Railroad criticism is a long-standing refrain among farmers

Posted on | September 16, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org

The relationship between farmers and the railroads has been one fraught with difficulties since the days when Eastern farmers and immigrants followed the railroads west to seek out a better life for themselves and their families. When farmers faced low prices for their grain they often blamed the railroads. The earliest nationwide farmer’s organization, the Grange, rode the wave of agrarian discontent giving voice to the complaints of farmers.

With railroads providing the only access to eastern markets for the grain they had to sell and equipment they purchased, farmers felt that the freight rates were too high. In addition farmers delivering grain to small rural elevators serviced by a single railroad were charged a higher per mile charge than shippers from larger towns serviced by more than one railroad. In many cases it cost more to ship grain a short distance than it did to ship it a longer distance.

Farmer discontent ultimately resulted in the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the first law allowing the regulation of a private industry. The result of the act was the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to bring about its implementation. Over the years other industries, including telegraphs, bridges, oil pipelines, and motor carriers came under the purview of the ICC.

With deregulation in the 1970s and 1980s, the powers of the ICC were slowly reduced until the ICC itself was eliminated in 1995. Those powers and responsibilities that the ICC was still charged with were transferred to the Surface Transportation Board.

On Thursday, September 4, 2014, the Surface Transportation Board met in Fargo, ND to hear the complaints of farmers. The complaint was one that the authors have heard for as long as they can remember: the harvest time shortage of railcars to carry grain to distant markets or storage terminals. This year the pinch is particularly acute in North Dakota.

Some local grain elevators have faced railcar shortages since last fall. The result is that they are full at the time when farmers want clear out their own grain bins to prepare for this year’s coming bumper crop. But like with the Christmas story, there is no room in the inn—well the elevator.

Lance Peterson, a Director of the American Soybean Association, told the Surface Transportation Board, “on April 10th of this year I traveled to Washington and testified before your board. The message that I delivered was that inadequate rail service through delays and increased freight costs is not just a business challenge but creates massive losses which are passed directly on to the agricultural producer, the farmer.”

He then cited a University of Minnesota study that put the income lost by Minnesota farmers between March and May of 2014 amounted to $100 million. Similar losses for North Dakota farmers have been documented by the North Dakota State University, he said.

Peterson went on to say, “at the April hearing the rail industry stressed that the coldest winter in 30 years was the major factor in the lack of car movement and that the problem would be corrected before the 2014 harvest. Actually the rail industry indicated that it should be taken care of by June. We are now part way into the wheat harvest and there is still a lot of crop from last year that has not been moved. I have heard numerous reports of grain bin companies that are literally so busy that they cannot take on any more business for this year. Farmers are in a difficult position of having to add storage because last year’s crop is still in the bin and they want to avoid piling grain on the ground during this year’s harvest.”

Farmers and the elevators say the railroads are giving priority to traffic from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota which has to ship oil via the railroad because of the lack of pipelines serving this new oil field. They also complain that US shippers are receiving lower priority from the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CP) as the result of a new Canadian law that fines the carrier for failing to meet a mandated level of service for Canadian agricultural products. Farmers also contend that the CP has not made sufficient investment in improving rail service.

At this hearing the CP and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) denied farmers’ complaints. In addition to last winter’s weather, the railroads testified that they are shipping more grain than last year and the problems farmers are experiencing are the result of the level of traffic on the railroads as well as congestion in terminal markets in Minneapolis and Chicago.

BNSF’s chief marketing officer, Stevan Bobb, argued “any decision that forces more railcars onto our already congested system [a suggestion of the North Dakota Agricultural Commissioner] will not create more capacity. It will reduce capacity to some BNSF customers.”

ASA’s Peterson said, “my request to the Surface Transportation Board is to require the railroads to submit metrics showing past dues, average days late, turnaround times, etc. for agricultural shippers, the oil industry, and other customers. This information would help to give a clear picture of railroad service issues. Based on the size and scope of the rail shipment problems being faced in the upper Midwest this is not too much to ask.”

In the meantime, farmers are investing in equipment to put the grain in bags and tubes so they can avoid putting grain on the ground—it is too late to put up new grain bins. They hope that when railcars come, the grain they have stored will be in good condition.


‘We can feed the world and do it safely,’ says ag industry group

Posted on | September 15, 2014 | No Comments

By Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America

If our agriculture industry is going to feed the world’s population, we should care enough to do it safely, humanely and sustainably.

That is the message of the Agricultural Safety Council of America (ASHCA), a not-for-profit coalition of agribusinesses, producer organizations and safety professionals that is planning and promoting actions to make agriculture much safer and healthier.

Although the total number of fatalities in the U.S. agriculture, forestry and fishing sector continues to decline, the fatality rate remains the highest of any industry sector, according to preliminary data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries released this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

National Farm Safety and Health Week (September 21-27) will no doubt spark a media surge in agricultural safety stories. ASHCA says let’s capitalize on that surge of awareness and focus on the following questions year-round:

  • What are the best evidence-based strategies and practices for eliminating the major and most costly injuries/diseases among agricultural workers?
  • What should our research priorities be, and who will pay for research?
  • What educational systems are needed to ensure succession of current leaders in agricultural safety?
  • What is the role of agribusiness and related industries (e.g., insurance, banking, legal) in sharing responsibility for safety of food and workers?
  • How do principles of Corporate Social Responsibility and Shared Values come into play?

In this, the United Nations’ “International Year of Family Farming,” we should also ask: How does the global market affect our safety standards? How can we effectively guide food production and worker safety in developing countries?

ASHCA has taken tangible steps in addressing these questions through initiatives such as the 2013 North American Agricultural Safety Summit, and a safety grant program that recently called for a second round of project proposals.

To learn more about these programs and which major organizations are behind ASHCA, visit www.ashca.com.

To learn more about the International Year of Family Farming, visit www.yearoffamilyfarming.com

By working together, we can safely and securely meet the growing, global need for food.



Farm Safety Should be a Front Burner Issue

Posted on | September 11, 2014 | No Comments

By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union President

When most Americans are asked what they worry about the most, answers like the economy, jobs, terrorism and education are usually at the top of the list.  But if you are a farmer or a rancher, I’d submit that in addition to those issues – which are certainly worthy of your attention – another front burner issue should be work safety.

Agriculture is consistently among the most hazardous occupations in the United States. In any given year, 516 workers die while doing farm work, and each day about 243 agricultural workers suffer lost-time injuries. Farm accidents and other work-related health problems claim as many as 1,300 lives and cause 120,000 injuries annually, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Interestingly, fruit farms have the highest worker-injury rates among the various agricultural operations, and sadly about 300 children lose their lives annually on America’s farms and ranches. These losses are unacceptable. We can do better.

As a nation founded on agriculture, we should strive for a hazard-free and healthy work environment for people engaged in various agricultural pursuits across the U.S.  The path to safer farms and ranches is through proactively addressing ongoing and emerging occupational safety and health issues affecting U.S. agriculture.

When a farmer or rancher walks out of his or her kitchen door in the morning, he or she should be thinking safety. We must work together to make farm safety a front burner issue and encourage farmers, producers and agribusiness owners to integrate safety into everyday practice so that it becomes part of their DNA, not just a program or a slogan.  Safety is an approach to life and the workplace.

To that end, National Farmers Union is implementing an education and outreach plan to help bring the safety mindset to farmers and ranchers where they live. The initiative will be unveiled later this year, and will help NFU make its mark on this important issue.

Additionally, the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America (ASHCA) – of which NFU is a board member – helps make for a coordinated and effective approach to bringing state-of-the-art safety information and programs to address the most pressing farm and ranch occupational hazards associated with various commodities, new technologies and changing profiles of workers.

We’ve all heard stories about why farm safety is important to someone, and it usually starts with the tale of a horrendous farm accident that changed, or ended, the life of a family member or a loved one. Let’s all promise to put farm safety on our radar each and every day, and prevent that injury before it happens.


Iowa’s strategy to reduce agricultural runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus

Posted on | September 11, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org

During the last week in August attention to the issue of water quality and the need to reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from entering US waterways moved from Ohio and the Chesapeake Bay to Iowa and its contribution to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. On Monday, August 25, 2014, the Iowa Soybean Association, the Iowa Corn Growers Association, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association announced the formation of the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance (http://tinyurl.com/nsbyhwq).

According to their website, “the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance is a nonprofit organization committed to advancing the success of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy by increasing farmer awareness of the initiative and their adoption of science-based practices proven to have quantifiable environmental benefits.”

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (http://tinyurl.com/khflofq) was developed as Iowa’s response to the 2008 Gulf Hypoxia Plan that called for the states bordering the Mississippi River to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the gulf by at least 45 percent. The strategy was prepared by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and released in May 2013.

The Strategy is not limited to agriculture but includes elements to deal with both point and nonpoint sources of pollution. In Iowa the point sources of nitrogen and phosphorus include 102 major municipal wastewater treatment plants and 28 industrial facilities. These facilities are required to obtain a discharge permit before they can release polluted water into Iowa’s waters.

“For the first time, discharge permits issued to these 130 facilities will require implementation of technically and economically feasible process changes for nutrient removal. These changes are designed to achieve targeted reductions of at least two-thirds in the amount of nitrogen and a three-fourths reduction in the amount of phosphorus from levels currently discharged by these facilities.

“If successful, this strategy will reduce by at least 11,000 tons per year the amount of nitrogen and 2,170 tons per year the amount of phosphorus discharged annually by municipal facilities alone. These figures represent a 4 percent reduction in nitrogen and a 16 percent reduction in phosphorus in the estimated statewide amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus discharged to Iowa waters from both point and nonpoint sources.”

Doing the math, that means if the goal is a 45 percent reduction, then agriculture, as the major nonpoint source, has to bear the lion’s share of the nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals—41 percent for nitrogen and 29 percent for phosphorus, respectively.

Why does agriculture end up bearing responsibility for such a large share of the nitrogen and phosphorus goals? To paraphrase a statement attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton, “because that is where the nitrogen and phosphorus are.” Depending on municipal systems alone, the state could not reach the 45 percent reduction goal for both nitrogen and phosphorus. Agriculture has to be a part of the solution.

Similarly, agriculture will not be able to meet its portion of the goal if very many farmers—or those whose farm release large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus— decide to continue doing business as usual, the remaining farmers will not be able to meet the targets.

The report says, “possible nutrient reduction practices identified fall into three categories—nitrogen and phosphorus management, erosion control and land use, and edge-of- field. Management practices involve such things as application rate, timing, and method, plus the use of cover crops, and living mulches.

“Land use practices include such things as perennial energy crops, extended rotations, tillage methods, grazed pastures, land retirement and terraces. Edge-of-field practices involve drainage water management, wetlands, bioreactors, buffers and sediment control.”

The Iowa Water Management Association was developed by the three agricultural groups as an alternative to regulation by state and national agencies. The chair of this group is Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association.

In a DTN column, “Ag Groups Form Alliance to Champion State Nutrient Strategy,” Chris Clayton writes, “Leeds acknowledged more effort is needed to educate farmers. Despite conservation practices now in place, current farming practices won’t effectively reduce nutrient loads by the volumes needed…. Leeds added that farmers also need to be aware that consumers and the public are watching and want to see results.”


Farm-based nitrogen emissions are unavoidable but can be minimized

Posted on | August 26, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at agpolicy.org

Growing up, one of the events we looked forward to was the church pot luck dinner. There were so many delicious choices to choose from as we worked out way down the table that it was easy to overfill the plate and the desserts were still ahead. It took more than one pot luck dinner to finally come to the conclusion—well mothers and a stomach ache or two helped—that it was possible to have too much of a good thing.

In the recent algae bloom that shut down the public water system, we have been faced with the problems caused by too much of a good—and necessary—thing, as excess phosphorus, some of which came from agricultural production, in Lake Erie fed the algae bloom.

A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Brief, “Nitrogen Management on U.S. Corn Acres” (http://tinyurl.com/k35oyto), points out that while nitrogen is an important input that allows farmers to “produce high yields profitably,” excessive application can lead to problems. They note that “nitrogen compounds released into the environment can also be a source of environmental problems, including eutrophication and hypoxia in aquatic ecosystems, visibility-impairing haze, and the loss of biodiversity.”

According to another USDA publication, “Nitrogen In Agricultural Systems: Implication for Conservation Policy” (http://tinyurl.com/p23hda4), “agriculture is the predominant source of reactive nitrogen emissions into the environment. In the United States, agriculture contributes 73 percent of nitrous oxide emissions…84 percent of ammonia emissions…and 54 percent of nitrate emissions.” [In what follows, quoted material taken from the Economic Brief will be marked (A) and from the second publication will be marked (B)]

Despite all that we know about the problems created by crop nutrients that make their way into the environment, “in 2006, 65 percent of cropland (producing eight major field crops) did not follow what are considered to be nitrogen best management practices” (A).

In addition, “USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) found that improvements in at least one aspect of nitrogen management…Nitrogen Management” were needed on 86 percent of cropland rotations in the Upper Mississippi Basin, 87 percent of cropland rotations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, 82 percent of cropland rotations in the Great Lakes watershed, and 93 percent of cropland rotations in the Ohio-Tennessee Basin” (A).

The problem that farmers face is that they do not know what the weather will be like in a given year and so they seek “to maximize economic returns by setting an optimistic yield goal for a given field based on an optimum weather year to ensure that the needed amount of nitrogen for maximum yields is available…. Thus, during the years in which weather is not optimal for maximizing yields, nitrogen will be overapplied from an agronomic standpoint. Almost by definition, optimal conditions are infrequent, so farmers overfertilize crops in most years” (B).

While giving farmers the best shot at high yields to maximize income in an optimum weather year, overfertilization shifts costs to others. It is “estimate[d] that consumers spend over
$800 million each year on bottled water due to nutrient-related taste and odor problems” (B).

In addition, “Using data from water treatment plants, ERS estimates the cost of removing nitrate from U.S. drinking water supplies is over $4.8 billion per year…. Based on the contribution of nitrate loadings from agriculture…agriculture’s share of these costs is estimated at about $1.7 billion per year. Most costs are borne by the large utilities, due to the volume of water treated” (B).

The use of three basis practices by farmers can reduce the amount of nitrogen that is released into the environment:

  1. Rate. Applying no more nitrogen (commercial and manure) than 40 percent more than that removed with the crop at harvest, based on the stated yield goal, including any carryover from the previous crop. This agronomic rate accounts for unavoidable environmental losses that prevent some of the nitrogen that is applied from actually reaching crops.
  2. Timing. Not applying nitrogen in the fall for a crop planted in the spring.
  3. Method. Injecting (placing fertilizer directly into the soil) or incorporating (applying to the surface and then discing the fertilizer into the soil) nitrogen rather than broadcasting on the surface without incorporation” (A).

While these recommended practices are generally well known among producers, the application of all three practices apparently has a long way to go.

Without significant progress in adopting all three practices, societal pressure will likely force stricter enforcement of existing conservation compliance rules on producers participating in farm programs or subsidized crop/revenue insurance programs. The next step could the introduction of far more onerous rules.


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About NFU

National Farmers Union was founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, to help the family farmer address profitability issues and monopolistic practices. NFU works to protect and enhance the economic well-being and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities through advocating grassroots-driven policy positions adopted by its membership.
Learn more at nfu.org

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