Renewable energy moves the world in a more sustainable direction

Posted on | April 3, 2014 | No Comments

by Roger Johnson, NFU president

Countries around the world are investing heavily in renewable energy. From developed countries in the European Union and the United States to developing countries such as China, India and Brazil, governments understand the importance of promoting renewable energy. After all, it’s really a no-brainer: renewable energy is a win-win for the climate, the economy and farmers worldwide.

Farmers understand that their livelihoods depend on the quality of their land. Unfortunately, climate change is a threat to agriculture in all parts of the world. Unpredictable weather, including increased droughts and floods, and more intense storms will put pressure on agriculture systems. Add to that new risks, such as pests and weeds brought on from changing climates, and you get an agriculture sector that can see a lot of turbulence in the coming years. In the end, climate change is a real threat to global food security, agricultural productivity and farm incomes.

While it is vital to change farming operations to adapt to climate change, farmers and ranchers have a responsibility to be part of the climate solution. Producing renewable energy on farms has tremendous potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change as a result.

The good news is that renewable energy sources are available in rural areas around the world, making farmers key drivers in the move towards renewable energy. In the United States, different areas of the country have specific advantages. The southwest and west have access to many days of strong sunlight that can be used for solar power, while wide swaths of the Midwest have some of the best wind resources in the world. The northeast and southeast are home to vast tracts of biomass resources that can be used for a variety of purposes, including biofuels. The rest of the world can tap into similar sources.

With renewable energy production, not only are farmers helping the planet combat climate change they are also making money in the process and keeping that money in rural areas. Nearly 75 percent of poor people in the world live in rural areas. But, by generating and selling energy, farmers can diversify their revenue stream and increase their incomes. In the United States, there is a tendency to think that there aren’t economic opportunities in rural areas, so young people often look to urban areas for career moves. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, approximately one million Americans are employed in the renewable energy sector. This is a fast growing industry that will continue to create opportunities for farmers, ranchers and rural Americans.

People all over the world would do well to look towards renewable energy as a way to fight climate change and help the bottom lines of family farmers.

FSA modernization: balancing budgets and the concerns of rural communities

Posted on | April 3, 2014 | No Comments

by Caroline Michniak, NFU Intern

There have been many mixed feelings on the proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) office closings for 2015. Members of Congress are continuing to bring up the controversial subject because it hits home for rural communities. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack testified before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday and much of the conversation shifted towards the committee’s concern with the plan to close about 20 percent of FSA offices nationwide. Many of the concerns from the committee regard concerns around implementation of the new farm bill.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., expressed concern for the streamlining of FSA offices in rural communities. His main concern was lack of access both geographically and technologically. He stated that farmers do not have all the resources required for using online information in their homes and offices. Vilsack noted that this modernization is coming and necessary to provide more comprehensive services to the nation’s farmers. He noted that currently there are many FSA offices with no staff or very minimal staff. The plan is to have different kinds of offices to meet the needs of areas in three tiers. There will be central offices with a supervisor and three or more employees; branch offices with at least three employees, but no supervisor; and satellite offices where people could obtain information by appointment.

Vilsack was adamant that this modernization is necessary and will happen, but Sen. Tester noted, “Modernizing language has been around for 20 years, and it hasn’t happened.” Secretary Vilsack defended the modernization on the grounds that many FSA offices have one or no employees. For Vilsack, “This is about better service. It’s not about services going away. It’s not about consolidation for the sake of consolidation.”

Technology will be a large factor in the success of this modernization effort. USDA will need to ensure that rural communities have the technology to use resources like online data or reports in an effective manner. These virtual resources are about creating the flexibility and coverage currently lacking from FSA offices. USDA has a team of researchers that will conduct a study in the upcoming year that will analyze the needs of rural communities and suggest the next steps in modernization accordingly.

The question remains, will farmers and rural communities be able to keep up with these upgrades in technology? If successful, FSA modernization will provide necessary resources to farmers facing complex challenges in today’s modern agricultural economy. If unsuccessful, rural communities may lose in the long run. This may be a lesson how federal budget cuts affect rural communities at a local level.

Why we can’t shop our way into a sustainable food future

Posted on | March 31, 2014 | No Comments

by Wenonah Hauter

Many consumers believe that savvy shopping for sustainable food can help improve the entire food chain. But ensuring that everyone can enjoy healthy food produced by thriving family farmers requires making fundamental changes to farm and food policy. The first barrier to a robust and fair food system that benefits eaters and farmers is a marketplace that is controlled, top to bottom, by a few firms and that rewards only scale, not innovation, quality, or sustainability.

Rejecting the status quo—the domination of the food industry by a handful of giant companies, the offshoring of food production, the reliance on expensive inputs and controversial technologies—is essential to creating a new food system. We must challenge the prevailing wisdom that the biggest agribusinesses, food companies and supermarket chains that got us into this mess have a market-based blueprint to fix the problem.

Many in the food movement have become so discouraged by the undue influence that corporations have on public policy from campaign contributions, lobbying and sheer political power that they have turned to the market for solutions. Market-based solutions are popular because they reinforce societally imbued libertarian values of freedom and choice, but this market magic was supported by decades of corporate public relations efforts demonizing the role of government and attacking regulatory safeguards.

Now, many influential food activists believe that if enough people want healthy, sustainably grown food, the market will respond by providing it. But we cannot just shop our way to a better food future when a handful of big food companies control the food chain from seed to supermarket.

The organic industry demonstrates how “shopping well” cannot by itself fix the broken model. Failure to enforce antitrust laws is causing the structure of the organic industry to mimic that of conventional foods. The higher prices consumers pay for organic food have not been able to reshape the structure of that system.

Instead, the biggest conventional food companies have rushed in to capture the organic premium by gobbling up almost all of the organic food companies. A long wave of mergers has eliminated most of the independent organic retailers and distributors. Corporate control of the industry has also undermined its integrity as the large corporations have successfully lobbied to use more synthetic ingredients in organic processed foods. Consumers cannot shop to a better food system by buying organic food manufactured, distributed and sold by the biggest food companies; the food monopoly is still firmly in control.

Hyper consolidation guarantees that the market will not reform the food system on its own. Even markets need rules and referees to ensure that market bullies don’t under-pay farmers and over-charge consumers. It takes market regulations—from antitrust enforcement to commodity trading—to provide a level playing field for all market competitors that will begin to solve the root problems in the food system.

Unfortunately, over the past three decades our movement has allowed large and conservative foundations to dictate market-based policy prescriptions to every problem. Real change requires organizing to build the political power to rein in corporate greed and to hold elected officials accountable.

A sad example of where this thinking failed farmers occurred at the end of 2011. While “good food” activists were distracted by the threat of a Secret Farm Bill being snuck into the Super Committee process and passed with no public input, House Republicans dealt a crippling blow to family farmers and consumers with a budget bill that gutted the fair livestock marketing rules that have languished for more than 80 years. Had the food movement been paying attention, we could have saved these commonsense protections that allow small livestock producers to compete and check the abusive practices of the poultry industry.

When farmers and consumers work together to build political power, we can hold Big Ag corporations accountable. We’ve seen this recently when Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) survived vicious industry attacks and was not weakened in this latest Farm Bill that was just signed into law. By building off successes like this and learning from past failures, together we can organize to achieve the victories we need to protect farmers and eaters and build a fair food system.

Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch and author of Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.


Farmers’ issues and challenges in other parts of the world are different yet similar

Posted on | March 28, 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

Our understanding of the issues facing U.S. farmers is not limited to what we have learned during the course of our academic endeavors. Daryll grew up on a farm in Hamilton County, Iowa, and has family members who are still engaged in farming. In addition, he has the opportunity to talk to farmers during the numerous presentations he makes to farm groups each year.

Harwood, on the other hand, grew up in a suburb that was adjacent to an area comprised of numerous, small-diversified farms. His initial understanding of farming came from classmates and a year he spent working on a mission farm and teaching at a settlement school in Eastern Kentucky. It was the 30 years he spent as a pastor in rural communities in the Midwest that brought him face to face with the challenges U.S. farmers face as they work to earn a living from the land.

Both of us have had the opportunity to travel together to observe farming in Brazil and China as we learned about their farming techniques and the challenges they face. Readers can view the columns on Brazil at, Feb. 17-April 7, 2006. The columns on our visit to China and what we learned can be viewed at, June 13-July 25, 2008.

Harwood’s trip to Guédé Chantier, Senegal is our first opportunity to directly observe and learn about agricultural production in Sub-Saharan Africa. Beginning with last week’s column, we are sharing with our readers some of the things Harwood observed and the lessons we learned from this recent trip.

During his visit to Guédé, Harwood had the opportunity to have extended conversations with community members representing all segments of the community, men and women, young and old, schoolteachers, fishermen, herders, farmers, and those who earn their living outside of Guédé. The description of the agricultural challenges that Guédé faces is widely shared by all sectors of the society.

When it was first established in the 1930s, Guédé had a population of around 1,000 and the support of the French colonial government. In those days the harvests were good and the farmers only had to grow one rice crop a year to provide an adequate living for everyone.

With the end of colonialism and an increasing population, farmers began to engage in three crop campaigns a year. It was during this period that the Chinese established an agricultural mission in Guédé. They upgraded the irrigation pumping system, introduced improved seed varieties, and increased the use of the full range of farm chemicals. As a result, production levels increased dramatically.

When the Chinese left and the subsidization of inputs disappeared, the profitability of rice growing began to decline as yields fell and the price of inputs increased. Between the 1930s and today the population of Guédé has increased from 1,000 inhabitants to over 7,000 inhabitants. In the 1930s, with one crop campaign, one hectare supported 1.67 persons for a year. Today, with three crops a year, for each crop campaign, one hectare supports 3.89 persons for a year, placing additional pressure on the ability of crop agriculture to support the population of Guédé.

When asked, the residents all talk about how tired the soil is and their dependence upon fertilizer and other farm chemicals. Because of the high cost of farm chemicals, as well as people dying as the result of the use of farm chemicals, almost everyone Harwood talked to would like to shift to organic or at least low farm chemical production systems.

Farmers spoke of low crop prices at harvest time when they have to sell their crops to pay off bank loans. In addition they have few facilities available in which they can store the grain they produce and have to wait until prices begin to improve before they sell.

Farmers inside the dike are dependent upon irrigation water for which they must pay a per hectare fee. With this cost and the fact that the bank only provides loans for rice, tomatoes, and onions, farmers feel locked into the cash crop cycle that leads to the depletion of soil nutrients and the consequent dependence on expensive farm chemicals.

Farmers who farm outside the dike, closer to the riverbank and flood ground or on the north side of the Doué River have more freedom in the crops they grow and their crop rotation cycle. In addition, the land that is flooded each year gets a fresh input of soil and nutrients on an annual basis.

To tackle these challenges the people of Guédé and Harwood decided to work on designing an agricultural/community development project where the research/work agenda is set by the people in the community, with his role being that of a facilitator who has access to resources and knowledge. We are hopeful that this model of agricultural and community development will be sustainable in Guédé over the long-run and replicable in neighboring communities as Guédé residents learn how to become facilitators.

Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the Director of UT’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC). Harwood D. Schaffer is a Research Assistant Professor at APAC. (865) 974-7407; Fax: (865) 974-7298; and;


We’re still seeking a fair marketplace

Posted on | March 26, 2014 | No Comments

by Mike Stranz, NFU Senior Government Relations Representative

In recent weeks, there’s been much discussion about the upcoming release of The Meat Racket, an account by investigative reporter Christopher Leonard about the consolidation of the meat processing industry. Leonard’s work finds that our food system is dominated by just a handful of companies, and uses the integrated poultry industry as example of the harmful effects of a non-competitive marketplace.

The book is especially noteworthy in that it focuses on the treatment of the people who are directly affected by the system – in particular, the farmers. It pairs well with the legislative and regulatory reforms that NFU has pushed for in recent years. Leonard discusses the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration rulemaking process carried out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 and 2011, along with the joint Department of Justice and USDA antitrust hearings in 2009 and 2010. The book addresses serious issues with the poultry and meat industry with a fresh perspective, at least for those who haven’t been following NFU’s activities.

The fight for a fair marketplace is nothing new. NFU’s Honorary Historian Tom Giessel recently sent out a clipping from the Kansas Union Farmer from 1925:


The hearings being held by the new Secretary of Agriculture on the Armour-Morris Merger emphasizes the great danger to farmers of any modification of the Packers’ Consent Decree, until as the Federal Trade Commission recommended, they are divorced from ownership of stockyards and of refrigerator cars, of which they now have a monopoly.

The merger took place two years ago, March 28, 1923. By this merger, Armour & Company increased its proportion of the inspected slaughter of all animals from 17.4 percent in 1923, to 23.5 percent in 1924. Two firms, Armour and Swift, now kill nearly half the inspected slaughter of all animals. Those two will want to merge next.

Although required by the Consent Decree entered in February 1920 to sell their holdings in stockyards, up to Dec. 19, 1924, nearly four years after, the Armour interests had disposed of less than two percent of their extensive holdings in Ft. Worth, Texas and St. Paul, Minn., and had not disposed of any of their big holdings in Louisville, Ky., Denver, Colo., Sioux City, Iowa, Kansas City, Missouri, Jersey City, N. J., and Pittsburgh, Pa.

What would happen to a farmer or wage earner who defied a Court order that way?

The clip makes it clear that battles have raged for decades to make the marketplace fair and competitive for farmers. In 1925, meat processing companies had a stranglehold on the market, used legal wrangling to avoid coming into compliance with the law, and that antitrust hearings often didn’t result in the change farmers needed.

The need remains for farmers to speak up and be heard. The plight of poultry farmers in a non-competitive marketplace must be known throughout the country, and recent books and the International Year of Family Farming can help to spread the call to action.

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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.
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