Sioux County, Iowa: Ground zero for U.S. farm boom

P.J. Huffstutter, The Globe and Mail
If there is an epicenter of the nation’s farmland boom, it can be found here amid the rolling hills of northwest Iowa.

A fortune is being plowed into the dirt of Sioux County, where well-heeled farmers and wealthy investors compete fiercely for some of the most fertile land in the Corn Belt. While farmland prices across Iowa have been among the heartland’s fastest growing – up 261 per cent since 2000 – they’ve more than tripled in Sioux County, rising faster than most of the state.

Like many people across the Midwest, they’re increasingly anxious of a potential pull-back in values, despite stark economic differences with the 1980s farm crisis.

But their greatest fear is that if this boom turns to bust, as the housing market did last decade, people may well trace one of the key causes to this corner of the Hawkeye State — and blame local farmers and investors for creating an artificially inflated benchmark for the Midwest.

In what has been termed the “Iowa effect,” farmers and ranchers across the nation now routinely look to this 768-square-mile county as a benchmark for America’s 408 million acres of crop land. Record-setting land deals in this corner of the state are quickly deemed the new high-water mark for surrounding states…
(10 January 2012)
This is a worrying trend as such high land prices make it even harder for young people to break into farming, and they are usually the ones who are most open to farming in more resilient and sustainable ways.-KS

Local Food and The Farm Bill: Small Investments, Big Returns

Kari Hamerschlag, Civil Eats
For too long, funding provided by the United States’ most far-reaching food and farm legislation has primarily benefited agri-business and large scale industrial-scale commodity farms that aren’t growing food. Instead, they’re growing ingredients for animal feed, fuel and highly processed food—at a high cost to our nation’s health, environment and rural communities.

Meanwhile, only meager public resources have been invested smartly to build the kind of dynamic local food economies that support agricultural diversification and help link small- and mid-sized family farms to local and regional markets.

With the 2012 Farm Bill fast upon us, Congress has an opportunity to make smart, timely changes to help fix our broken food and farm system by embracing a package of policy reforms outlined in the Local Farms, Food and Jobs bill. This legislation was recently introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and is co-sponsored by 63 representatives in the House and 9 in the Senate.

The Pingree-Brown bill includes a comprehensive package of cost-effective policy reforms that would boost farmers’ and ranchers’ incomes by helping them meet the growing demand for local and regional food. The legislation also aims to make fresh, healthy and affordable food-especially fruits and vegetables- more accessible to consumers. Given our nation’s costly epidemic of diet-related disease, small investments now that increase access and affordability of healthier food will save us billions of health-related dollars down the road

Trends show people want fresh, healthy, local food

Demand for locally grown, sustainable food is growing in every corner of the country, with more than 100,000 growers now serving more than 160,000 outlets (pdf):

  • In 2011, 7,175 farmers markets were open for business, more than double the number in 2002.
  • An estimated 6000 Community Supported Agriculture programs are delivering food directly from the farm to consumers.
  • More than 2,000 farm-to-school programs are up and running, a five-fold increase since 2004.
  • More than 300 universities are involved with the Real Food Challenge and sourcing sustainable food locally.
  • More than 360 hospitals have committed to sourcing more nutritious, locally grown food through the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge.
  • The number of restaurants purchasing locally-grown food has skyrocketed; For the fourth year in a row, locally sourced food is the top restaurant food trend in 2012.
  • More grocery stores are carrying food produced locally or from farms within the state–and labeling it for customers!…

(26 January 2012)
Some impressive stats here, even if all these local food sales are still only adding up to “a mere two percent of gross farm sales in 2008.” -KS

UK needs scientific research into agroecology not GM

Patrick Mulvaney, The Ecologist
The greatest challenge facing agricultural scientists is how to work with farmers producing more ecological and healthier food – not GM, argues Patrick Mulvany, chair of the UK Food Group and advisor to Practical Action

At the start of 2012 we should be energised by the news that BASF, the German chemical and seeds giant, has decided to pull out of genetically modified plant development in Europe. This is testament to the effectiveness of public pressure and ‘another nail in the coffin for genetically modified foods in Europe,’ as Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth said.

But beyond successes in GM skirmishes, we should remind ourselves why we should be optimistic about the defence of the food system which feeds most people in the world, and thus be clearer about the research policies and practices needed to enhance it….

Today, there can be no greater scientific challenge in the food system than how to shift it towards a more ecological and healthier form of production and consumption that can be controlled locally. These systems are more productive per area of land or drop of water – and more sustainable, carbon neutral, biodiverse, resilient and locally determined – than industrial commodity production. Science should embrace the challenge.

A new generation of agricultural scientists could be encouraged, building on the example of many pioneers, to work with knowledgeable small-scale food providers to enable that shift to take place. Using improved tools for analysing biological, economic, legal and social systems they could enrich understanding, enhance local knowledge and practice and strengthen local communities’ and social movements’ control over the use of their common resources for securing localised food systems…
(25 January 2012)

How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration

David Bacon, The Nation
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation. Some names of the people profiled in this article have been changed.

Roberto Ortega tried to make a living slaughtering pigs in Veracruz, Mexico. “In my town, Las Choapas, after I killed a pig, I would cut it up to sell the meat,” he recalls. But in the late 1990s, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened up Mexican markets to massive pork imports from US companies like Smithfield Foods, Ortega and other small-scale butchers in Mexico were devastated by the drop in prices. “Whatever I could do to make money, I did,” Ortega explains. “But I could never make enough for us to survive.” In 1999 he came to the United States, where he again slaughtered pigs for a living. This time, though, he did it as a worker in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

His new employer? Smithfield—the same company whose imports helped to drive small butchers like him out of business in Mexico.

David Ceja, another immigrant from Veracruz who wound up in Tar Heel, recalls, “Sometimes the price of a pig was enough to buy what we needed, but then it wasn’t. Farm prices were always going down. We couldn’t pay for electricity, so we’d just use candles. Everyone was hurting almost all the time.”

Ceja remembers that his family had ten cows, as well as pigs and chickens, when he was growing up. Even then, he still had to work, and they sometimes went hungry. “But we could give milk to people who came asking for it. There were people even worse off than us,” he recalls.

In 1999, when Ceja was 18, he left his family’s farm in Martinez de la Torre, in northern Veracruz. His parents sold four cows and two hectares of land, and came up with enough money to get him to the border. There he found a coyote who took him across for $1,200. “I didn’t really want to leave, but I felt I had to,” he remembers. “I was afraid, but our need was so great.”

He arrived in Texas, still owing for the passage. “I couldn’t find work for three months. I was desperate,” he says. He feared the consequences if he couldn’t pay, and took whatever work he could find until he finally reached North Carolina. There friends helped him get a real job at Smithfield’s Tar Heel packinghouse. “The boys I played with as a kid are all in the US,” he says. “I’d see many of them working in the plant.”

North Carolina became the number-one US destination for Veracruz’s displaced farmers. Many got jobs at Smithfield, and some, like Ortega and Ceja, helped lead the sixteen-year fight that finally brought in a union there. But they paid a high price. Asserting their rights also made them the targets of harsh immigration enforcement and a growing wave of hostility toward Mexicans in the American South.

The experience of Veracruz migrants reveals a close connection between US investment and trade deals in Mexico and the displacement and migration of its people. For nearly two decades, Smithfield has used NAFTA and the forces it unleashed to become the world’s largest packer and processor of hogs and pork. But the conditions in Veracruz that helped Smithfield make high profits plunged thousands of rural residents into poverty. Tens of thousands left Mexico, many eventually helping Smithfield’s bottom line once again by working for low wages on its US meatpacking lines. “The free trade agreement was the cause of our problems,” Ceja says…
(26 January, 2012)
Long and significant article on this issue. -KS