Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Farmers can’t "Coexist" with GMO Pollution

AliciaOne of the problems with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is that they're difficult to contain. When pollen containing altered genes travels in the wind or on the bodies of pollinators like birds and bees, there's little we can do to stop it from spreading. What's worse, the companies who "own" those genes take no responsibility for the damage caused by their contamination.

The contamination of crops by neighboring GMO crop fields presents a huge problem for farmers, eaters and our environment:

  • For organic farmers, who have made expensive investments to grow without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, GMO contamination can undermine their farming practices and cost them the premium price they receive for their crops.
  • Conventional non-GMO farmers, meanwhile, have seen their crops rejected in global export markets as a result of GMO contamination.
  • For eaters, GMO contamination is a critical concern for the integrity of our food supply and our right to know and choose what we feed ourselves and our families.
  • For our environment, GMO contamination threatens biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Farmers whose crops have been contaminated not only stand to lose income, they're at risk of being sued for patent infringement by biotech companies. 145 farmers have been sued by Monsanto, for instance, for patent infringement.

Barn Field Photo

We have an historic opportunity to fundamentally change how our government regulates GMO technology and to hold biotech companies accountable. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is accepting public comments on recommendations concerning agricultural "coexistence" — or how GMO and non-GMO crops can grow side by side, without threatening the other. But make no mistake, until the USDA protects non-GMO farmers and concerned consumers from contamination, there can be no "coexistence."

Tell Secretary Vilsack to use his authority to:

  • Fully investigate the state of contamination in our seed and food supply.
  • Regulate GMOs based on their potential for economic harm as well as safety — as existing law allows — reform USDA's weak framework for regulating GMOs.
  • Prevent GMO contamination now by issuing mandatory contamination prevention measures.
  • Make biotech pay for contamination: Non-GMO farmers deserve fair compensation when contamination occurs and should not be forced to purchase additional crop insurance to protect themselves.
  • Address the broader economic and environmental costs related to "coexistence"

We have until March 4th to raise our voices for farmers, eaters and a better food system. Take action now!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Farm Aid Music Monday Celebrates Band of Horses

MattHappy Monday, everyone! It's been a couple months since our last Music Monday post, but I feel like today's the kind of Monday that could use a little musical pick-me-up. Today's audio boost comes to you from Farm Aid's 25th anniversary concert from Milwaukee with the Band of Horses.

So far, this appearance from 2010 is the only time the band has joined us on the Farm Aid stage, but they did just release a new live acoustic album (streaming now on their website) and they're touring now if you want to hear more. Watch "Laredo" and "Compliments" below, and then check out the special birthday greeting for Willie Nelson's 80th birthday they recorded on stage last spring.

Visit our YouTube channel for over 1,300 more Farm Aid videos!

Friday, February 21, 2014

One More Day* to Reject "Agent Orange" Corn & Soy!

Alicia* The USDA has extended the comment period until March 11. Please take action today!

The chemical 2,4-D is better known for making up half of the infamous Vietnam-era chemical weapon known as Agent Orange. A potent defoliant, 2,4-D is associated with a number of human health and environmental problems. It's also poised to replace Monsanto's Roundup as the herbicide of choice for GMO agriculture, as superweeds and pests that have developed resistance to Roundup spread across the countryside.

As I type, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in its final set of deliberations for approval of Dow's controversial 2,4-D resistant corn and soy, new genetically engineered (GE) crop varieties that are designed to resist heightened applications of Dow's 2,4-D.

What will it mean if more of this Agent Orange chemical is out in the fields? It's bad news for farmers, eaters and our environment and would open a new chapter of the seemingly endless chemical war against pests.

The good news is we still have time to act. USDA's comment period on this matter closes this Monday. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, eaters and public health officials are writing to USDA and voicing strong concern because:

  • 2,4-D is a very toxic herbicide. It's a reproductive toxicant, suspected endocrine disruptor and probable carcinogen.
  • 2,4-D will drift. 2,4-D is known to drift to non-target crops, and broadleaf plants like tomatoes, grapes, beans, cotton and non-GE soy are particularly at risk. Conventional and organic farmers alike could lose crops and income as a result.

  • 2,4-D-resistant "superweeds" will spread, just as Roundup-resistant weeds have taken over farms and countryside across the U.S.
  • 2,4-D corn will contaminate non-GE corn. Corn is wind-pollinated, which means contamination is inevitable. You cannot put a GE genie back in the bottle.

Join farmers and eaters in telling the USDA to reject 2,4-D corn and soy. You can submit your comments here on Regulations.gov. Here are some tips for submitting comments:

  • Not sure what to say? Use the sample letter below and personalize it.
  • Write your comment ahead of time — there is a time limit and you may get timed out if you write your comment from scratch.
  • If your comment is less than one page, you can copy and paste it into the comment box. Otherwise, write "See Attached" and upload a separate document with your comments.
  • Remember to click "Submit comment" at the end of the process. You should be taken to a new screen with a confirmation number — if you don't see one, then your comment has not been submitted to the USDA.

As always, we encourage you to read up and learn more about this issue! Check out HuffPo's recent article detailing more about Dow Chemical and its new GE crop varieties. And visit the National Organic Coalition and Pesticide Action Network for more ways to get involved.

Sample Letter:

Secretary Thomas Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue SW, Room 200-A
Washington, DC 20250

Re: Docket #APHIS-2013-0042

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

I am writing to urge you to reject applications for Dow's new genetically engineered "Enlist" crops designed to survive repeated spraying of the herbicide 2,4-D. Your agency's draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) indicates USDA's "preferred" determination that 2,4-D-resistant corn and soy need not be regulated under the Plant Pest Act.

Simply put, deregulating these crops is a very bad idea. Allowing them on the market will drive up use of 2,4-D, an antiquated and dangerous herbicide known to drift off target crops and linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption.

[Add your personal comments about why this issue is important to you. Are you a farmer whose crops would be put at risk by 2,4-D drift? An eater concerned about 2,4-D residues on your food? Just a few sentences make a difference!]

Farmers are deeply concerned that Dow's Enlist corn will threaten their crops. 2,4-D is known to drift — directly and through volatilization — which poses a very real threat to rural economies and farmers growing crops not engineered to withstand application of these potent chemicals. 2,4-D drift is already responsible for more episodes of crop injury than any other herbicide, and its vastly increased use promises still more damage to crops like soybeans, cotton, vegetables and fruit.

Dow's 2,4-D-resistant crops follow the same short-sighted approach to farming taken by Monsanto's RoundUp Ready seed line — which is responsible for a dramatic rise in glyphosate-resistant "superweeds" that have afflicted millions of acres of farmland across the Midwest and South.

At a time when farmers, citizens and government have worked hard to limit our use of, and exposure to, toxic chemicals like 2,4-D and dioxins, approving this crop would take us dramatically backwards, endangering human health and the environment. I urge you to heed the warnings of the scientific and environmental communities and deny approval of 2,4-D resistant GE soy.

At the very least, USDA must conduct a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement that carefully examines the human health, environmental and agricultural harms that will be triggered by 2,4-D soy, including a cumulative assessment that considers the compounded harms from additional deregulation of Dow's 2,4-D resistant corn.

Thank you,

Your Name

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Farm and Food Roundup

JenHappy Valentine's Day all!

With California facing its worst drought in modern history, President Obama visits Fresno today with the state's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who are promoting legislation that would offer $300 million in aid.

After a fire at one of only two USDA certified slaughterhouses in Massachusetts, area livestock farmers face bottlenecks and increased costs.

Investors and corporations are buying up American farmland at astronomical prices per acre, turning the farmers into their tenants or repurposing the land altogether.

A new study finds that organic farms support 50% more wildlife than conventional farms, including pollinators like bees that are so threatened right now!

At the Olympics, farmers are going for gold! Katie Uhlaender, who raises cattle in Kansas, goes for gold in the skeleton tonight! And snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington, who won gold in the women's halfpipe, has cows to thank for her Olympic glory. Her parents sold off their cattle herd to finance Kaitlyn's ambition.

And, in honor of more snow on the ground, here's a story about a new terrain park at Mt. Snow ski resort in Vermont. The Farm is full of features that you see on a daily basis when driving through the Green Mountain State. A sugar shack, a barn, a re-purposed horse trailer and split rail fencing make for a fun and scenic time on skis or board!

In GMO news:

After 13 years, six scientific opinions and two legal challenges, an insect-resistant type of corn is on the verge of being approved by the European Union. It would be only the third genetically modified crop to be authorized for cultivation in the 28-nation bloc.

The County of Kauai in Hawaii has authorized spending $75,000 to fight a lawsuit brought by GMO seed company Sygenta Seeds and other GMO seed companies. The suit attempts to block implementation of a new law regulating pesticide use and the farming of genetically modified crops.

The Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee voted to approve a bill that would make Vermont the first state to require mandatory labeling of GMOs without a requirement that other states also pass a bill (Connecticut and Maine have passed similar bills but they have requirements that other states also require labeling before the legislation takes effect.).

In Australia, a landmark case is moving forward as an organic farmer sues his neighbor for contaminating his fields with GMOs.

And just for fun:

Find your heirloom tomato name! Mine: Auntie Fahy's Jolly Traveler.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The 2014 Farm Bill: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

AliciaIt's official! After years of setbacks and political gridlock, President Obama just signed the 2014 Farm Bill, a 959-page behemoth, called the Agricultural Act of 2014, into law.

If you’re tired of hearing about the Farm Bill, we can hardly blame you. Initial Farm Bill negotiations started back in 2010 and it has taken Congress an inexcusable length of time to get something passed. Needless to say, our family farmers and ranchers (and we eaters!) have waited far too long for several critical programs to receive renewed funding.

We’re fatigued, to say the least, and not the least bit impressed with the atrocious, back-door deal made between just four lawmakers, which unraveled unprecedented reforms to commodity programs. That said, several of the most innovative programs in federal farm policy ever were protected in this bill—some even received more funding than we anticipated.

We get into the details of what’s in the $100 billion-a-year bill below, but as a final note, we'll state that lawmakers have once again dodged implementing deep, structural reforms to our food and farm system.

What does that mean? It means this farm bill fails to secure a fair price for farmers that both covers their cost of production and provides a living wage. It does nothing to control overproduction of key commodities and somehow, under the guise of the “free market,” corporate power and moneyed agribusiness firms gets to proceed unfettered while our farmers grapple in markets so volatile they could give you whiplash. (That’s a rigged market in our opinion, not a free one, but we’ll save that for another blog post…) It means we’ve slashed conservation programs at a time when farmers need everything we can possibly put together to address climate change and rebuild our soil and water resources. It means that our federal government will look the other way as our farmers face corporate abuse and market concentration, instead of using their full authority to do something about it.

The bottom line is—-it’s not enough. This bill won’t steer our agricultural sector towards the true resiliency and diversity it needs for this generation and generations to come. It takes important steps in that direction, but we still have important battles ahead.

Despite the fatigue, we’re not too tired to keep up the good fight and we have to say we're proud. We're proud of all of YOU who helped fight for the dozens of amazing programs that we've won and who helped ward off nasty corporate lobbying efforts. Whether you joined us at our Action Center, were one of thousands of individuals who signed petitions at the Farm Aid concert the past few years, or are more generally an engaged farmer or eater who is using the power of your voice, we say thanks!

We’ll keep you posted on how to join us in bringing real change to food and agriculture. In the meantime, here are some highlights from the bill:

Beginning, Veteran & Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

Several measures in the Farm Bill will help create new opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers. In total, the new farm bill will invest $444 million directly into beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmer initiatives over the next ten years, an increase of 154 percent over the previous farm bill.

Farmer Training: The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which was stalled since it ran out of funding in late 2012, will see an influx of $100 million for new farmer training programs, plus a new focus on rehabilitation and vocational training for veteran farmers. The program maintains its priority on training geared for socially disadvantaged beginning farmers.

Military Veteran Farmers: The new farm bill will also create a new position, The Military Veteran Agricultural Liaison, at USDA to help returning military veterans pursue careers in agriculture and access USDA programs.

Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers: The new farm bill essentially halves funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program (also known as Section 2501). In place since the 1990s, this program has helped countless underserved farmers, including farmers of color and tribal farmers, access federal programs. The bill will provide only $10 million per year, while expanding the program to serve returning military veterans pursuing careers in farming. This underinvestment shortchanges our nation’s most vulnerable and chronically underserved farmers.

Land Access: The new bill will improve the Down Payment Loan Program, which provides capital to new farmers seeking to purchase property, by increasing the total value of farmland allowed from $500,000 to $667,000. The bill creates a new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to protect the agricultural use of conserved farmland and ensure it’s accessible and affordable to new farmers. Finally, it increases funding for the Conservation Reserve Program – Transitions Incentives Program (CRP-TIP), which incentivizes retiring landowners to rent or sell their farmland to beginning, socially disadvantaged and military veteran farmers.

Credit Access: The new farm bill will prioritize lending to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers through the Farm Service Agency’s Direct and Guaranteed Farm Ownership and Operating loan programs. It will also lower the interest rate for Joint Financing loans that bring together farmers, USDA, and a private lender to leverage scarce federal credit dollars. The bill also makes the new FSA Microloan program permanent and establishes an intermediary lending pilot program so non-profit community lenders can provide microloans and financial training to small, beginning, veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers. Additionally, microloans made to beginning and veteran farmers will be exempt from the term limits that otherwise apply on direct operating loans. The bill will also give beginning farmers (in their first five years of production) a reduction on crop insurance premiums.

Conservation Programs: The new farm bill will continue conservation incentives for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers that were established in the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills. The bill also retains set-asides for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers in EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Program. The bill also expands these conservation incentives to include veteran farmers.

Commodity Payments & Crop Insurance

The federal safety net for farmers has taken on quite a few models through the decades. The last several years have shown a growing role of crop insurance subsidies in the overall farm safety net regime.

Safety Net: In place of the direct payments, which were costing $4.5 billion annually—Congress is now giving farmers of major row crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and rice a choice between subsidies that pay out when revenue drops or when prices drop. If that doesn’t sound all that different than what we currently do, that’s because in the end it isn’t. Those programs may kick in sooner than expected as some crop prices have started to drop in recent months. What’s more, they fail to address the underlying problems that create volatility in commodity markets.

Expanded Crop Insurance: On a high note, the final bill directs USDA to develop a new nationwide Whole Farm Diversified Risk Management Insurance product to provide revenue insurance for highly diversified farms of all kinds, including specialty crop farms, integrated grain-livestock farms, organic farms, and farms geared to local markets. These farms have largely been left out of the federal crop insurance system to date.

Food Stamps & Food Security

A major target during the farm bill debate was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamps. The final bill cut over $8 billion from the program over 10 years, an $880 million cut each year that translates to a monthly loss of $90 for each of the 850,000 households participating in the program. Several lawmakers who voted against the bill were livid over this, particularly at a time when more Americans are hurting and the economic gap between our richest and poorest is widening. According to Feeding America, 76 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits.

Community Food Projects: The bill also nearly doubled funding for Community Food Projects and creates a new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program to encourage fruit and vegetables consumption by SNAP recipients.

CSAs for SNAP: Several provisions ease the purchase of fresh and local produce for SNAP recipients by allowing them to use their benefits to participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) ventures, and by equipping farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer marketing outlets to accept SNAP benefits. The bill also includes pilot projects for improving technologies used in purchases made with EBT.

Farmers Markets and Local Food

The Farm Bill has finally started to get interesting for those of us interested in renewing rural economics and rebuilding local and regional food systems. The overall big picture is that USDA will now have over $1.2 billion to invest over the coming five years in a range of the most innovative and transformational programs within the farm bill.

Local and Regional Food Systems: The farm bill increased funding for several programs and created some new programs in this space.The bill triples funding to $30 million per year for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and expands the program to allow grants to both direct-to-consumer projects and projects supporting local and regional food enterprises through processing, aggregation, distribution, storage, and marketing.

Farm to School: The bill authorizes an eight-state pilot to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to schools and allow a geographic preference in procurement.

Rural Job Creation: The farm bill is the major legislation for rural economic and community development. Rural development did not fare well, but it did fund two important programs. The Value-Added Producer Grant program will receive approximately $12.5 million annually to help farmers develop new markets for high quality products that are farm identity-preserved. The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program will have $3 million a year to provide training, technical assistance, and microloans to very small rural businesses.

Research Dollars: A highlight from the Research Title is the infusion of $600 million in mandatory research dollars to support specialty crops, organic agriculture, and beginning farmers. These programs have all been stranded without funding since 2012, and have underpinned the growth of these sectors over the past decade. The specialty crop research program received permanent funding – a huge win!


On the bad news end of the equation, conservation programs, the largest pot of money our government devotes to protecting our natural resources, took a big hit. In fact, the conservation cuts represent the first time Congress slashed conservation spending since the first conservation programs were created in the 1985 farm bill. In every farm bill since then – 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008 – the investment in conservation has increased.

The big cuts were to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – the largest conservation program and major land retirement program – and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – the largest working lands program. The CRP will be cut over the coming years to 24 million acres total. The CSP will be cut to 10 million new acres per year, reducing the program by 28 million acres.

Congress also chose to consolidate several conservation programs in this farm bill, including all existing easement programs into a single overarching umbrella program with permanent funding (which is good!). These easement programs will see a net increase over the next 10 years of $1.2 billion.

In a small bright spot, conservation compliance (a requirement that farmers receiving federal commodity or crop insurance payments adhere to conservation programs) was protected in this farm bill.

However, cuts to conservation programs will continue under Congress’ current sequestration scheme, and will likely endure additional cuts in the appropriations process. In short, this farm bill simply will not equip our nation’s farmers and ranchers with the resources they need to conserve and stewards our soil, water and air—of critical importance in an era of climate change.

Organic Agriculture

Organic agriculture fared well in this farm bill. The National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program is now funded at $11.5 million annually to offset the costs of annual certification for organic farmers and handlers. It renews funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative at $20 million per year, and for the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives at $5 million over five years, the same as in the previous farm bill. The National Organic Program also receives $5 million for technology upgrades.

The bill also improves crop insurance for organic producers by requiring USDA to publish the complete set of organic price elections by 2015. The bill also includes a provision to exempt organic producers from having to pay into conventional checkoffs, and to allow the organic sector as a whole to establish a checkoff program if so desired.

Market Fairness & Corporate Abuse

A bright spot in this farm bill is the success of advocates to preserve Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and enforcement of fair competition rules for poultry and hog producers and fair contracts for livestock and poultry producers. This is a significant victory, although the fight will continue during annual appropriations, where it is almost certain that multinational meatpacking companies will try to cut these measures once again.

Industrial hemp

For the first time, the farm bill will authorize colleges and universities to grow industrial hemp for research purposes in states that permit its growth and cultivation (currently nine states — Colorado, California, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia).

Want to know more?

  • Check in with our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition for a 7-part series breaking down the 2014 Farm Bill. It’s good reading for the farm policy nerds among us!
  • HOMEGROWN.org farmer-blogger Bryce Oates gives his take on the Farm Bill here.
  • What is the Farm Bill anyway? Check out our Farm Bill 101 here.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Remembering John Kinsman

CarolynLast week, the family farm movement lost one of its leaders, Wisconsin dairy farmer and activist John Kinsman. John, aged 87, was the consummate farmer: hardworking, tireless, humble, nearly always with a smile on his face. Until just recently he was still farming, milking his small herd of Holsteins and tending the 150 acres that enabled him and his wife Jean to raise ten children.

John’s refusal to use chemicals on his land following an illness caused by farm chemicals was an early sign of the radical beneath his farmer exterior. He was an organic farmer for more than 50 years, turning his back on the agricultural education he received that promised chemicals as the savior of farmers. The photo Farm Aid featured in John’s Farmer Hero profile from a couple years back shows John on his land, wearing what looks to be a typical farmer’s seed cap. Upon closer examination, one can see the hat represents the MST, Brazil’s landless workers’ movement. The others in the photo represent different cultures and ethnicities—just a few among the likely hundreds of people John mentored on his farm and across the globe. The photo is a clue into what those of us who love and admire John know: here is citizen of the planet. Not just an upstart on his own piece of land, but an activist and leader in uprisings and actions across the world.

In the '60s, John became involved with a summer exchange program called PSA (Project Self-Help and Awareness), whereby young black kids from Mississippi spent part time on farms in Wisconsin and Wisconsinites went south to shift their worldview. In the '70s, he became a leader of that organization. In the ‘80s, he started a life-long commitment to fight GMOs by protesting at the University of Wisconsin. The agricultural school was experimenting with bovine growth hormone (rBGH) and serving milk and ice cream containing the hormone to their students. In the ‘90s, he founded Family Farm Defenders, a Wisconsin-based group and partner of Farm Aid’s, which promotes sustainable agriculture, fair trade, workers’ rights, animal welfare and food sovereignty. In 1999, John stood shoulder to shoulder with Jose Bove at the World Trade Organization demonstration in Seattle, protesting globalization by raising his voice and handing out fair-trade cheese, made by Wisconsin dairy farmers who were paid a fair price. Most recently, John was protesting the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), another trade agreement that threatens farmers and eaters alike, here and abroad.

John was a leader of the National Family Farm Coalition, which stands up for family farmers and rural communities in the United States. He was a farmer leader of Via Campesina, a movement of and by peasant farmers across the world for food sovereignty. He was an outspoken critic of globalization, the commoditization of our food, the lack of transparency in our food system, and the corporate power that keeps farmers from earning a fair living. John was a mentor to hundreds (perhaps thousands), recognizing the power and energy of youth as a force to be harnessed for change. Dressed in a cow suit to call attention to corporate price manipulation outside the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or talking one-on-one with a young farmer, John was a joy and inspiration. Above all, he was a friend.

I had wanted to pay tribute to John in a way that allowed me to really reflect on the meaning of his life and work. I wanted to first celebrate his life at his service, to be among the people who knew him best. Some of those people were unable to attend, it being the busy season for farm conferences and with the Farm Bill moving. They said, "John would have wanted me to keep working." And they're right. Regardless, the church overflowed and I know that on that cold day in La Vallle, WI, people across the world were paying tribute to John, and will keep on doing so. We celebrate the life of a man who may have worked the same plot of land for the majority of his life but who traveled the world (all the continents but Antarctica) and who affected and empowered many in the pursuit of fairness for those often unseen and powerless.

The loss of this great family farm defender, coupled with the death of Pete Seeger, has made me very thoughtful of two lives that have given so much inspiration to all of us to keep going with. John and Pete are two people cut from the same cloth—-two individuals who believed in the power of people, very simply. I think that if we remember them and the way they acted in the world, with their smiles and music and always with strength to empower others, we can keep doing the good work they started.

I am very grateful that I knew John and could call him my friend.