farm bill

Farm Bill passes

President Obama on Friday is scheduled to sign into law a new nearly $1 trillion federal farm bill that has lots of things for lots of people to love or hate.

Obama said: “As with any compromise, the farm bill isn’t perfect — but on the whole, it will make a positive difference not only for the rural economies that grow America’s food, but for our nation.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, called the bill a “monstrosity.” Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group called a transfer of federal spending from direct payments to farmers to crop insurance subsidies “a bait and switch.”

According to the New York Times and other media accounts, the bill – over the next decade — will:

  • Cut overall expenditures by $17 billion from current spending levels.
  •  Reduce food stamp benefits by $800 million per year, about 1 percent.
  •  Cut $5 billion a year in direct subsidies to farmers.
  • Cut overall conservation spending by about $6 billion, about 10 percent.
  • Increase crop insurance subsidies for farmers by $7 billion over 10 years.

But the bill, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, was praised by some conservation groups because it will restore a requirement that farmers seeking crop insurance coverage follow certain minimum conservation practices. The Freshwater Society had advocated for that so-called “conservation compliance” provision in the legislation.

Read the New York Times coverage of the bill. Read an Associated Press article, published in the Star Tribune. Read an Environmental Working Group statement on the bill. Read a good description of the conservation compliance provision, written before final passage, from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Read a Ducks Unlimited statement praising the conservation compliance.

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House Democrats back conservation compliance

Two of Minnesota’s members of Congress — Betty McCollum of St. Paul and Keith Ellison of Minneapolis — were among more than 100 House Democrats who signed a letter this week urging the House Republican leadership to support making compliance with certain minimum conservation standards a requirement for farmers seeking government-subsidized crop insurance.

The letter anticipates  House action on the long-stalled federal Farm Bill. A Senate-passed renewal of the Farm Bill would require the conservation compliance. A bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee in July did not include the compliance.

Read the Democrats’ letter. Read a 2012 newsletter column by Freshwater Society President Gene Merriam supporting a conservation compliance provision as a tool for preventing water pollution.

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Iowa farmers’ attitudes on conservation compliance

Read a scholarly paper on Iowa farmers’ attitudes toward requiring compliance with conservation practices that protect soil and water. The article, published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, was written by J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., an assistant professor of sociology and an extension sociologist at Iowa State University. “Overall, the results indicate that Iowa farmers have a generally positive view of Conservation Compliance, both as currently configured and in potentially more stringent and extensive forms,” Arbuckle wrote in the abstract for the article. Making conservation compliance a condition for qualifying for federally subsidized crop insurance is a significant issue at present in congressional debate  over re-authorization of the federal Farm Bill.

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A brief in support of conservation compliance

Conservation compliance – an effort to link federal subsidies for farmers’ crop insurance premiums to protection of wetlands and highly erodible land – is still a hot issue as Congress works to draft a new federal Farm Bill.

Last year, the U.S. Senate approved a Farm Bill that included a conservation compliance requirement for farmers seeking subsidized crop insurance. A bill that passed the House agriculture committee did not include the requirement.

The compliance requirement currently applies to several other parts of the Farm Bill that authorize payments to farmers, but not crop insurance. Those other subsidy programs are likely to be eliminated by Congress in favor of significantly expanded crop insurance coverage.

Read a recent article –“Conservation Compliance: A 25-Year Legacy of Stewardship” – by Jim Moseley, an Indiana farmer and former deputy secretary of agriculture from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush. The article strongly supports making conservation compliance a condition for qualifying for federal crop insurance.

Read an American Farmland Trust description of the issue and Moseley’s article. Read an August 2011 column by Freshwater Society President Gene Merriam endorsing conservation compliance.

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Free-market think tank backs conservation compliance

Read a free-market think tank’s argument for requiring conservation compliance in any expansion of federally subsidized crop insurance.

Enacting a conservation compliance provision in the now-stalled federal Farm Bill would require farmers receiving crop insurance to follow certain minimum conservation standards aimed at protecting wetlands and reduce erosion.

Those compliance provisions were required for farmers receiving direct-payment subsidies under the farm bill that expired Sept. 30, but they were not a requirement for participation in crop insurance.

Direct payments are virtually certain to be eliminated, probably in favor of an expansion of crop insurance, in the new Farm Bill that Congress is expected to enact later this year or in 2013.

The version of a new Farm Bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June included a conservation compliance requirement for crop insurance eligibility. The version approved by a House committee in July did not.

The R Street Institute, a Washington-based non-profit think tank that says it espouses free markets, limited government and responsible environmental stewardship, last month issued a policy statement supporting a conservation compliance requirement.

The policy statement argues that all farm subsidies should be eliminated, but says that is not politically realistic and that enactment of a conservation compliance provision is a “second best” outcome.

Read a 2011 newsletter column by Gene Merriam, Freshwater Society president,  supporting conservation compliance. View video from a 2011 Freshwater lecture in which Craig A. Cox of the Environmental Working group advocated conservation compliance.  Read an October Des Moines Register interview with U. S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in which Vilsack predicted Congress will not pass a conservation compliance provision.

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Celebrate, take note of Clean Water Act

The Freshwater Society blog publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

Celebrate 40 years of — gradually — cleaner water
The federal Clean Water Act, actually a package of amendments to existing water law, was enacted 40 years ago this month. View a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency video featuring former Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar.  In late 1971 while on the staff of his Congressional predecessor, John Blatnik, Oberstar was Administrator to the House Committee on Public Works. As the lead staff representative on that committee, Oberstar played a key role in writing what is today considered landmark legislation. View video of a June  2012 Freshwater Society lecture on the Clean Water Act – past, present and future – by G. Tracy Mehan III, a former top water-quality executive in the Environmental Protection Agency.

Girl Scouts work for water on Oct. 13
On Oct. 13, thousands of Girl Scouts in 49 counties in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin will celebrate the Girl Scouts’ centennial with a service project aimed at protecting lakes and rivers.

Some 36,000 girls, assisted by 18,000 adults, will clean up leaves, grass clipping and other debris from streets and storm sewer grates in their neighborhoods.

The project – the Girl Scouts’ Centennial Day of Service – is a Community Clean-Up for Water Quality. It is sponsored by 3M and was planned and organized by the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys in partnership with the Freshwater Society and the Friends of the Minnesota Valley.

The goal is to prevent excess algae growth in lakes and river by eliminating the phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment that result from the breakdown of organic matter and flow – untreated — through storm sewers to surface waters.

Learn more about the Girl Scouts’ Centennial Day of Service. Learn more about Community Clean-Ups for Water Quality and how you can organize one.

Spend an evening with others who care about water
Learn how you can protect the waters around you Do you care deeply about the water quality in a lake or stream near where you live? Are you wondering what you, as an individual or as a member of a lake association or community group, can do to slow or stop the advance of invasive species?

This event – the sixth annual Watershed Association Initiative – is for you.

On Wednesday, Nov. 7, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed Association will sponsor a dinner, speakers and networking opportunities for residents of the watershed district and any other people interested in protecting and restoring metropolitan lakes and streams.

The summit will be from 5 to 8:30 p.m. in Room 233 of the Eisenhower Community Center, 1001 Highway 7 in Hopkins. Alex Gehrig of the Freshwater Society is organizing the event. There is a $10 charge for admission and dinner. Learn more about the event and register to attend. View the agenda.

DNR seeks people to work on aquatic invasives
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is seeking applications from stakeholders who are interested in serving on a statewide Aquatic Invasive Species Advisory Committee.

People who are concerned about aquatic invasive species and have the ability to commit to reviewing reports, preparing comments, and participating in six to eight meetings a year are encouraged to apply. Applications are due by Oct. 19.

The DNR AIS Advisory Committee will be comprised of 15 stakeholders appointed by the commissioner. The first set of appointees will be asked to serve either two- or three-year terms in order to stagger appointments. Eventually, committee members will serve three-year terms.

The DNR commissioner determines all appointments. Appointees may request mileage reimbursement, but they are not paid a salary and are not eligible for per diem payments. They must abide by requirements pertaining to potential conflicts of interest.

Advisory committee work can be a significant time commitment. Applicants should be prepared to make a two- to three-year commitment.

Applications will be accepted online. Data provided for the oversight committee application is classified as public data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. For more information, contact Ann Pierce at 651-259-5119 or ann.pierce@state.mn.us, or Jim Japs, 651-259-5656 or jim.japs@state.mn.us.
–DNR News Release

Two Otto Doering talks on video
If you missed Otto Doering’s Oct. 4 Freshwater Society lecture on the environmental and human health problems caused by excess human-made nitrogen, you can still see and hear his lecture on video.

You can also view video of a primer on the U.S. Farm Bill – from the 1930s to the present – that Doering, a Purdue University agricultural economist, delivered in a seminar sponsored by the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center.

More sustainable water use in India
Read a good New York Times op-ed column by Cheryl Colopy on India’s water problems and efforts by some Indians to return to more sustainable farming practices in which monsoon rains are captured in small ponds to recharge groundwater. Colopy is the author of Dirty, Sacred Rivers: Confronting South Asia’s Water Crisis.

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Analysis: 23 million acres converted to cropland

High crop prices and crop insurance subsidies contributed to the conversion of more than 23 million acres of grass, wetlands and other animal habitat into fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and other crops between 2008 and 2011. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Environmental Working Group and the Defenders of Wildlife.

Read the report, titled “Plowed Under.” It is based on a comparison of satellite images collected by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Read a Star Tribune article about the report.

“Plowed Under” says that more than 8.4 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetlands were converted to plant corn, more than 5.6 million to raise soybeans and nearly 5.2 million to grow winter wheat. The conversion totaled 1.34 million acres in Minnesota, according to the Star Tribune.

In 2007, a General Accounting Office report, titled “Farm Programs Are an Important Factor in Landowners’ Decisions to Convert Grassland to Cropland,” reached some of the same conclusions about the incentives that farm subsidies and crop insurance gave farmers and ranchers to plow up grassland.

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Analysis: 23 million acres converted to cropland

High crop prices and crop insurance subsidies contributed to the conversion of more than 23 million acres of grass, wetlands and other animal habitat into fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and other crops between 2008 and 2011. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Environmental Working Group and the Defenders of Wildlife.

Read the report, titled “Plowed Under.” It is based on a comparison of satellite images collected by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Read a Star Tribune article about the report.

“Plowed Under” says that more than 8.4 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetlands were converted to plant corn, more than 5.6 million to raise soybeans and nearly 5.2 million to grow winter wheat. The conversion totaled 1.34 million acres in Minnesota, according to the Star Tribune.

In 2007, a General Accounting Office report, titled “Farm Programs Are an Important Factor in Landowners’ Decisions to Convert Grassland to Cropland,” reached some of the same conclusions about the incentives that farm subsidies and crop insurance gave farmers and ranchers to plow up grassland.

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Conservation takes hit in House ag bill

The Freshwater Society blog publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

House Farm Bill lacks conservation teeth
The U.S. House Agriculture Committee passed a new 10-year, $969 billion federal Farm Bill that makes deeper overall spending cuts and does less to encourage soil and water conservation than the Senate version of the legislation.

(An earlier version of this blog posting had two incorrect headlines. It is the House bill, not the Senate legislation, that is the weaker of the two versions on conservation.)

It now appears very likely the Senate and House will not agree on a compromise bill before the November election. Scores of farm programs currently are scheduled to expire after Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. But the Senate and House almost certainly will approve a stopgap extension of those programs.

Unlike the Senate bill passed last month, the House version would not require farmers to protect wetlands and maintain soil erosion plans on marginal land as a condition of qualifying for crop insurance. The House bill also cuts $3 billion – $1 billion more than the Senate legislation — in federal payments to farmers and ranchers through the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Read a  National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition analysis focusing on conservation provisions in the bill. Read New York Times and Politico articles on the House committee action.  Read a 2011 column by Freshwater President Gene Merriam advocating for the conservation compliance requirement for crop insurance.

From the USGS' Water Science for SchoolsPlay a game, stretch your mind 
If you haven’t already looked at it, check out the expanded Freshwater web page for kids. It’s got games for kids and basic information about water that most adults can learn from, as well. Sources include the U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Parents, teachers, home-schoolers will find the page useful.

Pelican Lake zebra mussel infestation confirmed
Scuba divers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have found zebra mussels in Pelican Lake in Crow Wing County near Brainerd. They were found in two separate locations during a search of the lake on July 9.

The search was a follow-up to an intensive search last November after a single juvenile zebra mussel was found on a dock. The November search of the lake failed to turn up any additional mussels. DNR staff also asked the Pelican Lake Association to notify its members to report any suspect mussels, but no other zebra mussels were found in 2011.
–DNR News Release

Wisconsin court rejects local water rules 
The Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt a blow to environmentalists concerned about water pollution from huge livestock farms, when it said communities couldn’t set stricter standards than the state.

The ruling was believed to be the first decision by a state Supreme Court in about a half-dozen cases pitting neighbors and small farmers throughout the Midwest against so-called factory farms, which can have hundreds or even thousands of animals. Similar cases have been filed in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma, and the decision was closely watched.
 –The Associated Press

Duke research has implications for fracking
A study that found hydraulic fracturing for natural gas puts drinking-water supplies in Pennsylvania at risk of contamination may renew a long-running debate between industry and activists.

The report by researchers at Duke University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said a chemical analysis of 426 shallow groundwater samples found matches with brine found in rock more than one mile (1.2 kilometers) deep, suggesting paths that would let gas or water flow up after drilling.

While the flows weren’t linked to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the study found natural routes for seepage into wells or streams.

“The industry has always claimed that this is a separation zone, and there is no way fluids could flow” from the shale to the aquifers, Avner Vengosh, a professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and one of the study’s eight authors, said in an interview. “We see evidence of hydrologic connectivity.”
–Bloomberg News

Heat causing Minnesota fish kills
Record-setting heat may be contributing to fish kills in lakes across the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“Natural summer fish kills are not unusual,” according to Brian Schultz, DNR assistant regional fisheries manager. “In the past several days, however, we’re getting increased reports of dead and dying fish in many lakes from around the state.”

Unusually warm weather has raised water temperatures of many shallow lakes. Schultz has received reports from DNR field staff of surface water temperatures in some lakes reaching 90 degrees, with temps at the bottom only a few degrees cooler where maximum depths are less than 10 feet.
–DNR News Release

DNR completes wolf hunt rules 
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resource has finalized rules for Minnesota’s first regulated wolf hunting and trapping season this fall and winter.

There are several changes to what the DNR originally proposed in May as a result of input received since the proposal was announced.

“We changed the closing date for the late season from Jan. 6, 2013, to Jan. 31,” said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager. “We also tightened the wolf harvest registration requirement so we can more quickly close a zone based on harvest results.”

Another notable change is that the wolf range will be divided into three zones for the purposes of harvest targets, registration and season closure. The northeast zone and the east-central zone closely parallel the 1854 and 1837 treaty ceded territory boundaries. These zones will allow the state to allocate and manage wolf harvest in consultation with Indian bands that have court-affirmed off-reservation hunting rights. The northwest zone will be the other area open to wolf hunting. Only that portion of Minnesota where rifles are legal for deer hunting will be open for taking wolves.
–DNR News Release

Nitrate tests at Benton County Fair
Area residents who rely on their own wells for drinking water can have their water tested for nitrate contamination for free during two days of the Benton County Fair in Sauk Rapids.

The Benton Soil & Water Conservation District and Minnesota Department of Agriculture are conducting the nitrate clinic from 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 1 and 2.

The clinic will be at the SWCD’s fair booth in the Education Building. Nitrate is a common contaminant, particularly in shallow wells, dug wells and wells with damaged or leaking casings. Nitrates can come from fertilizers, animal waste and human sewage.
–The St. Cloud Times

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The Farm Bill, conservation and crop insurance

The Freshwater Society blog publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.

House Farm Bill lacks conservation measure
A key soil and water conservation provision in the Senate-passed federal Farm Bill is not in a  House draft of the bill unveiled last week.

The Senate bill, approved last month, would require farmers to meet certain minimum conservation standards in order to qualify for taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. That provision would maintain conservation requirements that most farmers currently have to meet to receive direct subsidy payments, which are being phased out in both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

In addition to the difference over the conservation provision, the House legislation would cut total Farm Bill spending more deeply, make bigger cuts in the food stamp program and provide more federal spending for southern rice and cotton farmers at the expense of Midwestern corn and soybean growers.

Read a National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition commentary critical of  the conservation provisions in the House legislation.  Read a Politico analysis of the two bills. Read a Star Tribune editorial  on the Farm Bill, and an op-ed response to it that focuses on conservation provisions. The op-ed was written by Becky Humphries of Ducks Unlimited, Peggy Ladner of the Nature Conservancy, Dave Nomsen of Pheasants Forever and  Doug Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Research: Rising seas can be slowed, not stopped
Rising sea levels cannot be stopped over the next several hundred years, even if deep emissions cuts lower global average temperatures, but they can be slowed down, climate scientists said in a study.

A lot of climate research shows that rising greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for increasing global average surface temperatures by about 0.17 degrees Celsius a decade from 1980-2010 and for a sea level rise of about 2.3mm a year from 2005-2010 as ice caps and glaciers melt.

Rising sea levels threaten about a tenth of the world’s population who live in low-lying areas and islands which are at risk of flooding, including the Caribbean, Maldives and Asia-Pacific island groups. More than 180 countries are negotiating a new global climate pact which will come into force by 2020 and force all nations to cut emissions to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius this century – a level scientists say is the minimum required to avert catastrophic effects.

But even if the most ambitious emissions cuts are made, it might not be enough to stop sea levels rising due to the thermal expansion of sea water, said scientists at the United States’ National Centre for Atmospheric Research, U.S. research organisation Climate Central and Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research in Melbourne.
–Reuters

Citizens join fight against aquatic invasives
Clayton Jensen spends a lot of time at the public access to Lake Melissa, about a mile down the beach from his home.

He carries a handful of glossy fliers he designed and printed, simple one-page handouts that explain how boaters can prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

The creatures, which include zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil, are moving from lake to lake across Minnesota. Often, they hitch a ride unobserved on boats and equipment.

Jensen, a retired doctor, is part of a movement of citizens and local governments joining the effort to slow the spread of the unwanted plants and animals. Although he attended a training session sponsored by the state Department of Natural Resources, he has no authority as an inspector. His job is to educate.
–Minnesota Public Radio

Drip irrigation expands worldwide 
As the world population climbs and water stress spreads around the globe, finding ways of getting more crop per drop to meet our food needs is among the most urgent of challenges.

One answer to this call is drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to the roots of plants in just the right amounts. It can double or triple water productivity – boosting crop per drop – and it appears to be taking off worldwide.

Over the last twenty years, the area under drip and other “micro” irrigation methods has risen at least 6.4-fold, from 1.6 million hectares to more than 10.3 million. (One hectare is about 2.5 acres. The latest figures from the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage include countries accounting for only three-quarters of the world’s irrigated area, so the 10.3 million figure is low.) The most dramatic gains have occurred in China and India, the world’s top two irrigators, where the area under micro-irrigation expanded 88-fold and 111-fold, respectively, over the last two decades.
–National Geographic

Proposal seeks to cut nitrous oxide releases from ag 
Read an interesting article from the Corn and Soybean Digest about a proposal to pay farmers to reduce their losses of nitrous oxide – a particularly potent greenhouse gas – from the fertilization of their crops. Under the proposal, other industries faced with caps on the greenhouse gases they emit could buy credits for nitrous oxide emissions reduced by farmers.

Overall, farms are not a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but nitrogen fertilizer use releases nitrous oxide. And nitrous oxide in the atmosphere traps far more heat than the most common greenhouse gas,  carbon dioxide. A California nonprofit group, Climate Action Reserve, is pushing for establishment of a market in nitrous oxide credits.

GAO reviews EPA water pollution grants
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sends about $200 million a year to the states to fight non-point water pollution, including agricultural runoff. A new General Accounting Office review of  the spending finds fault with some aspects of the grants. Read the report.

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