How, and Why, Some Farmers Are Bringing Livestock Back to the Prairie

Author: Amy Mayor | Date Published: August 1, 2017 

On a cloudy summer day, Iowa farmer Wendy Johnson lifts the corner of a mobile chicken tractor, a lightweight mesh-covered plastic frame that has corralled her month-old meat chickens for a few days, and frees several dozen birds to peck the surrounding area at will. Soon, she’ll sell these chickens to customers at local markets.

The demand for beef, pork and chicken raised on smaller farms closer to home is growing. Now, some Midwest farmers, like Johnson, are exploring how to graze livestock to meet those demands while still earning a profit.

Johnson runs Joia Food Farm on land she rents from her family, which has a conventional corn and soybean operation near Charles City, Iowa. She transitioned some fields to organic for corn and soybeans but also raises several types of livestock.

“Before we just let them out and day range, we make sure they know and understand that this is their home,” Johnson says, “so they go back into it.”

From now on, the chickens will be free to forage and peck during the day. The portable coop will keep them safe at night.

Most of the meat in grocery stores comes from huge farms and ranches that gain efficiency through economies of scale, and bring us cheap burgers, chops and wings. Those farms can be rough on the environment, generating massive amounts of animal waste and depleting the soil. Johnson’s approach relies on grazing different types of animals on the same land in a carefully controlled pattern, which ideally will enhance the land they roam. When used with several different animals, the technique is sometimes called multi-species grazing.

Johnson plans to rotate sheep through a series of small paddocks, followed by the meat chickens. The animals will eat what they please and fertilize with their waste. Laying hens and turkeys roam freely about her farm and yard. And she plans for pigs to eventually graze on organic crop fields where their natural rooting behavior should help improve soil health.

Farmers like Johnson are hoping creative approaches to providing meat, often at a premium, to customers who care more about farming methods than price will improve cropland and wildlife habitat while also helping them earn a profit.

“A multi-species open pasture system has a higher level of animal welfare,” says Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga. “I believe it is more regenerative for the land and I think it benefits rural economies.”

Harris pasture-raises cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, rabbits and five types of poultry. It sounds chaotic, and Harris says it requires careful planning.


A Narrow Focus on Boosting Farm Production Can Result in Land Degradation, Deforestation and Pollution

Author: Sophie Hares | Published: May 3, 2017 

Efforts to fight rural poverty need to take better account of the environment and local culture to avoid exacerbating the problems they are meant to solve, researchers said.

Agricultural development programmes should consider more than just economic growth when trying to move people out of the poverty trap, and consider the links between social and ecological systems, said a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

“If you’re ignoring nature and culture, even the economic equations show there would be adverse consequences,” said co-author Jamila Haider from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Traditional seed types and agricultural practices risk being lost, alongside cultural links to crops, through development projects to introduce higher-yielding and more marketable crops.

In some cases, a rise in production has resulted in worse land degradation, including deforestation and pollution, and left communities more exposed to shocks, said the researchers.

They also noted cases where new seed types failed because local customs and environmental conditions were neglected.

The report said “resilience thinking” could shed light on why many aid projects – including those that pay for seeds, fertilizers, and machinery – fail to help people out of poverty.


How Ancient Crops Could Counteract Climate Change Effects

Author: Steve Gillman| Published: May 2, 2017

Intensively growing single crops for commercial purposes is the most common farming practice in Europe. These so-called cash crops include corn and wheat and they depend on stable weather to get a good harvest.

‘With climate change we will see much more drought in different places of the world, especially in the Mediterranean region, and large parts of Africa,’ said Professor Sven-Erik Jacobsen from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. ‘Even in north Europe we will see more drought and heavier rainfalls.’

An unusually hot or wet period could devastate harvests of traditional crops, but species originating in warmer climates could serve as a solution to European farmers under threat.

‘These crops could be the answer to the climate change effects that we will experience more and more,’ said Prof. Jacobsen, who is the project coordinator of PROTEIN2FOOD, an EU-funded project that’s exploring ancient crops and legumes to help make modern agriculture more sustainable.


Sage Advice for Young Farmers

Published on: April 24, 2017

Alice Waters. Wendell Berry. Eliot Coleman. These are just a few of the food and farming luminaries who have lavished the next generation with words of wisdom, at the behest of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The New York nonprofit compiled the responses in a new book, Letters to a Young Farmer, excerpted and adapted here.


Fighting Climate Change on the Farm

Author: Kevin Ma | Published on: April 26, 2017

U of A scientists will study new ways to stop climate change this summer at a farm just north of St. Albert with the help of a federal grant.

Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced $3.7 million in grants for researchers at the University of Alberta last Friday. The grants are part of the federal Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program and are meant to create practices and technologies farmers can use to reduce carbon emissions.

“Farmers have a key role to play in feeding the world and saving the planet,” MacAulay said, and have already taken significant steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with wheat and beef production.

Agriculture accounts for about 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, reports Environment Canada – equivalent to the annual emissions of about 7.7 million homes or 21.2 coal power plants for a year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.


Farmers Can Profit Economically and Politically by Addressing Climate Change

Author: Matthew Russell | Date Published: April 4, 2017 

President Trump, congressional Republicans and most American farmers share common positions on climate change: They question the science showing human activity is altering the global climate and are skeptical of using public policy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

But farmers are in a unique position to tackle climate change. We have the political power, economic incentive and policy tools to do so. What we don’t yet have is the political will.

As a fifth-generation Iowa farmer and the resilient agriculture coordinator at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center, I deal with both the challenges and opportunities of climate change. I also see a need for the agriculture community to make tough choices about its policy priorities in the face of dramatic political shifts in Washington.

Pundits, agriculture groups and President Trump have identified farmers as a key demographic in the Republican victory. How we leverage this influence remains to be seen. Trade and immigration policy and the president’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal are already creating disagreements between farmers and the Trump administration. We will need to be strategic in using our political power to shape agriculture policy.

My research and farming experience convince me that even in today’s unpromising political conditions, agriculture can play an important role in addressing climate change. American farmers can become global leaders in producing what the world needs as much as abundant food: a stable climate.

Farmers wrestle with climate change

Prior to 2009, thousands of farmers across the United States participated in two large-scale projects designed to maintain or increase carbon storage on farmlands: the National Farmers Union Carbon Credit Program and the Iowa Farm Bureau AgraGate program. These programs paid farmers for limiting the number of acres they tilled and for maintaining or establishing grasslands. Payments came through the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), a voluntary market in which businesses could buy and sell carbon credits.

But after Barack Obama became president in 2009, farmers overwhelmingly joined the opposition to climate change action. As agriculture journalist Chris Clayton documents in his 2015 book “The Elephant in the Cornfield,” farmers viewed Obama’s climate strategy – especially the push for cap-and-trade legislation in 2009-2010 – as regulatory overreach by a Democratic Congress and president.

For example, after the Environmental Protection Agency briefly mentioned livestock in a 2008 report on regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, farmers and agriculture trade groups erupted in outrage at the prospect of a “cow tax” on methane releases from both ends of the animal. When Congress failed to enact the cap-and-trade bill in 2010, the CCX went out of business.


Mapping the Benefits of Farm Biodiversity

Author: Liz Carlisle | Published: April 3, 2017 

Ninety miles south of San Francisco, the farm town of Watsonville looks like it may have been the inspiration for the Beatles hit “Strawberry Fields Forever.” In wintertime, long strips of black plastic cover the earth, as growers fumigate next year’s strawberry beds with compounds like chloropicrin, which has been designated by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation as an air contaminant.

Because strawberries are so often planted on their own here, year after year, the industry has resorted to these chemicals to control soil-borne fungal diseases like verticilium, which thrive in the company of their strawberry hosts. But organic grower Javier Zamora has a different strategy.

“I make sure before and after strawberries there’s always something different,” said Zamora, whose JSM Organic Farms has expanded from 1.5 acres to over 100 acres in just five years. “I normally plant broccoli right after—no potatoes, no tomatoes, no eggplant in the three years between strawberries. Those things host the same diseases.” Diversifying his crops hasn’t completely eliminated pests, Zamora said, but it’s made them easier to manage so they don’t damage his harvest. It also relieves the pressure of soil-borne diseases.

In addition to carefully planning his crop rotation, Zamora also mixes things up by intercropping—planting marigolds at the end of his strawberry beds and perennial flowers like lavender in between them.

“Every flower will have a benefit of hosting some beneficial insects and it’s also something I can sell at market,” Zamora said. An immigrant from Michoacán, Mexico, Zamora enrolled in community college at age 43 before entering the Agriculture and Land-Based training Association (ALBA) program to pursue organic farming. He attributes his success to his disciplined crop planning and attention to soil health. “When you’re very diversified like I am,” Zamora said, “you have to be on top of your game. I already know where my 2018 strawberries are going to be planted.”

Using ‘Distant Genetic Cousins’ to Improve Farming

While Zamora has been planning out his rotations, a postdoctoral researcher two hours north in Berkeley has been analyzing dozens of studies of farms that grow a diversity of plants and rotate their crops, to try to understand which rotations promote better pest control. David Gonthier, who was recently hired as an Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky, has no doubt that crop rotation is an effective tool for breaking up pest and disease cycles, as well as improving soil health, managing nutrient balance, and improving water retention—benefits that ecologists have corroborated in recent studies from Iowa to Ontario.


Healthy Soil Is the Real Key to Feeding the World

Author: David R. Montgomery | Published: April 3, 2017 

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.


Market Rejection of GMOs Grows — Four-Year Plan to Topple Toxic Agriculture

Author: Dr. Joseph Mercola | Published: March 26, 2017 

Our annual GMO Awareness Week is upon us, and in this interview, Ronnie Cummins, founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) details the current state of the opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

We first met about six years ago, when we collaborated to create the direct ballot initiative to label GMOs in California.

A lot has happened since then, including the passing of what’s colloquially known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, ironically misnamed “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act” — this despite a full 90 percent of consumers supporting mandatory labeling.

The Trump administration has also selected or appointed notorious cheerleaders for GMOs and factory farms to his cabinet — Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA, Sonny Perdue as USDA Secretary, and Rick Perry as Energy Secretary.

Meanwhile, his Tea Party allies in Congress have called for the abolition of the entire National Organic Program!1

On the upside, in 2016 we saw, for the first time in nearly 20 years, a decrease in the amount of genetically engineered (GE) crops grown around the world, in terms of acreage.

As noted by Cummins, “This represents the fact that this technology is failing, in the sense of superweeds and superpests are popping up all over the world.” In the U.S., three-quarters of farmers growing GE crops like soybeans, corn or canola are having problems with these herbicide- and pesticide-resistant pests.

Market Rejection of GMOs Has Grown

Even more importantly, consumers around the world have become aware of the many problems associated with GE crops and the toxic herbicides and pesticides used on them, and do not want any of it on their plates.

In other words, the market has started rejecting GMOs, and that’s what we’ve been fighting for all along. Nothing can or will change unless consumers apply pressure in the form of refusing to buy GMOs.

In the European Union (EU), which is the biggest agriculture market in the world, few if any GMOs are found on supermarket shelves.

In the U.S. — despite industry spending hundreds of millions of dollars to manipulate market preference — about 40 percent of Americans still believe GE foods and GE ingredients are dangerous. Another 20 percent are unsure whether GMOs are dangerous or not.

“This combination of consumer rejection and, basically, Mother Nature’s resistance, has caused a drop-off,” Cummins says. “I think this is the beginning of the end of at least this generation, the first generation, of GMO crops.

Now, industry is saying, ‘Don’t worry about the fact that we’re using more and more toxic pesticides and herbicides … Don’t worry about these pests spreading across the fields. We’ve got a new generation of GMO crops where we can just do gene editing.

We don’t have to pull some DNA from a foreign species and haphazardly splice it into a corn or a soybean crop.’

But the bottom line is that this gene-splicing and this so-called new gene editing are unnatural processes that disrupt the genetic structure, the natural workings of living organisms. These aren’t going to work either.”

Organics and Grass fed Are Increasing in Popularity

Worldwide, we’re also seeing strong growth in organics and grass fed farming and ranching. In the U.S., the organic sector grew 11.5 percent in 2016. Grass fed grew about 50 percent. In France, organics grew by 20 percent.


Letters to a Young Farmer: Stone Barns Center Releases Its First Book

Author: Danielle Nierenberg | Published: March 2017 

Today, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture released Letters to a Young Farmer, a book which compiles insight from some of the most influential farmers, writers, and leaders in the food system in an anthology of essays and letters.

The United States is on the cusp of the largest retirement of farmers in U.S. history, with more farmers over the age of 75 than between the ages of 35 and 44. Letters to a Young Farmer aims to help beginning farmers succeed through advice and encouragement, while inspiring all who work in or care about the food system. Among the 36 contributors to the book are thought leaders Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, Temple Grandin, Wendell Berry, Rick Bayless, and Marion Nestle. I was honored to contribute to the book as well!

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a nonprofit sustainable agriculture organization with a mission to create a healthy and sustainable food system that benefits all. The organization trains farmers, educates food citizens, develops agroecological farming practices, and convenes changemakers through programs such as a Summer Institute for High School Students and a two-day Poultry School conference.

Food Tank spoke with Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center, about Letters to a Young Farmer, the need to encourage young farmers, and hope in the future of the food system.

Isenbarger says “we created this book to give voice to farmers and illuminate the choices that can lead to a stronger future, for them and for all of us who eat. It reminds us that farming has always been a political act. These young farmers, who choose to farm rather than go into law or medicine or finance—they are taking a stand; they are expressing their commitment to the land, to their communities, to the food movement.”

Food Tank (FT): Why do young farmers need encouragement? 

Jill Isenbarger (JI): Farmers are becoming an endangered species. The number of farms and farmers continues to shrink, and farmers are aging off of the land at an alarming rate. The average age of a farmer in the United States is 58.3 and climbing, and only six percent of farmers are under the age of 35.

Young farmers need encouragement because our society doesn’t value them the way they should be valued. “You’re just a farmer” is the common refrain. Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibben all write about this in the book. We’ve also lost many agricultural traditions based on community, a common history of stewardship and hard work.