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.

New Report Sparks Questions and Controversy Over Possible Causes for Iowa ‘Cancer Crisis’

Toxic Terrain

Iowa Researcher Proposes Subsidies to Bring Cardiac Care to Rural Areas

Luring cardiologists to rural parts of Iowa may mean subsidizing their salaries, a new study has found.

Tom Gruca, a marketing professor at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, looked at data from more than 40 years of public health in his state. His study, Bringing the Doctor to the Patients: Cardiology Outreach to Rural Areas, found that paying doctors to participate in traveling practice models could help alleviate the coming cardiologist shortage in his state. 

Using subsidies and an existing Visiting Consultant Clinic (VCC) model would be a better and more cost-effective way to get cardiology care to rural patients, he said.

A VCC model is a formal arrangement between a rural hospital or clinic and a specialist physician, typically from an urban area nearby. In a VCC arrangement, the specialists travel to rural areas on a regular basis to see patients in their own communities. There, they can use the rural hospital to examine them and provide basic support and non-invasive procedures, and treat them in larger hospitals for more complex procedures.

“The policy that the American Heart Association and everybody else always talks about is let’s get doctors to move to rural areas,” Gruca said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “That might work with the primary care physician because if there’s a hospital there, there’s probably enough equipment and staff for them to do what they’re doing. This will not work for almost any specialist because they need the imaging equipment, the surgical equipment, the surgery nurses, and all that other stuff to do their jobs.”

The VCC model is used in every state, he said. Looking at the numbers the research found that the model would not only provide rural patients with access to care, but save money.

Putting a cardiologist in a rural community would mean the doctor would not have enough patients or patient visits to support their practice, Gruca said. And paying cardiologists on a per mile basis to drive to rural communities would be excessively expensive. In some cases, getting doctors to give up patient time to spend up to three hours of “windshield time” to get rural communities to participate in the VCC model was a challenge.

His research found that a state investment of about $430,000 per year would provide doctors with the necessary funding to cover “windshield time” and still provide current levels of cardiology coverage in the state.

Getting that cardiology care to rural communities is important on a number of levels, he said. First, rural residents are more likely to have cardiology issues. According to one study, between 2010 and 2015, the death rate for rural residents from coronary heart disease was significantly higher than it was for those in urban areas. And a 2017 study found that people in rural areas have a 30 percent higher risk of dying from a stroke due to their increased chronic disease, and reduced access to pre-hospital care.

Second, research shows that rural residents who have access to cardiology care are better off for it.

“What we can say is that the difference between having VCC outreach and not having VCC outreach means anywhere between 700,000 and a million rural residents having better access,” he said. “And studies show that Medicaid patients who see a specialist at least once a year are way more likely to stay out of the hospital and way more likely to live for another year.”

Even more important, he said, is that rural America is facing a pending shortage of cardiologists. Currently, the state has fewer than 200 cardiologists, Gruca said, almost all of them in urban areas. Nationally, the number of cardiologists is expected to decline by as much as 10% due to retirement and aging workloads. While fellowship programs graduate about 1,500 new cardiologists a year, he said, about 2,000 leave the practice annually.

“I thought, what’s going to happen when the number of cardiologists goes down?” he said. “When this shortage actually hits… If we lose 10% of our current cardiologists… there are a lot of cities (in Iowa) that will get no outreach at all.”

Similar programs have worked in Australia, he said. The same kind of subsidies could be successful in encouraging specialist physicians to work in rural areas as well.

Even though the program was expensive, he said, it will still save states money over the alternative.

“We looked at what it would take to hire people and put them into rural areas and the cost was many, many times (the annual subsidies) simply because they would have very little to do,” he said. “If we pay them some amount to do this outreach and we build a mathematical model to figure out how much would we have to pay them per mile or per minute… it’s actually really many, many, many times the $400,000 for the subsidy that we calculated.”

The post Iowa Researcher Proposes Subsidies to Bring Cardiac Care to Rural Areas appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

3 ways AI can help farmers tackle the challenges of modern agriculture

Where the 2024 presidential candidates stand on Indigenous issues

Pauly Denetclaw

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

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

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

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

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

There are 9 Republican candidates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden administration

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

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

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

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

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Crops and solar intersect as Iowa’s first agrivoltaics project prepares to power up

AMES — On Thursday’s chilly fall morning, the Alliant Energy Solar Farm at Iowa State University looked like any other solar farm. Thousands of panels stretched toward the heavens and fanned across the landscape, welcoming any rays of sun that might escape the overcast sky above.

But it’s not your typical solar array.

Come next year, the ground underneath and around the panels will bloom with fruits, vegetables and pollinator plants. The practice is called agrivoltaics: where active farming or ranching and solar happen in the same place instead of separately.

It puts the “farm” in solar farm.

The Alliant Energy Solar Farm at ISU, unveiled Thursday morning in Ames, marks the first utility-scale agrivoltaics project in Iowa and the Midwest at large.

The 10-acre solar farm has a maximum energy output of 1.35 megawatts — enough to power around 200 homes at full capacity. As Alliant’s panels transform sunlight into electricity, ISU researchers will grow and harvest crops underneath.

It took millions of dollars and dozens of experts to make the project a reality. Collaborations span several industries, from energy production to horticulture to entomology. The site will be home to a treasure trove of research that, researchers hope, can show if agriculture and solar energy can coexist in Iowa and beyond.

“There are a lot of communities who are thinking about community solar arrays,” said Anne Kimber, director of ISU’s Electric Power Research Center. “Well, imagine if the community also gets to have gardens associated with those arrays. You’re starting to build community around that. I think that’s worth working on.”

Alliant Energy’s Nick Peterson talks about the research that will be conducted at the 1.35 megawatt Alliant Energy Solar Farm in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday, October 17, 2023. (Photo by Jim Slosiark / The Gazette)

How it came to be

The project has been in the works for years — but it was first conceptualized as just a solar project, a partnership announced in fall 2021. The plan shifted when an agrivoltaics grant opportunity from the U.S. Department of Energy opened up.

Both ISU and Alliant serve rural residents across the state, said Nick Peterson, Alliant’s strategic partnerships manager. Integrating agriculture into the project could better serve their customers and missions. It could also provide a first-of-its-kind research opportunity in Iowa. And, thanks to the diverse skill sets across both institutions, they had the capacity to dive into this emerging practice.

So, they shifted their plans and applied. The project received a $1.8 million four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy — the largest allotment awarded from the funding program.

Alliant and ISU worked together to design the research project. Solar panel heights vary between 5 feet — the industry standard — and 8 feet. Those differences change how much light will reach the plants grown underneath. That will alter the microclimates under the panels, influencing factors like humidity and temperature.

The panels themselves differ as well. Some are in fixed positions, meaning their angle doesn’t change. Others rotate to track the sun across the sky. All of them are bifacial, meaning they can harvest solar energy on both sides.

Then came the horticultural decisions: What should be planted underneath?

Researchers considered high-value and popular crops that could fit under solar panels. They chose broccoli, summer squash and peppers for vegetables. For fruits, they landed on strawberries and raspberries. The harvested crops will go to the ISU Horticulture Research Station, where they will be cleaned, packaged and sold to the university’s dining halls.

Three of the five crops require bee pollination to grow. To ensure the survival of the plants, the team is adding pollinator plant mixes to the site and raising honeybees. Entomologists also track how the bees interact with the on-site foraging habitat. They’ll also harvest honey produced in the on-site bee boxes that house the colonies.

“If we don’t keep honeybees at the site, we can’t guarantee that bees will be there to pollinate the plants,” said Matt O’Neal, an ISU professor in plant pathology, entomology and microbiology. “As we produce the vegetation and we allow it to grow, we hope to see how this site could be improved and eventually become the kind of place that beekeepers would want to keep their hives.”

The facility marks Alliant’s first customer-hosted solar project to complete construction in Iowa. It will cost the utility $4.2 million — much of which was gleaned from existing customer rates, Peterson said.

The extra money needed to transform it into an agrivoltaics project came from investors, not Alliant customers. The utility owns and operates the facility and leases the land from ISU.

All $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy will support ISU’s research on the site. The funding will support farming costs, labor costs, outreach and education, and more.

“It’s a win-win for both entities,” Peterson said. “This is a big deal for us that we’re getting this done.”

The land below solar arrays will be cultivated with high value crops at the 1.35 megawatt Alliant Energy Solar Farm in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday, October 17, 2023. Researchers will also study the effects of reflected light from the ground up to the underside of the bifacial solar panels. Iowa State University researchers will raise bees and plant vegetables, fruits and pollinator habitat within the 10-acre solar farm, a partnership between the university and the utilities company. ( Photo by Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Research in action

The site wrapped on construction this month. The first batch of plants — raspberries — will be planted within the next month and go dormant in the winter. The panels will be fully operational in early 2024. Come spring, the grounds should be teeming with budding crops.

The U.S. Department of Energy funding should support ISU’s research through three growing seasons. Over those years, researchers will be analyzing every aspect of the crops and the solar production.

One variable they’re looking at is crop yield: Will the shade from the panels reduce or increase the yields of the fruits and veggies planted underneath? Will there be more or less disease or pests? Will harvest periods change?

ISU graduate students, undergraduate students and technicians will manage the crops and track their growth. Sensors will collect data on the environmental conditions beneath the panels. This data will be compared to on-site crops grown in direct sunlight without any panels overhead — the control group.

Teams also will be keeping an eye on energy production. The vegetation underneath the panels may cool the technology, helping it produce energy more efficiently.

Researchers will track the costs and revenues associated with growing food and beekeeping within an agrivoltaics system. Those budgets can help guide decisions for farmers and solar developers who may try their hand at agrivoltaics.

Underrepresented farming groups, like refugee and Indigenous communities, also will have the opportunity to grow crops in the space around the arrays.

“Land costs and implement costs are some of the biggest barriers to entry into the ag industry,” Peterson said. “This (project) could offer opportunities to break down barriers to access for people who want to get into the ag industry.”

Bridging the divide

You likely see parts of the energy grid every day, like power lines and transmission lines. As renewable energy grows more popular, it places more energy generation — like wind turbines and solar arrays — closer to communities. Nearby residents aren’t always happy about that.

The energy world has to figure out how to make green energy projects more attractive to communities. Agrivoltaics could be the way to go, those in the industry think.

As the project commences, researchers will be surveying a variety of stakeholders about the concept of agrivoltaics, from beginning farmers to refugee farmers. They hope to uncover the factors that drive perceptions about solar — like costs and land use, for example.

“At this stage, solar can stand on its own to actually be a viable, (economically competitive) part of our energy supply,” said Hongli Feng, an ISU assistant professor of economics. “The thing is, will it actually be implemented?”

Team members contributing to the Alliant Energy Solar Farm at Iowa State University see the project as an opportunity to better educate the public about solar energy and the feasibility of agrivoltaics. Producers, policymakers, solar developers and the public at large will be invited to visit the site on field days to see the process for themselves.

“A big test area for this grant is also the demonstration and extension outreach aspects, where we want the growers to come check out the plots, evaluate the crops and ask themselves, ‘What’s the feasibility of such a system?’” said Ajay Nair, an ISU associate professor of horticulture. “This is unbiased research. We will report what we find, and people can decide whether this is a system that is feasible or not.”

The post Crops and solar intersect as Iowa’s first agrivoltaics project prepares to power up appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

Despite Supreme Court ruling, ICWA challenges remain

The nation’s highest court recently upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act in a major case over the law’s constitutionality, a decision hailed by many as a victory for Indigenous children and their families.

But while the 7-2 majority decision in the Brackeen v. Haaland case firmly rejected key arguments against the law known as ICWA, state-level challenges have been moving through lower courts across the country, with varying degrees of success.

Cases in Nebraska, Alaska, Iowa, Montana and Oklahoma center on different legal issues than those decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Plaintiffs in Brackeen v. Haaland — a group of states along with white adoptive parents seeking custody of Native children — argued unsuccessfully that ICWA was unconstitutional because it exceeds the “plenary powers” of Congress to pass legislation governing tribal affairs, “commandeers” states to follow federal law and violates equal protection guarantees.

Yet while the Supreme Court upheld ICWA’s constitutionality for now, legal experts who are both supporters and critics of the 45-year-old federal law say the Brackeen case doesn’t rule out future challenges to tribal sovereignty.

What’s more, justices declined to delve into the equal protection arguments in the case, stating only that the plaintiffs “lack standing” on that issue because the adoptions of Indigenous children they sought had been finalized. Some court watchers say that leaves open the possibility of future lawsuits on equal protection issues.

The 1978 law in question seeks to repair damage caused by centuries of forced attendance at Indian boarding schools and coercive adoptions into white, Christian homes. That legacy has endured in Indian Country, where the rate of foster care removals remains far higher than in other racial and ethnic communities.

Under ICWA, state child welfare agencies must determine whether a child facing foster care, adoption or guardianship is a member of a Native American tribe. If they are an enrolled member or have a parent who is enrolled and are eligible for tribal membership, the case takes a different pathway than for other children. Tribes must be offered the opportunity to take jurisdiction from the state court; tribal members and Indigenous foster parents and kin must be prioritized for placements; and social service agencies must make “active” rather than “reasonable” efforts to help parents accused of maltreatment reunite with their children.

Kate Fort, director of the Indian Law Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law, outlined the most common reasons for an ICWA appeal in the March edition of the Juvenile and Family Court Journal.

She wrote that between 2017 and 2022, more than 40 percent of all such cases were remanded — sent back to lower courts — or reversed. Plaintiffs in 87 percent of the ICWA-based appeals were biological parents of an Indigenous child. About half the cases were appealed based on parents’ belief that the court improperly determined ICWA’s application to their child’s case.

“These data indicate that agencies and courts are still struggling with the first step in an ICWA case — whether they have an ICWA case at all,” Fort wrote in the paper.

Two ICWA-related cases were decided by the Alaska Supreme Court in July 2022.

They involved the federal law’s provision requiring that a “qualified expert witness” testify about the Indigenous child’s tribe, customs and traditions before their parent’s rights can be terminated. Those challenges did not prevail.

Recent disputes over ICWA in state courts center on tribal jurisdiction, the definition of a Native child, and termination of parental rights, among other issues. The following is a summary of some recent cases:


Tribal court jurisdiction in child welfare cases lost ground in an April ruling in Oklahoma. In the decision — involving a child identified as S.J.W. — the state Supreme Court gave lower courts increased ability to grant custody of Native children living on a reservation that is not their own.

S.J.W.’s parents argued that “the Chickasaw tribal court has exclusive jurisdiction regardless of the fact that S.J.W. is a nonmember Indian child,” according to court documents. The state maintained it had shared jurisdiction on cases involving ICWA.

Critics call the ruling involving a Muscogee child living on Chickasaw Nation’s reservation deeply flawed.

The state Supreme Court “misunderstands tribal sovereignty,” the Choctaw Nation’s senior executive officer of legal and compliance Brian Danker told a National Public Radio affiliate. “This ruling could impact a tribe’s ability to protect tribal citizens’ social, cultural and familial connections as it attempts to chip away at the foundations of tribal sovereignty in the state of Oklahoma.”

Fort described the Oklahoma ICWA case as unique, and a “truly unfortunate opinion with absurdly weak analysis.” Fort said tribes’ ability to retain jurisdiction over child welfare cases remains an ongoing fight in multiple states.

Iowa and Nebraska

In another suit filed this past April by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the Supreme Court in Nebraska denied the tribe’s request to intervene, because it had previously been determined the child in question did not meet the criteria of an “Indian child.” The child’s mother was eligible for tribal enrollment, but was not yet enrolled.

The tribe argued the spirit of ICWA should apply to the case, but the state of Nebraska opposed that position, and was victorious in court. Ultimately, the state’s highest court ruled that ICWA’s specific requirements to determine a child’s eligibility for its protections should be strictly applied.

In April 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a juvenile court’s ruling that denied a child ICWA protections, affirming a prior decision to terminate the rights of the child’s parent. The juvenile court found the state’s “reasonable efforts” to avoid out-of-home placement — instead of the “active efforts” required for tribal members under ICWA — were adequate because the child was deemed to be non-Native.


ICWA was affirmed in a Montana case decided by the state Supreme Court in January, a ruling that underscored how the federal law applies to guardianships and third-party custody proceedings, in addition to adoption and foster care cases.

The child’s mother, an enrolled member of the Native Village of Kotzebue Tribe in Alaska, provided the court with verification that her three children were eligible for ICWA protections. She asked the courts to remove her children from the Montana home of their paternal grandparents — who had full custodial rights — and restore her custody. The case was sent back to lower courts for further proceedings to determine if the children should be returned to their mother.


Nearly two weeks after the Brackeen decision in mid-June, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of a recent Minnesota case making a related equal protection argument — that ICWA discriminates against non-Native foster and adoptive parents.

In March 2022, Hennepin County was sued by two Indigenous foster parents who were unsuccessful in the adoption of the Indigenous child they were fostering. Instead, the child’s tribe, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, took over the proceedings and granted custody to the child’s maternal grandmother. The foster parents were considered “nonmembers” in the ICWA case, because one is enrolled in the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the other is a White Earth Nation descendant.

The plaintiffs in the case — who, under ICWA, lost priority in their adoption efforts in favor of the child’s relative despite having adopted the child’s siblings — were represented by Minnetonka attorney Mark Fiddler, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. He also represented the white adoptive couples seeking to overturn ICWA in Brackeen v. Haaland. The conservative Goldwater Institute filed amicus briefs in both cases, challenging ICWA’s constitutionality.

In an email, Fiddler said that while the institute attacked ICWA as unconstitutional, the plaintiffs did not. “Rather, they argued ICWA could and should be interpreted to be constitutional by not forcing nonmembers into a jurisdiction foreign to them,” he said.

“Petitioners were improperly subjected to the personal and subject matter jurisdiction of a state foreign to them, one where they have no right to vote,” plaintiffs stated in Denise Halvorson v. Hennepin County Children’s Services Department case documents. As a result, the lower court violated “their due process rights to fundamental fairness and equal protection.”

But the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied on June 26.

Fiddler said despite the high court upholding ICWA in Brackeen and its denial of the Hennepin County case, establishing standing in an equal protection case against ICWA “would be easy,” and he fully expects continued challenges to the law on this issue and others.

“Any foster or adoptive parent would have the right to move to strike down ICWA in state court, so long as he or she was jeopardized by it somehow,” Fiddler stated shortly after the Brackeen decision.

The Imprint is a non-profit, non-partisan news publication dedicated to reporting on child welfare.

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