisis of the 1970s and 80s, which shaped the hollowing out of rural communities that we’re still seeing today. We saw the end of several of our local farm cooperatives in New London and western Minnesota, because all of the members had been driven out of business.

Fighting for rural communities to regain control over their own future—a future that has been taken from them by exploitative markets and large agribusiness—is  personally important to me. And I like to continue that historic legacy of the agrarian movement from yesteryear.

I’m very, very committed to rural democracy and building democratic solutions for small towns. I’m involved with a number of community projects in New London I’ve helped run the community theater and cocktail bar, and just helped opened a food cooperative, which will be the first grocery store in our town for the last 15 years. I serve on a lot of different boards and am very involved with Farmers Union and was until recently on the board of the city council.

How does the Rural Policy Action Report address the challenges rural America faces?

The biggest problem is that rural America has faced underinvestment and disinvestment for so long.

In previous decades, we had strong rural social movements that fought for these big investments, like the original Rural Electrification Act and the New Deal, and all of these incredible programs that helped make rural America what it is—or what people like to think they remember it as. Those social movements and organizations were crushed during the 1980s farm crisis and as a part of deindustrialization, such as with NAFTA and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, and the right-wing attack on organized labor. As a result, rural social movements haven’t had the political strength to put forward the alternative solutions that were historically offered to rural people to win new investments in their communities.

What the Rural Democracy Initiative—the group that sponsored the Omaha summit out of which came the Rural Policy Action Report—has done is bring momentum back to rural social movements by offering an alternative to the disinvestment and the race to the bottom and what has been the essential hollowing out of rural communities.

The Rural Policy Action Summit was held in Omaha, Nebraska, which is where the Populist Party held its first convention back in 1892. Is that ancient history?

For all of us who are involved in creating a progressive future for rural America, there isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t think about these historic social movements and what they were able to accomplish in the same communities we live in today.

For those of us in rural Minnesota and the Dakotas, we love to think about the Nonpartisan League and the Farmer-Labor Party and how they transformed the states by gaining political power—creating state grain elevators, and in North Dakota, creating the country’s only state-owned bank. And the incredible progress that was made by farmer labor governors in Minnesota.

There’s a common thread among all of them, starting back with National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry beginning in 1867 and flowing into movements that would become the Populist Party [People’s Party] and the Progressive Party. We look to them as inspiration for what we’re doing today.

The co-operative movement was really born in Minnesota. The congressman (Andrew Volstead) who co-wrote the Capper Volstead Act, which legalized co-ops in 1922, was from Granite Falls, Minnesota. Some people call it the Magna Carta of cooperatives in the U.S. The first electric co-op in the country was the Stony Run Light and Power Company, which was just south of Granite Falls, near CURE’s offices. It’s a history that is barely outside of living memory, but it’s certainly something that we think about on a daily basis.

How would a transition to clean energy affect rural communities and the rural electrical cooperatives of which 42 million Americans are members of?

A few years ago, I was one of the authors of a white paper called Rural Electrification 2.0, where we took a look at the historic and systemic barriers holding up the clean energy transition in electric cooperatives and we made some of the policy recommendations in that report.

Erik Hatlestad gives a presentation at a brewery in New London, Minnesota, which is releasing Root Down, a hybrid ale wheat beer made with kernza, a type of perennial wheat.

Since then, we have been working to build support for an investment in rural electrification to clear the way for the clean energy transition, and part of that work has been through the Rural Policy Summit in Omaha and the resulting Rural Policy Action Report.

Many organizations, including National Farmers Union, Sierra Club and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association themselves have all come around to the concepts that we put forth in Rural Electrification 2.0. Reinvestment in rural electric co-ops was one of the key programs that the Biden administration listed in their rural investments portfolio when they took office. Our programs made it through every single edition of Build Back Better and were eventually passed in the Inflation Reduction Act and the implementation process has begun over the past year. Those programs are now known as Empowering Rural America, or New ERA, and the Powering Affordable Clean Energy Program, or PACE.

How accessible is the program? I heard that the application process can be a daunting for individual rural electric cooperatives.

There is an urgent need to get the program money out the door before potential cuts could be made to the program by Congress. The U.S. hasn’t done a major investment in rural electrification like this since the 1930s. So co-op staff and board members and the communities themselves aren’t accustomed to thinking as big as they’ve been given the opportunity to now. It has been problematic for rural utilities and rural communities to pursue federal grants at the same level as communities that are better resourced.

Having spent some time in small town government on city council myself, I understand how staff are already overworked and underpaid. It’s tough to ask people in similar positions, whether it’s an electric co-op or a small town team, to take on a robust federal grant making process.

So there are some challenges. But the response that co-ops gave to these programs is overwhelming. The programs have received over 140 applications from the 40 states, and there are about 900 rural electric co-ops, and they are only active in 46 states. But a number of these applications represent coalitions of co-ops or generation transmission co-ops applying on behalf of their distribution members. So we can credibly say that half of all co-ops in the country showed interest in this program.

You dated the start of the rural decline back to the farm crisis of the 1970s and 80s. Why do you date it back to then? Some people say it begins back with Earl Butz in the early 1970s when he was secretary of agriculture under Nixon and told farmers to “get big or get out.”

I would generally agree that it started with Butz and agribusiness companies and the fertilizer industry essentially concluding that the best way to protect their own profitability was to make sure that farms got bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s a historic arc similar to the attack on organized labor that happened over the last half of the 20th century, which you could summarize that as being a coordinated attack on the New Deal coalition by business interests and their political allies.

It started with Butz and the encouragement of bigger and bigger farms and culminated in the 1970s and 80s with the farm crisis, and dealt one of the finishing blows to the agricultural system of family farming, which had been a solid political block organized around the co-operative principles of the cooperative movement. You see similar kind of tropes play out with the deindustrialization in the Rust Belt, the consolidation of bigger businesses and the promotion of free trade.

Did you did your county vote for Donald Trump?

Oh, yes.

How do you think about bridging political divides within your county and rural America in general?

You don’t bridge some of those divides, you provide an alternative. For too long, people who would not call themselves Republicans have not had the ability to articulate any kind of alternative. Democrats have spent too long trying to say, “We’re just the same, we’re just not so scary.” That is part of the problem we face here: no one has provided an alternative.

People in rural communities feel—and I would certainly count a lot of Trump supporters in this as well—totally ignored. If I’m accustomed to, as a rural community, being ignored and being disinvested from, and I don’t have the kind of political institutions that used to exist, well, I’m just going to do the thing that makes the people who I know are making my life worse as mad as possible: I’m going to vote for the most insane person. I’m not going to be heard anyway, so why should I seriously participate in the process?

We need to provide an alternative that we can articulate that resonates with people. Like the Ohio referendum on abortion on November 7, for instance. Strong progress was made in a lot of rural communities in Ohio, thanks in part to organizers who were putting an alternative out there and actively talking to people.

It’s about helping rural people feel comfortable expressing the views that they have, because so many people in these places feel isolated. There’s certainly a social aspect to that, too, but it’s also a product of decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement. Attempts to rebuild those historic political institutions around progressive policy ideals are predicated on presenting such alternatives.

Why do you think the Democratic Party has for so many years failed in that?

A lot of people struggle with that question, and I do as well. There hasn’t been much political leadership in the party coming from rural parts of the country. In part, the party has been disconnected from these communities because the people who would participate in these movements have left rural areas.  And part of it is the acquiescence of some Democratic Party leaders to mirror their opposition and buy into the ideas of so-called free trade, which has accelerated the decline and disinvestment in rural communities.

A summary answer would be: the Democratic Party’s loss of soul, the loss of its identity as an institution.

The post Electrifying Democracy in Rural America appeared first on Barn Raiser.

Practicing an ‘Insurgent Politics of Care’ in Rural America

American and Mexican flags displayed in front of a commercial crab processing plant.

Thurka Sangaramoorthy initially wanted to be a medical doctor. Her family, including her parents, her sister and her mother’s eight siblings and their children, were the only Sri Lankan immigrants in their community in Rochester, New York. Growing up, she watched her parents face discrimination, particularly in healthcare, and often translated for them in institutional settings. Her journey into anthropology began during her time at Barnard College, when she signed up for a course called “Perceptions of the Alien,” which explored how immigrants are made to feel othered, or excluded, by society, both in the United States and around the world. “I thought it was about extraterrestrial life,” Sangaramoorthy says, laughing. “[But] it was essentially a class about my life.”

After earning her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, Sangaramoorthy completed postdoctoral research at the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Maryland, she recalls noticing how much of the department’s research on immigration was focused on urban environments like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., even though more than a quarter of Maryland’s residents, and a majority of its jurisdictions, are rural. As a result, she started doing fieldwork in 2013 in the Eastern Shore, a largely rural and conservative area east of Chesapeake Bay, which relies on immigrant labor, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, for its main industries: agriculture, poultry and seafood processing. 

That fieldwork became the basis of her 2023 book Landscapes of Care: Immigration and Health in Rural America (University of North Carolina Press), in which Sangaramoorthy examines the impact of global migration on underinvested rural healthcare systems in the U.S., and how the “exclusionary logics” of immigration policy have combined with corporatized models of care to worsen disparities in health outcomes and care delivery. By exploring the shared conditions of suffering among those who navigate these healthcare “landscapes,” Sangaramoorthy reveals the ways that immigrants and rural residents have developed alternate forms of solidarity and inclusion, and how healthcare policy might be reshaped in response. (Read an excerpt from the book here.)

Since 2022, Sangaramoorthy, now a professor of anthropology at American University, has been coordinating the response to the refugee crisis from Sudan and South Sudan with the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Barn Raiser spoke to Sangaramoorthy about the making of Landscapes of Care, the dynamics between citizen and immigrant residents on the Eastern Shore and how healthcare providers and immigrants adapt to the lack of rural health infrastructure in the region. 

In the preface to Landscapes of Care, you mention that you initially set out to learn about immigration to the Eastern Shore in Maryland, but that after speaking with people in the area, you started to focus on the connections between rural healthcare systems and immigrants. What sorts of things did you learn in your fieldwork early on that helped you see those connections?

I didn’t make the connection, I want to make that clear. It was being made for me. 

I knew that there were things that I didn’t understand, things that I needed to really pay attention to. And I think what I was seeing on the ground, for instance, in terms of rural health, was really the manifestation of something that occurred decades ago, especially in terms of market-driven changes in the 1990s. This was going on, and it’s still going on in other kinds of global spaces where I work, in terms of managed care principles, emphasis on corporate and business models, that really have structured health care in this country. But their effects, how this affected rural spaces, were very different because there are fewer possibilities for cutting costs and increasing profits in rural spaces, because these are also spaces in which there is a lot of economic decline. 

The consolidation of healthcare through a model of corporate efficiency has had a much more drastic and negative effect in rural spaces. We had a little taste of it during the Covid-19 pandemic when there was so much discussion about rural hospitals closing. And I think many people were shocked, but this had been going on for a long time. There have been drastic reductions in healthcare institutions like hospitals and clinics. There’s lowered Medicare reimbursements. There are fewer physicians—in the 10 years that I’ve worked in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I think I’ve interacted with literally only two physicians. Many of the people that I worked with were nurses and nurse practitioners or other types of providers.’

The ACA [Affordable Care Act], or what most people call Obamacare, which was passed in 2010, was designed to provide a lot of relief. But many people that I worked with, felt like it didn’t do very much for them. It increased the number of people that can have health insurance, but it didn’t do much in terms of providing the kind of spaces where people can access care. It didn’t get at the root of some of these issues.  

What I realized, and what people were trying to tell me, is that the kinds of vulnerabilities people have in rural spaces were very similar to the kinds of challenges that immigrants have as well. And it’s only compounded for immigrants because they have other types of needs and other kinds of vulnerabilities that [citizen] residents don’t have. There are a lot of people who are working in jobs that are really dangerous, and for low pay. They don’t have  many available clinics or hospitals. They don’t have a steady stream of healthcare professionals in their area. They have very limited access to care, and if they do, they have to go during workdays, and many people simply cannot afford the kind of costs that come even in  safety net programs to get treatment or to even be seen. 

Rural [citizens] in the Eastern Shore would say to me, “We understand what [immigrants] are going through, because we face it ourselves.” So it’s this kind of shared condition around vulnerability and security that really brings people together outside of these very formalized healthcare settings, in which very little care is actually there. 

Something that stuck out to me was the fact that there are forms of solidarity between citizens and immigrants that I think gets lost in national conversations about immigration and rural places.

It’s so complicated. There’s this shared sense of insecurity that is constant. And I think that’s what really kind of brings people together. I’m not saying there’s not racism or xenophobia. I’m not saying that people are on the same sort of political platform, but there’s care happening outside of what one might call healthcare. And that’s what I really wanted people to understand. I think this is what people were trying to tell me, is that this is how we’ve always existed. We’ve always had to know how to care for each other. We know how to get by. And if you’re going to understand immigration, you need to understand that. And I think sort of that was the message that I just didn’t understand, because I didn’t understand the context of what it’s like to live in “flyover country.”

In the book you talk about how, in the face of the abandonment of rural areas by businesses and state institutions, immigrants are seen as the solution, but they’re also blamed for the decline. How does that dynamic play out specifically in the Eastern Shore? 

I think this is so important because I think so much of our discussions around immigration are either about integration or feeling pushed out. I think it’s so much more complicated than that. There’s a huge tension, because immigrants are essentially keeping some of these industries alive where many people don’t care to work because the work is so difficult and pays so little. But these tend to be the only kinds of jobs that are available in rural areas. And so immigrants are there, doing this kind of work, keeping those kinds of rural economies going. 

These are spaces that are experiencing population decline in a real way. Many of their children want to leave or have left. So they appreciate people who can stay, and then there are more people around and more resources. Several people said to me, “I really appreciate the diversity. It was never like this when I was growing up. I’m so glad that my children have different kinds of friends, and they’re learning so much about a global world and the different kinds of people that are there.” But rural spaces are not necessarily experiencing a rebirth, so to speak. 

Oftentimes there is so much stress around the decline of these communities. Immigrants become an easy target to blame for deep-rooted causes that stem from the structural abandonment by state institutions and the federal government, taking away much of the social safety net. And so immigrants become the targets, or proxies for these issues. 

There’s also racial tension. Maryland was a slave holding state. You still have a lot of generations of African-Americans that have moved there, that have lived there for a very long time, that are from the area, who have been underpaid or unpaid for their labor. Now there’s competition that pits different groups against each other. So there’s also a dynamic where immigrants are seen as people who will undercut African Americans for lower paying jobs. So it’s really complicated. 

What industries on the Eastern Shore rely on immigrant labor? And what are the different demographics that make up that labor? 

Like many rural regions, when you think about immigrant labor, most people often think about farm work. There’s definitely that. Cotton and tobacco were the major economies historically in this region. Now it’s mainly fruits and vegetables. There’s a lot of tomatoes and other kinds of vegetables and fruits that are grown on the Eastern Shore. 

A watermelon harvest. (Thurka Sangaramoorthy)

The demographics are really varied here: Latin America, Mexico mainly. There’s also this long tradition of Haitian and other current-day Black immigrants [primarily from the Carribbean and other countries]. There used to be African-American migrant labor forces that traveled from Florida up through the East Coast. Haitians and other Black immigrants have largely replaced that labor force.  

Poultry is huge. There’s quite a bit of poultry processing on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and particularly in Delaware. It used to be a heavily African American labor force, but now it’s much more of a mix of people from Mexico and Latin America. But it’s predominantly Haitians that are working in poultry. 

Seafood processing, particularly crabbing, is unique to the Eastern Shore because of its location on the Chesapeake Bay. This is a labor force that was almost entirely poor African American women, who lived in this area. Now, it is almost entirely Mexican women on H-2B visas. 

On a national scale, often what gets focused on, in terms of immigration, comes down to one type of immigrant, namely undocumented immigrants. It’s interesting how so many other types of immigration interact with rural spaces, and how the dynamics of it are way more complicated. 

It’s important to me to highlight what is happening in rural spaces, because the growth [of immigration] in rural areas is really drastic. We tend to think of immigrants as somewhat placeless, in a sense. One thing that I really want to highlight is that immigrants have always had so much influence over geography and placemaking. They’re not placeless people. They actually have an impact on the very places in which they are living, even if they’re mobile. 

I think this comes out of my own sense of being a brown immigrant, but also from my entry into immigration research, which was really through Black immigrants. And that is so different. And I think in some ways, researchers and academics haven’t done much better than policymakers by rendering immigrants into one particular kind of experience.  We’re also to blame. So much of the conversation is about legality and whether you’re legally supposed to be here or not, which is only one way of understanding it. 

It really flattens our understanding of how different things are on the ground and how many variations there are. People’s experiences are not just about legality. For Black immigrants, legality is important. But being racialized  so profoundly shapes how they experience their life in the U.S. And it is something that I think we forget because of this archetype of an immigrant as undocumented and Mexican. And as a result, our policies are about making that the very thing the state responds to. I don’t agree with that. We have to understand that there are different dynamics at play, that legality is not the only way to understand the experience of immigrating to this country. 

Near the end of the book, you talk about how both medical providers and immigrants adopt an “insurgent politics of care” to adapt to the lack of available healthcare infrastructure. Could you unpack that term a bit? What are the ways that a “politics of care” manifests itself? 

What I’ve been trying to explain is the informal way that rural healthcare works. For instance, on the Eastern Shore, it’s literally a few people that are holding up any sort of semblance of what we call a safety net. It’s not even really a net. It’s just people who are doing this work and do it in various ways. 

There’s this unbearable but very common way that healthcare works, which is a transactional relationship. You go in, you have insurance, you pay—it’s monetary, it’s corporatized, in that sense. There’s this rendering of what your risks are, what the insurance will pay for, etc. 

But in rural spaces, care often cannot get doled out this way. Otherwise, no one would get care, or very few people would get care unless they had a serious emergency. 

This is why the book is called Landscapes of Care because it’s really a varied sort of space, haphazard and much of it informal. 

For instance, bartering. I’ll use that as a prime example. Bartering happens all the time in these spaces. I had a provider who, when people couldn’t pay, they would come with some of their harvest, they were too proud not to pay. They were not only farmers, but also immigrants who were farmworkers, who were paying with watermelon or other kinds of produce for their care, as a way of thanking the provider. The same provider, this was like in different cycles, they would have crab because it was a fisherman or watermen who couldn’t really pay either the co-pay or the cost of treatment. So like, these are the ways that people manage. 

And I think in some ways it’s pushing back against how corporatized our healthcare system has become. It doesn’t work for a vast majority of people. And I think this shows us how you can care for people outside of these formalized environments, because that is essentially how people are caring for each other all over this country. 

But this is how people are getting by. Because there’s no one else to take care of them, right? There isn’t. And so this is how people are taking care of themselves. And to me, that’s really powerful. 

Read an excerpt of the book here.

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GRAPHIC: Ports in New Orleans and the Northwest account for most agricultural export traffic

Around 20% of U.S. agriculture products are exported to other countries, making the nation’s seaports a critical part of the crop and meat industries.

Soybeans and grain are the most significant agricultural exports at more than 58 million tons combined, according to the USDA’s “U.S. Agricultural Port Profiles” report from 2023.

Meat, mainly pork, accounts for 3.6 million tons and has been an increasing export over the past few decades.

The New Orleans Port Region, which includes multiple ports along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, funnels 35% of all U.S. agricultural exports, more crops and meat than any other port.

The Northwest accounts for more than 20% of exports, but that’s a combination of four ports near Seattle and Portland, including the Port of Kamala in Washington state, which is the second largest port for agricultural exports.

Much of the nation’s agricultural exports head to Asia, with China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan accounting for the top four country destinations. Growing pork exports to Asian markets has also increased traffic through ports along the West Coast.

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How Illinois Is Bringing Grocery Stores Back to Main Street

Until recently, if you drove down the main street in Cairo, Illinois, a majority Black community at the southernmost point of the state, you wouldn’t have been able to find a grocery store.

Like many once-booming Mississippi River towns, Cairo’s vanished grocery stores have been part of a harrowing trend of decline.

For decades, Cairo—wedged between the Missouri and Kentucky border at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers—has struggled to grow its local economy and population. One hundred years ago, Cairo boasted more than 15,000 citizens; today, its population has shrunk below 1,700. Median household income hovers just above $30,000, with about 24% of residents living in poverty—more than double the average in Illinois. Cairo doesn’t even have a gas station. Town residents have felt its lack of a grocery store more acutely, often having to cross state lines to get the most basic supplies.

But recently that trend has begun to change. Last summer, Rise Community Market opened its doors in Cairo, marking the first time in more than eight years town residents could go to a local grocery store. It was the result of more than two years of hard work and planning by community organizers, city officials and public service agencies. One reason behind their success: the grocery store’s model.

In 2021, Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton connected Cairo Mayor Thomas Simpson with a team at Western Illinois University about opening a community-owned cooperative grocery store right off Cairo’s main street. Sean Park is the program manager of the Value-Added Sustainable Development Center (VASDC), a unit of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. “That particular area had been beat down so much,” says Park, who has more than a decade of experience owning and operating an independent grocery store, as well as a background in rural development. Working with the Institute, Park has found unlikely success in rejuvenating small town businesses like grocery stores in a time when they face persistent distress.

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, center, cuts the ribbon at Rise Community Market’s opening ceremony.

Cairo’s situation may be unique, but it’s not unusual in losing its grocery store. Limited or no access to food tends to be thought of as an urban phenomenon, but it affects rural communities just as much. Seventy-six counties nationwide don’t have a single grocery store—and 34 of those counties are in the Midwest and Great Plains. According to a 2021 Illinois Department of Public Health report and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas, 3.3 million Illinois residents live in food deserts. (The USDA defines a rural food desert as any low-income community where the nearest grocery store is 10 or more miles away). To combat this growing reality, in August 2023, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed into law the Illinois Grocery Initiative, a first-of-its-kind $20 million program that will provide capital, technical assistance and a range of services to open or expand grocery stores in underserved and low-income neighborhoods across the state.

Even before Illinois’ new initiative, rural and small town communities in Illinois like Mount Pulaski, Farmer City and Carlinville have been working with VASDC, organizing their communities to pave the way for cooperatively owned, community-based grocers. Cooperative grocery stores were once perceived as the stuff of elite, granola-munching college towns and coastal enclaves. But today’s co-op advocates emphasize the power of cooperative ownership structures to provide local, democratic control of a community’s essential needs. While the economies of mass-scale production and logistics that sustain and supply traditional chain store or conglomerate grocers like Walmart and Dollar General are often deemed “efficient,” the Covid-19 pandemic revealed their underlying fragility and susceptibility to supply chain disruption.

It’s estimated that Walmart now sells just over a quarter of all groceries in the United States. In his forthcoming book, Barons: Money, Power and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, antitrust expert Austin Frerick writes that the gutting of New Deal-era price floor regulations has allowed companies like Walmart to amass a level of dominance not seen in U.S. history. To do so, he writes, Walmart “demands that a supplier decrease the price or improve the quality of an item each year,” in addition to giving Walmart delivery priority.

In contrast, local, cooperative ownership helps guarantee that decision making about how a store is run and what it stocks are based on the community benefit. The items on the shelves of co-ops like Cairo’s Rise Community Market aren’t the stuff of Whole Foods, but these stores help bring needed items close to the community, like fresh produce and meat, which tend to be sourced from farmers and producers nearby. Robert Edwards, Rise Community Market’s store manager, says that local stores may not be able to match the extensive inventory and cost a little more than the Walmarts of the world, but “what you get for those few extra cents you spend is the ability to help those in your community” by ensuring that  goods are available “for those in your community who lack the ability to travel for them.” 

Interest in bringing community-owned stores to rural America isn’t limited to Illinois. Across the country, communities are experimenting with new ways to address the disappearance of rural and small town grocery stores. The Institute for Self-Reliance has detailed examples of innovative models in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, including self-service grocers, rural grocery delivery and nonprofit grocers. Food cooperative programs are now active at state universities in Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and elsewhere, and in recent years rural cooperative development centers have been active in almost all 50 states.

“Cooperative development is once again ascendant,” says Stacey Sutton, director of the Solidarity Economy Research, Policy and Law Project and associate professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois Chicago. “And it’s rising in areas that have not seen sufficient support in the past.”

Even though agricultural cooperatives, or farmers’ co-ops, have long been a cornerstone in rural communities, Sutton explains that there has been a significant gap in cooperative development for other types of collectively owned, democratically managed enterprises. Part of this is due to the influence of institutions like the USDA and land grant universities in rural communities, which have traditionally invested their resources in agricultural cooperatives, pooling resources around commodity crop and livestock production. “What’s missing is exactly what’s happening at Western Illinois, in terms of supporting other types of cooperatives, such as food cooperatives, which are essential in disinvested communities,” says Sutton.

One of the major challenges facing cooperative development in rural communities is access to technical services, or the process of providing specialized know-how and business acumen to help communities plan and build capacity for creating models of collective ownership. This is where the VASDC team comes in.

Unlike chain grocers or corporate juggernauts that take a one-size-fits-all approach, VASDC’s methods are more artisanal, tailored to the specific needs of developing a sustainable community-owned grocer. “The financial calculations of a full business plan require everything down to the floor plan,” Park says. “If we change the floor plan and some of the refrigeration section, it’s going to change your utility bill and the amount that you sell in each department. From there it’s going to change the profit margin in both those departments.”

Facing stiff competition discount stores like Walmart means that a cooperative’s success is totally dependent on community buy-in and organizing. For many communities, there’s an educational component to VASDC’s consulting. The kind of ongoing, sustainable collective action and community organizing required to keep a cooperative vibrant, coupled with learning and navigating the practice of democratic ownership, can be taxing and messy. Cooperatives often require more than just showing up to vote. It can take anywhere from six months to seven years to build a cooperative grocery, and it may not always work the first time.

Park says it can also be a hurdle to inform residents that cooperative grocers are open to non-members for shopping and that member-ownership is more about investing in a store’s sustainability than earning Costco-like membership privileges. On the flip side, member-owners who are unfamiliar with cooperative concepts sometimes expect Gordon Gecko-like returns on their investment. That’s just not possible in an industry where profits can be razor thin or in a cooperative where profits are typically reinvested in the store. Yet, Park says that for the communities he serves, the process is often worth it. “When you can guide them from concept to that opening day, that’s really rewarding.”

In the 12 years that Park has led VASDC, he has helped countless rural communities throughout Illinois and the Midwest develop community ownership models for grocery stores. Edwards, the manager of the Cairo co-op, credits Park’s successes to his previous work owning and managing a grocery store. “I find solace in knowing that he understands the hurdles of managerial responsibilities and the stress this can bring.” Park’s advice, he says, has been “invaluable in helping me navigate challenges,” and was vital to him in making a smooth transition into the manager role when he started in January 2023, six months before the opening. “Sean is unafraid of telling you when you’re making a mistake or that an idea is ridiculous,” Edwards says, “Knowing that you have a partner like that instills trust and that makes it easier to turn to him when you find yourself in doubt.”  

This coming year will be the first of what Park describes as the “2.0” version of the center, with the addition of two new staff members, Kristin Terry and Whitney Miller, timed to address the expected interest generated by the Illinois Grocery Initiative. The additional staff will increase the center’s capacity to provide holistic solutions to tackle the challenges that affect grocers, small producers and growers, and rural communities across the state.

Given the demands on their time, the center’s staff is pragmatic. Terry, who previously worked in economic development for Macomb, Illinois, says that if you’re within 10 or 15 miles of a Walmart or the new iteration of dollar stores that sell groceries, a community cooperative will not be viable, because too many people will still opt for the superstore. In this respect, structurally it’s a Walmart economy, Terry says, and residents are stuck living in it.

Miller will work at shifting power in the rural food production landscape. She’ll be working to organize small producers and suppliers who often face a multitude of challenges trying to bring their products to market and deliver them to consumers. These steps—from grazing animal to the consumer gazing at the shelf—comprise the value chain, which for a long time has been geared toward supporting agribusiness giants, not individual farmers.

While the speed with which Rise Community Market developed is a testament to Park’s work and the efforts of community organizers, the cooperative has faced some setbacks. A set of brand-new cooler cases malfunctioned and a walk-in cooler broke down overnight, leading to product loss and a decline in revenue. However, a USDA grant in combination with community backing and a GoFundMe campaign have helped address such setbacks.

“Fortunately, we have a community that believes in this project and wants to support the store regardless of the struggles we’ve faced,” Edwards says. As volunteer and community-owner support continue to grow, Edwards and the co-op members are optimistic that their store will be able to meet its fundraising and revenue goals. “The most important part of building a community-owned store is getting long-term community buy-in. It doesn’t end with the grand opening,” Edwards says. “You have to be committed to a long-term project.”

That appears to be true on the consulting side, as well. Recently, Park and the VASDC team held a meeting in a community that Park had visited a few years ago and had only found one person interested in the idea of building a cooperative grocer. This time, they found 10.

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The Organizers Forging a Rural Action Plan for 2024

Barn Raiser kicks off its 2024 election coverage with a series of interviews with rural policy experts and organizers who came together to forge a rural policy platform on which candidates can run—and to which voters can hold their elected leaders accountable.

In April 2023, more than 50 strategists, researchers, organizers and elected officials descended on the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, for the second-ever Rural Policy Action Summit. Their mission: to draft a rural policy platform that would shape the national discussion around rural priorities in 2024 and beyond.

“For too long, rural America has been miscategorized as a conservative monolith that is averse to progressive solutions to local problems and afraid of big ideas,” said Kellon Patey during the summit. Patey is the Rural Strategies Lead Organizer at People’s Action Institute, the sister organization of People’s Action, a network of independent grassroots organizations spanning 30 states. “In reality,” he said, “rural people of every creed and color are hungry for policies that rein in corporate power, support working people, protect our democracy, take on systemic injustices and ensure people’s freedoms to make decisions about their bodies.”

The platform that grew out of that summit, A Roadmap for Rural Progress: 2023 Rural Policy Action Report, released last October, details 27 legislative priorities for rural and small town America, based on legislation that has already been introduced in Congress. At a November briefing, Sarah Jaynes, executive director at Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI), which convened the summit, said that she hoped that the report would “shape the discussion about rural priorities throughout this upcoming [2024] election cycle and into governing.” (RDI supports the work of 150 rural-focused nonprofits in more than 20 states, including Barn Raiser.)

In the coming months, Barn Raiser will bring readers inside this conversation, interviewing the key players and examining their plans to advance a national platform of rural priorities, from organizing and into governing. Beyond shepherding the passage of much needed legislation, the coalition that came together is a testament to profound shifts in rural America—changes that stand to alter the face our nation, and our democracy. Together, their voices, in tension and union, offer a call to action and a message of warning: Rural America demands to be heard. But who will respond?

In this first installment, here is what several of the organizers who helped create the Rural Policy Action Report had to say about the significance of their project. In coming weeks, these organizers and the others Barn Raiser spoke with will discuss how they plan to advance the agenda laid out in the Action Report and make it part of the national conversation.

“Braiding people together across issues and across geographies”

Michael Chameides is the Rural Democracy Initiative’s communications director and represents Hudson’s 3rd Ward at the Columbia County (New York) Board of Supervisors. He lives in Hudson, New York.

What is RDI trying to do with the Rural Policy Action Report?

The Rural Policy Action Report identifies the challenges that we see in rural communities across the country. It provides tangible legislative and executive actions that are both popular and winnable in the next couple of years and could address those problems.

The action report is a toolkit for grassroots organizers to engage on federal policies and mobilize people. When we’re talking to decision makers we have a menu of priorities that we’re fighting for. If someone is interested in an issue, they can look up key policies that are in play right now, and why they matter. Organizations are using the report to educate their members about rural issues, to reach out to other organizations working in similar spaces and to bring them on board. In this way, we’re bringing people together across issues and across geographies, and the Action Report is a summation of our priorities.

Why have most of these policy solutions been missing from legislative agendas in both the Democratic and Republican Parties?

It’s about power. Power is how you get your agenda done. We traditionally haven’t empowered people in rural communities to demand what they need and so it hasn’t happened yet.

We need to make sure that rural leadership has a seat at the table and can define what the challenges are and advocate for the solutions.

The 2023 Rural Policy Action Report circulates at the National Convening of Local Progress in St. Louis. Shown here are, from right, Sherri Jones, Florence (Arizona) Unified School District and Rural Arizona Engagement; Michael Chameides, Rural Democracy Initiative; Kara Sheehan, Local Progress; and Jaime Kinder, the mayor of Meadville, Pennsylvania.

On issues where there is broader appeal, it’s about understanding what the issue looks like through a rural lens. You go anywhere in the country and people talk about housing and healthcare, but the specific challenges of a rural community are different and therefore the specific solutions are different as well. For example, the lack of hospitals is particularly relevant in rural areas because the distance to the closest hospital could be miles away, and the abject risk of hospital closure is going to be different than for an urban community. The same for affordable housing. Housing is an issue across the country, yet in rural areas there is a need for smaller scale affordable housing solutions that can accommodate the lack of municipal sewer and water systems.

How do you see the Action Report being used in 2024?

It is a blueprint for what the policy debate should be and what the political solutions should be.

People should hold elected officials accountable. The report’s pillars frame the questions to ask elected officials and candidates: “How are you going to make sure that we all have the freedom to work and live safely? That workers and small businesses are empowered and that we’re not overrun by giant corporations? And, specifically, what’s your stance on the legislative proposals in the report?”

The Action Report supports small businesses and opposes agricultural monopolies. How will this resonate with folks in rural America?

It is about leveling the playing field and putting people first. People want corporations to be reined in.

We can’t give away our decision making power to corporations. Left unchecked, they have decision making power over where the jobs are, how much we have to pay for things, which products are available and whether a small business can survive or not.

Moneyed interests have a lot of entrenched power, but it’s a big fight that we need to take on.

“Change the dominant narrative”

Kendra Kimbirauskas is the director of the Agriculture and Food Systems at State Innovation Exchange, a nonprofit that works with state legislators to pass progressive model legislation. Each year the organization publishes the annual Blueprint for Rural Policy Action in the States. Kimirauskas grew up on a Michigan dairy farm, and now farms with her husband on 70 acres near Scio, a town of 961 in Lin County, Oregon.

How do you see the Rural Policy Action Report and the Blueprint for Rural Policy Action in the States being used in rural America?

By and large, our rural communities are seen as—and I speak for myself, I’m a rural person—people who are stereotypically white. We are stereotypically conservative. And, more recently, we are described as “deplorables.”

Our communities are places that can be sacrificed, where we can put concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), we can put dumps, we can put mines.

Both the Action Report and the Blueprint for Rural Policy try to push back and negate that assumption.

Rural people want the same things that everybody else does. We might think about it differently. We might talk about it differently. But at the end of the day, we want healthy communities to raise our families in, we want good work and we want better paying jobs so that we can put our kids through school. We want to be able to support our communities. We want to be able to have clean water. We want to be able to access good, healthy food. And these are the same things that urban people want.

These reports are putting a vision forward of what rural places can be like. They help to change the dominant narrative that rural communities don’t matter.

Progressives have unfortunately ceded the conversation in many of these places to conservative-minded people. These are the communities where white supremacists are organizing. A lot of the really horrific social bills that we’re seeing—like the anti-trans bills and some of the anti-abortion bills—is because progressive organizing is not happening in rural places and it’s largely happening in urban places. If progressives aren’t in these places putting forward a different vision, we’re going to see more of those very divisive social policies continue to raise their heads.

Kendra Kimbirauskas, the director of the Agriculture and Food Systems at State Innovation Exchange, milks one of her cows in Lin County, Oregon.

Here in Oregon, in my rural area, I have the pleasure of having a very strong community of people with whom I do not share the same political ideology. And yet we are able to have tough conversations because we trust each other and we have community.

What was it like to work on what became the Rural Policy Action Report in Omaha?

The Omaha experience was incredible. It was wonderful to have all of these organizations come together to talk about what unites us as people who care about these rural issues. It was incredible to be able to center policies that are super impactful to rural people living in rural communities.

We were able to push back against the idea that rural places are conservative and to say, “No,” actually our rural communities are incredibly diverse. The issues that women care about in urban areas are the same issues that women care about in rural areas. More than a quarter of people living in rural areas are people of color. It was good to be in a space where people understood what we were talking about and with organizations that are doing the work of advancing good social change in our rural communities.

“Everything’s connected”

Melissa Cropper is the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, which represents 20,000 active and retired teachers in 55 school districts across Ohio and four community/technical colleges, as well as librarians and social workers. She is a former school librarian in Georgetown, Ohio, a town of 4, 463 36 miles southeast of Cincinnati.

Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Confederation of Teachers, campaiging against Issue 1 is a proposed state constitutional amendment that sought to raise the threshold for passing all future constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%, which would have made it more difficult for Ohio voters to pass a constitutional ammendment guaranteeing women the right to make decisions about their own bodies. The measure failed and in November, Ohioans enshrined the right to abortion in their constitution.

What brought you to the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha for the Rural Policy Action Summit?

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convened a Rural Task Force to identify ways to connect our rural members with other work that was happening in their communities. As a continuation of that work, AFT is now establishing a rural caucus. The Rural Policy Action Summit in Omaha provided an opportunity to engage with other rural groups and understand their agendas so that we can tie those with AFT’s education policy and healthcare policy. It was a phenomenal opportunity for us.

We know that in our small towns and our rural areas, everything’s connected. It’s critical that we are all on the same page together and pulling for each other.

“You don’t bridge some of those divides—you provide an alternative”

Erik Hatlestad works as the Energy Democracy Program Director for the Minnesota nonprofit CURE! focusing on rural energy issues. He grew up on a small family farm 10 miles from New London, Minnesota, the town of 1,277 where he now lives.

How does the Rural Policy Action Report address the challenges facing rural America?

The biggest problem is that rural America has been underinvested in and disinvested from for a long time. In previous decades, we had strong rural social movements that were fighting for these big investments, like the original Rural Electrification Act and the New Deal and all of these incredible programs that helped make rural America what it is—or what people like to think they remember it as. Those social movements and organizations were crushed during the farm crisis in the 1970s and 80s and as a part of deindustrialization through NAFTA and the right-wing attack on organized labor. So we haven’t had the political strength to put forward the alternative solutions that were historically offered to rural people to win new investments in their communities.

What the Rural Policy Action Report and RDI have done is to bring momentum back to rural social movements by offering an alternative to this disinvestment and the race to the bottom that essentially has been the hollowing out of rural communities.

How might people bridge political divides within your county and rural America in general?

You don’t bridge some of those divides—you provide an alternative. For too long, people who would not call themselves Republicans have not had the ability to articulate any kind of alternative. Democrats have spent too long trying to say, “We’re just the same, we’re just not so scary.” That is part of the problem we face here: no one has provided an alternative.

People in rural communities feel—and I would certainly count a lot of Trump supporters in this as well—totally ignored. If I’m accustomed to, as a community, being ignored and facing disinvestment , and I don’t have the kind of political institutions that used to exist, well, I’m going to do the thing that makes the people who I know are making my life worse as mad as possible: I’m going to vote for the most insane person. I’m not going to be listened to anyway, so why should I seriously participate in the process?

We need to provide an alternative that resonates with people, like the Ohio referendum on abortion that passed on November 7, 2023. Strong progress was made in a lot of rural communities in Ohio, thanks in part to organizers who were putting an alternative out there and actively talking to people.

It’s about helping rural people feel comfortable expressing the views that they have because so many people in these places feel isolated. There’s certainly a social aspect to that, but it’s also a product of decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement. Any attempt to rebuild those historic political institutions around progressive policy ideals must be predicated on presenting a viable alternative.

Why do you think both parties have failed in that for so many years?

A lot of people struggle with that question, and I do as well. There hasn’t been political leadership in the parties coming from rural parts of the country. The Democratic Party been disconnected from these communities in part because the people who would be a part of these movements in rural areas have left. And part of it is the acquiescence of Democratic Party leaders to look more and more like their opposition and buy into the ideas of so-called free trade, which has accelerated the decline and disinvestment from rural communities.

A summary answer would be, the Democratic Party’s loss of soul, it’s loss of identity as an institution.

Not just what they say, but what they do

Margarida Jorge is the executive director of Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a D.C.-based group that works to guarantee that everyone in America has access to quality, affordable healthcare. She was a co-founder of the campaign in 2008 and chief architect of the campaign’s 47-state field program that helped win passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

What do you think of the Rural Policy Action Action Report’s strategy to focus on concrete legislation that has been introduced in Congress?

The Action Report gives us an opportunity to do things that are bipartisan. On issues like prescription drug prices and trade you’re able to get some bipartisan agreement because those issues disproportionately impact rural communities.

Having a bill introduced in Congress requires a lawmaker to make a choice. For example, ask any lawmaker in Congress, “Are you for taxing the rich and corporations?” They’re all going to say, “Oh my gosh. I’m for taxing the rich and corporations. Blah, blah, blah. That’s the only fair thing to do.”

They’re all for it in principle. But what actually matters is not just what they say, but what they do: we need a commitment to take action. The only way constituents can truly understand what a politician is willing to publicly support is if they are willing to put their name on the legislation.

“Get back to community in order to save democracy”

Brandon Byrd is the lead organizer for Georgia Ignite, which works in rural Georgia as part of The New Georgia Project. He grew up in Metter, Georgia, a town of 3,994, 65 miles west of Savannah.

What was it like growing up in rural Georgia?

I grew up in a really small county, in what was really a village. I could never get away with stuff without my mom finding out. One time I was driving to school and I took a different turn to avoid some bus traffic. Before I made it to my high school, my mom called me from work and said, “Where are you going?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” She said, “Somebody called me.” They told her that I was on such and such street. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh I just took a different route to go to school.” It was one of those counties where everybody knows everybody.

What do rural areas share that urban communities lack?

I would say community spirit. That love-thy-neighbor spirit is unanimous across our rural areas. Because it’s small and it’s mighty. Rural areas are where you see the most community. And that’s the same whether you’re in Georgia or in Montana.

In America, individualism has gotten only stronger and stronger. In rural communities, you don’t see it as much. You see people mainly together. You’re going to the grocery store and, boom, you’ll see somebody you know, and you’re talking with them in the grocery store for 20 or 25 minutes.

We’re the only folks here. We have to look out for each other. We see each other on a daily basis. I know your parents and grandparents, and they know me. They are the people who see you grow up and see who you become. So even if everyone isn’t the closest of friends, they’re going to watch out for you or help you when they can because of the community that you all have.

We have to get back to that sense of community in order to save democracy.

The post The Organizers Forging a Rural Action Plan for 2024 appeared first on Barn Raiser.

How “Right-to-Farm” Laws Betray Farmers, Disenfranchise Voters and Empower Corporations

First developed in the late 1970s, so-called right-to-farm laws sought to limit nuisance lawsuits loosely related to farming practices. But since their adoption, these laws have greatly expanded in their aim and scope, as influential right-wing organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council began writing and implementing model right-to-farm bills in states across the nation.

The University of North Carolina Press

Empty Fields, Empty Promises: A State-by-State Guide to Understanding and Transforming the Right to Farm offers the first comprehensive analysis of what these laws do and who they benefit. Empty Fields, Empty Promises shows how right-to-farm laws help pave the path to rural poverty by usurping local democratic governance, dispossessing the many in favor of the few. As a result, the book charts a path forward for a more distributed and democratic food system to achieve justice for farmers, rural people and the environment.

For two generations, Paul A. Lewis and his family made White Oak, North Carolina, their home. Mr. Lewis’s mother took her first breath on their 106-acre farm, born on an expanse of land that they—unlike many Black families before them—could proudly call their own. They treasured rural living, outdoor cookouts, hanging clothes on the line and drawing water from their own well.

Mr. Lewis called it “quiet and peaceful” until 1995, when a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) started fattening 14,700 hogs some 600 yards from his home. The stench rushed through the half-mile of timber between his homestead and the hog confinements. The odor and dust particles started clinging to clothes on the line. The cookouts came to a stop. Swarms of flies and other insects gathered around the porch and made their way inside the windows. Dead hogs fell off trucks running in the night. Manure mist and fumes from the lagoon and spray field system made it difficult for Mr. Lewis to breathe. In unfolding years, he was diagnosed with asthma, chronic skin disorders, sinus problems, depression and a suite of other health issues. 

It appeared that Mr. Lewis might finally have his day in court when he filed a complaint against the hog operator, Murphy-Brown Limited Liability Company (LLC) in 2020. He did so in defense of his property rights, alleging the pollution was a nuisance that took away the enjoyment of his home and the use of his land. He also sued for negligence, stating that the company knew the harmful effects of its operation but continued anyway. Murphy-Brown’s ultimate beneficiaries traced back to WH Group Ltd., one of the world’s most powerful financial holding companies involved in food production.

Midway across the country, amid the row cropland of Fort Branch, Indiana, Glenn and Phyllis Parker similarly looked to the courts for justice. Like Mr. Lewis, Mr. Parker’s mother had passed the farmland down to him. Together, the Parkers built their lifelong home on the land in 1972, without a second thought to the neighboring 100-head dairy that had been there as long as they could remember. Mr. Parker farmed the land part-time until he retired in 2005 and decided to rent it to a local grain farmer. Five years later, the once-familiar dairy farm added on a 900-head dairy CAFO and incorporated it a stone’s throw away from his home. Less than a year after it became operational, the elderly Parkers filed a nuisance suit, alleging noxious odors and property devaluation.

“The odor lingers in our garage and in our clothes… when we open the backdoor, it reefs into the kitchen,” Mr. Parker said in his deposition. “We often have people who come to visit us and say, ‘How do you stand this?’ ” 

Phyllis, whom Mr. Parker had been married to for 54 years, had long suffered from depression, but after the building of the CAFO, it became severe. She could no longer garden and observe the birds, her favorite pastimes that brought her joy.

“You go from a family farm that doesn’t bother anybody to one who makes your life almost unbearable,” Mr. Parker said.

Across differences of geography and race, and similarities of rural living and multigenerational farms, Mr. Lewis’s and the Parkers’ cases shared the same fate. They lost in court, in large part due to what are called right-to-farm (RTF) laws, statutes active in every U.S. state that were often passed with the purported intent of protecting family farms.

But these laws did not protect the Parkers’ and Mr. Lewis’s family farms. Rather, they made them acutely vulnerable, especially in Indiana and North Carolina, two states where CAFOs and business firms like corporations use RTF laws the most to their advantage. What, in fact, are RTF laws? How do they differ across the country? What has their impact been, and whom have they benefited? And, perhaps most importantly, if they are not serving agricultural, rural and environmental justice interests, how can they be reformed for the better?

The History of Right to Farm Laws

RTF laws hit legislative floors during one of the most severe agricultural crises in the history of the United States. In the early 1980s, farmers went out of business in droves and farmer suicides hit record highs as debt soared, land prices collapsed and commodity prices bottomed out as part of the U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Just as interest rates on farm debts rose in the late 1970s, the first, more explicit RTF laws were enacted in Alabama in 1978, followed by Florida, North Carolina and Washington the next year. By the end of the 1980s, another 42 states would pass RTF statutes enabled by rhetoric that promised support to family farms. By the mid-1990s, the four remaining states would enact them.

The legislators who introduced RTF laws offered them as a saving grace for agriculture and the farmer. Early advocates of RTF laws caricatured the threatening, sue-happy urbanite moving out to the country as unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of agriculture. Likewise, they warned of the litigious lawyer, evoking long-simmering resentment by rural dwellers toward extractive urban centers.

[Right-to-Farm] laws have benefited from division: the eater from the grower, the dweller from the farmer, the feeder from the fed, the agri- from the -culture… [and] benefited the takers—large-scale corporate agribusiness—at the expense of the doers, people who live and dwell proximate to where they grow food.

“Hopefully, this will send a message to the public that if they move next to a farmer, they have to accept how he operates,” said Owen Mohler, then president of the Indiana Farm Bureau in 1987, praising the state’s RTF law.

Under such premises, RTF statutes began to fundamentally change the meaning of private property rights in the United States. Property holders’ constitutional right to the enjoyment and use of their land became subject to RTF laws’ protections of agriculture—as it was defined by each state. Property rights matters formerly subject to the fact-finding authority of the judge in court instead became subject to RTF laws passed by state legislators and the lobbying efforts behind them.

Transnational corporations have advocated for and heralded RTF laws, inflaming urban-rural animosity, but without mentioning their dangerous implications for property rights. Keira Lombardo, Smithfield Foods’ vice president of corporate affairs, claimed in 2019 that the laws served the best interests of family farms. Like Murphy-Brown LLC, Smithfield Foods Inc. also is a subsidiary of WH Group Ltd., a company mostly owned and operated by investors in China. After her company lost RTF-related cases in North Carolina, Lombardo wrote in an email to a reporter that “the negative verdicts have scared family farmers and lawmakers whose states’ livelihoods and fundamental characters depend on agriculture.” She went on to welcome amendments to make it more certain that Smithfield Foods Inc. would win in the future: “Legislation seems like a commonsense reaction to what many understandably perceive to be a threat to their ability to earn a living and cherished way of life.”

Yet only one state in the country, Minnesota, even from the very inception of RTF laws, included family farms anywhere in the statutory provisions passed supposedly in their defense. In its 1982 statutes, Minnesota defined a “family farm” as an “unincorporated farm unit owned by one or more persons or spouses of persons related to each other within the third degree of kindred according to the rules of the civil law at least one of whom is residing or actively engaged in farming on the farm unit, or a ‘family farm corporation.’ ”

Since then, Minnesota has stricken this provision. Like most other states, it now protects agricultural operations, defined as “facilit[ies] and [their] appurtenances for the production of crops, livestock, poultry, dairy products or poultry products.” Some states also insulate the labor and employment practices used by such operations from nuisance suits, demonstrating just how far RTF laws have moved away from the family farms they often purport to protect. While only four states initially insulated agricultural operations’ labor and employment practices from nuisance suits, today over a quarter of all states do so.

Further, 24 states explicitly include processing as part of the agricultural activities and operations protected by RTF laws. This makes doing the work of farming or processing even more vulnerable. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers at large meatpacking plants—often people of color and immigrants—were subject to dangerous and deadly working conditions. Where RTF laws protect processing alongside labor and employment practices, such workers may face more barriers if they try to seek compensation for hazardous working conditions.

See a state-by-state guide of Right-to-Farm laws.

Terms such as “residence” or “home” are conspicuously absent in the protective provisions provided to farmers in RTF laws today. In effect, RTF laws enable outside capital investment, consolidation and the encroachment of absentee production over that which is place-based. When the Indiana appellate court ruled against the Parkers, the court even viewed a home as oppositional to a farm. The court called their residence “nonfarming” and noted that the residence now “extend[s] into agricultural areas,” even though the house had been there since 1974 and the CAFO was built in 2010.

Originally, the most common statutory provision in 29 states was the extension of immunity from nuisance lawsuits to agricultural operations in the event the locality around them changed. On a surface level, such language appeared to ensure that what was there first, like Mr. Parker’s farming homestead, where a family had lived for generations, could be protected in the face of something like suburban sprawl that came later. Yet no state in the nation explicitly bars industrial or residential development of agricultural land through RTF statutes. However, since the inception of RTF laws, 24 states have included a provision that once an operation is up and running for a year, it is immune from nuisance suits. Because the term “operation” is broadly defined, industrial agriculture operations receive protection even if they were developed after a residential family farm.

Note: The percentage column includes all RTF cases where a party type appears. There are more party types than cases, as any single party can fit various typolgies. For example, a landowner can also be a homeowner, or a CAFO can also be a business firm. (Ashwood et al., Empty Fields, Empty Promises)
Note: The winning party could be a defendant or plaintiff or in split ruling. The first (Ashwood et al., Empty Fields, Empty Promises)

For example, in 1980, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled that Faye Ward Born could not sue the Exxon Corporation’s oil-treating facility for light and odor trespass because her suit was “barred by the one-year statute of limitations.” The court cited Alabama’s RTF law, that “no agricultural, manufacturing or other industrial plant or establishment, or any farming operation facility, any of its appurtenances or the operation thereof shall be or become a nuisance, private or public,” when it “has been in operation for more than one year.” Provisions similar to the Alabama one, combined with a suite of other protections that have been tacked onto RTF laws through ongoing amendments, are used by CAFOs and absentee business firms across the nation to win in court.

These immunity provisions have dramatically increased the power of industrial operators over residential farmers and neighbors. States have moved swiftly to extend additional RTF protections through statutory amendments. For example, only Pennsylvania originally provided agricultural operations immunity from nuisance suits if they used a new technology. Today, another 14 states have adopted similar provisions.

In a 2015 case heard by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 34 property owners—many of them longtime residents—sued farm owners and Synagro Central LLC, and Synagro Mid-Atlantic, described in the ruling as “corporate entities engaged in the business of recycling biosolids.” For three years, the company applied 11,635 wet tons of biosolids to 220 acres scattered across 14 fields proximate to the plaintiffs’ homes. The smell of rotting fish was constant. Their eyes burned and their throats were sore. They coughed and had headaches and nausea. Parents tried to protect their children by confining them indoors. The court ruled, however, that such activities were farming activities consistent with “technological development within the agricultural industry” and were therefore entitled to protection. That included a corporation spreading biosolid waste from the city.

Originally, no state statutes provided explicit protection to operations if the product or activities changed—for example, if a veggie farm turned into a CAFO. Now, 13 states do. South Dakota and West Virginia were originally the only states to protect operations if they stopped operating for a period of time or were interrupted. Now another 11 states have adopted similar provisions. These amendments dramatically extend and transform the protections afforded to so-defined operations, regardless of the long-standing fabric of the communities around them.

Other significant amendments to RTF laws have enabled the concentration and corporatization of agriculture and extended special protections to ostensibly nonfarm industries. The most common amendment to RTF laws since their inception is the provision of RTF protections from nuisance lawsuits to forestry, trees or silvicultural products. Initially, nine states had such a provision. Now, 32 states extend RTF protections to the timber industry. In 1995, a paper mill in Mississippi successfully utilized the RTF defense to avoid culpability for the alleged discharge of dioxin sludge when the court ruled that the timber-derived products produced by a paper mill are a crop.

Regional shares of RTF case law by party type wins. This proportional visualization shows party type wins by region, from largest (Midwest) to smallest (Southwest). Percentages are rounded up or down to the nearest numerator for each party type, accounting for total regional percentages ranging from 99 to 102. (Ashwood et al., Empty Fields, Empty Promises)

Another 18 states also amended their laws to shield the use of chemicals, like pesticides, and nutrient application from lawsuits. Dorothy and Joshua Collett of Louisiana tried to sue neighboring timberland companies for damages from chemical exposure to formaldehyde at their home, which they argued gave rise to their severe immunological and autoimmune disorders. The court ruled that the timber companies could use the state’s RTF law in their defense.

Most RTF laws also now have provisions that remove democratic oversight by communities, effectively ensuring that the most dangerous, unfamiliar and often unwanted operations are allowed despite local objections. RTF laws thus impose a form of takings not only on family or individual property rights but also on more collective residential and community self-determination. From the start, 18 states removed to various extents local governments’ power over protected agricultural operations, with provisions like that in Alaska, which since 1986 has allowed RTF laws to “supersede a municipal ordinance, resolution, or regulation to the contrary.” Since their initial inception, another 13 states have likewise followed suit. Thus, ordinances passed by communities that prohibit trucks running at certain hours of the night or that try to limit the size or expansion of operations often become null and void. Today, 31 states have statutory provisions that restrict local governmental decision-making or regulatory authority over agricultural operations, and separately New York removes local government’s power only in agricultural zones.

Taken together, 62% of states use RTF laws to weaken democratic control over land use and siting decisions, sometimes with severe consequences. For example, in Missouri, Lincoln Township attempted to exert oversight over an enormous hog operation through setback requirements for sewage lagoons and finishing buildings. Premium Standard Farms, now another subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., had sited 96 hog confinements and 12 waste lagoons on its 3,084-acre location. “After approval by the vote of the people,” the county sought to exert oversight designed “for the purpose of promoting health, safety, morals, comfort or the general welfare of the unincorporated portion of the township, to conserve and protect property and building values, to secure the most economical use of the land, and to facilitate the adequate provision of public improvements.”

Lagoon water from a concentrated animal feeding operation in Duplin, North Carolina in 2018. (Larry Baldwin, Waterkeepers Alliance)

The county’s zoning regulations in agricultural areas permitted feedlots and sewage systems but required lagoons to be at least a mile from residences or dwellings. The county also required that lagoons be bonded for at least $750,000 in case there was a spill or the company went bankrupt (which Premium Standard eventually did). For Premium Standard Farms’ lagoons, that meant $9 million in bonds to ensure each of the 58-acre lagoons holding millions of gallons of hog waste could be accountable in the event local people needed to claim compensation.

Premium Standard Farms refused to comply, and the township responded by suing it for public nuisance. The court concluded in 1997 that the township and the county had no authority to govern as such, because the RTF law protected Premium Standard Farms. The court designated the livestock sewage lagoons and finishing buildings as “farm structures” protected by Missouri’s RTF law. It concluded, then, that the setback and bonding requirements were “impermissible,” as zoning could not impose regulations or require permits for farm buildings and structures. The court added that more generally the township did not have the right to prosecute a public nuisance, removing a crucial form of local governance.


Mr. Parker’s deposition was just about over. The questions about the longevity of his wife’s depression, his children’s professions, the value of his house and his history of farming seemed to mercifully be at an end. Mr. Janzen, the Indianapolis attorney representing Obert’s Legacy Dairy LLC and Indiana’s Dairy Producers, thought for a moment he was finished. 

“Well, wait a minute,” Mr. Janzen said, deciding that he wasn’t quite through. “I assume that you drink milk; is that right?” 

“Very little,” Parker answered.

 “Very little?” Janzen returned, incredulously.

 “It’s not my—not on my high list of things I like. I’m sorry, but—” Parker didn’t have a chance to finish. 

“But you eat dairy products?” Janzen asked.

 “Really now,” Mr. Parker’s lawyer interjected, for a moment derailing Janzen’s belittlement. Then he allowed it to continue. “Go ahead.” 

“I eat some cheese, it’s pretty hard not to—” Mr. Parker started to answer. 

“Okay,” Mr. Janzen interrupted again. 

“—if you eat pizza,” Mr. Parker finished.

RTF laws have benefited from division: the eater from the grower, the dweller from the farmer, the feeder from the fed, the agri- from the -culture. In doing so, RTF laws have benefited the takers—large-scale corporate agribusiness—at the expense of the doers, people who live and dwell proximate to where they grow food. By creating a false opposition between the goodness of eating, growing, and living, the largest and most wealthy of operators have been able to sow deep divisions to their acute benefit.

From Empty Fields, Empty Promises: A State-by-State Guide to Understanding and Transforming the Right to Farm by Loka Ashwood, Aimee Imlay, Lindsay Kuehn, Allen Franco and Danielle Diamond. Copyright © 2023 by Loka Ashwood, Aimee Imlay, Lindsay Kuehn, Allen Franco and Danielle Diamond. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. More information at

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Will Biden’s Historic Plan Address the Crisis in Rural Nursing Homes?

How is she going to get staff and keep them? She raised wages just recently, and that helped. But not enough. This year, lack of staff has meant that this 55-year-old nonprofit home cut back its population by 10 from the previous year, and fewer residents mean less income for the home. Driving Germann’s worry […]

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Wisconsin locals rally around small town library

Over the past few months, a group called Concerned Citizens of Iron River, a mostly anonymous group on Facebook, have started calling for books to be removed from my local library, the Evelyn Goldberg Briggs Memorial Library in Iron River, Wisconsin (population 1,100). Most of these books being challenged are about LGBTQ+, and specifically trans, […]

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‘What we’re up against’: North Dakota towns fight Farm Bureau to keep water clean

Articles in this project are edited by Carey Gillam, managing editor of The New Lede.

DEVILS LAKE, North Dakota — When Clark Steinhaus first heard about a plan to build a feeding operation for 2,499 hogs near the shoreline of North Dakota’s largest natural lake, he was alarmed. As chair of Pelican Township’s board of supervisors, Steinhaus worried the manure generated by so many hogs could easily contaminate area waterways, including 160,000-acre Devils Lake and its 375 miles of shoreline.

His concerns were not surprising given the fact that each year, U.S. industrial-scale feeding facilities – the standard for American meat and dairy production – generate, store, and spread millions of gallons of untreated liquid feces and urine across farmland. Mammoth dairy, hog, poultry, and beef cattle operations are known across Corn Belt states for fouling the air with rank odors and contaminating surface and groundwater with toxic nitrates, phosphorus, and bacteria.

“We got documentation from the pig boys’ engineers that said they’re going to build a 12-foot deep pit under the facility – 4-inch concrete, no rebar, only wire mesh. No rubber lining,” said Steinhaus. “They were going to store millions of gallons of manure in that pit. Yeah. Water pollution is a concern here.”

Clark Steinhaus, the chairman of the Pelican Township board of supervisors, leads the opposition to a big hog operation near the shoreline of Devils Lake in North Dakota. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

The three-member Pelican Township board unanimously rejected the construction permit application in 2019, deciding it did not meet requirements of the applicable zoning ordinance.

This decision on behalf of a tiny township that is home to only 23 residents came back to haunt Steinhaus, miring the township in litigation and dragging it into a sweeping campaign by the American Farm Bureau Federation to upend local zoning rules that aim to curtail industrial-sized animal agriculture across the United States.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau’s lawsuit against Pelican Township was one of three such lawsuits filed in North Dakota, and among many brought across U.S. farm country as the Farm Bureau levers the courts, legislatures and elected leaders to impede regulation of large-scaled animal agriculture and the foul odors and mammoth waste stream that result.

Five years into its livestock expansion campaign, the Farm Bureau is steadily peeling away important state statutes that make this possible.

“Look at what we are up against,” said Steinhaus. “We have 23 residents in Pelican Township – 23 people live here. We were selling tickets to raffle for cash to pay our lawyers.”

The North Dakota campaign is led by the heaviest hitters in the state’s $9 billion a year farm sector: Daryl Lies, state Farm Bureau president; Doug Goehring, state Agriculture Commissioner and a former Farm Bureau vice president; and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Neither the Farm Bureau nor the North Dakota Department of Agriculture agreed to answer questions about the effort to challenge local restrictions on industrial livestock operations. Four years ago, though, Lies explained the town-level legal strategy to a reporter from Ag Week, saying the bureau’s goal was to “get these kind of things nipped in the bud before they grow legs and move across the state.”

A top asset

Devils Lake is among North Dakota’s top recreational assets. The lake remains reasonably clean in large part because North Dakota, an important grain grower, has fewer dairy cows, beef cattle, hogs and poultry than many other farm states. The state’s streams and groundwater are cleaner than other Corn Belt states, according to state and federal data.

“Overall we have really good water quality here,” said Marty Haroldson, a water program manager at the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. “We have good drinking water. Good fishing. We’re not experiencing fish kills. We’ve been pretty fortunate.”

Devils Lake is North Dakota’s largest natural lake and one of the state’s popular recreational assets. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

A national assessment of water quality in 2022 by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.- based research group, found North Dakota’s lakes had 859 acres impaired by pollution that harms fishing, the lowest number for impaired lakes of any state west of the Mississippi River. In contrast, neighboring Minnesota had over 63,000 acres of lakes impaired for fishing, and devastating nutrient contamination in its groundwater and streams.

Minnesota counts 455,000 dairy cows in the state herd, 20 times more than North Dakota, according to federal and state data. Minnesota also houses hog operations that feed 8.9 million hogs annually, 65 times more than North Dakota’s 138,000. Iowa, the largest hog producer, feeds nearly 24 million hogs, which produce roughly 90 billion pounds of waste a year.

And, unlike in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin, there are very few areas of North Dakota where the air is fouled by the stench of hog and dairy operations.

That could soon change.

In both 2019 and 2023, the North Dakota legislature amended the state’s anti-corporate farming law to allow corporations to own animal feeding operations. The legislature has also amended state zoning law to make it easier for feeding operations to be built closer to homes and recreational facilities. And this year, state lawmakers established a state task force, administered by the agriculture department, to develop model zoning for local governments considering proposals for big livestock feeding facilities.

North Dakota’s $9 billion-a-year agriculture sector is dominated by crop production, including the $2.3 billion soybean harvest, the nation’s eighth largest. Here, soybeans are harvested in Case County, west of Fargo. Randal Coon is the farmer pictured. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

If North Dakota expands its population of meat and milk-producing animals, it could translate to added income for farmers and the state’s tax base, according to officials. “There’s one thing missing in North Dakota compared to Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and that’s animal agriculture,” Gov. Burgum told reporters in 2022. “We’ve got a lot of red tape and corporate farming laws that we need to overcome before animal agriculture can expand.”

For environmental and public health advocates, however, the legislative moves are dire indicators of a growing menace to water quality and public health.

“In our opinion, the anti-corporate farming law has been weakened almost to the point of being toothless,” said Sam Wagner, the field organizer for the North Dakota Resource Council, an environmental advocacy group. He added that the new zoning task force “is a bunch of wolves deciding which sheep is for dinner.”

Dismantling safeguards

The North Dakota Farm Bureau, founded in 1942 and operating with a $3.2 million annual budget, is one of the nearly 3,000 state and county groups affiliated with the nonprofit American Farm Bureau Federation, based in Washington, D.C. The parent organization, which calls itself “the voice of agriculture,” is 104 years old and counts 6 million members and $35 million in operating funds. It is regarded as one of the most influential trade organizations in Washington.

The organization earmarks nearly $1 million annually to spend on lawyers to challenge health and environmental provisions – local, state or federal – that would limit nutrient runoff from crop farms and livestock operations. Its work is part of the larger U.S. agriculture lobby that represents the interests of the largest grain, meat, milk, and other food producers that dominate the $1.3 trillion American agriculture sector.

Zippy Duvall, the national federation’s president, asserts that his group is intent on “implementing new solutions to protect the land and water.”  But the long history of activities by state affiliates and the parent organization do not reflect that goal.

In the 1970s, Farm Bureau lobbying resulted in provisions of the 1972 Clean Water Act that essentially immunized toxic nutrient-rich runoff from farms — so-called “non-point” pollution — from any regulatory controls. The regulatory waivers granted to agriculture resulted in excessive spreading of commercial fertilizers and manure on cropland, causing widespread water pollution across the Corn Belt.

The waivers also were essential to the development of large livestock operations, which are not required to process or treat the 1.4 billion tons of liquid and solid manure they discharge every year and spread on 19 million acres of U.S. farmland. In 2016, as livestock operations grew larger and more numerous, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified nutrient discharges from U.S. farmland as “the single greatest challenge to our nation’s water quality.”

The Farm Bureau appears intent on keeping it that way. The group routinely challenges government efforts to stem the tide of pollution from agriculture, especially from livestock operations. In one case, the Farm Bureau collaborated with the National Pork Producers Council and seven other national and state farm trade groups in a lawsuit challenging a 2008 rule issued by the EPA that required large livestock operations to seek permits for discharging manure in order to reduce runoff into groundwater and streams.

The Farm Bureau and the other plaintiffs asserted that the environmental agency’s rule exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act. In 2011, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and nullified the rule. It was the last time the EPA proposed regulating discharges from animal operations.

After Food and Water Watch, the Environmental Working Group, and several more environmental organizations petitioned the agency to closely regulate livestock operations, the EPA pledged in August to form a federal advisory committee in 2024. The advisory group will be charged to study pollution generated by large animal feeding operations, and is expected to take 12 to 18 months to conclude its work.

The Farm Bureau has been equally aggressive in the states.The North Dakota campaign is similar to regulation-weakening campaigns waged in other Corn Belt states.

The Iowa Farm Bureau, the largest and wealthiest state affiliate, resisted land use rules that regulated locations for building livestock operations. In 1996, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that big hog operations cannot be zoned. More recently, in 2015, Des Moines Water Works, the utility supplying water from the Raccoon River to Iowa’s capital city, sued three upstream counties to curb the toxic nitrate contamination from crop and livestock operations that was showing up at elevated levels in its treated drinking water. The Iowa Farm Bureau financed the counties’ legal defense. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa Judge Leonard Strand dismissed all claims against the counties, ruling that Iowa’s contaminated water is a systemic problem for state lawmakers to solve.

County health departments in Missouri felt the power of the Farm Bureau after they adopted ordinances to regulate air emissions and water discharge to limit pollution from livestock operations.The Missouri Farm Bureau challenged that authority. In concert with other state farm groups, the Farm Bureau convinced the state senate in 2019 to pass a bill that prohibited counties from imposing rules on big livestock operations that were “inconsistent with or more stringent than” state law. The state house approved similar legislation in 2021. Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court said both bills were lawful under the state constitution.

Lisa Doerr, a farmer in Laketown, is a leader of the opposition to large livestock operations in northwest Wisconsin. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

And in Wisconsin, the state Farm Bureau is working now to invalidate an ordinance approved by six northwest Wisconsin towns that would regulate the development of new hog installations. One has rescinded the ordinance so far.

“It’s pretty much hand-to-hand combat with the Farm Bureau every day for years now in my town and across farm country,” said Lisa Doerr, a farmer in Laketown, Wisconsin, who chaired a local committee that developed the ordinance to regulate hog operations there. “The fight is about protecting our health and property values from water pollution by these corporate livestock factories. Everyone in our town relies on well water for their families and their animals.”

Fighting back

In 2018, when Pelican Township first began considering whether to allow the hog feeding operation in its community, state zoning law authorized North Dakota townships to decide where big livestock operations could and could not locate. The primary tool townships could use were setback limits – the distance between a big livestock operation and a home, school, or recreational facility. Setback limits establish livestock no-build zones. Townships were authorized to establish setbacks measuring up to a mile and a half.

Such protections reflected a half century of legislation and regulation in North Dakota specifically designed to safeguard communities and natural resources from big livestock operations. In the 1970s, the state established tight regulations to quell odors from industrial livestock agriculture. In 1999, the state legislature approved amendments to zoning law to give local governments the authority to “regulate the nature and scope of concentrated feeding operations,” and to “set reasonable standards, based on the size of the operation” in order to decide their locations.

In 2000, a task force established by the North Dakota Department of Health wrote the first model ordinance for regulating big livestock operations that prioritized public health and environmental safeguards. Its provisions served as a basis for Pelican Township’s review of the proposed hog operation.

Much of North Dakota’s corn and sugar beet harvest is processed for ethanol in one of the state’s six ethanol refineries like this one owned by Tharaldson Ethanol near Fargo. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

OverMore than 70% of the 36-square-mile township is submerged under the waters of Devils Lake, the result of a generation of wet weather that has doubled the lake’s expanse since the mid-1990s. The rest is variously occupied by recreational campgrounds, three cemeteries, and scattered homes where the township’s 23 residents live, all within a mile or two of the lake’s shoreline.

Steinhaus and the other supervisors unanimously rejected the hog facility proposal because no place within its jurisdiction was within the zoning setback limit from a home, a cemetery, or a recreational facility. In other words, there was no safe or appropriate place in Pelican Township to store 9 million gallons of liquid manure that 2,499 pigs would produce each year.

The Farm Bureau sued in 2019, arguing that the township exceeded its authority but a district judge ruled in the township’s favor. Then came a wrinkle. North Dakota’s Howes Township also denied a construction permit to a big hog operation proposed for its jurisdiction and also was sued by the Farm Bureau. But the judge in that case ruled in 2022 in favor of the Farm Bureau. The differing decisions prompted the Farm Bureau to convince the North Dakota Legislature earlier this year to establish a new model zoning task force made up of 15 members dominated by farm interests. Along with the agriculture commissioner and the Farm Bureau president, six seats are now held by members of state agriculture trade groups. Central to the task force’s work is deciding how much distance townships can put between a feeding operation and neighboring homes, businesses, and public facilities.

“The North Dakota Farm Bureau doesn’t want to see folks put in a position where they don’t know what they can and can’t do because the law is unclear,” said Tyler Leverington, a lawyer representing the Farm Bureau. “We should try to write the law clearly.”

The task force recommendations are expected to be made public next year. The legislature meets every two years and will consider amendments to zoning law  in 2025. Steinhaus fears that, given the tilt of the committee to livestock development, it’s likely that setback distances will be dramatically reduced or eliminated.

“We know a farmer from Iowa,” Steinhaus said. “He raises pigs there, the old fashioned way. He was here fishing. He said North Dakota reminds him of how Iowa used to be. He said it’s clean and beautiful. After all this, it ain’t going to be beautiful.”

This report was made possible by investigative reporting fellowships awarded by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It is part of an ongoing series looking at how toxic farm-related pollution is damaging public health and water quality across the center of the country. Along with Investigate Midwest, other co-publishers include The New Lede, Circle of Blue, The GuardianGreat Lakes NowMichigan Radio, and Minnpost. 

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