Thursday, April 30, 2009

Do Factory Farms Have Anything to do with Swine Flu?

JenMuch is still unknown about the recent outbreak of swine flu (now being called H1N1), including the source of the virus. While the first human thought to be infected has been identified, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) have not yet isolated the virus in a pig, either in Mexico or the U.S. The first known human infection was a five year old boy who lives in La Gloria, Mexico, where U.S.-based Smithfield operates a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) that raises nearly 1,000,000 hogs annually.

The child, who survived, is said to have had no contact with hogs, the CAFO, or its workers. But members of the community are convinced that H1N1 is linked to the factory farm that has recently begun operating in their midst, bringing lagoons of untreated pig waste, piles of dead pigs and swarms of flies.

While we cannot yet jump to the conclusion that this new virus was caused by industrial farming practices, we do know that CAFOs like this one in Mexico provide the perfect circumstances under which viruses like H1N1 develop.

A 2003 article in Science Magazine warned, "The North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track, churning out variants each year. Changes in animal husbandry, including increased vaccination, may be spurring this evolutionary surge." Smithfield claims that they haven't found any evidence of H1N1 in hogs or workers at any of their operations, and they cite routine vaccination of hogs for influenza as proof of their precaution. But as Science Magazine pointed out, vaccination can in fact lead to new, more virulent viruses that put humans in grave danger.

In 2006, scientists from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) said, "Because concentrated animal feeding operations tend to concentrate large numbers of animals close together, they facilitate rapid transmission and mixing of viruses." Scientists have warned that locating concentrated hog operations in the proximity of concentrated poultry facilities increases the potential for inter-species viral mixing and increased virulence. This new strain of influenza is said to be a mix of pig, human and bird viruses (although this too is unknown, since now there are reports that the virus is 100% hog-derived), so it's worth pointing out that La Gloria is also home to many industrial poultry farms

Regardless of how it originated, the so-called swine flu is now being transmitted from human to human. For information about how to protect yourself, visit the CDC website.

As I mentioned, there are still many unknowns but what we do know clearly is that we need a thorough and transparent investigation of the Smithfield-operated CAFO in La Gloria and a real look into the dangers of our industrial food system all over the world. We'll keep you posted as this story unfolds.

Since its beginnings in 1985, Farm Aid has recognized the danger of industrial farming to rural communities, family farmers, the environment, and our health. In 1995, the fight against factory hog farms was launched in Lincoln Township, Missouri, where more than 3,000 family farmers joined Willie Nelson in protesting at a Premium Standard Farms hog mega-farm. Since that time, Farm Aid has continued to support community efforts to stop the construction of factory farms and promote the alternative -- a family farm-based agriculture that respects and enriches our communities, farmers, the environment, and our health.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

North Dakotan Innovation in the Face of Floods

KariNorth Dakotans have a long spring ahead of them as the danger of flooding is far from over. The Red River is said to be on the path to crest again in late April. Farm Aid is working with longtime ally Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota/Lutheran Disaster Response to get reports about how the flooding has affected farms and ranches. If you would like to help, please donate to the Family Farm Disaster Fund.

I received a few pictures recently from Matt Scheibe, a Farm Aid supporter who grew up in North Dakota. Matt reminded me why we can always count on farmers to be innovative and make the best of a bad situation. As you can see in the photo, grain augers double as mailbox holders in a pinch!

Photos courtesy of Chad Van Dyke.

Stop Milking Farmers! Dairy Farmers Rally in Iowa

JoelLast Tuesday, dairy farmers in Iowa held a rally at the state capital building in Des Moines. One of the dairymen involved, Jerry Harvey, had called the Farm Aid hotline back in February, and since then he and I have been in regular contact by phone. Jerry had never before been politically active, but as the milk price dropped almost 50% over the last year and the survival of his 70-cow operation in Wayne County became a serious issue, Jerry refused to remain quiet and simply accept the worsening circumstances.

Instead, he got active. He, along with two other Iowa dairy farmers, started contacting media outlets and writing letters to county, state, and national officials, including one to Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, which Iowa Farmers Union president Chris Petersen delivered to Vilsack in Washington. The letter read, in part, "Our urgent cry for assistance must be heard by people like you who are in a position to empower change in our country. We believe that we deserve a fair price for our milk, a price that would remain steady to allow us to continue with our dairy farm business." Vilsack called Jerry the very next day.

Farm Aid contributed a letter of support from Willie Nelson that was read out at Tuesday's rally in Des Moines. Though organized quickly and not heavily attended, the rally did attract a lot of media attention, and Jerry has been hearing from dairy farmers all over the country, some who now want to stage rallies in their own states. The basic message of the rally, which was neither an angry protest nor a milk-dumping demonstration, was to call attention to the crisis facing family dairy farmers and to push for federal action to establish of a fair price for milk.

For me, Jerry's example has been an inspiration, and he is ready to carry on the fight. "This is about small farmers sticking together," he said. "We'll go where we need to go." Amen, brother. And as Willie said in his letter in support of the rally, "Right now is the time to change policy to create a fair and just agriculture and food system that benefits our family farmers, our communities, and the good health of everyone who eats. This is what we're working for. And we're going to stick with it til the cows come home!"

Photo courtesy of Dave Murphy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dairy Farmers in Iowa Rally for Fair Prices

JenA couple months ago, an Iowa dairy farmer named Jerry Harvey called the Farm Aid hotline to find out what he could do to help dairy farmers. He told us, "I'm just a farmer, I've never done anything like this before, but we've got to do something or all these guys are going to go out of business." Jerry had been gathering a group of local farmers who wanted to call attention to the fact that dairy prices are so low, dairy farmers are being paid about one-half of what it costs them to produce milk. At this rate, the National Family Farm Coalition has forecast, by the end of the year only 12,000 of our 60,000 dairy farmers will be left standing. And we milk drinkers may lose our source of good, local, trusted milk.

Joel, Farm Aid's hotline coordinator, gave Jerry some contacts for local Iowa farm groups and a few regional and national ones working on dairy issues. Since then, Joel has spoken with Jerry several times, and Jerry has made strong contacts with several Farm Aid allies, including the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Family Farm Defenders, and the Center for Rural Affairs. Today, a rally that Jerry helped to organize will gather hundreds of dairy farmers on the Iowa state Capitol to call attention to the drastic drop in milk prices over the past five months. In the past year, dairy farmers have seen the price they are paid for their milk drop 44 percent, the largest single drop since the Great Depression, according to the National Family Farm Coalition.

The sudden crash in the dairy market has sent family dairy farmers from across the country reeling as input costs such as feed, fuel, fertilizer and electricity and water have remained high, while the price farmers are being paid has dropped from $19.10 per cwt (per hundred pounds) in February 2008 to $11.60 per cwt in the same month this year.

According to Jerry Harvey, "This has reached a crisis point in rural America."

"Prices have dropped so low that it's impossible for dairy farmers to pay their bills and many face losing their farms if something isn't done immediately to make up for this unnatural drop in prices," said Harvey who milks 70 head in Southeastern Iowa.

Willie Nelson, Farm Aid President, sent a statement of support to Jerry Harvey and his fellow farmers:
Farm Aid is honored to stand up for America's family farmers. This morning's rally represents a struggle for what's right— not just for farmers but for all of us who eat.

I want to thank every dairy farmer here this morning and every single farmer who has come to lend support. Those of us who want local dairy farmers providing fresh milk for our families--we stand by you.

America cannot afford to lose another farmer. We need you. But we know dairy farmers cannot afford to produce our milk for less than half it's worth.

Today you are making sure that everyone knows that dairy farmers are crucial; that every family farmer deserves a fair and stable price; that without the hard work of milking cows morning and night, we will have to rely on milk from who-knows-where containing who-knows-what!

Right now is the time to change policy to create a fair and just agriculture and food system that benefits our family farmers, our communities, and the good health of everyone who eats. This is what we're working for. And we're going to stick with it til the cows come home!

Organizers expect between 300 to 500 people to attend the rally, which is scheduled to run from 11 am to 1 pm at the Iowa State House in Des Moines. The rally is located at the western entrance mall area near the Lincoln and Tad Monument. If you're in the area, please show your support for our dairy farmers!

We'll post an update with photos after the rally.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

H.R. 875: Hold the hysteria!

HildeThere has been a huge amount of panic on the internet in recent weeks regarding food safety legislation, spurred on by unfounded fears that one of the food safety bills introduced in Congress (H.R. 875) will threaten small family farmers, end organic farming and even criminalize backyard gardeners. The frenzy is grossly exaggerated and rooted in misinformation. While H.R. 875 is not perfect, it is certainly not intended to wipe out organic farming or local food. And with H.R. 875 getting the brunt of negative attacks, food safety bills that are less friendly to small farmers and diverse modes of production, such as H.R. 759 and H.R. 1332, are gaining traction in congress.

As with most legislation, these food safety bills are intended to provide a general framework. The fine points will be added once a bill has passed through the halls of congress and is translated into rules at the agency level. As the saying goes: "the devil is in the details." It is with these details that Farm Aid and our partner groups will engage to ensure that any new regulations in food safety reflect and support the diversity of farms and processing facilities that contribute to a vibrant, sustainable and safe food system in America.

As always, we'll be sure to keep you updated with any opportunities for action. We'll also be providing a more extensive look into America's broken food safety system in our April newsletter. In the meantime, if you receive a frantic email about H.R. 875, please don't forward on the frenzy. Instead, point your friends and family to this great fact sheet from Food & Water Watch or to this food safety update by Farm Aid funded-group Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Friday, April 03, 2009

"On the Road Again..."

HildeThis classic Willie Nelson tune topped our office soundtrack this winter, as I and other Farm Aid staff were busy clearing desks and packing bags to attend farmer trainings, coalition meetings, policy summits, and food and farm conferences from coast to coast. All in all this winter, Farm Aid staff participated in more than a dozen organized events in ten states across the country, including:

  • The National CAFO Summit, North Carolina
  • Texas Organic Farming and Gardening Association Annual Conference, Texas
  • Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Annual Conference, Tennessee
  • Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Annual Conference, Pennsylvania
  • National Family Farm Coalition Winter Meeting, Washington, DC
  • National Organic Action Plan Summit, Wisconsin
  • Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association Conference, Ohio
  • MOSES Organic Farming Conference, Wisconsin
  • National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Inaugural Meeting, Washington, DC
  • National Farmers Union Meeting, Washington, DC
  • National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, Oregon
  • Georgia Organics Annual Conference, Georgia
Travel is a critical part of our work here at Farm Aid, giving staff the opportunity to interact with the many food and farm organizations we fund and partner with as part of the Farmer Resource Network, to swap stories and exchange ideas with family farmers and farm advocates in the field, to strategize around policy agendas and stay informed on legislative developments in DC, and to be inspired and energized by some of the most influential voices in the good food movement.

When we return from our travels, we all take a moment to reflect by circulating a road report around the office. In addition to recounting the when-where-who-why-and-whats of each trip, we like to think about what doors were opened through the experience and what steps we need to take next to advance our mission. My favorite part of the report follows the prompt: "the coolest thing I overheard." I usually jump to this section first, eager to read any notable quips and to be encouraged by the great work going on across the country to support and strengthen a vibrant and sustainable network of family-farmed agriculture.

As we wrap up this year's travel season, I am happy to report that countless "cool things" were overheard, and energy is high – not only in our office, but across the country. There are many challenges ahead of us as we face unprecedented economic times, increasing impacts of climate change, and escalating healthcare epidemics. Yet, many good folks are out there working hard in the fields, in our schools and communities, in the halls of congress and (as the song goes) "insisting that the world be turnin' our way..."

Thursday, April 02, 2009

More Farm Aid Shows Coming to DIRECTV

MattWe are happy to report that DIRECTV's 101 network is running more one-hour specials from the 2008 concert.

In April, Farm Aid Presents The Pretenders & Friends will be running on these dates (all times are Eastern):
4/02 - 8 AM
4/04 - 9 AM
4/05 - 6 PM
4/06 - 8 PM (leading into Jerry Lee Lewis & Friends)
4/07 - 1 PM
4/08 - 8 AM
4/09 - 12 PM and 6 PM
4/11 - 9 AM
4/12 - 6 PM and 2 AM
4/18 - 2 PM
4/19 - 8 AM
4/23 - 6 PM
4/25 - 7 PM
4/29 - 8 AM
4/30 - 12 PM

The new show, Farm Aid Presents Jerry Lee Lewis & Friends, will be airing on the following dates:
4/06 - 9 PM
4/07 - 12 PM and 8 PM
4/08 - 7 AM
4/09 - 1 PM and 7 PM
4/10 - 7 AM and 12 PM
4/11 - 10 AM and 3 PM and 6PM
4/12 - 8 AM and 5 PM
4/13 - 12 PM and 10 PM
4/14 - 8 AM and 6 PM
4/15 - 1 PM
4/16 - 7 AM
4/17 - 1 PM
4/18 - 5 PM
4/19 - 4 PM
4/21 - 1 PM
4/22 - 5 PM
4/23 - 12 PM
4/24 - 8 AM
4/25 - 10 AM and 3 PM
4/26 - 7 AM
4/27 - 8 AM

Thanks again to Albert Spevak who worked so hard to make these shows for Farm Aid.