Vermont State University president recommends cutting 10 degree programs and up to 33 faculty positions
Vermont State University should end 10 degree programs, including agriculture, music and school psychology, and lose around 20-33 faculty positions, Interim President Mike Smith said in a draft report issued Oct. 2.
Smith’s report also recommends consolidating another 13 degree programs and moving 11 among the university’s multiple campuses. None of the recommendations, if implemented, would affect current students in those programs, according to VTSU leadership. The changes would begin in the fall of 2024.
The school administration is soliciting feedback on the recommendations until Oct. 27, according to the preliminary report, a copy of which was obtained by VTDigger. University leadership will make final decisions by Oct. 31.
“None of this is easy, and I recognize that impacted faculty will have a period of transition ahead of them,” Smith wrote in the report, adding, “What we are doing with these recommendations is confronting our pressures head on — not running from them — and forging a path to address each and every one of them either through steps to obtain fiscal sustainability, strategic plan for admissions, or a student success model to keep students engaged in academic life.”
Smith did not immediately respond to calls and texts Monday night. The report is expected to be made public Tuesday morning.
In the document, Smith recommends discontinuing degrees in agriculture; forestry; landscape contracting; an applied business degree completion program; computer engineering technology; music; photography; performance, arts, and technology; climate change science; and school psychology.
Ending those programs would not necessarily mean that instruction in those subjects would cease entirely. For example, the report notes that VTSU’s recently created Center for Agriculture and Food Entrepreneurship is working to “identify opportunities for a newly designed Agriculture program that is sustainable and meets the needs of Vermont’s workforce.”
And while the report recommends ending the degree in climate change science, it also suggests promoting a climate change concentration within an atmospheric sciences degree.
The programs that Smith recommended cutting currently enroll 77 students, he said, roughly 2% of the university’s student body. All told, the cuts and consolidations proposed in the report would eliminate between 20 to 33 full-time faculty positions — between 10% and 15% of the university’s total of 207.
Vermont State University is planning to release details about a buyout program for faculty “in the coming days,” the report states. “If there is sufficient uptake in the buyout program, layoffs may not be necessary.”
The university was formed this summer through the merger of three public institutions: Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College. The merger was intended to put the three on a pathway to financial stability.
Monday’s report — an initiative that administrators dubbed “Optimization 2.0” — appears to be the next phase of that consolidation. According to Smith, VTSU offers too many academic programs — 99 in total — while some have too few students enrolled.
That situation, he said, is financially untenable. VTSU ended the most recent fiscal year with a $22 million deficit, and the university “must realize efficiencies now that we are unified,” the report reads.
Smith’s term ends Nov. 1, at which point he will be succeeded by the recently hired interim president David Bergh, who is expected to run the university for roughly 18 months.
Monday’s report identifies 13 programs that should be consolidated with others, many of which appear to be already similar.
It proposes merging a program in architectural & building engineering technology with a program in architectural engineering technology, for example.
Among other consolidations, the report recommends combining musical theater and theater arts programs, as well as merging a degree in creative writing with one in literature and writing. And it proposes folding a degree in “Health Promotion” into a health science degree or discontinuing it.
Another 11 programs should shift their location from one of the university’s campuses to another, according to the report.
Last month, in response to complaints from faculty and staff that VTSU employs too many administrators, Smith vowed to examine the institution’s administrative positions and their effect on the budget. In Monday’s report, he reiterated that promise.
“Please know that I strongly agree that administrative costs of the university must be optimized and reduced as well,” Smith wrote. “With this first set of recommendations out the door I will now turn my attention to administrative costs, releasing a recommendation before my departure at the end of the month.”
Linda Olson, a sociology professor who represents VTSU faculty for the American Federation of Teachers, said that there were still many unanswered questions about the report.
“I think that there needs to be a lot of explanation still about why the proposal is making the recommendations that it is,” she said. “And also, more importantly, what data they’re basing it on.”
USDA’s Vilsack Warns of Rural Fallout with Government Shutdown Likely
With House Republicans delaying progress on 2024 budget negotiations under an October 1, 2023 deadline, the effects of a government shutdown if an agreement is not reached could be a swift and brutal blow to rural America, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
“The extreme Republicans pushing this… represent a small minority that don’t seem to care if the government shuts down,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a Daily Yonder interview. “Farmers, ranchers, and producers all across rural America are going to feel this.”
There are 12 appropriations bills that dictate spending for federal agencies that require annual approval from Congress. Negotiations over how much the government should spend is always a lengthy process, but this year especially so, as House Republicans quarrel over how much money should be allocated to agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Interior, Justice, and more.
According to Vilsack frustration toward the group of Republicans stalling progress on this year’s budget is acute. And the drawn-out negotiations could mean spending will grind to a halt come this Sunday, October 1.
According to 2018 data from the Food Research and Action Center, rural Americans rely the most on SNAP benefits. Food banks would be the only other option for those who rely on these benefits, a support system not always accessible to the country’s most rural communities.
The five-year Farm Bill is set to expire on October 1. Congress is likely to extend the lifespan of the bill until the end of 2023, but Vilsack warned that progress would be slow if policymakers are also contending with a government shutdown.
“It slows [the Farm Bill] down because people aren’t there to work on it,” Vilsack said. “We’ll be focused on getting the government back open, and maintaining funding for the offices that service farmers and ranchers.” Commodity prices could skyrocket with a delayed Farm Bill, affecting food prices for consumers across the country. These are just some of the concerns at the top of policymakers’ minds as negotiations on the 2024 budget continue to stall.
Thousands of federal employees could be furloughed come Monday without pay, national forests and parks would be closed, and new homebuyers would be unable to access loans. Many publicly funded assistance programs that require annual budget approval would halt payments if their money ran out during the shutdown as well.
“It’s so unfortunate that a small handful of Republican extremists want this when no one else does,” Vilsack said.
Poultry is booming: Can county’s small farms keep up?
Howard Sanders’ father began poultry farming in the 1980s, shifting away from the family’s previous practice of raising cattle and farming.
Within a few years, they had nine chicken houses on their property in Stephens, and had established one of the most prominent poultry farms in Oglethorpe County.
“There just weren’t that many poultry farms in the county at the time,” Sanders said. “Back in the ’80s, we were probably one of the largest poultry farms in Oglethorpe County.”
Times have changed, however.
A new network of attorneys seeks to defend abuses of industrial agriculture. First up, Colorado.
Farmworkers often struggle to access healthcare. While working, they live in remote areas, sometimes with no personal vehicle. In Colorado, nothing in the law enshrined farmworkers’ rights to quality healthcare.
That year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill into law in June. This law guarantees farmworkers have the right to contact “essential service providers” — health professionals, attorneys, consuls, and clergy members — during their breaks.
However, an industry group is challenging the law. The Colorado Livestock Association filed a lawsuit in June that focuses on the section of the law requiring employers to not impede farmworkers’ reasonable access to service providers during their off time. The group wants it ruled unconstitutional.
In the lawsuit, the Colorado Livestock Association requested the court declare the provision allowing key service providers access to its property violates employers’ rights to exclude people from their property.
“The State of Colorado has not paid just compensation for this (violation) nor initiated eminent domain proceedings to do so,” the organization said in court documents. This is the second time an organization tied to the state’s agricultural industry has challenged the law.
The Colorado Livestock Association did not immediately return a request for comment.
In response, a farmworker – identified as Jane Doe in court documents – and Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit providing legal advice to low-income people in the state, filed a motion to intervene as defendants on Sept. 13.
Colorado Legal Services is receiving support and advice from a newly formed entity known as FarmSTAND, a nonprofit organization comprised of a national network of attorneys to represent communities affected by industrial agriculture. Towards Justice and Farmworker Justice are also involved in the lawsuit.
According to the organization’s press release, FarmSTAND seeks to concentrate resources — bringing lawyers and their expertise together — on certain cases that can set precedents, working in partnership with a broad base of local and national organizations.
“We try to support partners who are doing great work in this space to try to reform industrial animal agriculture and transform the food system,” said Kelsey Eberly, the FarmSTAND attorney counseling on the case.
A community with specific characteristics
An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. About half are undocumented.
In Colorado alone, the agricultural industry employed 19,339 workers, experiencing a 5.7% growth in direct crop production jobs in 2022, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The farmworker community in Colorado constitutes 4.1% of the rural workforce.
Eberly emphasized the unique challenges faced by farmworkers.
“These workers are some of the most isolated and vulnerable,” she said.
Their remote residences and long and demanding work hours create significant barriers when seeking access to essential services, such as health professionals, that many other workers often take for granted.
Eberly also highlighted the importance of the existing law for farmworkers’ rights in Colorado for seasonal laborers who arrive to work on farms during the summer months and often find themselves entirely reliant on their employers for various aspects of their livelihood.
“They live at the place where they work, and they don’t have transportation necessarily, so the only way for them to get any help is for people to come to them,” she said. “That’s why this law is so important.”
Access to assistance becomes especially critical when workers have health issues, particularly given the challenges posed by the effects of climate change.
According to the National Institutes of Health, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors. One of the reasons is that this demographic group has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.
There is little legislation to protect agricultural workers in the U.S.
“This Colorado Law was so groundbreaking, and why it’s so important to protect it,” Eberly said, “so that it can be used as a model for other states.”
How Black Farmers Are Navigating Climate Change With Limited Federal Support
Six months ago, Anthony “AJ” McKenzie, a 30-year-old cool vegetable crop and livestock farmer in North Carolina, stopped farming on his 40 acres. Last year, a drought killed at least 85% of his crop, which caused him to lose income. Usually, he’d grow his cabbage and turnip, mustard, and collard greens twice in the fall […]
Pillen’s Water: High nitrate detected on hog farms owned by Nebraska’s governor
Covered swine barns dot the landscape near Platte Center, where tens of thousands of hogs are raised and fed.
Many of these barns are owned by a local boy who grew up a few miles west of the village, built his small family farm into a global pork empire and then became governor.
Gov. Jim Pillen’s hog operations bring jobs and prosperity to this area near his hometown. They also may bring risk to Platte Center’s drinking water.
The town had to dig a new municipal well three years ago, after another well recorded nitrate at nearly 12 parts per million. That’s higher than the level the federal government says is safe to drink.
Ingesting high levels of nitrate has been linked to a variety of health conditions: A syndrome that can kill babies, thyroid disease, birth defects and cancers, including cancer in children. Nationally, Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania.
Nebraska counties with elevated nitrate levels are often the places where children suffer higher rates of brain cancer, lymphoma and leukemia, a recent University of Nebraska Medical Center study shows.
Andrew Greisen, Platte Center’s water operator, says the area surrounding town has seen a handful of cancer cases this year.
“When I was young, there wasn’t that (many) people with cancer. Now it’s wild,” he said. “Prostate cancer, breast cancer and brain cancer, just everything. I just think it’s got to be the food we’re eating or the water we’re drinking.”
That’s why Greisen is now working with Natural Resources District experts as they map nitrate levels inside Platte Center-area aquifers – studying where the nitrate may be flowing from.
There are many potential culprits, including the nitrogen fertilizer applied for decades to corn fields surrounding this small town.
Another potential culprit: The Platte Center West hog farm. The farm, 6 miles northwest of town, recorded a 61.5-parts-per-million nitrate level – six times above the legal drinking water limit – in one of its monitoring wells last year.
Another nearby hog farm, Janssen Platte Center Nursery, which tested 21.2 parts per million nitrate in April, has shown “strong elevated nitrates and chloride levels,” according to a groundwater review by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy last year.
Both of these hog farms are registered to an owner at 4438 Old Mill Court in Columbus, the headquarters of Pillen Family Farms.
Greisen suspects most of the nitrate comes from anhydrous ammonia fertilizer dumped on cornfields decades ago. He also said that there’s a “good possibility” that hog farms with high nitrate readings affect the area’s water quality.
“It throws a red flag, it really does,” he said.
Since 1993, Pillen and his family have owned or operated at least 108 livestock facilities – most of them hog barns – spread throughout the state, but clustered in eastern Nebraska, according to permitting records.
Only 27 of these facilities are required by the state to have monitoring wells installed on them.
Sixteen of those 27 have recorded nitrate levels higher than 50 parts per million at least once since monitoring began on site, according to a Flatwater Free Press review.
A few of them have violated the state’s livestock waste control rules. They have housed more hogs than permitted, the state alleged, failed to report wastewater discharge into a marsh and submitted groundwater test results and manure nutrient analyses late – all of which could conceivably increase the risk of nitrate contamination, research shows.
Pillen is far from the only big hog producer facing these issues. In many places, waste from concentrated livestock operations is a major contributor to ground and surface water nitrate pollution, the research noted.
These high readings on Pillen-affiliated livestock facilities result in little state action, the review shows. Like other hog farms and feedlots that have reported high nitrate in Nebraska, the elevated levels don’t automatically trigger any state intervention, as the Flatwater Free Press previously reported. The NDEE examines these results individually to determine potential causes and solutions, said Amanda Woita, a department spokesperson.
To be clear: No one is directly drinking from these monitoring wells on hog farms. But some of that nitrate will move along with groundwater, experts say, potentially posing a risk to residents living downstream and contributing to Nebraska’s nitrate problem.
Pillen did not respond to multiple interview requests from Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest about his hog operations.
In a December 2022 interview with the Nebraska Examiner, Pillen portrayed nitrate pollution as a problem largely stemming from the past. He said much improvement has been made, and that remaining problems will take time to address. “And if there are a few silly things going on, it’s easy to be able to identify that and granularly fix that,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the governor directed all questions to Pillen Family Farms.
Pillen Family Farms CEO Sarah Pillen, the governor’s daughter, sent a general statement when reporters requested an interview. She said the company “(has) always placed a strong commitment on being positive environmental stewards of the land.”
She noted the company employs a 17-member team who work to protect Nebraska’s groundwater and ensure safe nutrient management.
She and other Pillen Family Farms executives did not respond to multiple email questions about high nitrate detected on specific hog farms, potential causes of these high readings and the company’s remediation efforts.
PC West, owned by Pillen Family Farms, is one of dozens of livestock operations near Platte Center. It’s upstream of the village, which has faced mounting nitrate issues in its drinking water. A monitoring well at PC West has recorded nitrate levels as high as 61.5 parts per million. Drone video by Matt Waite for the Flatwater Free Press
Many Pillen hog barns have few to no known nitrate issues, data show. Nitrate readings at modern hog confinements should be low unless waste storage pit leaks or manure is overapplied in nearby fields, said Chris Jones, former University of Iowa water quality researcher and author of book “The Swine Republic.”
Other Pillen hog barns look much like the hundreds of other pig farms spread across Nebraska, which tend to show at least slightly elevated nitrate levels at some points. Ray Ward, founder of a leading Nebraska water testing lab, said nitrate readings near livestock waste lagoons are “quite variable,” from near-zero levels to very high numbers.
Still other Pillen operations, like a Holt County hog farm, have recorded nitrate levels higher than Jones says he’s ever seen.
The Holt County farm, called CRB Finish, had multiple nitrate readings higher than 200 parts per million between 2015 and 2017.
In 2016, it recorded a reading of 445 parts per million – nearly 45 times the EPA standard for safe drinking water.
“If you’ve got a monitoring well that’s 400 parts per million and there’s drinking water wells in the area, that should be a 911,” Jones said.
Another expert, Rebecca Muenich of the University of Arkansas, said it’s a “huge, huge, huge human health concern” if nitrate anywhere near this level makes it into the drinking wells of nearby residents.
“That’s water that you can sell as fertilizer for sure,” said Muenich, who specializes in analyzing water quality data near livestock facilities.
The nitrate levels in that Holt County hog farm monitoring well have dropped markedly since 2020, dipping to near zero in November 2022.
Many other monitoring wells on livestock facilities tied to Pillen Family Farms continue to show flashing nitrate warning signs.
Nine different hog farms that the state lists as being Pillen-affiliated reported nitrate higher than 70 parts per million this year, according to an FFP review of groundwater reports.
Two are near Platte Center, population 355. The monitoring well at Pillen’s Production Farms, a hog farm south of the village, had water tested at 70 parts per million nitrate in April. Another farm, Oconee Finisher, reported 76 parts per million this year, the highest level since it started monitoring.
Both are downstream of the town and have less impact on the town’s drinking water. But residents of rural Platte County – many of whom get their drinking water from private wells that aren’t required to be tested – are still at risk, experts say.
At least seven domestic wells are situated within three miles downstream of Pillen’s Production Farms, a Flatwater Free Press analysis of the state well registry found.
Platte Center is surrounded by nearly 50 livestock facilities within a five-mile radius, including feedlots and hog barns. Many don’t have monitoring wells installed on site. The three that do, including one not owned by Pillen Family Farms, all show significantly elevated nitrate levels.
The town recently drilled a new, deeper well that’s currently delivering clean water.
The project’s price tag: roughly $500,000. The state footed nearly half the bill.
Greisen is worried about Platte Center’s future, because he knows what is happening nearby.
The village of Lindsay has spent $826,000 digging a new well and running pipes into the village. One of that 283-person village’s wells has regularly violated the 10-ppm drinking water standard since 2010.
Bellwood is also under the threat of high nitrate.
Greisen wonders, and worries: Is more polluted water coming Platte Center’s way?
A nitrate mystery
Sometimes called “liquid gold,” hog manure contains a high concentration of nitrogen matter, which converts to nitrate when exposed to oxygen. Nitrate is great fertilizer for crops. But it can also easily find its way into groundwater, which supplies 85% of Nebraskans with drinking water.
The federal Clean Water Act gives states the authority to monitor water at certain livestock operations. Many states mandate the monitoring of nitrate because of potential water contamination.
Experts say these monitoring wells may pick up high nitrate originating from sources unrelated to livestock. The high nitrate detected could reflect plumes of nitrate, generated years ago, now entering the water table. It may also come from commercial fertilizer – many of Nebraska’s hog farms are near cornfields.
But sometimes feeding operations are the direct source of nitrate, depending on how they store feed, manage wastewater and apply manure to surrounding land, according to the NDEE and outside experts.
That’s why the NDEE typically requires multiple-well monitoring programs on certain sites — at least one upstream that indicates background contaminant levels, and two downstream.
High nitrate readings in a downstream well can indicate that the feedlot or hog barn has released large amounts of nitrogen into the aquifer, said Dan Snow, director of the University of Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory.
Snow said the high nitrate and spikes of ammonia at CRB Finish, the Pillen hog farm in Holt County, seem to signify multiple leaking events in the wastewater distribution system. It appeared a spill “allowed the ammonia and other contaminants to flow directly into the aquifer,” he told the Flatwater Free Press, after reviewing the groundwater monitoring data.
Pillen Family Farms executives didn’t respond to multiple Flatwater Free Press emails asking about the potential cause of the high nitrate.
The soil is also very sandy in Holt County, Snow said, so nitrate from animal waste can get quickly washed into the water table. “Maybe having animal feeding operations in that part of the state is not a good idea, just because it’s much easier to contaminate the local groundwater,” he said.
Hog manure is often applied to nearby fields to avoid high transportation costs, thus exposing nearby bodies of water and groundwater to contamination risks, said Muenich, the University of Arkansas water expert.
“… It can be accidental application or deliberate; it doesn’t matter,” Snow said. “If it’s at the surface … and the plant doesn’t use it, it can eventually end up at the water table.”
State regulators point out that there are restrictions for livestock facilities like the Pillen Family Farms hog barns. They must sit at least 100 feet from an existing domestic well and 1,000 feet from an existing municipal well.
Some animal feeding operations are also asked to monitor nearby drinking wells, said Carla Felix, an NDEE spokesperson, in an email.
No hog barn is known to have contaminated a rural resident’s drinking water, Felix said.
“NDEE is not aware of any documented incidences where a private well was impacted by a (Livestock Waste Control Facility),” she wrote.
And she noted that any investigation isn’t guaranteed to identify the source of high nitrate for a simple reason: Groundwater moves.
Jones, the Iowa water expert, suspects that this mystery about where high nitrate comes from isn’t one that regulators are clamoring to solve.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental nonprofit, gave Nebraska an overall rating of “low” for what it says is a lack of livestock operation data transparency.
To Jones, keeping the sources of high nitrate mysterious is the point.
“The uncertainty about individual operations … the industry uses that … to avoid responsibility and make the case that it can’t be regulated,” he said.
Problems in Hastings
In 2006, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee reported that workers at a Hastings-area hog farm were pumping hog waste onto a nearby federal wetlands area. State regulators later alleged that the hog farm, co-owned by Pillen Family Farms had “allowed or caused a discharge of livestock waste” onto the wetlands, then failed to report the spill.
In a separate incident, farm employees constructed a PVC pipe without a permit. They used the pipe to drain a storage pit into a freshwater channel, regulators alleged.
The operation near Hastings, named Inland Foods, eventually entered a court-ordered agreement with state regulators and paid a civil penalty.
Inland Foods is one of a dozen Pillen Family Farms livestock operations that have violated state regulations in the past three decades, a review of NDEE documents shows.
Current executives at Pillen Family Farms didn’t respond when asked about specific violations of state rules.
In a statement, Sarah Pillen touted the company’s general environmental protection measures, describing them as “far beyond regulatory requirements.” The company works closely with state regulators, she said. In the company’s history, she said, it has never had a permit revoked. (Read Sarah Pillen’s full statement here.)
The Hastings-area farm didn’t have groundwater monitoring when it paid a penalty for violating state rules.
In 2011, state regulators recommended the installation of monitoring wells. The nitrate readings came back high.
An inspection later that year suggested the hog farm violated state rules by housing more hogs than its permit allowed.
High nitrate on site has continued. A downstream monitoring well detected a level of 77.8 parts per million in May. A 2021 NDEE report concluded that “this facility is impacting groundwater quality with a depth to water of 85-100 feet.”
The high nitrate readings didn’t surprise Marty Stange, Hastings’ environmental supervisor. He said local construction projects might have altered groundwater flow, and high nitrate levels might not necessarily reflect the hog farm’s manure management.
The NDEE works with livestock operations it has deemed to have impacted groundwater, Felix said. Sometimes it orders these facilities to do things such as increase monitoring, plant trees or relocate lagoons, which can cost millions of dollars.
There’s no public record of NDEE further investigating or otherwise acting on its 2021 report. Woita, the NDEE spokesperson, declined to say whether the department has worked with Inland Foods, the hog farm co-owned by Pillen Family Farms near Hastings, on any remediation.
Despite record-keeping rules, state regulations aren’t stopping high nitrate from showing up in water near livestock operations, advocates say. The leaching of nutrients from manure into groundwater and surface water can kill fish, cause algae bloom and threaten drinking water, research shows.
State rules require hog barns to document where manure is applied to prevent overapplication.
But Anthony Schutz, a UNL law professor and board member of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, said such paperwork doesn’t guarantee good stewardship. After all, it’s nearly impossible for NDEE inspectors to watch every acre.
“You keep a bunch of records. You do a bunch of monitoring. You follow all of the rules that are in the permit. But it turns out the rules in the permit don’t actually require you to not pollute. And so you wind up with … where we are today,” said Schutz.
Stronger guardrails needed?
Last September, a handful of Nebraskans testified at a state hearing on proposed permitting changes for concentrated animal feeding operations. Some testifiers were grassroots organizers. Others farmed small plots of land next to a livestock operation.
Most wanted the state to hold large, industrial farms more accountable.
“The water in this state belongs to the people, not to any industrial ag interest,” said Nancy Meyer, a Cedar Bluffs resident, arguing Nebraska is neglecting to protect its groundwater.
“When does the alarm sound loud enough that we stop overloading our soils and waterways with nutrients?” said Ashlen Busick, a testifier from the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, in an interview with the Flatwater Free Press.
But many inside Nebraska’s ag industry are dubious.
Livestock nutrient management consultant Andy Scholting thinks current state regulations already provide ample guardrails.
“We’re doing more in regards to nutrient management compared to other states in the Midwest,” he said, noting the state mandates more frequent soil tests before manure application.
Osceola farmer Kevin Peterson owns a 4,800-head hog farm and serves on the state Environmental Quality Council, a 17-person, governor-appointed board that adopts some NDEE regulations.
Peterson thinks the current regulations, and a heavy emphasis on educating farmers, are working as intended.
After all, overapplying manure is expensive, he said. And Nebraska farmers are increasingly heeding the nitrate problem and taking voluntary action to address it, Peterson said.
“It’s a lot easier to envision a robber baron sitting in the office … twisting his evil mustache and thinking about how they could destroy the environment in order to make an extra penny,” said Peterson. “I’ve yet to run into any of those folks … I do not think Governor Pillen is one of those.”
As governor, Pillen could strengthen rules and “stop the bleeding,” said Graham Christensen, an Oakland-area farmer who focuses on regenerative agriculture and runs a consulting firm.
“He has such an opportunity as this known polluter to help bring farmers into a situation where they’re not (polluting), and his operations would benefit from that,” said Christensen.
Pillen could tap into federal funding to promote farming practices that can reduce nitrate leaching, such as planting cover crops, Christensen said. He could step up state regulations on manure application such as requiring buffer strips when manure is applied.
“He’s ignoring the issue. He’s not wanting to meet with anybody on this thing. He’s not publicly addressing our concerns,” Christensen said.
This April, the NDEE published a letter to Nebraskans concerned about the feedlots, hog barns and chicken farms that surround small towns like Platte Center.
The document summarized public comments and the agency’s response to 11 different points of concern over water quality and waste control, after some commenters said the agency didn’t adequately address concerns raised in the rule-making process.
In the April letter, there’s a spot in the document where the NDEE listed any changes it has made in the permit rules in response to these concerns.
In all 11 areas where potential change could occur, the state agency responded with a single word.
Sky Chadde, of Investigate Midwest, contributed to this story.
This is the second in a series.Read the first story here.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.
Poor regulatory safeguards leave farmworkers suffocating in the face of increasing heat waves
Juan Peña, 29, has worked in the fields since childhood, often exposing his body to extreme heat like the wave hitting the Midwest this week.
The heat can cause such deep pain in his whole body that he just wants to lie down, he said, as his body tells him he can’t take another day on the job. On those days, his only motivation to get out of bed is to earn dollars to send to his 10-month-old baby in Mexico.
Farmworkers, such as Peña and the crew he leads in Iowa, are unprotected against heat-related illnesses. They are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors, according to the National Institutes of Health, and the absence of a federal heat regulation that guarantees their safety and life – when scientists have warned that global warming will continue – increases that risk.
Over a six-year period, 121 workers lost their lives due to exposure to severe environmental heat. One-fifth of these fatalities were individuals employed in the agricultural sector, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data.
One such case involved a Nebraska farmworker who suffered heat stroke alone and died on a farm in the early summer of 2018. A search party found his body the next day.
In early July 2020, a worker detasseling corn in Indiana experienced dizziness after working for about five hours. His coworkers provided him shade and fluids before they resumed work. The farmworker was found lying on the floor of the company bus about 10 minutes later. He was pronounced dead at the hospital due to cardiac arrest.
“As a physician, I believe that these deaths are almost completely preventable,” said Bill Kinsey, a physician and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Until we determine as a society the importance of a human right for people to work in healthy situations, we are going to see continued illness and death in this population.”
Peña harvests fields in Texas and Iowa. This summer, he’s overseen five Mexican seasonal workers picking vegetables and fruits in Louisa County, Iowa. With its high humidity and heat, Iowa’s climate causes the boys, as he affectionately refers to them, to end their day completely wet, as if they had taken “a shower with their clothes on,” he said. They work up to 60 or 70 hours a week to meet their contractual obligations.
“I’m lucky because my bosses are considerate (when it’s hot),” he said in Spanish, recalling that he managed to endure temperatures as high as 105 degrees in Texas. “I’ve had bosses who, if they see you resting for a few minutes under a tree to recover yourself, think you’re wasting your time and send you home without pay.”
Some of his friends have been less fortunate, and a few minutes of rest have been cause for dismissal, he said.
The fatalities scratch the surface of what is a more extensive issue, according to health experts, academics and advocacy groups, who say the data on heat illnesses and death is inadequate.
“There is a massive undercount,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers.
She said it is common for the death of a person who died after a heat stroke to be classified as caused by a heart attack on an autopsy.
Strater said it’s difficult to quantify issues that face farmworkers because those that are undocumented tend to shy away from authorities and, in general, the population moves around a lot and lives in secluded areas. “Everything to do with farmworkers is particularly difficult because we don’t know,” she said.
An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. More than one-third are undocumented.
A possible federal standard
Although employers are generally responsible for ensuring a safe working environment that protects their employees’ well-being and lives, no federal regulation stipulates a specific temperature threshold that mandates protective measures.
Nearly four in 10 farmworkers are unwilling to file a complaint against their employer for noncompliance in the workplace, mostly out of fear of retaliation or losing their job, according to survey data of California farmworkers conducted by researchers at the University of California Merced Community and Labor Center.
Only four states have adopted outdoor workplace heat-stress standards, and none of them are in the Midwest. California was the first to implement such standards, followed by Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.
This leaves the protection of agricultural workers from heat stress at the discretion of their employers in most states.
OSHA has been working on a heat-stress rule since 2021 that will require employers to provide adequate water and rest breaks for outdoor workers, as well as medical services and training to treat the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. However, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, this process can take from 15 months to 19 years.
OSHA officials would not comment on the pending federal heat standard.
Last year, the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Stress Injury, Illness, and Death Prevention Act, which would force OSHA to issue a heat standard much faster than the normal process, failed to get the votes on the floor.
The bill was named in honor of Asuncion Valdivia, who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours nonstop in 105-degree heat. Valdivia collapsed unconscious and, instead of calling an ambulance, his employer told his son to take his father home. On the way home, he died of heat stroke at 53.
“There is definitely a political decision to be made by members of Congress, in both the House and the Senate, because they have the power to pass legislation to tell OSHA to issue a standard more quickly,” said Mayra Reiter, project director of occupational safety and health at the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.
Reiter added that the legislation would also help shield that standard from future legal challenges in court.
In response, President Joe Biden announced new measures to protect workers — including a hazard alert notifying employers and employees of ways to stay safe from extreme heat — as well as steps to improve weather forecasting and make drinking water more accessible.
But farmworker advocacy groups are calling on the administration to speed up OSHA’s issuance of a rule protecting workers. They are also pushing for the 2023 farm bill to include farmworker heat protections.
“Farmer organizations and many other worker advocacy groups are hoping that there’ll be a federal regulation,” Reiter said, “because, going state by state, we have seen that there isn’t that urgency to develop these rules.”
Long way to a new rule
Creating a new rule to protect workers from heat must overcome several hurdles, from bureaucratic procedures to lobbying industries, including the agricultural industry.
“OSHA is uniquely slow,” said Jordan Barab, who served as OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary of labor during the Obama administration.
He said the 1970 act that created OSHA imposes many requirements on the rulemaking process. The agency has to determine the current problem and whether the new standard will reduce risk. OSHA must also ensure that the new standard is economically, technically and technologically feasible in all industries.
The road to regulations to protect workers from the heat also has to overcome industry lobbying, including big agricultural and construction groups. One group that has expressed hesitancy to new federal rules is the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has spent on average about $2.3 million on lobbying over the past two years, according to OpenSecrets.
“Considering the variances in agricultural work and climate, (the Farm Bureau) questions whether the department can develop additional heat illness regulations without imposing new, onerous burdens on farmers and ranchers that will lead to economic losses,” Sam Kieffer, vice president of public policy at American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement.
To make a living, Jaime Salinas fills 32 sacks of apples each day in Missouri. His daily quota is one ton, or about 3,200 apples. His wife used to walk 11 miles a day to harvest fruits and vegetables when she worked in the field.
He said when he gets too hot, he sits in the shade to drink water but feels pressured to keep working due to the method of payment, which depends on the amount harvested.
Strater, with Farmworker Justice, believes that the way farmworkers are paid is one of the main obstacles that must be overcome to ensure their safety because it often incentivizes volume, forcing them to expose themselves to continued work without regard to the signs of heat-related illness.
Kinsey, the University of Wisconsin professor and the director of a mobile clinic, said the demographic has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.
“Climate stress,” he said, “has introduced an additional layer of complexity to these existing challenges.”
Seasonal visa workers are especially vulnerable because they depend completely on whoever hires them: from the house they live in to the food they eat.
“You’re going to endure as much as you can with the hopes of continuing to provide for your family,” Strater said. “The thing is the endpoint for that is death.”
In Tama County, Iowa, David Hinegardner owns a small farm called Hinegardner’s Orchard, where he grows apples, strawberries, corn and soybeans. He sells his crop to supermarkets, farmers’ markets, schools, and colleges.
The farmworkers are immigrants from Latin America who reside in the surrounding area, and some of them have been working on his farm for decades. One of the measures he takes during the summer to avoid risks to his workers is to change the work schedules to avoid the hottest part of the day.
“I think they do a much better job when they’re treated with respect and taken good care of,” he said.
Livestock are dying in the heat. This little-known farming method offers a solution.
This story is part of Record High, a Grist series examining extreme heat and its impact on how — and where — we live.
Josh Payne planted chestnut trees six years ago. The rows of nut trees haven’t fully matured yet, but he’s banking on the future shade they’ll provide to shield his animals from sweltering heat.
“We started with that largely because we want to get out of commodity agriculture,” Payne said. “But also because I’m worried that in our area it’s getting hotter and drier.”
Payne operates a 300-acre regenerative farm in Concordia, Missouri, an hour outside of Kansas City, where he raises sheep and cattle. By planting 600 chestnut trees, he is bracing for a future of extreme heat by adapting an agriculture practice known as silvopasture. Rooted in preindustrial farming, the method involves intentionally incorporating trees on the same land used by grazing livestock, in a way that benefits both. Researchers and farmers say silvopastures help improve the health of the soil by protecting it from wind and water, while encouraging an increase of nutrient-rich organic matter, like cow manure, onto the land.
It also provides much-needed natural shade for livestock. According to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit climate change research group, chunks of America’s heartland — including Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri — could experience at least one day with temperatures of 125 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter by 2053.
When temperatures rise above 80 degrees, the heat begins to take a toll on animals, which will try to cool themselves down by sweating, panting, and seeking shelter. If they are unable to lower their body temperature, the animals will breathe harder, becoming increasingly fatigued, and eventually die.
Research shows that as the planet warms, livestock deaths will increase. Last year, when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees in southwestern Kansas, roughly 2,000 cattle in the state died; the Kansas Livestock Association estimated each cow to be worth $2,000 if they were market-ready, equaling an economic loss of $4 million. And so far this year, the trend is continuing, with livestock producers in Iowa already reporting hundreds of cattle deaths in the latter half of July alone.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, the ideal temperature for beef and dairy cows ranges between 44 and 77 degrees. Above those temperatures, heat stress causes cattle to produce less milk and decreases their fertility.
Payne’s family farm is a microcosm of American agriculture’s monocrop past and its changing future. He inherited the land from his grandfather, who spent decades tearing trees out of the ground in favor of growing corn and soybeans, using chemical fertilizers for years. His family was hardly alone in doing so: Along with cattle, corn and soybeans make up the top three farm products in the U.S., according to the industry group American Farm Bureau.
Missouri produced nearly $94 billion of agricultural products last year — an economic driver under threat from climate change, which has brought more intense floods and droughts to the state. Last year, the Mississippi River, which flows through Missouri, reached severely low water levels in the face of a historic drought, stopping the barge travel that supports the country’s agricultural economy. When Payne spoke to Grist in July, he was hoping for rain to come soon amid the humid 98-degree heat.
To prevent harm to his 600 sheep and 25 cattle, Payne currently uses portable structures to provide artificial shade while he waits for his chestnut trees to mature. This technology acts like a big umbrella that can be moved as a herd moves, but it doesn’t protect animals from reflected heat and sun rays from the sides the same way a tree canopy can.
In addition to the shade his future nut trees will provide, they’ll be a source of income, too. Payne said it’s likely he’ll make more money on 30 acres of chestnut trees than he would on 300 acres of row crops like corn.
“We’re rethinking the farm process based on climate predictions,” Payne said. “Here we are planting trees in our pastures, so that in 10 to twelve years we can have dappled shade.”
Planting trees in a field seems almost too simple as a way to keep livestock safe and healthy in a hotter world. But Ashley Conway-Anderson, a researcher at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry, knows better. She said of all the USDA’s land management systems used to blend forest and livestock, silvopasture is the most complicated, as it requires a delicate balance between planted trees, natural forests and brush, and livestock.
But she will admit the practice is common sense.
“Trees provide shade. That’s the place where you want to be when it’s hot, right?” Conway-Anderson said. “The idea behind a well-managed silvopasture is your taking that shade and dispersing it across the field.”
Conway-Anderson said farmers are adapting their land to silvopastures at a time when agriculture as a whole is wrestling with its role in climate change. The sector accounts for roughly 11 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the USDA.
In addition to mitigating extreme heat risks and promoting soil health, trees planted on pastures and fields act as a way to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit known for its expansive list of practices to prevent further climate harm, estimates that silvopastures could sequester five to 10 times the amount of carbon than a treeless pasture of the same size.
Notably, however, while carbon accounts for the main source of human-caused greenhouse gasses, agriculture’s role in a warming planet largely comes from methane produced by livestock and their waste. But silvopastures help combat that — animals that move around to graze end up trampling on their waste, working it into the soil where it’s repurposed as a natural fertilizer; in contrast, most farm operations pool all livestock waste together in large ponds from which a concentration of methane is then emitted.
Conway-Anderson said agroforestry and silvopastures aren’t always a one-size-fits-all solution. She said farmers are having to “get big or get out,” and aren’t always able to invest the time or money in planting trees or revitalizing woodland they might already own.
“We’ve created an economic system where we have incentivized and subsided specific crops, products, and ways of doing farming and agriculture that has really sucked the air out of the room for smaller, diversified operations,” she said.
On the other hand, she said silvopasture practices can be successful because of their flexibility. Farmers can use trees they already own. They can graze goats, pigs, sheep, cattle, and more under the shade of nut trees, fruit trees, and trees whose trimmings and branches can be harvested and sold to the lumber industry.
“Silvopastures are not a silver bullet,” Conway-Anderson said. “But at this point, I don’t think we have any silver bullets anymore.”
At Hidden Blossom Farms in Union, Connecticut, a rural town located near the border of Massachusetts, Joe Orefice has been methodical in his implementation of silvopasture.
Orefice, a Yale School of the Environment professor of agroforestry, raises tunnel-grown vegetables, figs, and roughly two dozen grass-fed cows that enjoy the shade of apple trees on a 134-acre farm. He said there are currently only two acres of fruit trees the cattle use for cover.
Despite the small acreage, Orefice said, he has focused primarily on soil health, a key aspect of silvopasture management. Without properly maintained grasses and soil, trees won’t grow, and there wouldn’t be any shade for his cattle.
“You need to manage the grasses so young trees will grow,” he said.
In addition to land management and soil health, Orefice said the animal welfare benefits of shade were top of mind.
“I don’t want to eat a big meal if I’m sitting in the sun on a hot and humid day, and we want our cattle to eat big meals because that’s how they grow or keep their calves healthy by producing milk,” he said.
Orefice said a common misconception about silvopasture leads to farmers just taking livestock they own and putting them in the forest without any additional management. He said this can damage soil when livestock, especially pigs, aren’t routinely moved. While it might seem counterintuitive, he said one of the first steps of creating a proper silvopasture from an existing forest is to trim trees and till the soil.
While he only raises 25 beef cattle, Orefice said he’s seen larger farms begin to implement silvopasture practices. He said raising tree crops, like nuts or figs and other fruits, is a boon for farmers who switch to more diversified crop operations versus large, concentrated animal-feeding operations.
For example, Orefice noted that if farmers in the Corn Belt, who are facing continued droughts and an extreme heat future, switched to tree crops, the upfront costs might be expensive and hard. Still, they would eventually make more money on tree crops than on corn or soybeans. The problem, as he sees it, is there is no incentive or safety net for farmers to begin to adopt these practices at the same rate as they have mainstream ones.
“The question isn’t really, ‘Is silvopasture scalable?’” Orefice said. “The question is, ‘Does our economy allow us to scale pasture-based livestock production?’”
Court OKs 3,500 gas wells amid ‘Path of the Pronghorn,’ sage grouse winter habitat
A panel of appellate judges has rejected a suite of claims brought by environmental advocates trying to halt a 220-square-mile gas field planned for a sagebrush expanse housing a famous pronghorn migration path and Wyoming’s largest-known sage grouse winter concentration area.
In its ruling, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed what U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl decided a year ago: That the National Environmental Policy Act prohibits uninformed decisions, but allows for environmentally harmful decisions. In the 10th Circuit, judges Timothy Tymkovich, Nancy Moritz and Veronica Rossman quoted precedent from a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in their 31-page decision, writing that NEPA, “merely prohibits uninformed—rather than unwise—agency action.”
The statute, Tymkovich, Moritz and Rossman wrote, “does not even require agencies to promulgate environmentally friendly rules.”
That was the takeaway from a decision that denied all four claims brought by the plaintiffs: Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Upper Green River Alliance.
“We’re disappointed in the ruling,” Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar said. “The judges ruled that the Bureau of Land Management was justified in not considering in great detail the impacts to the Path of the Pronghorn migration, the herd of pronghorn that summer in Grand Teton National Park. And [they ruled] it was perfectly permissible to consider impacts to pronghorn only at the broadest possible scale, the scale of the Sublette Herd.”
The state of Wyoming recently offered a section of land in a bottleneck portion of the migration for oil and gas leasing, and it went to the high bidder, Kirkwood Oil and Gas, for $19 an acre — though that sale has been stalled. Meanwhile, the state has dragged its feet at designating the migration path, which could buffer the Path of the Pronghorn from intense drilling in places like the NPL field.
Arguments shot down
In their appeal, the environmental groups argued that the BLM violated federal environmental law by failing to take a “hard look” at how the gas field would impact the Path of the Pronghorn.
Tymkovich, Moritz and Rossman weren’t persuaded.
“The [g]roups misunderstand the regulations,” the appellate justices wrote. “They do not require the Bureau to pay special attention to special resources.”
The 10th Circuit panel found that analyzing the larger Sublette Herd was adequate. And the harm the gas field, which sits 25 miles south of Pindale, would cause was properly detailed, they wrote.
“The [environmental review] squarely confronted the ‘displacement’ and ‘disrupt[ion]’ of pronghorn ‘migration patterns’ and discussed the ‘[d]egradation’ of ‘migratory routes’ that ‘connect crucial winter range and other pronghorn habitats in the analysis area and the region,’” the opinion reads.
Other arguments brought by the plaintiffs concerned the phasing of development within the 140,000-acre gas field, and alleged NEPA violations for inadequate data gathered about impacts to Grand Teton National Park and sage grouse winter concentration areas.
The NPL gas field overlaps about half of a complex of sage grouse wintering ground that housed an estimated 2,000 birds in 2015. Highly protected sage grouse “core” habitat has also been kept out of the gas field — and it isn’t being added through an ongoing revision process, leaving birds in the project area vulnerable.
In denying the plaintiffs’ argument, the appellate judges found the BLM vetted grouse impacts adequately: “The Bureau clearly possessed enough information to anticipate how development would affect the sage grouse and [winter concentration areas] under the selected action.”
The agency’s proclamation that the gas field would cause sage grouse “various adverse effects” was enough, they wrote.
Likewise, the panel of judges didn’t buy the argument that the BLM failed to take a hard look at how the project would indirectly impact Grand Teton National Park by harming pronghorn. The judges faulted the plaintiffs for not raising those concerns when the environmental impact statement for the NPL field was being reviewed, and they pointed out the agency did acknowledge indirect interference with “recreation experiences outside the Project Area.”
Paul Ulrich, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Jonah Energy, declined an interview for this story. It’s Jonah’s policy to not comment on litigation, he said, and there’s not a “clear picture” for the gas field moving forward.
Some activity, however, is underway — and road building and even some drilling was taking place while the project was tied up in the courts.
Records from the BLM’s Pinedale Field Office show that drilling was occurring within the project area as early as 1994. Although the agency’s record of decision for the 3,500-well project was approved in 2018 and litigated shortly thereafter, judges never put a stop to activity in the disputed field.
From the BLM, WyoFile obtained Jonah Energy’s application-to-drill documents for well pads within the field last winter. At that time, there had been 18 total submitted applications since the decision was published, 11 of which had been approved. Visits to coordinates of several of those approved pads show that, in places, the sagebrush has been scraped and ground leveled to accommodate Jonah Energy’s industrial operations.
“Where are we now with NPL?” BLM-Wyoming Deputy Director Brad Purdy said. “We are doing site-specific NEPA, which basically is going to be [applications to drill].”
Through that process, he said, stipulations are imposed that are intended to protect wildlife like sage grouse and big game and other natural resources.
Although they’ve sustained successive losses in court, the project’s opponents haven’t abandoned the fight.
“There’s always the option to request an en banc review, which would involve additional judges and not just the three we happened to draw,” Western Watersheds Project’s Molvar said. “There are other options for appealing a 10th Circuit ruling, but that’s the one that I would think that would be most likely.”
Meantime, Upper Green River Alliance Director Linda Baker bemoaned what she sees as more blows to the “internationally significant gem” of the Path of the Pronghorn and the valley’s “iconic sage grouse.”
“It’s really sad,” Baker said. “And it’s tragic that the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state of Wyoming governor’s office fails to recognize what an incredibly priceless gem we have here.”
Why are we paying for crop failures in the desert?
In mid-July in Phoenix, a man demonstrated to a local news station how to cook steak on the dashboard of his car. The city sweltered through a nearly monthlong streak of 110-degree temperatures this summer, while heat records are tumbling across the Southwest.
But despite the signs that this is the new normal, farmers in the region are planting the same thirsty crops on the same parched land in the desert, and watching them wither year after year. And why not? The American taxpayer is covering their losses.
Research released in June by the Environmental Working Group shows that, since 2001, heat linked to climate change has driven $1.33 billion in insurance payouts to farmers across the Southwest for crops that failed amid high temperatures. As the planet warms through the century, payments resulting from the impacts of climate change across the nation are likely to increase by as much as $3.7 billion.
Studies have repeatedly shown that federally subsidized crop insurance discourages farmers from updating their practices, tools, or strategies in ways that would help them adapt to climate change—but the federal government still subsidizes a whopping 62 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums. Until someone in Washington figures out a better way to spend our money, farmers in the Southwest are going to keep planting thirsty crops in the desert. They have little incentive not to.
The Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP), the world’s largest crop insurance system, was established in the wake of the Dust Bowl to protect farmers from debilitating acts of God—decades before a growing body of scientific work firmly established the link between our fossil fuel use and rising temperatures. Although the government’s safety net for farmers includes an array of tools, this single program’s annual $10-billion price tag, which covers everything from drought in Arizona to flooding in Mississippi, accounts for a third of all public money spent on agriculture. Four-fifths of that are used to subsidize farmers’ costs.
Buoyed by ardent lobbying from large agricultural interests, the FCIP guarantees near-normal revenues in the face of losses that would cripple other businesses. It props up poorly managed operations while enabling risky decisions—like growing thirsty crops in a desert where millions of people vie for dwindling supplies of water.
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In states like Arizona that depend on the stressed Colorado River, how and what farmers choose to grow has taken on new importance. Agriculture uses three-quarters of the region’s water to raise crops like cotton, which sucks up an average of 41 inches of irrigation annually, compared to wheat, which needs just 25 inches. Despite the arid conditions, there are plenty of reasons why farmers in the Southwest grow cotton, including the market, availability of financing, past experience, and the tools at hand. Subsidized insurance is a big one.
Although the program covers more than 100 different crops across the U.S., the vast majority of payouts go to corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton, which are planted nationally on the most acres. Cotton is unique in the FCIP program in that it accounts for only 5 percent of the total acres enrolled in FCIP policies, but it has received a full 10 percent of claim payments over the past three decades—thanks in part to its intense water needs and the droughts that have roiled portions of the country in recent years. In central Arizona, where farmers experience the most acute impacts of Colorado River water shortages, a bale of cotton that sells for 65 cents actually costs 83 cents to raise. Still, cotton growers in Pinal County, south of Phoenix, continue planting with help from around $10 million in annual crop insurance payments—more than in any other county in the state.
Agricultural production is worth protecting; food and fiber are too important to subject to the increasingly cruel vagaries of the weather and global trade. But as it stands, the FCIP is maladapted to the challenges of our modern world, where places like Arizona are routinely smashing through heat records and water in the West is becoming increasingly scarce. While home insurers like State Farm are pulling out of California and Florida due to the mounting costs of climate disasters, the FCIP is doing the opposite: insulating farmers from the true cost of doing business.
The average return for home and auto policies is about $0.60 per dollar spent on premiums. Farmers receive an average of $2.22 for every dollar they put into crop insurance. As a result, between 2000 and 2016, farming businesses—mostly large ones—collectively pocketed $65 million more in claim payments than they paid in premiums. They were paid to plant crops that never came to market.
Despite these failures, some of Washington’s most influential players say that the FCIP is working just fine. Collin Peterson, a 15-term Democratic Congressman from Minnesota who is now a lobbyist for the agriculture industry, said last year that the program is “the most successful thing we’ve done in agriculture.” Without federally subsidized crop insurance, he argues, farmers would be unable to compete with global markets or Mother Nature. But farmers saw prices and incomes strengthen during the years leading to 1980, before Congress expanded the program to subsidize premiums. Other supporters contend that consumers would suffer from skyrocketing prices. Yet economists have found no meaningful link between food and fiber prices and crop insurance.
What is clear is that farmers’ participation in subsidized crop insurance programs is primarily driven by its availability. When faced with paying the full cost of premiums themselves, farmers find other, cheaper means of managing risk, like conservation practices that save money in the long run, according to a recent analysis by The American Enterprise Institute.
The age of climate change demands better ways of managing risk. We need agriculture—even in Arizona. There’s good sun in the desert, and it makes sense to take advantage of that asset by planting well-suited crops. Some farmers are trying overlooked native food crops, including beans or experimental rubber plants, but these so far lack the market opportunity that the FCIP helps to maintain for cotton.
I’ve met farmers in Arizona who would gladly accept an alternative to cotton if it were economically viable. But there are other factors in play. Although the FCIP is government funded, its policies are sold and serviced by 14 private insurance companies that have gotten rich by keeping things exactly as they are.
Most of the program’s money not spent subsidizing premiums is used to reimburse these companies’ administrative costs. Ten of these are large, publicly traded corporations whose CEOs collectively take home almost $112 million a year, according to the EWG. And they all earn a 14.5 percent rate of return on their investments, compared to the 10 percent common to other insurance industries. This is thanks to the lobbying efforts of groups like the nonprofit American Farm Bureau Federation, which owns American Farm Bureau Insurance Services, Inc.—one of those 10 providers.
Lawmakers are currently negotiating a new farm bill—a once-every-five-years opportunity to set FCIP policy. Subsidies still make sense for many farmers, especially small ones, but a few updates to the program would go a long way. First, funds should be reserved for the growers most in need, not millionaire operations. Next, to adapt to climate change, forecasts for determining premiums should be based on the latest climate models, rather than historic trends. Painting a more accurate picture of the risk would inform more sustainable cropping decisions.
Most importantly, FCIP funds should be used to pay farmers to permanently retire acres that consistently fail to produce. This would allow farmers to focus their efforts and resources where they do the most good. The program should also limit its coverage of crops ill-suited to their regions, and instead invest in existing conservation programs and research into markets for desert-adapted products. A sober fix would be to reapportion some FCIP funds to existing programs that help farmers upgrade their irrigation systems, or that provide conservation and agricultural assistance—including those that help reduce on-farm greenhouse gas emissions.This is all politically difficult, but it’s not impossible—and the advancing water crisis in the West means that time is of the essence. In May, legislators celebrated the latest inadequate agreement for sharing what’s left of the Colorado River. Like the winter’s generous snowpack and spring’s encouraging rains, the deal will buy a little more time to find a sustainable solution to the region’s chronic water shortage. Meanwhile, technocrats float implausible fixes, like piping in water from the Mississippi River basin or desalting the Sea of Cortez. Congress has an opportunity to end some of this absurdity—to change the incentives to reflect the reality of a changing climate, and allow desert farmers to continue providing food and fiber while doing their share to help avoid a calamitous future.
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