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SPECIAL EDITION

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF

AGRICULTURE

FREE 2016 EDITION

Farming’s New Environment INSIDE

HEALTHY LUNCHES Students grow their own meals

SCALING UP Can sustainable farming feed a nation?

CLIMATE CHANGE USDA prepares for new weather trends

10 CROPS Flowers, dairy, soy and more

ENTRY LEVEL Bringing new farmers into the fold


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FACTS ON LIVESTOCK Infographics on poultry, cattle, pork and dairy

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF

AGRICULTURE SPECIAL EDITION

27 CLIMATE CHANGE Farmers, USDA prepare to work under changing weather conditions

34 VANISHING GROUNDWATER Agriculture contributes to the draining of aquifers

CONTENTS DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES

FEATURES 38

50

64

FACTS ON FIELD CROPS Infographics provide updates on soy, wheat, corn, rice and produce

SCALING UP Adapting sustainable farming methods to feed a nation

FULL FLOWER The latest census on horticulture counts what’s in your yard


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DIRECTOR

Jeanette Barrett-Stokes jbstokes@usatoday.com CREATIVE DIRECTOR

Jerald Council jcouncil@usatoday.com MANAGING EDITOR

Michelle Washington mjwashington@usatoday.com EDITORS

Chris Garsson Elizabeth Neus Hannah Prince Sara Schwartz DESIGNERS

Ashleigh Carter Miranda Pellicano Gina Toole Saunders Lisa M. Zilka CONTRIBUTING WRITERS Matt Alderton, Karen Asp, Brian Barth, Adam Hadhazy, Nelson Harvey, Diana Lambdin Meyer, Erik Schechter, Stephanie Anderson Witmer CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHERS Dan MacMedan, Tim Parker, Shawn Spence

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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: LANCE CHEUNG/USDA; JENNIFER KATHRYN PHOTOGRAPHY; LANCE CHEUNG/USDA; IAN JAMES/THE (PALM SPRINGS, CALIF.) DESERT SUN; TED S. WARREN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Patrick Burke | (703) 854-5914 pburke@usatoday.com ACCOUNT DIRECTOR

POLICY

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EXIT INTERVIEW USDA Secretary Vilsack reflects on seven-plus years in office

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HEALTHY EATING Schools comply with USDA rules on lunches by growing their own

86

ON THE FARM

90

69

94

GROWING NEW FARMERS

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DEMOGRAPHIC OUTLOOK America’s farms, by the numbers

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RENEWABLE FUELS Even with a new quota, ethanol battles continue

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BRANCHING OUT USDA works to bring more women, blacks, vets to farming

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MERGER MANIA How the blending of big companies will affect agriculture

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GROWTH MARKETS Unusual farming methods attract more attention

Youth organizations add new faces to the workforce pipeline

RETAIL MATTERS Sellers respond to growing demand for niche products HIGH TECH New ways to farm more efficiently CROP INVADERS Border Patrol, USDA keep these critters out of the fields

Justine Goodwin | (703) 854-5444 jgoodwin@usatoday.com ISSN#0734-7456 A USA TODAY publication, Gannett Co. Inc. USA TODAY, its logo and associated graphics are the trademarks of Gannett Co. Inc. or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. Editorial and publication headquarters are at 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22108, and at 703-854-3400. For accuracy questions, call or send an e-mail to accuracy@usatoday.com.

ON THE COVER Farming techniques may change as the climate evolves. Photo by Thinkstock.

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POLICY Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, right, shows Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a sample of alternative fuel aboard a guided-missile destroyer now powered by a mix of biofuels and marine diesel.

MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 2ND CLASS ARMANDO GONZALES/U.S. NAVY

LAST MAN STANDING

USDA’s ‘regular guy’ Vilsack persists 7 years in job By Christopher Doering

F

ROM HIS SECOND-FLOOR OFFICE overlooking the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks of his department’s accomplishments during the past year like a parent glowing over the success of his child. As the former Iowa governor enters what is expected to be his last year leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 65-year old Vilsack — the last original member of President Obama’s Cabinet — is planning to focus

his attention on issues that include trade, water, school lunches and food labeling. For now, there is no evidence that Vilsack plans to leave before the end of the Obama administration, either to take another job or to campaign for Obama’s former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, whom Vilsack has endorsed for president. He serves at the “pleasure of one guy,” he said. But as Vilsack nears the end of his USDA stint, the man who seemingly has an answer to everything agricultureCON T I N U E D

“It’s typically the last few years that help define the legacy because that’s what people remember — the last thing you did.” — Chad Hart, Iowa State University


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POLICY Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, listens to USDA Midwest Climate Hub director Jerry Hatfield explain equipment that gathers information on climate change. For more on the Climate Hubs, see page 27.

DARIN LEACH/USDA

related paused a long time before answering how his accomplishments at the USDA will transcend into his legacy. “The true answer to that is I haven’t given that any thought. ... That’s terrible,” he said in an interview, surrounded by agriculturethemed posters and paintings interspersed with memorabilia from his beloved hometown Pittsburgh sports teams. “One thing that I’ve heard people say back to me recently is that they really appreciate the fact that I’ve been a spokesperson for rural America and for agriculture, a strong spokesman, and reminding the rest of the country about the importance of this place.” Vilsack, whose seven-year tenure makes him the fifth-longest serving agriculture secretary in U.S. history, has said he never thought about a future at USDA until November 2008, when he received a call from someone who considered him a top candidate for the position. Born in Pittsburgh, he lived most of his life in Iowa — the country’s top corn, ethanol, egg and pork producer — and moved up the political ranks from mayor of Mount Pleasant to two-term governor.

Farm groups and lawmakers, even those from the other side of the aisle, describe Vilsack as knowledgeable about agriculture, approachable and willing to be a champion of farmers and ranchers in an administration that at times has been viewed as unfriendly toward them when it comes to topics such as ethanol and land rights. While those who work with Vilsack have not always agreed with everything he has done, they find him likable and someone they can work with. “When you look at these past seven years, everybody has been mad at him at least once, everybody has been happy with him at least once. He’s sort of been, if you will, a guy in the middle,” said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist. “You want somebody who’s going to go out there and promote agriculture, but at the same time you want to be out there trying to challenge agriculture to address issues where we can do things a little bit better. He’s supposed to ruffle feathers.” Hart said traditional row-crop and livestock farmers, long viewed as the symbol of

“One thing that I’ve heard people say back to me recently is that they really appreciate the fact that I’ve been a spokesperson for rural America and for agriculture, a strong spokesman, and reminding the rest of the country about the importance of this place.” — Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary

agriculture, see Vilsack as having spent too much time on issues such as organic foods and specialty crops. At the same time, environmentalists have wished that Vilsack would have gone further to force agricultural producers to be better stewards of the land they use, he said. Wally Taylor, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter, criticized Vilsack for being too friendly to industrial agriculture and big agribusiness companies such as Pioneer and Monsanto. Instead, he said Vilsack should have done more to help protect the environment and encourage agriculture to play a bigger role

in reducing nutrient runoff and soil erosion from farms — something Taylor believes producers are unwilling to do on a meaningful scale by themselves. “He tends to support the industrial agriculture model instead of sustainable agriculture, and I think he sides too often with the big ag interests like the Farm Bureau and the big commodity and livestock organizations,” Taylor said. “That’s the thing with the industrial agricultural model, the environment is there to be ignored at best and taken advantage of at worst.” During his time in office, Vilsack has CO N T I N U E D


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POLICY

DESMOND BOYLAN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, center in blue shirt, visits the Guira De Melenas cooperative organic farm in Guira De Melenas near Havana in November. The trade mission was the first official USDA trip to Cuba since 1961. benefited until recently from a favorable economic environment where high prices for corn, soybeans and other commodities have helped the nation’s agricultural producers. While the farm economy has pulled back significantly from three years ago, when the industry posted record income topping $123 billion, agriculture for the most part remains on solid ground, although the prolonged downturn has started to squeeze some producers. Hart and others said the strong farm economy has allowed Vilsack and the USDA to expand their reach into other areas such as promoting the purchase of locally grown goods that would be harder to do when the industry is struggling — a time when the focus would otherwise be placed on using the department’s considerable resources to help struggling farmers and ranchers. “If things are going well, it’s hard to complain,” Hart said. House Agriculture Committee chairman Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has talked regularly with Vilsack about agricultural policy, and sometimes to iron out disagreements that he says so far have been easy to fix. Conaway said Vilsack invited him, his wife and other top lawmakers involved in agriculture in Congress to his home one night. Work talk quickly shifted to discussions about their backgrounds and careers. On another occasion, Vilsack hosted a reception for members of the House Agriculture Committee at his office and shared stories

LONGEST-SERVING AGRICULTURE SECRETARIES James Wilson March 6, 1897, to March 5, 1913

16 YEARS

Ezra Taft Benson Jan. 21, 1953, to Jan. 20, 1961

8 YEARS

Orville Freeman Jan. 21, 1961, to Jan. 20, 1969

8 YEARS

Henry A. Wallace March 4, 1933, to Sept. 4, 1940

7 YEARS, 6 MONTHS

Tom Vilsack Jan. 21, 2009, to present*

7 YEARS, 2 MONTHS *As of March 2016.

about mementos in his office. “You get a real sense that he’s just a regular guy with an important job,” Conaway said. As agriculture has become increasingly intertwined with work by other departments and agencies in Washington, those in farming, ranching and ethanol production have increasingly looked to Vilsack to speak on their behalf — both on Capitol Hill and in closed-door Cabinet meetings in the

White House. Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuel Association, said Vilsack’s experience at USDA and willingness to forge close working relationships with his counterparts at the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have helped. Renewable fuel groups grew concerned during the Obama administration about the EPA’s decision to require less ethanol to be

mixed into the country’s motor fuel supply than what Congress mandated in a 2007 law. While the EPA announced last November a level for 2016 well below what Congress mandated, it was higher than what the agency had proposed earlier in the year. “There is no doubt it would have been worse (for ethanol producers) if USDA wasn’t in the room and very, very actively engaging in that debate,” Shaw said. “Vilsack was that kind of factual rock in the middle of this swirling chaos. Secretary Vilsack’s credibility on those issues and his willingness to speak up often and bluntly, I think did wonders.” Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and a corn and soybean farmer in Milo, said Vilsack’s influence has extended to other areas such as the labeling debate surrounding foods containing genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) and the need for the United States to pursue trade deals to expand the global marketplace for producers. One trade pact that would lift barriers for exporting U.S. meat, poultry, dairy and other goods to 11 Pacific Rim countries faces opposition from labor groups and some lawmakers who say it will cost U.S. workers jobs. Congress has not scheduled a vote on the agreement. “He has somewhat defied some of his party’s positions in order to find a place where farmers and ranchers do better,” Hill said at a recent agricultural conference in Orlando. “To be effective and do the job he’s done, he’s had to take some risk, and that risk is not limiting him in his role.” ISU’s Hart said one of the challenges for Vilsack in how his legacy will be defined will depend largely on whether the agricultural economy shows signs of rebounding before he leaves office. “If he’s at the helm when we slide down the hole and it takes us quite a while to get out of that, then that could damage the legacy,” Hart said. “It’s typically the last few years that help define the legacy because that’s what people remember — the last thing you did.” Vilsack said he’s especially proud of his efforts to help reduce unemployment in rural areas and improve the department’s position in civil rights — an area where the USDA had drawn criticism before he came to Washington. The department has reached settlements with farmers who had historically faced discrimination, improved services for minority farmers and started programs to make sure both customers and employees are treated fairly. “I would hope that people would see this time that I was a hardworking, successful secretary,” Vilsack said. “But that’s for everyone else to decide.” Doering writes about farm policy and politics for the Gannett Washington Bureau.


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POLICY

LAND USE

USDA statistics paint a picture of today’s American farm

438 acres

2,084,000

Average farm

58.3

Farms in the U.S.

Average age of principal farmer

Main occupation of principal operator on family farms Not in workforce (e.g., retired) (322,412)

Farm or ranch work

$43,750

(890,518)

Net cash farm income of OPERATIONS, average per farm

16%

$37,241

43%

Net cash farm income of OPERATORS, average per farm

41%

$191,500

Other than farming/ ranching

FARMERS’ EXPENSES average per operation

(840,078)

HOW FARMERS USE THEIR LAND

913 million

acres in farmland

353.8 million

acres were rented

314.9 million

acres were planted in field crops

415.3 million

acres were used for range/pasture

77 million

acres were used as woodland

61.7 million

acres of cropland either failed or was deliberately left fallow

27.5 million

acres are enrolled in conservation programs

3.7 million

acres are certified or exempt organic


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POLICY

NUMBER OF FARM OPERATIONS, BY STATE

TOP FIVE EXPENSES

PROPERTY VALUES

$1.1

1

MILLION

Worth of average farm (including land and buildings)

FEED

$63.7 million

$115,706

2

Worth of machinery and equipment, average per farm

$4,130

FARM SERVICES

$45.3 million

3

LIVESTOCK, POULTRY AND RELATED EXPENSES

Texas Missouri Iowa Oklahoma California Kentucky Illinois Ohio Minnesota Wisconsin

245,500 97,700 88,000 79,600 76,400 76,400 74,500 74,500 74,000 69,000

Tennessee Kansas Pennsylvania Indiana Michigan North Carolina Nebraska Florida Virginia Arkansas

67,300 61,000 58,800 58,200 51,600 49,500 49,100 47,600 45,900 44,000

Alabama Georgia Mississippi Washington New York Colorado Oregon South Dakota North Dakota Montana

43,400 41,100 37,100 36,700 35,500 35,000 34,600 31,700 30,300 27,800

Louisiana New Mexico Idaho South Carolina West Virginia Arizona Utah Maryland Wyoming New Jersey

27,200 24,700 24,400 24,400 21,300 19,600 18,100 12,300 11,700 9,100

Maine Massachusetts Vermont Hawaii Connecticut New Hampshire Nevada Delaware Rhode Island Alaska

8,200 7,800 7,300 7,000 6,000 4,400 4,200 2,500 1,240 760

$45.1 million

4

1,054,860

TRILLION

Asset value of all agricultural land, including buildings

Asset value of agricultural land, including buildings, per acre

622,150

$34.2 million

$2.6 $3,020

NUMBER OF FARMS BY VALUE OF ANNUAL SALES

=20,000 LABOR

Asset value of cropland per acre

$1,330

5 144,960

97,170

82,720

82,140

Asset value of pastureland per acre SOURCE: USDA ALL INFORMATION MOST RECENT AVAILABLE

RENT

$32.6 million

$1,000 to $9,000

$10,000 to $99,999

$100,000 to $249,999

$250,000 to $499,999

$500,000 to $999,999

$1 million plus

THINKSTOCK


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POLICY

THINKSTOCK

FUELING THE ARGUMENT Delayed quotas for renewable energy cause turmoil

By Erik Schechter

T

HE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY was late — very late. Since 2006, the EPA has been required to set an annual quota, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), for the amount of biofuel that U.S. fuel producers are expected to blend into gasoline. In an effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the program requires increasing the amount of renewable fuels that are mixed with gasoline

and diesel fuels, with a goal of reaching 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. However, the EPA delayed announcing the quota amount in both 2013 and 2014, citing controversy and comment around the issue, and was running late on its 2015 announcement, expected in June. For the ethanol industry and farmers, these long delays introduced an uncomfortable level of uncertainty, forcing people who might have otherwise invested in renewable energy or developed new technologies to avoid the risk and “go to the sidelines,” said Tom Buis,

CEO of Growth Energy, the nation’s largest ethanol trade association. Finally, in November 2015, the EPA announced its quota for 2016 (in addition to releasing retroactive quotas for 2014 and 2015 — close to what was actually produced). Using a waiver, the EPA chose to require only 14.5 billion gallons of conventional biofuels, such as those made of grains and starch and that have the lion’s share of the market, down from the 15 billion gallons CO N T I N U E D


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POLICY Jeff Broin, CEO of South Dakota-based POET, one of the world’s largest ethanol producers, added that according to EPA numbers, ethanol will comprise about 10.25 percent of the fuel supply this year. So the blend wall has already been breached.

SECURITY VS. FREE MARKET

THINKSTOCK

originally specified by the 2005 law that created the RFS. But despite having an answer to a years-old question, biofuel producers were concerned by the new, lower quota. This also hurt farmers, Buis said: “Without the (demand) from the RFS, you’re sitting here with oversupplies.” And an oversupply of The long delays corn, the most widely before the EPA set grown crop in America, leads farmers to grow ethanol quotas other crops, “so then you have a surplus of introduced an soybeans or wheat, and uncomfortable those depress prices.” In response, a level of uncernumber of groups with tainty, forcing an interest in biofuel production filed a people who might lawsuit in early January have invested in against the EPA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for renewable energy the District of Columbia or developed new Circuit, arguing that EPA officials were violating technologies to the law’s requirements by setting an annual RFS avoid the risk. quota lower than what the law specified. Oil industry advocates, meanwhile, support the EPA. They contend the agency has the right to reduce its annual numbers, and ought to do so, because the RFS goal of reaching 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 is out of line with market capacity, said Chet

Thompson, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a nonprofit that represents oil companies. In certain respects, this newest dispute reflects an update in the ongoing battle between the ethanol and oil industries, the latter arguing that conventional renewables are not necessary for U.S. energy independence, aren’t environmentally friendly and represent government interference in the free market.

CREATING A ‘BLEND WALL’

The RFS was instituted in 2005 and then amended before the Great Recession of 2007-2009 drove down consumer demand for gas, which was hitting record high prices. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 13 billion gallons of ethanol were added to gasoline produced in the U.S. in 2014, and fuel ethanol made up 10 percent of the volume of all gasoline used in the U.S. “(The EPA) never envisioned ... that more than 10 percent of ethanol was ever going to have to be in our fuel supply in order to fulfill the mandates,” Thompson said. Now, he said, refiners have hit the so-called “blend wall,” where they can’t sell any more ethanol beyond what could go in an E10 blend (up to 10 percent biofuel and 90 percent gas) without some technical and infrastructure changes. Nor can they stockpile excess ethanol, because the official Renewable Identification Numbers, used to track ethanol purchased by refiners, are only counted once the biofuel is blended with gas.

Beyond arguing over specific numbers set by the EPA, the oil industry would like to see the government completely end its support of renewable fuels. “This RFS program has been around since 2005. It is time for this industry to stand on its own,” Thompson said. One purpose of the RFS, according to the EPA, was to “expand the nation’s renewable fuels sector while reducing reliance on imported oil.” But hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking), which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to recover oil from shale rock, led to a boom in U.S. domestic production. At the same time, the international market is seeing a glut of oil, with prices dropping to $30.27 a barrel. “We are more energy-independent since the shale revolution than ever before,” Thompson said. With gas prices in a free-fall, what was once cheap ethanol is now comparatively expensive. In addition, it isn’t as energyefficient as regular gasoline, which makes ethanol unattractive to the consumer, Thompson argued. In response to the efficiency claim, Buis contended that ethanol’s “mileage drag” is not seen with E10 and E15 blends. In addition, ethanol is a great source of octane. “You have to have octane in the car to make it work, and ethanol is the lowest-cost octane in the world,” he added. But if ethanol is so good, why not just let the free market decide? Because, POET’s Broin explained, even if most filling stations are independent, refiners have control through marketing agreements involving “the canopies over the pumps and their ties to the pumps.” Think of it this way: It’s not as if CocaCola and Pepsi were vying for space in the supermarket. It’s more like Pepsi only being sold at stores not owned by Coca-Cola and, even then, only in a non-soda aisle, narrowing the ability of consumers to choose on their own. Michael Green, director of public relations for the American Automobile Association, believes that the numbers set by the EPA in November struck a realistic balance between supporting the continued development of renewable fuel and not forcing drivers to use E15. “I know the ethanol groups and the oil groups didn’t really like what (numbers) the EPA came out with,” he said. “To my mind, that sort of suggests it was an effective compromise. If the groups on the end didn’t like it, the middle must have been the sweet spot.”


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COMBINING OPTIONS Farmers fear higher costs, fewer choices as agribusiness giants begin to merge By Nelson Harvey

DUPONT; BILL PUGILIANO/GETTY IMAGES; THINKSTOCK

D

ENNIS CORYELL AND STEVE Sears may grow the same crops on the same acreage in the same corner of the same state, but that doesn’t mean they agree on everything. Both men grow about 5,000 acres of corn and wheat on farms 50 miles apart in rural northeastern Colorado. Yet when it comes to predicting how the latest wave of mergers between seed and chemical companies will affect farmers — whether the greater efficiency and innovation promised by the mergers will outweigh the harm of declining competition — the men have sharply differing views. The agricultural input sector — which includes the crop seed industry — is undergoing a major wave of consolidation. In December, just months after seed and biotech giant Monsanto abandoned its bid to acquire Swiss rival Syngenta, giants Dow Chemical Co. and DuPont announced plans to join forces, merging Dow’s strength in chemicals with DuPont Pioneer’s seed portfolio. The two U.S.-based firms hope to combine by late 2016, then spin off into three separate companies focused on agriculture, materials science and specialty products. In February, the wave continued as ChemChina, a Chinese state-owned maker of chemicals for agriculture and other applications, made a deal to buy Syngenta for $43 billion. If approved, the merger would make ChemChina the world’s largest agricultural chemical supplier and help bolster Chinese food security. By merging, these agribusiness powerhouses are coping with a decline in demand for their products driven by sagging commodity prices: Net U.S. farm income dropped to an estimated $56.4 billion last year, down 38 percent compared with 2014, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. At the same time, the strong U.S. dollar has weakened agricultural export markets, activist investors are demanding stronger quarterly returns and the cost of developing new biotechnology platforms continued to grow. Monsanto’s Roundup

FACTS ABOUT THE MERGER: ESTIMATED

$3 BILLION IN COST SAVINGS CONTROL OF

+ 25%

OVERALL SEED/ CHEMICAL MARKET PREDICTED

$130 BILLION COMBINED MARKET CAPITALIZATION CONTROL OF

+39%

U.S. CORN SEED MARKET EXPECTED

3 COMPANIES TO SPIN OFF FROM MERGER

Ready 2 line, for instance, is one of those: Composed of genetic traits, seeds and chemicals that work in concert, farmers who use it can spray Roundup on those seeds and kill weeds around them without worrying about killing the Roundup Ready plant. Dow and DuPont executives have said their merger will yield an estimated $3 billion in cost savings, some of which the firms could theoretically plow into more research and development, accelerating innovation. Yet Coryell views these prospects with apprehension. He worries that in a less competitive marketplace, companies will charge more for any new technology they develop. “Certainly there may be some advances in technology, but if they come at such a high cost that we’re no better off and it drives us out of the market, I’m not sure that it will be a net benefit for agriculture,” said Coryell, 63, who has been farming near Burlington, Colo., since he was a teenager. He points out that the agricultural input industry is already highly concentrated. Since 2009, the four largest firms in the seed, chemical, farm equipment, animal health and animal genetics markets have accounted for more than 50 percent of global sales in each sector. The genetically modified seed market is especially consolidated. In 1994, the four largest firms in that industry controlled 21 percent of the market, but by 2009 their share had jumped to 54 percent. The staggering capital costs amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars of developing so-called biotech platforms — where patented genetic traits such as resistance to a company’s herbicide are introduced into seeds, then those seeds are sold alongside the herbicide on farm store shelves — have pushed droves of smaller firms to succumb to buyouts from market leaders like Monsanto over the last 20 years. In 1998, Monsanto acquired DeKalb, then the nation’s second-largest hybrid corn seed producer; in 2006, it bought the Delta and Pine Land Co., the leading U.S. cottonseed supplier. If antitrust regulators don’t require some divestment as a


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

DOW AGROSCIENCES

The merger of Dow Chemical Co. — which includes the Dow AgroSciences division based in Indianapolis, above — and DuPont brings together two agricultural powerhouses.

When it comes to predicting how the latest wave of agricultural mergers will affect farmers — whether the promised efficiency and innovation will outweigh declining competition — farmers have sharply differing views. condition of their merger — a fairly standard request — a combined Dow and DuPont would wield substantial market power, controlling about 25 percent of the overall seed and chemical market but much more in areas including the U.S. corn seed market, where its share would be 39 percent. Yet farmers like Sears, 68, who has been farming near Joes, Colo., since 1970, remain optimistic about the trend toward declining competition. Sears, a longtime customer and supporter of Monsanto who has written letters urging the Environmental Protection Agency to approve the company’s patented genes for drought and corn worm resistance, even hopes that the recent mergers will strengthen companies enough to usher in a new wave of innovation. “It has been wonderful to have Roundup Ready corn, and to be able to control pests like corn worms through the plant’s genetics alone,” he said, referring to the yield improvements achieved through genetically modified crops. “These

companies have a selfish motive for merging and combining their technology to complete their portfolios. I say thumbs up — let them merge, and let them keep advancing.” Some economic research, though, suggests that seed and biotechnology companies may invest a smaller fraction of their revenues in research and development as their market power grows and competition declines. In a 2013 paper on competition in the market for genetically modified seeds, Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute, pointed out that from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the share of industry sales that seed companies spent on research and development steadily rose. Yet by the late 2000s, as consolidation continued, so-called “R&D intensity” had declined back to mid-1990s levels. There is also a correlation between industry consolidation and higher input prices for farmers. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the prices of

many farm inputs have risen faster than commodity prices over the last two decades, and declining competition is one possible culprit. At the same time, the link between seed prices and the yield gains those seeds provide has become increasingly tenuous. Moss wrote in her paper that the ratio of genetically modified seed price to yield for corn more than doubled between 2001 and 2012, meaning that corn farmers paid at least twice as much for the same yield gain in 2012 as they did 11 years earlier. Farmers in areas where a single crop predominates — including the heart of the U.S. corn belt — may be particularly vulnerable to the growing market power of large agricultural input firms. In a 2011 study, University of Wisconsin agricultural economist Kyle Stiegert and his co-authors found that seed companies offered fewer discounts for genetically modified seeds to farmers in the heart of the corn belt, compared with those in fringe areas where corn was just one of several potential crops to grow. While farmers in marginal areas may pay less for seeds, though, Stiegert noted that industry consolidation may also make it harder for those farmers to find seeds bred specifically for the soil, climate and pest population of their area. “All of the major biotech firms are going to want to have a strong presence in the corn belt, but do farmers in outlying regions get served well by just a few seed companies?” Stiegert said. “There is a lot of land and pest heterogeneity that suggests that a diverse seed market best serves all farmers.” Antitrust regulators, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, will weigh all of these potential harms when they review the Dow/DuPont and ChemChina/Syngenta mergers this year. The latter merger will also face scrutiny from the federal interagency

Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. There is some concern that a Chinese company would be acting in accordance with the policy goals of the Chinese government, instead of just responding to market conditions and incentives, the reason for the extra level of evaluation. To blunt the anti-competitive impact of a particular merger, regulators can require the merging companies to divest overlapping assets or shed assets in areas where the newly merged company would have excessive market power. Yet in an industry where only a few existing and already powerful firms would have the capital and expertise necessary to purchase those assets, such divestment may do little to boost competition. “If the goal is to reduce market concentration, it would not make sense to sell Dow’s business to Monsanto,” said Peter Carstensen, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a former attorney in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. Selling some assets to a nondominant firm is one option, he said, “And yet it’s unlikely that a firm not already in this business will have the capital or managerial skills to operate a seed and chemical company on the same scale as the dominant market players.” For Moss at the American Antitrust Institute, that’s reason enough for federal regulators to cast a skeptical eye on the proposed deals. “The companies will come forth with claims about how the mergers will enhance efficiency and push their costs down,” she said in an interview. “The agencies will scrutinize those arguments really carefully, but they will have to be balanced against the competitive harms, which are higher prices, lower quality, less innovation and less choice. That is a hard hurdle to clear.”

TOP U.S. MERGERS Two chemical and agricultural giants, Dow Chemical and DuPont, in December signed a $68.6 billion deal to merge, the 18th largest merger ever worldwide. It ranks among the top 10 U.S. deals, and is the largest U.S. agriculture related merger. COMPANIES MERGING

uAmerica Online Inc./Time Warner uPfizer Inc./Allergan PLC uVerizon Communications Inc./Verizon Wireless Inc. uPfizer Inc./Warner-Lambert Co. uExxon Corp./Mobil Corp. uAT&T Inc./BellSouth Corp. uTravelers Group Inc./Citigroup uComcast Corp./AT&T Broadband & Internet Services uDow Chemical/DuPont uActavis PLC/Allergan Inc.

AMT. IN BILLIONS

YEAR

$164.7

2000

$145.8

2015

$130.3

2013

$89.2

1999

$78.9

1998

$72.7

2006

$72.6

1998

$72.0

2001

$68.6

2015

$68.4

2014

SOURCES: USA TODAY; INSTITUTE FOR MERGERS, ACQUISITIONS AND ALLIANCES


USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

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FARM TO CAFETERIA New USDA regulations lead to healthier, locally produced school lunches

W

By Karen Asp

ALK INTO ALMOST ANY school these days and you might just be tempted to stay for lunch. That’s because in recent years, meals for students have undergone a serious nutritional makeover that’s markedly increased their appeal when it comes to appearance as well as flavor.

Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was enacted, schools have been required to serve healthier meals (parts of the law are already in effect; others are still being rolled out). Think more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low- or no-fat dairy. CO N T I N U E D

Elementary school students from Arlington, Va., check out fresh foods brought to them by local farmers. More schools are using locally grown products to make healthier lunches attractive to the children.

LANCE CHEUNG/USDA


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A typical school lunch that follows USDA guidelines, such as this one from Mirror Lake Elementary School south of Seattle, includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.

TED S. WARREN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

It’s a revolution of sorts that has also resulted in sourcing locally grown food for the cafeteria and educating children about where their food comes from.

THE RISE OF LOCAL FOODS

When the National Restaurant Association surveyed almost 1,600 professional chefs to learn what would be hot on restaurant menus in 2016, one word kept popping up: local. It’s a trend that has expanded to schools, where the local food movement is exploding. Credit the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program for contributing to the fever pitch surrounding local foods. The program encourages schools to buy locally produced foods. “In addition to making improvements on the nutrition side with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Congress decided it was important to pay attention to where the food was coming from,” said Deborah J. Kane, national director of the Farm to School Program. Data indicates that the voluntary program is catching on with schools. The USDA’s most recent Farm to School Census — based on data from the 2013-14 school year and

collected in 2015 — found that more than 42,000 schools were participating in the Farm to School Program and that dollars invested in local communities rose to $598 million, a $212 million increase from the census conducted two years earlier. “This tells me the USDA is doing a good job in helping schools go beyond fruits and vegetables to provide local goods,” said Kane, adding that foods such as meat, dairy and seafood now fall under the local category.

KIDS WITH ACCESS TO VENDING PROGRAMS ATE:

26%

MORE FRUIT

OF GROWERS AND GARDENS

Schools rely on a variety of sources for healthy food items, but when it comes to locally sourced foods, they draw from two main suppliers: growers and school gardens. Largely inspired by first lady Michelle Obama, an advocate of school gardens as part of her focus on childhood health and nutrition, the cultivated areas on school grounds serve several purposes. “Along with providing food, school gardens offer educational opportunities,” said Carol Chong, a national nutrition adviser for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which created a Healthy

14% MORE

VEGETABLES

30%

MORE WHOLE GRAINS

Schools Program in 2006 and designed its own set of science-based nutritional guidelines for children. Today, the alliance provides technical assistance to schools to help them meet the government’s nutrition regulations and works with manufacturers to produce healthier foods. At Margaret B. Henderson Elementary School in Dallas, which joined the Healthy Schools Program in 2009, each grade has its own plot in the school garden. As students grow the produce, teachers integrate lessons from the garden into their curricula. In one class, students taste the garden’s bounty for flavor, texture and freshness and compare store-bought vegetables to gardengrown vegetables. The produce then goes home with students or is cooked for students and staff. “Seeing what they’re growing makes kids more likely to eat that food,” said Margaret Lopez, executive director of food and child nutrition services for the Dallas Independent School District (ISD).

WEIGHING THE COSTS

Healthier foods, however, don’t come without controversy, namely their cost. It’s often assumed that good-for-you grub costs


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HOW THE NEW DIETARY GUIDELINES AFFECT YOUR KIDS

DALLAS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT

Students at Margaret B. Henderson Elementary School in Dallas taste-test locally grown beans during a “Harvest of the Month” event that also let them meet actual farmers.

ACCORDING TO THE FARM TO SCHOOL PROGRAM CENSUS OF 2013-2014:

$598

42,000+

HAS BEEN INVESTED INTO COMMUNITIES

PARTICIPATE IN THE PROGRAM

MILLION

SCHOOLS

more, but that’s not always the case. “In some cases, it can be more expensive, sometimes less expensive,” Kane said. The Farm to School Census found that 75 percent of respondents experienced at least one of four benefits — one of which was lower food costs — as a result of buying local. A 2012 study from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, which estimated the cost for more than 4,400 food items, found that when measured for “edible weight” or average portion size, grains, produce and dairy foods were less expensive than most protein foods as well as those high in saturated fat, added sugars and/or sodium. Yet Lopez’s experience has taught her the opposite. “Fresh produce costs more,” she said. Plus, there’s the added expense of labor to prepare and cook fresh produce. Of course, cost largely depends on two variables, Kane said — what foods school are trying to buy and what time of year they’re trying to buy them. Buying out-of-season might result in higher costs. In-season foods could come with a lower price tag. Like any business, schools then need to budget for those healthier foods. Some might be able to allocate the subsidies they receive from the USDA for meals served to

23.5M

STUDENTS

When it comes to eating healthier, Americans can turn to the government for answers. Dietary guidelines written by experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are updated every five years, and the 2015 to 2020 guidelines were released in January. So what’s new for kids? The following four changes are worth noting: SODIUM LEVELS DECREASED. “Studies show that limiting sodium in kids can prevent hypertension and heart disease later in life,” said Jennifer Glockner, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles and creator

1

of the Smartee Plate e-book series. New sodium recommendations are: No more than 1,500 mg per day for kids aged 1 to 3; no more than 1,900 mg per day for kids 4 to 8; no more than 2,200 mg per day for kids 9 to 13; and no more than 2,300 mg for kids over 14.

2

TEEN BOYS ARE ADVISED TO CUT BACK ON PROTEIN, including red meat, poultry and eggs, and eat more veggies. While kids usually consume enough protein, they fall short on produce, so this is advice that could apply to all kids, Glockner said. Limiting red meat is key. “It’s filled with saturated fat, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, and may also be

carcinogenic,” she said. LIMIT ADDED SUGAR TO LESS THAN 10 PERCENT OF DAILY CALORIES. The new sugar rule applies to everybody, but especially kids. “Studies show that excess sugar can lead to weight issues, obesity and type 2 diabetes in kids,” Glockner said. Note that this doesn’t apply to natural sugars in fruits, 100 percent fruit juice and milk.

3

4

CUT DOWN ON SATURATED FATS. Instead of feeding children animal sources that contain saturated fat, serve them plantbased proteins and oils such as nuts, beans, low-mercury fish, avocado and olive oil, Glockner said. — Karen Asp

ARE ENGAGED IN FARM TO TABLE PROGRAM

students. Those costs can be further offset through various financial assistance programs. Schools that participate in the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program, run by the USDA, receive monetary reimbursements for every meal and snack they serve. Schools can also apply for grants through the Farm to School Program, which currently gives out up to $5 million a year. The Senate Agriculture Committee has advanced legislation that would double the annual amount.

THE PROOF IS IN THE PALATE

If you’ve ever tried to get kids to eat more fruits or veggies, you no doubt recall the uphill battle. So what are schools doing to turn young taste buds onto healthier foods? In a nutshell, marketing. “You have to draw kids into your ‘restaurant’ and make kids want to eat there,” Chong said. For starters, some schools are going beyond otherwise boring hot entrees and offering items that mirror what kids are eating in restaurants, including wraps and salad platters. Meanwhile, through the Harvest of the

Month program at Dallas ISD schools, one vegetable or fruit is spotlighted monthly, and farmers who have supplied the produce often introduce it in person to the students. Dallas ISD schools also participate in Farm Fresh Fridays, a statewide incentive that connects schoolchildren to local farmers and ranchers by featuring their foods in meals every Friday. The upshot? “Kids are more likely to eat foods from producers they’ve just met than the same foods that are just sitting randomly in a lunch line,” Kane said. How food is presented is also critical. Chong learned from her previous position with Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida that serving cut-up fruits instead of whole fruits made a difference in the amount students consumed. “More students ate that fruit — and more of it — when it was cut than when we served it whole,” she said. Making the food more convenient to eat — serving peeled oranges, for instance — is another strategy. Because students often have short lunch periods with little time to eat, schools have to make it easier to consume those foods quickly, especially now that kids are required to select either a fruit

or vegetable at each meal, Chong said. It turns out all of these strategies are paying off. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health comparing eating habits at four schools before and after the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids regulations went into effect found that fruit selection went up by 23 percent and the consumption of vegetables per student increased by 16.2 percent. Another study published in the journal Childhood Obesity found that at schools that provided healthy foods mostly or entirely a la carte or through vending programs, middle-school-age kids ate 26 percent more fruit, 14 percent more vegetables and 30 percent more whole grains throughout the day. Revenues from school lunches are also on the rise, indicating that parents are more confident that their children will get healthier meals while at school and are willing to pay for them, Kane said. The true sign of success, though? Children, including those in Dallas, are asking their parents to buy the foods they’re being served at school. Now, that’s what you might call a true food revolution.


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ENVIRONMENT Drought damage in Fresno, Calif., as seen in 2014. The ongoing California drought is thought to be one sign of climate change, a topic that concerns farmers.

EXTENDED FORECAST

CYNTHIA MENDOZA/USDA

New USDA reports herald climate change’s potentially significant impact

By Adam Hadhazy

G

ENE FERGUSON HAS HAD a good run as of late. The southeastern Kansas farmer’s 3,000 acres of wheat and corn have flourished for the last several years, thanks to the steadiest rainfall he’s seen in a decade. “Now, nobody looks for that to continue,” Ferguson said with a laugh. “In this part of Kansas, we’ve always had to deal with extreme weather conditions.” Typically, he said, the rains vanish for weeks during the growing season. “Our crops burn up at least twice every summer.” Farmers such as Ferguson have grappled with Mother Nature’s incon-

stancy at best — and cruelty at worst — ever since agriculture’s invention 12 millennia ago. Modern science has helped make farmers more productive than ever. But this same science also predicts a major new challenge: climate change. Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that, because of human activities such as burning fossil fuels, the planet has already warmed by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century. Climatologists project an average of at least another 2.7 degrees of warming by the dawn of the 22nd century. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking the threat of climate change very seriously, given its focus on agricultural production, economic prosperity and

maintaining adequate food supplies for Americans — as well as providing extra sustenance to help others around the world. “We need to understand the changes that are occurring, and we need to figure out ways we can adapt to and mitigate those changes,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We want to make sure farmers have all the information they need to be in better position to deal with a changing climate.” Toward these ends, two recent reports from the USDA are newly outlining the big-picture effects climate change could have on food production domestically and globally. CO N T I N U E D


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ENVIRONMENT

The planet has already warmed by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century. Climatologists project an average of at least another 2.7 degrees of warming by the dawn of the 22nd century.

A Hanover, Va., farm uses pivot irrigation techniques to keep crops watered. More farmers may need to turn to advanced irrigation methods if rainfall patterns continue to change.

To prepare food producers for the climate-related pressures they can expect in the decades ahead, the USDA has rolled out new programs, such as its regional Climate Hubs. Communication will be somewhat challenging, though, with some farmers remaining skeptical that anything out of the ordinary is at hand. “I think most people don’t believe in it,” said Ferguson of farmers and climate change. “They think it’s just the variability we have every year and have always had.”

WHAT’S TO COME

According to a major USDA report on climate change released in November, weather variability is highly likely to increase and pose concerns for domestic field crops for the remainder of the current century. The report weighed numerous factors, including temperature increases, shifting rainfall patterns and surface- and groundwater supplies. Future human decision-making entered the equations as well. For instance, farmers will opt for growing certain crops versus others as climate change alters food availability and prices. All told, the results projected that hay, barley and wheat should see gains in production, owing to their resilience to temperature stress and typically dryland, rather than irrigated, growing conditions, with wheat boasting a nearly 12 percent yield increase in 2080 compared with a baseline assuming no climate change. But that was the good news. Other key crops such as corn, soybeans, rice, sorghum, cotton and silage could see drop-offs, with oats down nearly 21 percent productionwise come 2080. CO N T I N U E D

LANCE CHEUNG/USDA


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ENVIRONMENT “Our analysis suggests that most major field crops are projected to fare poorly under climate change,” said Elizabeth Marshall, an economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service and the report’s lead author. Farmers have long relied on irrigation to not only help crops grow in otherwise too-arid regions, but to get thirsty crops through dry spells. Yet the USDA report found that dwindling surface water supplies, particularly in Southwestern states reliant on the Colorado River, as well as across large chunks of California and the Plains states, would leave farmers with little choice but to switch to dryland crop varieties such as wheat. “In many regions and for many crops, we simply won’t be able to irrigate our way out of those temperature impacts,” said Marshall. These challenges posed to U.S. agriculture will hamper other nations’ production, putting at risk the progress made in recent decades in global food security. That’s the takeaway of a second report Vilsack released during the Paris Climate Conference in December, a meeting that led to a breakthrough commitment from the 195 attending countries to reduce emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases. Compared with six years ago, 200 million more people are now “food secure” by having reliable, physical and economic access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food, said that USDA report. In coming decades, however, climate change could negatively act on all the links in the chain of food security, from production to food being properly packaged and transported to consumers before spoiling. “Production is very important, but it’s just one part of a much larger food system,” said Margaret Walsh, an ecologist with the USDA’s Climate Change Program Office and one of the authors of the December report. As Tom Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, pointed out, global food insecurity is a factor behind failing states and lawlessness, and even terrorism. “There’s a very good association between sharp spikes in food prices and rises in political instability,” he said. “It’s in our national security interest to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

GETTING THE WORD OUT

With these concerns on the horizon, the USDA is taking steps to help American farmers prepare now for their future and that of their country and the world. In April 2015, Vilsack presented a new USDA initiative called Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry which, if followed, could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 120 million metric tons per year. Among the voluntary building blocks: encouraging better nitrogen and

“You just show producers how variable the last five years have been, and they all know that, and then they’re on board with you and you have an entirely different dialogue.” — Jerry Hatfield, director, USDA Midwest Climate Hub

MATT MORTENSON/USDA

Cattle move across grassland in the USDA’s Northern Plains Regional Climate Hub, which includes the largest remaining tracts of native rangeland in North America. nutrient application, and improved grazing management for livestock. A top measure is intended to improve soil health by boosting no-till practices, which increase soil water and nutrient retention. The USDA’s goal is to expand no-tillage from 67 million acres of farmland today to 100 million acres by 2025. The USDA’s Climate Hubs, another significant project, are identifying and communicating region-specific strategies

to help producers adapt to and mitigate climate change. “(Climate Hubs) are providing the kind of information that farmers expect and need,” said Vilsack. In the Midwest, stricken between 2012 and 2014 by drought — with the breadbasket state of Iowa one of the hardest-hit — USDA personnel are advocating the use of drought-resistant corn varieties along with protecting and enriching the soil by planting

“cover crops” in between cash crop seasons so stressed crops avoid withering during hot, dry stretches. “Producers realize it’s not just one part of the puzzle that they have to think about changing,” said Jerry Hatfield, the director of the Midwest Climate Hub as well as the USDA’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment. “It’s their farming CO N T I N U E D


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ENVIRONMENT

Hay is a resilient crop that may see more production despite climate change; it does well in dryland conditions. USDA

system in the aggregate.”

NOT BETTING THE FARM

Some farmers, however, remain unconvinced that anything truly extraordinary climate-wise will be afoot in the decades hence. Politics plays a role, for sure. A recent Agri-Pulse Farm and Rural Poll of 750 farmers who own at least 200 acres of farmland found that 70 percent identified as or leaned Republican, with just 19 percent as Democratic and 12 percent as independent. Numerous polls show that as a voter bloc, Republicans are more likely to question climate change than Democrats. Although Hatfield has encountered “some skepticism” from farmers about whether climate change is anything other than normal variability, he has found his audience to be receptive when presented with data that jibes with their recent experiences. Across the Midwest, Hatfield said, wet springs are now being followed by dry,

more variable summers, with these recent precipitation records on the fringes of normal trends documented back to 1985. “You just show producers how variable the last five years have been, and they all know that, and then they’re on board with you and you have an entirely different dialogue,” said Hatfield. The experience is similar in the Southwest, one of the most naturally extreme and variable growing regions in the country. Al Rango, the Southwest Regional Climate Hub director, is helping leverage the hubs’ message by working with the Cooperative Extension, a USDA service that for a century has educated rural communities on agricultural issues. Michael Crimmins, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and a Cooperative Extension specialist Rango works with, believes that while climate change “is on everybody’s radar” in the rugged Southwestern states, many producers seem jaded. “A lot of Westerners feel like they’ve seen

it all, and in some respects they’ve seen a lot,” said Crimmins. “But I don’t think they’ve seen it all.” The November USDA report by Marshall and colleagues does paint a stark picture. By 2080, the Arizona region fed by the Colorado River could see a more than 75 percent decrease in surface water availability, severely straining agriculture. “Here, it’s all about water,” said Crimmins.

TODAY, TOMORROW AND NEXT DECADE

Still, given the long timelines for climate change’s more serious consequences, it’s understandable that farmers today who have already weathered tough seasons in their careers are more worried about nearer-term problems. “We don’t pay a whole lot of attention to USDA reports,” said Pete Brickner, who has lived on a Sturgeon Bay, Wis., farm since 1975, where he supports nearly 400 dairy cows on 2,000 acres along with growing

corn, wheat and vegetable crops on the side. “We’re mostly just watching the weather.” John Anderson, deputy chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, a lobbying organization, does believe a lot of farmers have the long-term viability of their farms in mind. “They’re not just planning for the next five years,” Anderson said. “They’re planning for their grandchild and the next 50 years on this farm.” But Anderson said he does not see how the gradualism of climate change would really alter day-to-day operations compared with business as usual. “If we are in fact seeing greater challenges and additional variability,” said Anderson, “I think our farmers are going to respond to that the way they always have.” On this point at least, there is wide agreement. “Farmers adapt every day to changing environmental and economic conditions,” said the USDA’s Walsh. “So there’s certainly a lot of adaptive capacity there.”


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ENVIRONMENT Kansas farmer Jay Garetson, standing next to a pump on his family’s farm, worries about the challenges the next generation will face because of declining groundwater levels.

VANISHING GROUNDWATER

IAN JAMES/THE (PALM SPRINGS, CALIF.) DESERT SUN

Farmers worry as U.S. aquifers are pumped beyond their limits By Ian James and Steve Reilly

J

UST BEFORE 3 A.M., Jay Garetson’s phone buzzed on his bedside table. He picked it up and read the text: “Low Pressure Alert.” The Kansas farmer felt his chest tighten, dreading what that automated message probably meant: With the water table dropping, another well on his family’s farm was starting to suck air. The Garetson family has been farming in the plains of southwestern Kansas for four generations, since 1902. Now they face a hard reality. The groundwater they depend on is

disappearing. Their fields could wither. Their farm might not survive for the next generation. At dawn, Jay was out among the cornfields at the well, trying to diagnose the problem. The pump was humming as it lifted water from nearly 600 feet underground. Just as he had feared, he saw fine bubbles in the water. “It’s showing signs of weakening,” he said sadly, standing in the shoulder-high corn. “This’ll last another five or 10 years, but not even at the production rate that we’re at here today. It’s just a question of how much time is left.” Time is running out for portions of the High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath eight states

from South Dakota to Texas and is the lifeblood of one of the world’s most productive farming economies. The aquifer, also known as the Ogallala, makes possible about one-fifth of the country’s output of corn, wheat and cattle. But its levels have been rapidly declining, and with each passing year more wells are going dry. As less water pours from wells, some farmers are adapting by switching to different crops. Others are shutting down their drained wells and trying to scratch out a living as dryland farmers, relying only on the rains. In parts of western Kansas, the groundwater has already been exhausted and very little can be extracted for irrigation. In other areas, the


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ENVIRONMENT

“Very simply, we’re running out (of water), and it’s happening far faster than anybody anticipated.” — Jay Garetson, Kansas farmer

remaining water could be mostly used up within a decade. The severe depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is symptomatic of a larger crisis in the United States and many parts of the world. Much more water is being pumped from the ground than can be naturally replenished, and groundwater levels are plummeting. It’s happening not only in the High Plains and drought-ravaged California, but in places from the Gulf Coastal Plain to the farmland of the Mississippi River Valley, and from the dry Southwest to the green Southeast. In a nationwide examination of the problem, USA TODAY and The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun analyzed two decades of measurements from more than 32,000 wells and found water levels falling in nearly two-thirds of those wells, with heavy pumping causing major declines in many areas. The analysis of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data revealed that: u Nationwide, water levels have declined in 64 percent of the wells included in the government database during the past two decades. u The average decline among decreasing wells has been more than 10 feet, and in some areas the water table has dropped more than 100 feet during that period — more than 5 feet per year. u For 13 counties in Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Kansas and Iowa, average water levels have decreased more than 40 feet since 1995. u Nationally, the average declines have been larger from 2011-2014 as drought has intensified in the West. But water tables have been falling consistently over the years through both wet and dry periods, and also in relatively wet states such as Florida and Maryland. u Across the High Plains, one of the country’s largest depletion zones, the average water levels in more than 4,000 wells are 13.2 feet lower today than they were in 1995. In the southern High Plains, water levels have plunged significantly more — in places more than 100 feet in just 20 years. Aquifers are being drawn down in many areas by pumping for agriculture, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the nation’s use of fresh groundwater. Water

IAN JAMES/THE (PALM SPRINGS, CALIF.) DESERT SUN

The green circles of center-pivot irrigation systems stand out in Kansas farmland that relies on water from the High Plains Aquifer.

STEVE ELFERS/USA TODAY

Jim Sipes, a dryland farmer, grows wheat and sorghum on about 14,000 acres in Manter, Kansas. He expects that more farmers will be forced to stop using groundwater to irrigate. is also being drained for cities, expanding development and industries. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. is estimated to have lost more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of water from the nation’s aquifers — about 28 times the

amount of water that can be held in Lake Mead on the Arizona/Nevada border, the country’s largest reservoir. That estimate of water losses from 1900 through 2008, calculated by USGS scientist Leonard Konikow, shows the High Plains has

accounted for 35 percent of the country’s total depletion. California’s Central Valley accounted for more than 14 percent, and other parts of the country have depleted the remainder, about half of the total. The declines in U.S. groundwater mirror similar decreases in many parts of the world. NASA research has found that more than half of the world’s largest aquifers are declining. “Groundwater depletion is this incredible global phenomenon,” said Jay Famiglietti, a professor of earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, and the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We never really understood it the way we understand it now. It’s pervasive and it’s happening at a rapid clip.” In parts of the southern High Plains, farmers are feeling the effects. Some counties have seen small decreases in population as people have moved away. Local leaders have been expressing concerns about what sorts of businesses can help sustain their economies as water supplies dwindle. The Kansas Geological Survey has mapped out how much longer the Ogallala Aquifer can support large-scale pumping. It projects that some places still probably have more than a century of water left, but that large patches of western Kansas will go dry in less than 25 years. Some areas will likely run out faster, within a matter of years. CO N T I N U E D


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ENVIRONMENT The Ogallala’s decline shows what the world can expect in other areas where groundwater is being quickly depleted, Famiglietti said. “The fact that they’re running out of water means that we will no longer be growing food there, and so where will that food come from?”

HITTING BOTTOM

In Haskell County, Kansas, lush, windswept fields of sorghum and corn stretch to the flat horizon in a swaying sea. But driving along the arrow-straight country roads, Jay Garetson can point out spots where wells have gone dry, including an abandoned farmhouse where he lived as a boy. “Very simply, we’re running out, and it’s happening far faster than anybody anticipated,” he said. Over the past five years, the pumping capacity of the Garetsons’ wells has decreased by about 30 percent as the water table has fallen. They’ve been forced to plant less corn and instead sow more wheat and sorghum, which use less water and bring in smaller earnings. When Jay’s grandparents drilled wells in the mid-20th century, they were told the water supply was inexhaustible. They had clung to their land through the hardships of the Dust Bowl, when blowing drifts of soil and grit decimated crops and sent STEVE ELFERS/USA TODAY many others packing. In the decades that Jay Garetson sits on the front porch of a house on his family’s Kansas farm, abandoned after followed, they built a successful business on its well went dry two years ago. the water they pumped from the ground. Since then, numerous studies have shown that the status quo is far from sustainable. PUMPING NIAGARA relatively little in some of the country’s Starting in 1986, Congress directed the The U.S., along with India and China, is wetter areas, as rainfall and snowmelt have USGS to monitor and report on changes in one of the largest users of groundwater in offset the amounts pumped out. But even the levels of the Ogallala Aquifer, recognizthe world. in the Northeast and upper Midwest, there ing its economic importance. An estimated The federal government has estimated have been significant declines. Average 30 percent of the groundwater used for that in 2010, the country used 76 billion water levels in Cumberland County, N.J., for irrigation in the country is pumped from gallons of fresh groundwater per day. That’s instance, decreased nearly 6 feet over the the aquifer. Researchers have projected that 117,000 cubic feet per second, roughly past two decades. In Outagamie County, without action to slow the losses, the porcomparable to Niagara Falls. Wis., there was a decline of 6.1 feet. tion of the aquifer in Kansas Wells across the country are Elsewhere, there has been significant will be nearly 70 percent pumping out as much water — depletion across entire regions, largely depleted within 50 years. SINCE 1995 even slightly more — than the driven by agriculture. Average water levels Jay, an influential farmer WATER LEVELS average flow of approximately fell by 5.7 feet across the Mississippi River and a longstanding member 100,000 cubic feet per second Valley aquifer system, by 12.6 feet in the of the Kansas State Board HAVE DECREASED that tourists see plunging Columbia Plateau basaltic rock aquifers of of Agriculture appointed MORE THAN from the top of Niagara Falls. the Pacific Northwest, and by 17.8 feet in by both Democratic and Most of the planet’s some of the Snake River Plain’s aquifers of Republican governors, has available freshwater lies southern Idaho. many ideas about how to underground. Aquifers store Big drops in water tables have occurred extend the life of the aquifer, water like sponges, holding it in many parts the country. The USGS data including mandatory water in the spaces between rocks, show that individual monitoring wells with cutbacks that would be IN 13 U.S. COUNTIES sand, gravel and clay. So much water level decreases of more than 100 shared by farmers. But he has water is now being sucked feet in the past two decades are located faced resistance from those from some aquifers that those in a long list of states: California, Nevada, who oppose mandatory underground spaces are collapsing and the New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Washington, limits. surface of the Earth has been permanently Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Idaho, “What frustrates me is with all this altered. In parts of California, Texas, Arizona Arizona, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming and knowledge and all this information, we still and Nevada, the shifting earth has cracked Mississippi. collectively refuse to act,” Jay said. “It’s the foundations of houses, left fissures in In each state, the use of groundwater falls something I used to read about and study, the ground and damaged roads, canals and under different laws. In many areas, though, you know, the Dust Bowl. And you would bridges. the agencies charged with managing water see these abandoned farmsteads, and now Groundwater levels have changed supplies have allowed aquifers to fall into I’m actually seeing it in my own lifetime.”

40FT.

a state of perpetual overdraft, with water levels receding deeper by the year. Even where groundwater regulations exist, pumping often remains largely unchecked.

DRY LAND

In areas where little water remains, people have been turning to dryland farming, relying on rain to grow wheat and other crops. That switch leads to sharply reduced earnings per acre. It requires farmers to use much bigger acreages to turn a profit. It means the land will support far fewer farms, and that could bring hard economic times. One experiment aimed at slashing water use on farms is underway in Sheridan County, in northwestern Kansas, where the state’s first “Local Enhanced Management Area,” or LEMA, was established in 2013. Through that five-year plan, farmers are trying to keep within a “budget” that calls for a 20 percent reduction in water use. Even as that strategy is showing signs of working, water managers acknowledge it’s not coming close to halting declines in the aquifer. It’s simply buying a bit more time. Mark Rude, executive director of the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3, can put a specific number on the gap between the amounts of water pumped and the quantities of rainfall that recharge the aquifer in an average year: “We’re only about 9 percent sustainable.” In other words, the people of southwestern Kansas are pumping out 11 times more than the aquifer’s natural recharge. For every acre that runs out of irrigation water and starts being dry-farmed, the state estimates the economy loses nearly $4,000 a year. The Garetsons’ 17-year-old son, Jared, is cautiously assessing the future and thinks it may be difficult to return home to farm after college. They are a close-knit family, and stories of their farming history are woven into conversations around the kitchen table. It’s a legacy that may be slipping away for Jared. “I’ve thought, ‘Why don’t we just pack up, sell the farm and leave? And we’ll find somewhere else that’s got water and that’s going to continue to have water, where we can build?’” Jared said. But that’s a difficult idea for his parents and grandparents to accept. “It’s been our home for 113 years now, and for all that to go away and just stop that, that hundredyear-old investment, and that’d be really hard to just pack up and say goodbye to everything,” Jared said. “Until we’ve got our water issue taken care of, then I ... have no future here.” Steve Elfers, Caitlin McGlade and Chad Gillis contributed to this report, which was produced with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Read the full package at usatoday.com/pages/interactives/ groundwater


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FIELD CROPS

BY THE NUMBERS Annual production, 2015

$34.5 BILLION

3.9

Annual yield, 2015

BILLION BUSHELS Annual yield per acre, 2015

48

BUSHELS Exports, 2015

$18.9 BILLION

SYNGENTA; THINKSTOCK

SOY DID YOU KNOW? uU.S. soybean production, both total and per acre, hit record levels in 2015, edging out 2014’s previous records. uSoybean oil usage in the U.S. is projected to go up by about 150 million pounds in 2016 — to about 19.6 billion pounds — largely because of increased use in biofuels. uSoybeans make up 90 percent of all oilseed production in the U.S., the world’s leading soybean producer and exporter.

Olive 2.3 million Coconut 3.4 million Cottonseed 5.1 million Peanut 5.5 million

WORLDWIDE USE OF VEGETABLE OILS, IN METRIC TONS, 2014-2015

Palm kernel 7.3 million Sunflower seed 15.2 million Rapeseed 27 million Soybean 47.4 million Palm 62.4 million Total: 175.6 million

TOP SOYBEAN-PRODUCING STATES, IN BUSHELS, 2015 Iowa Illinois Minnesota Nebraska Indiana Ohio South Dakota North Dakota Missouri Arkansas

553.7 million 544.3 million 377.5 million 305.7 million 275 million 237 million 235.5 million 185.9 million 181.4 million 155.3 million SOURCE: USDA


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FIELD CROPS

WHEAT BY THE NUMBERS Annual production, 2014-15*

Annual yield per acre, 2015

BILLION

BUSHELS

$12.1 Annual yield, 2015

2.1

BILLION BUSHELS

43.6 Exports, 2015

$5.6 BILLION

*MARKETING YEAR JUNE 2014-MAY 2015

DID YOU KNOW? uU.S. wheat consumption has been dropping steadily as more Americans adopt low-carbohydrate diets, falling from 146.3 pounds per person in 2000 to 132.5 pounds per person in 2011. uU.S. wheat exports were down in 2015 because the dollar was strong against foreign currencies, making U.S. wheat more costly, and because global wheat supplies were ample. uNew federal dietary guidelines specifically suggest eating more whole-wheat versions of foods, especially pasta.

TOP WHEAT-PRODUCING STATES, 2015 North Dakota: 370 million bushels Kansas: 321.9 million Montana: 185.4 million Washington: 111.5 million Texas: 106.5 million South Dakota: 103.4 million Oklahoma: 98.8 million Minnesota: 88.3 million

Idaho: 87.8 million Colorado: 79.6 million

WHEAT PRODUCTION BY THE BUSHEL, 2015 Hard red winter Hard red spring Soft red winter Soft white Durum Hard white FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

826.9 million 564.1 million 359.1 million 197.8 million 82.5 million 21.4 million SOURCES: USDA, U.S. WHEAT ASSOCIATES


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FIELD CROPS

BY THE NUMBERS Annual production, 2015*

$52.4 BILLION

13.6

Annual yield, 2015*

BILLION BUSHELS

168.4

Annual yield per acre, 2015*

BUSHELS

USDA; THINKSTOCK

CORN DID YOU KNOW?

Feed 5.3 billion bushels

uCorn is projected to account for 93.8 percent of all feed grain produced in the U.S. in 2015-16.

Alcohol for fuel 5.2 billion bushels

uThe FBI reports a rise in Chinese companies allegedly stealing patented U.S. seeds so they can counterfeit them without paying for their own research and development. A Chinese national pleaded guilty in Des Moines in January to conspiracy to steal trade secrets — in this case, corn seeds — and ship them to his employer in China.

Exports, 2015

$8.3 BILLION

*SEPT. 2014-AUG. 2015

TOP CORN-PRODUCING STATES,IN BUSHELS, 2015

Exports 1.6 billion bushels

HOW CORN IS USED IN THE U.S.

High-fructose corn syrup 478.5 million bushels Glucose and dextrose (sweeteners) 299.8 million bushels Starch 215.5 million bushels

uCorn stockpiles in December were the largest ever, according to a Bloomberg analysis, partially because exports are down and other countries are growing more.

Cereal and other products 201.2 million bushels Alcohol for beverages and manufacturing 142.2 million bushels The U.S. produced 13.6 billion bushels of corn in 2015.* Here’s where it went: *MARKET YEAR SEPT. 2014 TO AUG. 2015

Other 100 million bushels Seed 22.5 million bushels

Iowa Illinois Nebraska Minnesota South Dakota Kansas Ohio Wisconsin Missouri North Dakota

2.5 billion 2 billion 1.7 billion 1.4 billion 799.7 million 580.2 million 498.8 million 492 million 437.4 million 327.7 million

SOURCES: USDA; DES MOINES REGISTER; AMERICAN FARM BUREAU FEDERATION


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FIELD CROPS

RICE DID YOU KNOW?

BY THE NUMBERS

uArkansas produces the bulk of rice in the United States, with 9.4 billion pounds produced from 1.3 million acres in 2015. Second is California, at 3.7 billion pounds from 423,000 acres, followed by Louisiana with 2.9 billion pounds from 420,000 acres.

Annual production, 2015

$2.6 BILLION

Annual yield, 2015

19.2 BILLION POUNDS

Annual yield per acre, 2015

7,470

uThe U.S. grows less than 2 percent of the world’s rice, but accounts for more than 10 percent of global rice trade. uMost long-grain rice is grown in Arkansas, with 7.7 billion pounds; California grows the most medium-grain, at 3.4 billion pounds and the most shortgrain, at 260 million pounds.

POUNDS

Exports, 2015

$2.1 BILLION

WHERE RICE IS GROWN IN THE UNITED STATES, 2015 uArkansas uCalifornia uLouisiana

uMississippi uMissouri uTexas

WHERE U.S. RICE IS USED IN BILLIONS OF POUNDS

Domestic

LONG-GRAIN 2.7

7.1

10.3 Exports

DAVID NANCE/USDA

Other

Total: 20.1 billion pounds

MEDIUM/ SHORT-GRAIN 2

3

2.7 Total: 7.7 billion pounds SOURCE: USDA


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FIELD CROPS

BY THE NUMBERS Annual production Fruit and tree nuts

$30 BILLION

Fresh market vegetables

$13 BILLION

Annual yield Fruit and tree nuts, 2014*

62 40

BILLION POUNDS Vegetables, 2015

BILLION POUNDS LANCE CHEUNG/USDA

PRODUCE

4.3 1.6 MILLION

Vegetables, 2015

More than 70 percent of the nation’s $30 billion worth of fruits and tree nuts comes from California, as well as 44 percent of the nation’s vegetables, outpacing any other state. Despite the state’s ongoing drought, agriculture is still a primary piece of its economic engine.

TOP PRODUCEAND TREE NUTPRODUCING COUNTIES Kern (almonds, grapes, pistachios, tangerines) San Joaquin (walnuts) Monterey (lettuce, strawberries)

MILLION

Exports, 2015 Fruits

PER CAPITA USE, 2014

Tomatoes

THINKSTOCK

DID YOU KNOW? Lettuce

111.2 87.8 24.8

Sweet corn

21.3

Onions

20.6

TOP 5 FRUITS:

Ventura (strawberries; tie with Monterey) Tulare (oranges) Fresno (tomatoes)

Oranges

Grapes

$6.3

IN POUNDS MOST RECENT AVAILABLE

TOP 5 VEGETABLES:

Potatoes

Acreage Fruit and tree nuts, 2014*

Apples

56.7 54.4 45.6

Bananas

27.9

Melons

22.8

uIncreased grape production in 2015, especially in California, should boost the amount of grapes available to be crushed for wine by 4 percent to 6 percent, to about 4.8 million tons. uThe average American ate about 260 pounds of fruit and 384.4 pounds of vegetables per year in 2013. uFruits and vegetables accounted for 35 percent of all U.S. plant food imports in 2014, $25.7 billion of the $73.5 billion total. SOURCES: USDA; CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FOOD & AGRICULTURE

BILLION

Vegetables

$5.1 BILLION Tree nuts

$8.4 BILLION

*MOST RECENT AVAILABLE


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A customer places her order at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Miami in April. The popular chain obtains its ingredients from suppliers that use sustainable farming methods.

THE W CHIPOTLE EFFECT

By Matt Alderton

Can sustainable agriculture feed the nation?

HEREVER YOU ARE IN the U.S., the line at the nearest Chipotle Mexican Grill is already starting to swell at 11 a.m. By high noon — lunchtime — it’s positively serpentine. The line punctuates the doorway and spills out onto the sidewalk, everyone in it salivating over the infant-sized burritos inside. Those responsible for the line are fanatical about food and this food in particular, which they flock to not only for its spice, but also for its stewardship, inherent in Chipotle’s commitment to “responsibly raised” meats, organic produce, pasture-raised dairy and non-GMO ingredients. There’s just one problem: What has thus far differentiated Chipotle threatens to also undo it. So portends an incident last year that Chipotle fans dubbed the “Great Carnitas Shortage of 2015.” It started in January, when Chipotle ceased serving its

JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

popular carnitas at more than a third of its restaurants due to conflicts with one of its pork suppliers. During a routine audit, the supplier was found to be in violation of Chipotle’s strict animal welfare standards. Chipotle subsequently suspended the rogue supplier, creating a void in its supply chain that left some restaurants pork-free for approximately nine long months. Chipotle aficionados were outraged. “Omg if I do not get my #Chipotle #carnitas soon bad things will happen! #withdrawal #bringbackcarnitas #chipotlesmylife #ilovechipotle,” one fan tweeted. “Saddest moment in my life: walking into Chipotle and finding out they don’t sell carnitas anymore. #BringbackCarnitas,” tweeted another. Meanwhile, the company’s annual revenue growth slowed to 9.6 percent in 2015, down from 26.7 percent in 2014. “Whether it’s poultry, pork or beef, the premium, specialty product that places like Chipotle buy only represents a fraction of the total supply — in the single digits as a


51

USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION Chipotle customers were unable to order carnitas for several months in 2015 after one of the company’s pork suppliers was found to have violated its strict animal welfare standards.

STEVE DYKES/GETTY IMAGES

percent of the whole,” explained Jeff Tripician, general manager of Niman Ranch, the sustainable pork producer that ultimately helped Chipotle ease its carnitas famine when it dipped into its “pork reserves” to meet the company’s demand. “So when they experience either dramatic growth or a disruption in supply, companies like Chipotle don’t have the ability to say, ‘Well, I’ll just get the product somewhere else.’ It doesn’t exist.” Tripician said it takes two years to raise cattle and seven months to raise hogs to the point where they reach market weight for slaughter. And that’s not counting the time it takes to convert a conventional farm’s infrastructure and operations into a sustainable business model. “Ferrari only makes a very limited number of cars,” he said. “If a whole bunch of people decided they suddenly wanted Ferraris, Ferrari would have to say, ‘OK, but it’s going to take some time because we have to build them, and we build them by hand.’ It’s not a question of price; it’s

a question of availability. They don’t have extra product just sitting around. It’s the same thing with livestock.” Which begs the question: As demand for sustainable food increases — including not only livestock, but also fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains — will the “Chipotle effect” multiply and spread to other suppliers and retailers? According to Tripician and his agricultural peers, it could. But it might not be simple.

‘SUSTAINABILITY’ PROBLEM

Increasing the sustainable food supply to avoid future shortages will require overcoming a number of fundamental challenges, according to Steve Balling, former director of agricultural services and corporate responsibility at Del Monte Foods. “There are a whole lot of barriers to achieving fully sustainable agriculture,” said Balling, a retired entomologist who oversaw the company’s efforts to reduce pesticide use. “The first is the definition: Who makes the rules for what sustainability really is?”

The answer right now is: anyone. “It’s really being driven at the company level,” explained Bob Young, chief economist and deputy executive director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation. “The Walmarts and Unilevers of the world all have their own certification systems.” Chipotle, for instance, requires that hogs be antibiotic-free, allowed to freely root and roam outdoors, and sheltered in pens with straw beds. Whole Foods Market shares Chipotle’s opposition to antibiotics and its commitment to straw beds, but has no requirement about outdoor roaming. Meanwhile, the National Pork Board’s Swine Care Handbook states, “There are a variety of housing and system types that can be appropriate for raising pigs.” Hog farmers are, therefore, faced with competing standards. “Chipotle got hung up on one or two tiny little things because they wanted to look like they have higher standards than everybody else,” said eighth-generation hog farmer Brandon Whitt, manager of Batey Farms in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “The fact is, the National Pork Board and farmers all across the country already are upholding 99 percent of Chipotle’s standards. So when Chipotle said there was a pork shortage, there wasn’t. There was plenty of pork to go around.” Chipotle spokesperson Chris Arnold called this a misreading of the situation: “There was not enough pork that met our standards. There are a number of options that come close, but that is not enough. The pork supplier that we suspended (which prompted our shortage) was in violation of some of our standards with regard to welfare for the animals. We could find additional domestic suppliers that met most of our antibiotic standards, but not the antibiotic standards and the welfare standards.” Simply put: The difference between an abundance of product and a shortage depends on whose standards you’re considering. Many farmers have no choice but to adopt the least onerous standards, according to Tripician, who noted that converting one’s farm from a conventional to a sustainable business model takes time, money and land. Those who invest in supply without demand risk losing their livelihood. “A couple years ago, corn spiked at

more than $6 a bushel, so a lot of farmers switched what they were planting to raise more corn. Well, by the time their harvest came in, corn prices had dropped down to $3,” Tripician explained. “Farmers need to know that all the work, effort and risk it takes to increase our sustainable food supply will be worth it, and right now they don’t have the confidence that it will be.” The market for sustainable food is so tenuous because there is a disconnect between consumers’ beliefs and behaviors, according to Arthur Gillett, head of research at HowGood, an independent research organization that rates foods based on its sustainability. Sustainable agriculture, Gillett pointed out, produces smaller yields and is more labor intensive for farmers, who have to rely less on automated machines and more on skilled workers to maintain the requisite quality. That creates extra costs, and extra costs cause higher prices, which Americans thus far have been unwilling to pay. “We have been accustomed to what is effectively underpriced food for a long time in this nation; food takes up a smaller percentage of our annual income than it ever has in history,” Gillett said. “While that makes food more available to people who need it, at the same time it creates the conditions for a ‘race to the bottom,’ where the only way to make money is to create highly processed foods that can be sold for significantly more than the cost of their ingredients because they’re ‘value-added’ … If we want farms to be more sustainable, we have to make it possible for farmers to make more money per calorie than they’re making right now.” Echoed Young, “Just look at what it costs to shop at Whole Foods versus what it costs to shop at Kroger. There is a significant difference. If folks are willing to pay that, farmers will provide the supply.”

BIG AG TO THE RESCUE?

In sustainability circles, industrial agriculture is typically cast in the role of “supervillain.” Because of the gap between supply and demand, however, Big Ag isn’t just part of the problem; since it constitutes a majority of the food system, it also has to be part of the solution. “You can have a much greater impact on overall sustainability by focusing on the big CO N T I N U E D


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Many farms, including this one in Mechanicsville, Va., are using techniques such as crop rotation to increase yield in sustainable ways.

LANCE CHEUNG/USDA

“If we want farms to be more sustainable, we have to make it possible for farmers to make more money per calorie than they’re making right now.” — Arthur Gillett, head of research at HowGood, which rates foods based on sustainability

guys,” Balling said. “Small, integrated farms have a role to play, but we have to move all of agriculture forward, not just the margins.” Field to Market, an alliance of nearly 100 food producers and retailers committed to agricultural sustainability, is focusing in particular on the environmental impact of commodity crops such as corn, cotton, potatoes, rice, soybeans and wheat. According to president Rod Snyder, the organization and its members — including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Coca-Cola, General Mills, McDonald’s, Syngenta, Unilever and Walmart, among others — are developing scientific baselines against which to benchmark industry progress. “We’ve come up with some really important metrics and indicators for things like irrigative water use, soil erosion, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions, which is allowing us for the first time to have a common approach to measuring our (environmental footprint),” Snyder said. “Once you get the underlying science right, you can begin applying it to supply chains within companies to help them make improvements with their growers.” The gestational nature of agriculture means it will take years — perhaps even decades — to effect radical change within the food system. Instead of prescribing specific standards or practices, therefore, Field to Market’s goal is continuous improvement.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on geography, crop and supply chain, there might be different solutions that need to be applied,” Snyder said. “The most critical thing right now is for food companies to begin this journey by establishing relationships with suppliers and asking the questions that will help them identify which improvements are going to be most impactful.” One improvement that’s already creating positive impact is no-till, cover-crop farming, which helps farmers improve soil quality, limit greenhouse gas and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers by foregoing plowing and instead planting fall cover crops — plantings that “cover” what would otherwise be fallow ground in winter, then rot in place come spring. “Large-scale producers are using cover crops to build soil organic matter, capture carbon, hold water and maintain nutrients in soil,” explained Rob Hedberg, national director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), which provides federal grants and education to advance innovations in sustainable agriculture. “That’s taking place on farms of 23,000 acres, and they’re very excited about it. So, sustainable practices are definitely finding their way into very-large-scale food production.” CO N T I N U E D


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BOB NICHOLS/USDA

Farmers in Rockingham County, Va., check the results of no-till techniques, a method of farming that cuts down on soil erosion and increases the amount of water and nutrients in the soil. Even companies as large as seed behemoth Monsanto are getting in on the act. A founding member of Field to Market, it announced in December 2015 a commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2021. “You often hear people say, ‘Save the planet; plant a tree.’ That’s because planting a tree can reduce climate change by reducing carbon in the air. Well, you can also save the planet by planting a corn crop,” said Monsanto President and Chief Operating Officer Brett Begemann. “Because it sequesters carbon in the soil like a tree does, utilizing cover crops and reduced tillage in high-productivity systems will actually produce a negative carbon footprint.”

DAVID TEACHING GOLIATH

Although companies like Monsanto promise they’re moving in an ever more sustainable direction, Big Ag is climbing a peak whose summit is years away. “Companies like Chipotle are making sustainability announcements on Tuesday and expecting everything to be different on Thursday, but the system just doesn’t move that fast,” Young said. “We only grow one corn crop a year, for example, which means you only get to make decisions once a year, too. We’re not talking about changing chips

on a computer; it’s a biological process.” Technology is an apt comparison. In that industry, small start-ups are incubators for innovation due to their flexibility and agility, which allow them to quickly develop new capabilities that can be acquired later by larger competitors. The same potential exists in agriculture, where small and midsize farms in many cases are illustrating proofs of concept that may one day prove scalable by Big Ag. SARE is fueling many of those farms with its grants, which have advanced research in areas as diverse as water management, aquaponics, livestock breeding and integrated pest management. In turn, that research has helped spawn an array of alternative food systems, from farmers’ markets to urban agriculture. “We have a thousand different types of systems in a thousand different locations, and the ones that are successful are becoming a model that can help others,” Hedberg said. “Diversity in and of itself is a strength, because even if a system is only 1 percent or half a percent of our national market, at least it’s there, providing opportunity, income and family enterprise for somebody who can then keep growing, expanding, changing and evolving.” Examples of innovators include The

Happy Egg Co. of San Francisco, which this year plans to double its production of freerange eggs sourced from Mennonite farms; PRE Brands of Chicago, whose 100 percent grass-fed beef went from distribution at seven local stores to more than 200 stores nationwide in a span of just eight months; and Urban Produce of Irvine, Calif., which plans to build 100 vertical farms in urban locations across the country by 2020. Then there’s Niman Ranch, which has been demonstrating the scalability of sustainability since 1969. “Niman is a company that’s tied to family farmers,” explained Tripician, who said the company acts as a broker between small local farms and large national buyers; it helps the latter source sustainable meats by helping the former execute sustainable business practices, and paying them a premium to do so. As the middleman, Niman secures demand before it builds supply, ensuring farmers’ investment in sustainable operations. “Ten years ago we had a couple hundred farmers and ranchers. Today, we have more than 700. We bring them all on one at a time, and only when we’re sure we can do a good job helping them grow and thrive.” Although Niman Ranch was acquired

last year by poultry giant Perdue Farms, Tripician insists the relationship has helped rather than hindered its mission. In fact, he said it’s illustrating how agricultural innovators can educate Big Ag to make the entire food system more sustainable. “We’re run as a separate company, but we spend a lot of time talking to the Perdue family about how to engage farmers at a deeper level to provide them with greater assurance and move in the direction of more antibiotic-free, more organic product,” Tripician said. “They’re doing it the same way we are, just with more zeros at the end. And because of their scale, they’re making a greater impact than we are.” For now, the impact is small. If food systems can collaborate on sustainable solutions, however, it will continue growing — diminishing the Chipotle effect with every incremental step. “People have different definitions of what ‘sustainability’ is, but I think everybody agrees that agriculture should be as sustainable as possible,” Begemann said. “How we get there isn’t a question of big agriculture or small agriculture; it’s a question of how big agriculture and small agriculture can work together to accomplish a sustainable food system by leveraging the capabilities of both.”


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LIVESTOCK

DID YOU KNOW?

BY THE NUMBERS*

uEgg exports fell by 47 percent in November 2015 because of the avian flu outbreak; the outbreak killed enough egg-laying chickens to affect production, and several countries banned imports of eggs from American states experiencing outbreaks. The USDA’s export forecast for 2016 is only 330 million dozen eggs, down from previous forecasts.

BROILERS

EGGS

Broilers inventory, 2014

Egg-layer inventory, Feb. 1

BILLION

MILLION

8.5

uThe USDA has finalized new poultry standards that could prevent as many as 50,000 foodborne illnesses each year. The standards will help to reduce cases of salmonella and similar diseases related to ground poultry products as well as raw chicken breasts, legs and wings; the latter group of products accounts for 80 percent of the chicken bought by American consumers.

351.8

Broiler production, 2014

Egg production, 2015

BILLION POUNDS

BILLION EGGS

Broilers, annual sales, 2014

Annual egg sales, 2014

BILLION

BILLION

51.4

uAbout 55 percent of all chicken is sold through grocery stores, with the rest being used in food service settings; 56 percent of food service chicken goes toward fast food.

96.4

$32.7 $10.2

IN 2015, AMERICANS ATE MORE CHICKEN PER CAPITA THAN ANY OTHER TYPE OF MEAT

ALL POULTRY PRODUCTS

233,770 Number of farms

Turkey 16 pounds

Pork 49.9 pounds

Exports, 2015

Beef 53.9 pounds

$4.9

Chicken 90.1 pounds

BILLION

*ALL NUMBERS MOST RECENT AVAILABLE LANCE CHEUNG/USDA; BOB NICHOLS/USDA; MAP AND ICONS: THINKSTOCK

CHICKEN & EGGS TOP FIVE EGG-PRODUCING STATES Iowa Ohio Indiana Pennsylvania Texas

32.6 million egg-layers 30.8 million 26.9 million 23.7 million 15.6 million

TOP FIVE BROILER-PRODUCING STATES Georgia Alabama North Carolina Arkansas Texas

7.5 billion pounds 6.05 billion 6.04 billion 6.01 billion 3.6 billion SOURCES: USDA, NATIONAL CHICKEN COUNCIL, UNITED EGG PRODUCERS


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Full Service Shop

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LIVESTOCK

BY THE NUMBERS

92

Inventory, Jan. 1

MILLION Annual production, 2015

23.7 MILLION POUNDS

Annual cash receipts, 2015

$76.6 BILLION

Average live weight, Feb. 27

1,380 POUNDS

KEITH WELLER/USDA; THINKSTOCK

BEEF On the Fourth of July, Americans are most likely to put these cuts of beef on the grill:

Strip 5.3 million

Brisket 3.2 million

Top sirloin 1.9 million

T-bone: 1.4 million

Porterhouse 1.1 million

Number of beef producers

727,906

uThe 92 million cattle in the U.S. as of Jan. 1 is the highest number since 2011. At least 30 million are beef cows, up 4 percent from a year ago. And 34.3 million of them are calves, a 2 percent increase. uGround beef accounts for more than half of all beef sold during the summer. uThere are more cattle farms among the nation’s 2.1 million farms than any other crop.

831 POUNDS

DID YOU KNOW?

SUMMER DELIGHTS

Ribeye 8.9 million lbs.

TOP BEEF STATES

Average dressed weight, Feb. 27

Exports, 2015

THE MOST CATTLE FARMS

Texas: 151,362 Missouri: 53,401 Oklahoma: 51,043 Kentucky: 40,141 Tennessee: 38,826

THE MOST CATTLE Texas: 11.2 million Nebraska: 6.4 million Kansas: 5.9 million California: 5.4 million Oklahoma: 4.2 million

$5.4 BILLION

SOURCE: USDA; THE BEEF CHECKOFF


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LIVESTOCK

BY THE NUMBERS

THE AVERAGE PIG CREATES 207.5 POUNDS OF MEAT AND OTHER PORK PRODUCTS

68.3

Inventory, 2015*

IN POUNDS

Shoulder

MILLION ANIMALS

22.2

Picnic

22.4

INCLUDING 10.9 LBS. BLADE ROAST

INCLUDING 16.1 LBS. BONELESS PICNIC MEAT

Ham

52.6

INCLUDING 29.6 LBS. CURED HAM

Annual production, 2014**

Loin

MILLION POUNDS

22.6

Side

29.2

INCLUDING 16 LBS. CURED BACON AND 7.9 LBS. SPARE RIBS

Misc.

33.4

INCLUDING 13.1 LBS. OF JOWLS, FEET, TAIL, ETC.

47.7

INCLUDING 16.6 LBS. BONELESS LOIN

Annual cash receipts, 2015

$19.5 BILLION

Average live weight, 2015

285 POUNDS

Average dressed weight, 2015

213

LANCE CHEUNG/USDA

PORK TOP PORK-PRODUCING STATES, BY HEAD, 2015: Iowa North Carolina Minnesota Illinois Indiana Nebraska Missouri Ohio Oklahoma South Dakota

21 million 8.8 million 8 million 5.1 million 3.7 million 3.3 million 3 million 2.5 million 2.1 million 1.4 million

POUNDS

THINKSTOCK

DID YOU KNOW? uMexico is now the top market for U.S. pork exports by volume, although Japan still spends more on U.S. pork. uThe U.S. Department of Agriculture believes that large flexible totes used to transport pig feed ingredients from China into the United States may have been the source of an outbreak of viral disease that killed millions of pigs between May 2013 and September 2015; the department is now working to prove that the virus can survive long transit times. uLitter rates are on the rebound after the epidemic, which hit piglets hardest, increasing 2.9 percent in 2015 to an estimated 10.5 piglets per litter.

Number of producers

55,882 Exports, 2015

$4.3 BILLION

*NOV. 30, 2014-DEC. 14, 2015 **MOST RECENT AVAILABLE

SOURCES: USDA; PORK CHECKOFF; GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE


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LIVESTOCK

BY THE NUMBERS

9.3

Inventory, 2014*

THE AVERAGE AMERICAN DRINKS ABOUT 19.1 GALLONS OF MILK EACH YEAR ...

MILLION MILKING COWS Estimated annual milk production, 2015

208.5

... the lowest amount since 1909

BILLION POUNDS Annual milk sales, 2014*

$49.3

DID YOU KNOW?

BILLION

uRussia’s 2014 ban on food imports from the European Union and the United States, as well as a Chinese slowdown on imports, continues to limit both dairy exports and prices from those regions.

Number of farms

46,005

uDairy is the second-most popular category of organic food sold in the U.S., accounting for 15 percent of all organic food sold. Produce is most popular, at 43 percent.

Exports**

MICHAEL CONROY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS; THINKSTOCK

DAIRY

uGreek yogurt was the most heavily advertised dairy product during the first week of March, accounting for 28 percent of dairy ads, followed by cheese at 23 percent, ice cream with 14 percent and cream cheese with 10 percent.

TOP CHEESE-PRODUCING STATES, IN POUNDS, 2015

$5.2 BILLION

*MOST RECENT AVAILABLE **ALL DAIRY PRODUCTS

U.S. PER CAPITA FLUID MILK CONSUMPTION, 2013 IN GALLONS; MOST RECENT AVAILABLE

South Dakota 278 million

Minnesota 679.5 million

Idaho 941 million

6.7 Wisconsin 3 billion

5.2

New York 805.7 million

California 2.4 billion

2.7

2.7 1.6

Pennsylvania 401.6 million

New Mexico 762 million Iowa 244.1 million

Ohio 211.3 million

0.2 Plain 2% milk 35%

Plain whole milk 27%

Plain 1% milk 14%

Skim milk 14%

All flavored milk 9%

Eggnog/ buttermilk 1% SOURCE: USDA


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HORTICULTURE

GARDEN VARIETY

TOP HORTICULTURAL STATES

Operations Sales Both

NUMBER OF OPERATIONS Florida

2,069 California

1,710

Pennsylvania

1,397

North Carolina

SALES WITH BEST-SELLING CROP

California

Nursery stock

$1.8 billion Aquatic plants Oregon

$932 million

Oregon

Michigan

$645 million

Bedding/garden plants

Retail garden centers $2.4 billion Direct to consumer $2.1 billion Landscape contractors $1.9 billion

Texas

Supermarkets $1 billion

Sod

Landscape redistribution yards $673 million

$593.8 million 23,221

HOW HORTICULTURAL PRODUCTS ARE SOLD

Florida

Cut Christmas trees

TOTAL U.S. OPERATIONS

T

HINK OF FARMING, AND most people envision corn or wheat or soybeans. But food crops aren’t the only ones produced in the United States; in 2014, more than 23,000 horticulture operations specialized in growing $13.8 billion worth of decorative plants and trees ranging from azaleas to zinnias. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been keeping tabs on horticulture since 1889. Here’s a look at what was being grown in 2014, according to the USDA’s 10th and most recent horticultural specialties census, released in December 2015.

$2.9 billion

1,337 1,281

USDA tallies up the plants that make America beautiful

TOTAL U.S. SALES

$13.8 BILLION

Wholesale florists $539 million Retail florists $200.9 million Nonprofit groups/ fundraisers $92.3 million Interiorscapers $65.7 million Other mass marketers $2.9 billion Other marketing channels $1.9 billion


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HORTICULTURE

23.7 million

$270.6 million

Azalea 14.7 million Boxwood

11.8 million

Holly 10.3 million 9.8 million

$214.8 million

Juniper

Arborvitae 6.7 million Maple (all varities)

6 million

Crepe myrtle 4.8 million Rhododendron

3.6 million

All Sales

$19.9 million $5.6 million

$42.2 million $4.4 million

$44.6 million $13.6 million

$17.3 million

$82.4 million $16.6 million

$32.2 million

$61.8 million

$81.3 million

Coleus

$102.9 million

Vinca

$222.8 million

Calibrachoa

$197.8 million

Combination planter/color bowl

Hanging (retail)

Marigold

Pots (retail)

Begonias

Flats (retail)

$27.5 million

$2.6 BILLION

Pansies

$523.4 MILLION

$44.1 million

TOTAL

Impatiens

RETAIL

Geraniums

ANNUAL BEDDING/ GARDEN PLANTS

Petunias

$80.4 million

$133.3 million

Oak 3.3 million

$186 million

Pine

MOST POPULAR FLOWERING ANNUALS $263 million

MOST POPULAR TREES/EVERGREENS

CUT FLOWERS SOLD WHOLESALE AND RETAIL

Tulip $65.3 million

Lily $65.3 million

Gerbera daisy $35.2 million

RETAIL

Gladioli $25.1 million

Rose $22.2 million

$44.7 MILLION

TOTAL

Chrysanthemum $15.1 million

Iris $13.8 million

$458.1 MILLION

Sunflower $13.8 million

Snapdragon $12.2 million

Dahlia $10.4 million

IMAGES: THINKSTOCK


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HORTICULTURE TOP SUCCULENT GROWERS

SALES OF ALL HORTICULTURAL SPECIALTY CROPS

SEEDS SOLD

IN CENSUS YEARS

Vegetable seeds Ve

Vegetable

37.1 MILLION

2014 $13.8 billion

pounds

$135.1 MILLION

2009

sales

$11.7 billion

$117.9 million wholesale 1998

$17.2 million retail

$10.6 billion

Flower seeds

F lower

3.8 MILLION

1988 $4.8 billion

pounds

$31.6 MILLION

1979 $3.2 billion

sales

$28.7 million wholesale $2.9 million retail

California

Arizona

6.1 MILLION 2.1 MILLION

Florida

Texas

190,097

133,829

Wisconsin

109,562

TOP FLOWER SEEDS Sweet alyssum 29,094 pounds

Marigold 3,166 pounds

Sweet pea 329 pounds

$960.9 million

1959 $515.7 million

3.8 MILLION POUNDS TOTAL

Wildflowers 874,070 pounds

1970

North Carolina

98,030

Virginia

24,281

Hawaii

Michigan

10,200

4,520

Pennsylvania

2,245

1949 $300.6 million

TOTAL NUMBER SOLD

TOTAL SALES

10.5 MILLION

All Other 2.9 million pounds

$40.9 MILLION

1929 $192.1 million

1889 $26.2 million

TOP HORTICULTURE COMMODITIES INCREASE FROM PREVIOUS CENSUS YEAR, 2009

Nursery stock

Annual bedding/ garden plants

Sod, sprigs and plugs

Potted flowering plants

Potted herbaceous perennials

Food crops under protection

$4.27 billion 11%

$2.57 billion 11%

$1.14 billion 30%

$1.08 billion 24%

$945 million 12%

$797 million 44%

SOURCE: USDA CENSUS OF HORTICULTURAL SPECIALTIES, 2014


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Farmer and Bachelor star Chris Soules meets with National FFA Organization members at the Executive Women in Agriculture conference in December. Groups such as the FFA help young people learn about agriculture. JEFF HAYNES/INVISION FOR BASF/AP IMAGES

STARTING EARLY

Youth organizations encourage students to try farming By Diana Lambdin Meyer

A

TYPICAL DAY IN Randy Lambdin’s 3,000-acre grain operation requires the Illinois farmer to communicate job responsibilities to his employees and two sons who work with him. He then meets with a sales representative or two from various

chemical or grain companies before heading out to a meeting with the soil and water conservation department or the Environmental Protection Agency to learn how the latest government guidelines will affect his business. While he certainly learned some of these skills from the six generations of his family who farmed before him and from a

bachelor’s degree in agronomy, Lambdin, 55, credits much of his knowledge and success, which includes the title Master Farmer, as selected by Prairie Farmer magazine, to his membership in the National FFA Organization, formerly the Future Farmers of America, during his high school years. CO N T I N U E D


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Keri Moore, 14, of Meridian, Miss., shows off Dolly, a 17-week-old rose comb brown leghorn hen that won awards at the Lauderdale County (Miss.) Fair’s 4-H competition last September. 4-H members get hands-on experience in raising farm animals.

“I think a lot of passionate individuals come out of high school into college and miss much of the camaraderie and like-mindedness that we find in 4-H and FFA.” — Stephanie George, college senior and Agriculture Future of America ambassador

FFA members Danny Quinn, left, and David Townsend display their red romaine lettuce plants, grown from seeds from the same lot sent to the International Space Station, at a Washington, D.C., event in October. Both FFA and NASA promote careers in science and technology.

ROGELIO V. SOLIS/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS; LANCE CHEUNG, USDA

“FFA taught me how to communicate with a diverse number of people, which is far more important in farming than many people would think,” said Lambdin. “FFA teaches leadership and communication skills that give you the confidence to speak with bankers and other professionals who will help you reach your goals on the farm.” Founded in Kansas City, Mo., in 1928 in part because young men were losing interest in farming as a career, FFA today has more than 625,000 young men and women in chapters throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, its highest membership numbers ever. If it was a challenge nearly 90 years ago to keep kids on the farm, consider the challenges in the 21st century, when technology has opened so much more of the world to young people than ever before. FFA, 4-H and other youth agriculture organizations today should really have their hands full. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to Shanna Finnegan, FFA chapter adviser at Firelands High School in Oberlin, Ohio. “Our students are driving the change and leading with the message that agriculture is so much more than cows and plows,” said Finnegan. Finnegan, who was an FFA member when she was in high school in the 1990s, has witnessed the shift from a predominantly white, male organization to one where male and female students of all ethnicities and family backgrounds now actively participate. Of the 90 students in her chapter, only a handful come from what many would consider a traditional family farm operation. “Young people who don’t live on a farm are still interested in what FFA is about and can participate in experiential learning projects,” she said. For example, one student who lives in town without any land has an arrangement with a local goat cooperative for his livestock experience. Another student is raising chickens in the backyard. Finnegan and others credit the current trend toward healthier eating in the U.S. with some of today’s interest in agriculture, particularly among those who don’t have a farm background. But savvy, career-minded young people are also aware that some of the best jobs in their future will involve feeding a growing population on less available land. And that is the challenge for educators and agriculture-related youth organizations — to better prepare young people for the massive number of industry jobs that are available today as well as those jobs that have not yet been identified in the 21st century. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in the five years between 2015

and 2020, nearly 58,000 new jobs will be created annually for those with degrees in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources or the environment. More than 15,000 of those annual jobs are science and engineering related. In an effort to meet that challenge, the University of Minnesota Center for Youth Development, which oversees the state’s 4-H initiative, created a science of agriculture specialist position, the nation’s first extension service role designed to put greater emphasis on science skills and exposure to ag science careers in the 4-H curriculum. Former West Virginia high school FFA adviser Josh Rice landed the job. “In many ways, 4-H is shifting back to its roots by sharing new and developing techniques from the land grand universities, but combining this with projects that teach real job skills for our changing world,” said Rice, who started his job in 2015. Since then, at least four other state extension programs have hired or are in the process of hiring a similar science specialist. The four primary goals of the Science in Agriculture Challenge in Minnesota, the first of its kind in 4-H, are: uSTEM emphasis (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) uCritical thinking and communications skills uAgriculture literacy (educating the public about the food process) uExposure to careers in agriculture. In designing programs with these goals in mind, Rice recognizes that 4-H’s unique strength, as an extracurricular activity, is the ability to address very local needs and quickly adapt to changing conditions. For example, when the avian flu prevented 225 Minnesota 4-Hers from showing their poultry at the state fair, the students worked with local experts and designed posters and other media that demonstrated their knowledge of poultry and served a dual purpose as an agriculture literacy tool for the general public who attended the fair. With about 6 million U.S. students ranging in age from 5 to 21 years of age, 4-H is in a key position to launch young people on their agriculture career path. While many participants are children and grandchildren of 4-Hers, Rice is particularly excited about the opportunities to reach first-generation 4-H members. “We have a large Somali and Hmong immigrant population in Minnesota who have never been exposed to the educational benefits and experiences of 4-H, which makes it particularly exciting to plan unique programs for those communities,” he said. The dominant youth agriculture organizations in this country, 4-H and FFA, are not alone in their efforts to prepare young people and educate the public. AFA, the Agriculture Future of America, was founded in 1996 to connect talented college men CO N T I N U E D


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NATIONAL FFA ORGANIZATION uOriginally called the Future Farmers of America, the group began in 1928 in Kansas City as a way to keep boys from leaving the farm for other career opportunities. uMembers today come from all 50 states and two U.S. territories; more than 629,000 students belong to 7,575 chapters. uFamous alumni include actor Matthew Fox (Lost); singers Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw; and Olympic gold medalists Rulon Gardner and Stacy Dragila. uFFA adopted its iconic blue corduroy jacket as official wear in 1933 after the Fredericktown, Ohio, chapter rocked the look at the annual convention.

4-H

LOGOS: COURTESY OF THE ORGANIZATIONS; PHOTOS: COURTESY OF RANDY LAMBDIN

uFormed in 1902 in Ohio as a series of clubs to promote agriculture as a career, 4-H is now the primary youth mentoring organization for the USDA’s Cooperative Extension Service. uMore than 6 million students belong to the organization, which has about 25 million alumni. uThe four H’s are the values followed by members: Head (managing and thinking), Heart (relating and caring), Hands (giving and working) and Health (being and living). uFamous alumni include sports figures Johnny Bench and Pat Summitt; Garfield creator Jim Davis; and former first lady Rosalynn Carter. SOURCES: NATIONAL FFA ORGANIZATION; 4-H

Illinois farmer Randy Lambdin, seen at top harvesting his crops, credits FFA with his success in the fields.

and women interested in careers in agriculture with leadership and career development opportunities. Stephanie George, a senior at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., majoring in agriculture food systems and economic sciences, is a student ambassador for AFA. “I think a lot of passionate individuals come out of high school into college and miss much of the camaraderie and like-mindedness that we find in 4-H and FFA, yet still haven’t found a focus for their career,” said George. AFA is known for leadership conferences that pair students with industry leaders to discuss problems and challenges facing agriculture, as well as job opportunities and other issues. George, who was in 4-H throughout her youth in rural western

Washington, plans to attend law school at Montana State University and specialize in agriculture policy. Her motivation comes, in part, from what she has learned through AFA conferences. “Because so much of our society is so far removed from the food production process, our government leaders, those who make our laws, often do not have an accurate perception of what agriculture is about,” she said. “This is where I think I can make a difference.” George’s observations astutely validate goals established by 4-H and FFA, as well as the real-life experience of Illinois farmer Randy Lambdin. While a number of skills and talents are beneficial in this career choice, communication and leadership prowess are those that cross all industry lines for a successful career in agriculture. Editor’s note: Randy Lambdin is writer Diana Lambdin Meyer’s brother.


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FRESH FARMERS

MELISSA PASANEN/BURLINGTON (VT.) FREE PRESS; LANCE CHEUNG/USDA; MARJI GUYLER-ALANIZ/FARMHER INC.

Groups under-represented in agriculture find their way to the field

By Erik Schechter

C

ARRIE MESS GREW UP as a city girl in Madison, Wis. But in high school, she met her future husband, Patrick, whose parents owned a dairy farm. So years later, after the two married, she decided to give up her sales and marketing career and move to the farm. “It’s pretty difficult going from a life where you can order pizza and Chinese (food) to your house to living in the country, where you don’t have delivery or a day off,” she said. “But I really found my passion.” On the Messes’ dairy farm in Watertown, Wis., the main veterinarian is female, as

is the hired hand, and Mess, 33, is a board member of the newly formed Dairy Girl Network, which supports women in the industry. Call it a sign of the times. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that the average farmer is a white man who is 58.3 years old and has been farming for more than 10 years. Often, he’s working land that has been in his family for more than a generation. But others — women, young newbies, African Americans and veterans — have been availing themselves of professional networking groups and government programs to make it in agriculture. The USDA will spend $5.6 billion during the next two years to help new farmers and

ranchers enter the field, with a focus on attracting veterans, women and students.

FARMING WHILE FEMALE

In 2013, three years after she quit her job at Rain and Hail, a leading crop insurance company, Marji Guyler-Alaniz founded FarmHer, a group that promotes the image of women in agriculture. “I travel to farms all over the United States — a lot of them in Iowa and in the Midwest, but all over — and photograph women actively working on farms and ranches, or maybe even in ag businesses,” Guyler-Alaniz explained. CO N T I N U E D

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has numerous programs to encourage African Americans, veterans and women to join the ranks of farmers.


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According to the USDA’s female farmer might go to a 2012 Census of Agriculture, meeting of a local farmingreleased in 2014, women related organization and be comprise 30 percent of the only woman there. But all farm producers and 14 she can find organizations percent of primary farm that specifically support operators, both numbers women in agriculture, such down from the previous as American Agri-Women, census in 2007. Annie’s Project and the Dairy But those figures only Girl Network. reflect part of the picture, “Here, in Iowa, we have she said; women are taking the Women, Food and Ag on a more active, outdoor Network,” Guyler-Alaniz role in the farm. said. “And that is focused on “Many of them are women in that smaller-scale, OF ALL AMERICAN involved in livestock. You chemical-free, organic-type FARMERS ARE BLACK see a lot of women on arena, so (we’re) connecting ranches. You see a lot of women through that.” women involved in specialty THE ROMANCE crops and niche marketing,” said Krysta Harden, the OF FARMING Besides being predomiUSDA’s former deputy nantly male, agriculture is secretary of agriculture. old. And, Guyler-Alaniz said, Farmers over the age of 65 they are also graduating at outnumber farmers under “super-increasing numbers” 35 by a margin of six to from college-level agriculone, said Chelsey Simpson, tural business programs. At communications director for Iowa State University, for the National Young Farmers example, women constitute Coalition. 49 percent of the underOF RECENT HIRES Bucking this trend, young graduate enrollment in the AT THE USDA HAVE people are returning to the College of Agriculture and BEEN MILITARY land. These university grads Life Sciences, a 9 percent VETERANS and former office workers increase since 2004. want to set up new fam“I just got off the phone ily farms of their own and with a young woman who engage in direct-market is managing the entire sales to neighboring cities. business side of a large, The problem is that, being pecan-growing operation in first-generation farmers, they Texas,” she added. lack both experience and Still, women report to land. Guyler-Alaniz that they’re There are apprenticeships treated dismissively: to help fill in the gaps in “They say, ‘My husband professional knowledge, and I walked into a tractor Simpson noted. But firstdealership together … but generation farmers are they don’t look at me as at a major disadvantage part of the decision-making OF ALL FARM compared with those who process.’” PRODUCERS come from farm families, Harden has noticed this where land is passed on from continuing trend as well. ARE WOMEN generation to generation. In an interview before she THINKSTOCK Between 2004 and 2014, left the USDA in February, national farm values more she said, “I had a young than doubled, from $1,360 per acre to woman — I think she was in North Dakota $2,950 per acre. Buying land (as well as — at one of our roundtables who ... went the other necessities) may require taking out a first time to market her grain. The person, massive loan against slim first-year profits. just not knowing, said, ‘Where’s your In some cases, their education may work father? Where’s your husband? Where’s against them. “If you’ve got that (student your brother?’ And she said, ‘I don’t have loan) debt already on your balance sheet, any of those.’ (But) I think it’s changing; it’s when you go to apply for a loan for land evolving.” … that’s not going to look favorable to a Then there are the feelings of isolation. A

1.4%

20%

30%

lending institution,” Simpson said. One place new farmers can turn to for financial assistance is the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which offers microloans of up to $50,000. The National Young Farmers Coalition is supporting the Young Farmers Success Act, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last June. The bill, which has been referred to committee, would add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which allows individuals in certain professions to have their student loans forgiven after they make qualified payments for 10 years. “I think (student loan debt as a barrier to entry is) an issue that we do need to address,” Harden said. But, she added, “it would take a change in tax policy to allow any type of forgiveness or change.”

STRUGGLING FOR A FOOTHOLD

According to the USDA’s 2012 census, 1.4 percent of all American farmers are black. That’s 44,629 African-American farmers, a smallish number, but a 12 percent increase since 2007. Andre Peer is one of those farmers, working land in eastern Arkansas owned by his family as well as rented acres. Peer had worked at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, but feeling “confined” indoors, began farming in 2002, growing rice, wheat, soybean, milo and corn. “I like to be an outdoors person,” he said. “I grew up on the farm, driving tractors and playing in the soil.” African Americans face a number of challenges, he said. First, they generally don’t inherit land, equipment and grain storage facilities as many of their white counterparts do. Peer’s family owns just 117 acres — tiny by local standards. Second, there’s sometimes a lack of access to money. In 1997, a group of black farmers filed a class-action lawsuit against the USDA, claiming discrimination with regard to loans, and that their complaints had not been investigated. Two years later, the plaintiffs won Pigford v. Glickman, a victory that paved the way for other payments related to discrimination. “I think that … past practices, past ways of thinking … probably did impact young people’s decision to stay on the farm or go back to a farm, because they had seen or felt there was discrimination,” Harden said. “I think we’ve turned a new leaf at USDA. I think our employees are very proud that we are embracing of people of color, of gender, different ways of life, different backgrounds.” Still, Peer said, there are loan officers

GOVERNMENT HELP FOR NEW FARMERS

“stuck in their old-fashioned ways,” which can be discouraging for an African-American farmer.

FROM SERVICE TO FARM

Military veterans are finding that the federal government is offering them more tools to get into agriculture, but many producers still struggle to get through the paperwork and red tape. Aaron White, a livestock and vegetable farmer from Carlisle, Iowa, who served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, said at an October USDA roundtable that he has not used the department’s services. “I think the services out there are great,” said White, who wasn’t sure how to ask for help or whether he had the money to participate in some of the programs. “I have not personally used any of the services through USDA because I am somewhat intimidated by the process.” The transition from the battlefield to the farm field underscores a growing trend in America: As thousands of young military personnel leave the service, many are finding themselves drawn to the prospect of jobs on farms and ranches scattered throughout the countryside, according to the Farmer Veteran Coalition of Iowa, which works with farm groups to put veterans to work in agriculture. USDA officials said even though rural America makes up 17 percent of the population, it accounts for 44 percent of the men and women who served in the military. The department has expanded its outreach in recent years to veterans. The 2014 farm bill required the USDA to make veterans a priority and established a liaison at the department to help farmers understand agriculture programs and advocate for their interests. It’s already paying off, with about 20 percent of recent hires at the department being military veterans. “We look for veterans,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We know what (veterans) bring to the table: tremendous skills, experiences, knowledge and the capacity to deal with a crisis situation.” The USDA is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department to reach military personnel before they leave the service to present farming as a career option. “We do understand the restorative value of linking growers back to the land and having a positive experience growing something and producing something,” Vilsack said. “Unfortunately, for whatever reason, agriculture is not the first thing (new veterans) think of.” Christopher Doering contributed to this story.

uusda.gov/newfarmers provides personalized information on where new farmers can get assistance and advice. uebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits leads veterans to resources where they can learn more about farming as a career (search for “farming”).


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Indoor farms use LED lights that emit only specific red and blue frequencies of the visible light spectrum needed for plant growth, causing an eerie pink glow.

PLOT TWISTS Unusual locations shift the perspective on where food can be grown

By Brian Barth

G

ENE GIACOMELLI HAS AN unusual résumé for a horticulturist. As the director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, he has helped to develop a greenhouse capable of growing crops on the moon and worked on the design for the Antarctic “growth chamber,” which has provided fresh greens and veggies to American scientists at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station since 2004. But mostly, Giacomelli’s work has been to elevate the humble greenhouse from a place to start seedlings in spring to a venue for the full crop cycle, from seed to harvest. Technological advances — such as

nutrient sensors, CO2 enrichment, hydroponics, all of it computer-controlled — have transformed greenhouses into optimized growing environments that can’t be replicated in the field. And rapid advances in LED lighting technology have made the greenhouse itself an optional component, hence the term controlled environment agriculture (CEA) — a catch-all phrase for any type of indoor commercial growing, whether it’s inside a dark warehouse or on a sunny rooftop. “As a production system, CEAs provide a greater degree of certainty compared to the open field,” said Giacomelli. “You know when the crop is going to be harvested, how much you’ll have, and you have a reasonable guarantee of a good-tasting product.” The controlled environment agriculture

market in North America, which is centered on hydroponic vegetable production, is now worth approximately $21.4 billion and is expected to increase to about $36.9 billion by 2023, according to a September 2015 report by the research firm Manifest Mind. Demand for fresh, local, sustainably produced food is a top driver for the industry, said Giacomelli. “These systems can be put almost anywhere,” he said. “And the exciting thing to me is that it’s allowing a lot of young people who were not born into agriculture, who never had their hands in the dirt, to begin growing and selling food.” Meet four such individuals and learn about the companies they’re building. CO N T I N U E D

JENNIFER KATHRYN PHOTOGRAPHY


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REPURPOSING THE ROOFTOP

GIVING NEW MEANING TO “FACTORY FARM”

Gotham Greens New York and Chicago Founded: 2009

FarmedHere Bedford Park, Ill., and Louisville Founded: 2011 Working in the sunshine is one perk of the farming lifestyle, but the pinkish glow of LED grow lights has a different sort of allure. Weeds are nonexistent in a controlled indoor growing environment, for example, and there is no noise or exhaust from diesel equipment to put up with. Yet Matt Matros, CEO of FarmedHere, the largest indoor “vertical” farm in the country with a 90,000-square-foot facility in the Chicago area and a 60,000-square-foot facility planned for Louisville, said there is another, often overlooked, benefit of growing under lights: When you’re not reliant on sunlight, you can stack the crops on top of each other, floor to ceiling. The 3-D arrangement combined with high-yielding hydroponic methods means “for every acre of indoor space we have, we’ve replaced 30 acres of outdoor space,” Matros said. Another plus: With total environmental control, crops are less susceptible to pests and disease, meaning CEA growers are less likely to need chemical controls. “We use beneficial insects,” said Matros. “I call them probiotics — the good bugs that eat the bad bugs.” Finding an all-natural nutrient solution that provides everything a crop needs in a soilless environment has been one of the stumbling blocks for many CEA operations to achieve organic status, but in 2012, FarmedHere broke that barrier, becoming the first certified organic indoor vertical farm in the country. Not that Matros is willing to share the ingredients of their nutrient solution: “I have to be a little cagey about it,” he said. “That’s our secret sauce right now.” CO N T I N U E D

GOTHAM GREENS

Gotham Greens owners Viraj Puri, Eric Haley and Jennifer Nelkin Frymark employ 125 people in their rooftop gardens, which produce 20 million heads of lettuce and other salad greens from sites including the roof of a Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Viraj Puri came to agriculture by way of a career in ecological design and sustainable development. Working on projects in India, Malawi and elsewhere early in his career, he was exposed to a variety of “green building systems,” including greenhouses. “The technology of the greenhouse really appealed to me, especially the resource efficiency,” said Puri. “Greenhouses can be very resource-intensive, make no mistake, but they can also be very energy-efficient, very water-efficient and very crop-efficient. Technology is the enabler, but it’s really a matter of what we do with it.” As co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens, the largest rooftop vegetable grower in the nation, both in terms of size and production, Puri has done wonders with CEA technology. He and his two business partners oversee 170,000 square feet of

greenhouse space across four facilities (three in New York City and one in Chicago) producing 20 million heads of lettuce and other greens per year, all with systems that utilize 100 percent renewable energy and recycle 100 percent of irrigation water. Employing 125 people and having raised more than $30 million in outside capital to date, Puri said, “we’ve demonstrated that this is not just a proof of concept, it’s a tangible, profitable business.” Locating on unused rooftop space is one key to farming profitably in places where a tiny plot of land costs millions, but it also helps to be in such close proximity to customers. For the Gotham Greens facility on top of Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, the delivery route is the length of an elevator ride. “We’re cutting out the middlemen,” Puri said with a grin.

JENNIFER KATHRYN PHOTOGRAPHY

Matt Matros, CEO of FarmedHere, the largest indoor “vertical” farm in the U.S., says his company’s controlled-environment agriculture methods can produce 30 acres’ worth of vegetables in a 1-acre warehouse.


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FARMING IN THE GREAT WHITE NORTH

INDOOR INSECT NURSERY

Vertical Harvest Hydroponics Anchorage Founded: 2013

Aspire Food Group Austin and Kade, Ghana Founded: 2013

Several years ago, Cameron Willingham, a lifelong Alaskan gardener and CEA research technician at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, was at a party when he struck up a conversation with Daniel Perpich, a business consultant and former military man who had done a tour of duty at a base in the Arctic. “He said the price of lettuce up there was $14 a head, even though it was brown and nasty,” recalled Willingham. A light bulb went off between the two men, and a few weeks later, they sat down to draft a business plan for Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, now a fledgling company that is starting to bring CEA technology to isolated northern communities. “People are finding some great niches in urban areas with controlled environment ag,” said Willingham, “but we see it as being a perfect fit for inaccessible places, for really extreme environments.”

The cost and complexities of building CEA systems in Alaska’s remote communities, few of which have year-round road access, led Vertical Harvest to adopt a novel approach: outfitting shipping containers — the 8-foot-wide-by-40-foot-long metal boxes designed to move goods by truck, train or boat — with hydroponic growing equipment at their facility in Anchorage, which can then be trucked across seasonal ice roads to their destination or shipped by barge during the warm season. This spring, they will send their first model, a turnkey system capable of producing 23,000 heads of lettuce per year, to a farmer in Dillingham, a tiny fishing village on Alaska’s Bristol Bay. “We don’t want to just hand off the equipment and say good luck,” said Willingham. “Our model is to couple the equipment with technical support to help people become major producers in their respective communities.”

ZEV THOMPSON

Mohammed Ashour, CEO of Aspire Food Group, holds a grasshopper in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they are prized as a food source.

VERTICAL HARVEST HYDROPONICS

Vertical Harvest Hydroponics owners Daniel Perpich, Linda James and Cameron Willingham use shipping containers as portable greenhouses that will be able to bring fresh produce to isolated communities with less-than-perfect farming conditions.

CEA growers excel at providing “hyperlocal” greens, herbs, tomatoes and other vegetables, but generally leave carbohydrate and protein crops to farmers in rural areas. A group of former MBA students from McGill University is starting to change that paradigm, but not by growing corn and soybeans in a greenhouse — they’re raising insects, “high-quality, organic, made-for-humanconsumption crickets,” said Gabriel Mott, COO of Austin-based Aspire Food Group. “Insects are far more sustainable than any existing livestock.” It may come as a surprise, he adds, but “there are a lot of startups in the U.S. that use cricket powder in a variety of packaged foods.” Aspire’s modest warehouse on the outskirts of Austin has the capacity to produce 7 million crickets, which are raised in bathtub-size plastic bins stacked together in rows like a giant filing cabinet, per week. Even as their domestic production ramps up, the company is already expanding overseas to tap markets where entomophagy — insect eating — is the norm. Aspire’s facility outside Accra, the capital of Ghana, supplies the West African market with palm weevil larvae, a local delicacy. “Anywhere that people traditionally eat insects, they cost more than beef or chicken, so we want to bring modern cultural techniques to the production of insects to drive the price down,” said Mott, of the company’s social mission. “Our goal is to provide access to quality food for people living in urban slums.” In North America, however, insects occupy a tiny niche in the upscale food market — Aspire sells whole crickets for $38 per pound.


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By Stephanie Anderson Witmer

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NATURAL SELECTION Demand for organic products leads to an increased need for feed

REMY GABALDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A French farmer examines organic corn that will be used for feed for organic chickens. American farmers are turning overseas for their organic feed supply as demand increases.

TROLL AROUND YOUR LOCAL grocery store and you’re bound to spot the green-and-white U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal on everything from peas and pizza to cereal and celery. While fruits and vegetables account for most organic-food sales, animal-based organic products such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy are also gaining popularity. This may sound like great news for growers, but American organic meat, poultry and dairy farmers face a significant stumbling block to meeting increasing consumer demand — access to organic feed for their animals. For a gallon of milk, a carton of eggs or a New York strip steak to be certified organic, the animals from which these foods come must eat a strictly organic diet. (Even bedding and straw for windbreaks must be organic, as there’s a chance the animal could consume it.) Depending on the animal and how it’s raised, this organic diet consists, at least in part, of organic feed. And it’s not cheap; organic feed is often double or triple the cost of conventional feed, said Kevin Ellis, a poultry specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology in San Antonio. “For poultry, the amount of feed you need to source is fairly significant,” Ellis said; it can be as high as 2 pounds per day for a broiler chicken. “A lot of people are doing pastured chicken (raised outdoors) now, but you still need that feed ration to either produce a reliable number of eggs or get meat off of the chicken. For cattle (which eat about 2 percent of their body weight per day), it depends how they’re raising them and how they’re finishing them. If they’re doing pasture, their feed cost is going to be a little bit lower.” The demand for organic animal products CO N T I N U E D


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— and by extension, organic animal feed — is said Rakola. “If you’re converting from a outpacing the U.S. supply of organic corn conventional system and suddenly you’re and other feed crops. According to data going to crop rotation, manure and cover from USDA’s Economic Research Service crops,” she said, “figuring out how to deal (ERS), organic crops account for less than 1 with all those different factors can be a big percent of the total acreage for each of the challenge.” top three feed crops: corn, soybeans and Additionally, the current agricultural wheat. infrastructure was created to accommodate Similarly, the yields of conventional feed conventional, not organic, farming, said crops far exceed those of their organic David Fairfield, senior vice president of feed counterparts. Organic corn yields were 41 services at the National Grain and Feed bushels per acre lower than conventional Association. Grain and feed commodities are yields; organic soybeans, 12 bushels per typically gathered from a variety of sources acre lower; and organic wheat, 9 bushels and comingled, then sent on through the per acre lower. All of this translates to less distribution chain. This system doesn’t work feed. for organics. “We’re hearing from our livestock pro“It’s very important to maintain the ducers that they’re having a really hard time integrity of the organic product,” said finding organic feed,” said Betsy Rakola, a Rakola. “That’s not easy with bulk grains. USDA organic policy adviser. “Some of them There’s a lot of dust, there’s a lot of cleaning are getting it from overseas, and they’re procedures our handlers have to take on to starting to import increasing quantities of ensure that organic product is organic from organic grains from other start to finish. Getting countries. It’s not like those feed mills or grain they’re doing it because elevators or trucks to take Organic feed it’s cheaper; they’re doing on that additional burden it because they don’t know of segregating products can be double what else to do.” and having that separate While importing organic supply chain creates a real or triple the grain from Europe, South challenge.” cost of convenAmerica and Asia can Supermarket shoppers help ease the immediate aren’t the only ones retional feed, and supply crunch, experts sponsible for the increased demand for it is expect consumer demand demand for organic feed. for organic animal-based Both independent and on the rise. foods to increase, requirchain retailers are stocking ing even more organic their shelves with organic grain production. feed. “There’s a lot of energy right now in the One of the largest, Tractor Supply Co., U.S. to grow the organic feed-grain sector,” caters to “lifestyle” rather than production said Catherine Greene, a senior agricultural farmers, selling a variety of livestock and economist with ERS. “It’s coming from small-animal feeds. In 2014, following investors, from food manufacturers, from customer demand and a successful test run, people that work with farming associations, TSC began selling 5-, 10- and 40-pound from a lot of different directions.” bags of organic poultry feed in all of its But organic farming takes time. It takes stores, said Steve Barbarick, TSC’s executive at least three years for American farmers vice president and chief merchandising to earn the USDA’s organic certification. officer. The process, however, can cost thousands Most of these sales have been of the of dollars, and during that waiting period, smaller bags, he said, which suggests farmers miss out on the higher profits from these customers are individuals or families marketing and selling their products as keeping backyard coops to raise their own certified organic. organic eggs. “They’re really concerned they’ll be out of Barbarick anticipates this demand will business before they can get those organic continue to grow. So far, he describes the premiums,” said Ellis. customer desire for organic feed as “broadThis uncertainty, he said, leads some based” across its nearly 1,500 stores in 49 farmers to practice sustainable farming but states, not specific to any one area of the skip official certification, instead marketing country. their goods as GMO-free or pesticide-free. The company’s next step may be to test They might be minimizing risk, but they’re how well organic sheep and goat feed sell also minimizing potential profits. Current in a small number of stores, but, Barbarick ERS data shows organic corn and soybeans said, “we’re not quite there yet.” command significantly higher prices than And, just as they do at the grocery store conventional crops — $5 to $10 more per or farmers market, TSC customers pay more bushel of corn, and $10 to $15 more per for organic than conventional. bushel of soybeans — more than offsetting “The customer will end up paying about higher organic production costs. 60 to 70 percent more for organic versus Likewise, organic farmers can discover what they’d get normally,” Barbarick said, that they face a steep learning curve or “but we’re finding they’re willing to pay for lack deep generational farming knowledge, that because they see value in it.”

NEW PRODUCT OPTIONS

CHRISTINE ADAMS; GREEN HERON TOOLS

Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger show off products from Green Heron Tools.

WOMEN’S WORK When Liz Brensinger and Ann Adams expanded their longtime gardening habits to provide produce for Adams’ son’s restaurant, they discovered a major hurdle: There were very few farming tools designed specifically for women’s use. With more than 1 million women working as farmers, the pair realized that better equipment would find a market. Using their combined backgrounds in nursing, public health, research and farming, and with engineers at Penn State University, they began to research how to improve the equipment needed to farm efficiently and comfortably. In 2009, they created Green Heron Tools. The New Tripoli, Pa.-based company (greenherontools. com) makes ergonomic farming and gardening tools specifically for women. “When tools are designed for the 50th-percentile man, that’s not nearly appropriate for a woman’s body,” said Adams. “It really does put women at risk (for injury). ... Women never noticed it because there was never another option. Women told us from all over the country, ‘I just make do.’” Green Heron sells its own products — the HERShovel and the HERSpadingfork — created based on research supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Small Business Innovation Research Program. The company also serves as a dealer for other products that aren’t made specifically for women but have been tested and vetted by Adams, Brensinger and other female farmers and gardeners. A popular item is a tractor hitch that can be connected and disconnected while the driver remains seated. Now their customers rave about Green Heron’s products. “It’s not until people start telling you, then you’re like, ‘Wow! This is why we wanted to do this in the first place!’” said Brensinger. “It’s actually materially improving women farmers’ quality of life.” — Stephanie Anderson Witmer

uHeightappropriate HERSpadingfork, $84.95

uHERShovel, a shovel-spade hybrid, $66.49


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AG TECH EVOLVES These four visionaries work to make precision agriculture more user-friendly

By Brian Barth

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VER THE LAST QUARTER century, the concept of “precision agriculture” has come to embody many of the hopes and opportunities for feeding a planet of 7.4 billion and counting without depleting the Earth’s resources. The goal is to simultaneously improve productivity, efficiency, profitability and sustainability, according to Raj Khosla, a professor in the department of crop and soil science at Colorado State University and founder of the International Society of Precision Agriculture. In other words, he said, “doing more with less.” Technology is the enabler for making that dream a reality. But as agriculture becomes part of the glitzy world of Big Data and the Internet of Things, farmers are often left in the lurch to figure out which technologies will actually make a difference in their unique circumstances. In response, providers of agricultural technology are reformulating their approach to better meet the needs of their customers: busy farmers who can’t afford the time to troubleshoot new technology. As farmers adopt the practices of precision agriculture, and the technologies that go with it, Khosla suggests evaluating each change in strategy by how it will support what he calls the Five Rs of precision agriculture: “the right input, in the right amount, to the right place, at the right time, and in the right manner.” These four ag tech companies are trying to help farmers connect those dots without overloading them with data and gadgets they don’t need.

EMPIRE UNMANNED

Joe Swart, a pilot with Empire Unmanned, the first agricultural drone service provider to receive FAA approval, launches the SenseFly eBee Ag drone on an Idaho farm.

CRAIG CHANDLER/UNL COMMUNICATIONS

Vishal Singh and his start-up, Quantified Ag, are using telemetric ear tags on cattle to transmit biometric health stats to a central database.

DRONES AS TOOLS, NOT TOYS

CATTLE CARE SIMPLIFIED

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, have tremendous potential as a data-gathering tool for farmers. Outfitted with cameras and other sensors, they can quickly fly over hundreds of acres to assess the health of a crop. And now that inexpensive drones are widely available, many farmers are beginning to dabble in the technology. But there is a big gap between getting a drone in the air over your field and getting useful information out of it, said Bradley Ward, president of Empire Unmanned, an agricultural drone service provider based in Hayden, Idaho. “You need to know how to process the data. ... Our drones take about 500 photos for a 200-acre field; we put all of those together into a single mosaic, and then the mosaic is geo-rectified ... meaning every pixel is associated with GPS coordinates,” said Ward. The drone’s cameras create a detailed 3-D image of the field, capturing infrared light that reveals plant stress before it is visible. Empire Unmanned gives the data to an adviser who builds seed, fertilizer and irrigation “prescriptions” for the field. While Federal Aviation Administration regulations currently bar the use of drones for commercial purposes, it does allow some to fly with a Section 333 Exemption, which requires that the operator have a recreational pilot’s license. Some farmers are flying drones anyhow, risking citations and liability issues, but Empire Unmanned became the first agricultural drone service provider to receive a Section 333 exemption last year. “If there’s an accident, insurance companies are not going to pay if a farmer is breaking the rules,” he said.

Precision agriculture is also revolutionizing the livestock industry. Just as wearable devices help people monitor their health, technology that tracks biometric data for animals is becoming common. Slight changes in vital stats reliably indicate infection early, allowing farmers to provide treatment before symptoms are visible, reducing herd losses and antibiotic use. The drawback, said Vishal Singh, founder and CEO of Lincoln, Neb.-based Quantified Ag, is that most wearable devices have caused more problems than they have solved. One of the first wearable technologies for cattle — neck collars with built-in sensors — were cost-prohibitive and got caught on fencing. Singh realized the solution was to embed sensors in the one wearable already common to all commercial livestock: identification ear tags. “We found that feed yards don’t really want to change their existing process,” said Singh. “It’s like a pit crew almost — one person is giving (the animal) a shot, someone else is taking its temperature and another is putting on the ear tag. They typically spend half a minute on each animal.” Once the ear tags are in place, a smartphone app informs workers which holding pens have animals that are in need of attention. A tiny LED light, visible even in the sun, identifies the cow in question. CO N T I N U E D


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FARMER-FRIENDLY USER INTERFACE

HANDS-ON SOIL SCIENCE

ADAM BEH

Community members in Kenya try out the USDA’s LandPKS apps, developed in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

FARMLOGS

The farmer-friendly FarmLogs app uses real-time satellite imagery to identify locations where crop growth is weak, and provides GPS coordinates of the problem area. Jesse Vollmar is one of those rare people who is equally at home driving a combine and writing computer code. The 27-yearold Michigan native is the co-founder and CEO of FarmLogs, a phone app that tracks real-time field data, but his outlook on technology is rooted in his family’s farm outside Saginaw, not in a Silicon Valley boardroom. The inspiration for FarmLogs came from his family’s first efforts to digitize their farming operations.“They spent $750 on some software that came on a CD, and every year they had to buy a new CD for $750 to get all the updates,” he said. “It was so hard for them to use, they had to pay to go to training seminars for it.” In contrast, the entry-level version of FarmLogs is free and allows a user to see what is happening in the field by tapping a map on a smartphone. Soil types are overlaid with up-to-the-minute rainfall

totals and heat unit accumulation. Farm managers can log their field activities, such as fertilizer application, irrigation intervals and planting dates, or snap a GPS-tagged photo of an impending insect invasion and send it off to a farmhand with notes on the best treatment protocol. Pay-to-play upgrades glean data from sensors embedded in the farmer’s phone and from the on-board computers of modern farm machinery, enabling advanced features like custom nitrogen prescriptions, which FarmLogs agronomists can upload remotely to a farmer’s variable-rate fertilizer spreader. “Designing for user experience was really important to the popularization of modern apps, but none of that was happening in the ag tech space,” said Vollmar. “We saw a huge opportunity to make software easier for farmers, that would actually help them unlock value from their land.”

The vast majority of precision agriculture technology is geared for large-scale operations — feedlots, commodity crop farms, etc. — and is either too costly, or simply irrelevant, for the needs of small farmers. Which is why U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist Jeffrey Herrick is developing a suite of apps for the little guy, collectively called the Land Potential Knowledge System (LandPKS). The idea, said Herrick, who works with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Las Cruces, N.M., “is to provide the user with information on how they might be able to increase yields or find a different system that’s going to be better matched to their particular type of land. Rather than putting sensors on tractors and moving across large acreages of land, we’re putting tools in the hands of somebody who can dig a hole and tap into the huge wealth of knowledge that is tied to their soil type.” The LandPKS apps are starting to gain popularity among small farmers in the U.S., but were originally created for the developing world. Pulling up an aerial photo of a rural area in Namibia,

Herrick pointed out the rich vegetation on the right side of the image compared with the relatively sparse landscape on the left. “If you had a soil map, this would all be mapped as the same soil. But if you put in a little corn plot here,” he said, pointing to the right side of the image, “you’re going to get a crop out of it even if it’s a drought year. If you planted your corn literally 20 paces away, you’re not.” Standard soil maps do not provide sufficient detail to inform the decisionmaking process for someone farming just a few acres, Herrick said. The apps require nothing more than a shovel and a yardstick notched in five places to take measurements. The user is guided step-by-step through their own soil analysis — complete with short videos to give a visual explanation of the process — which is then matched to a specific soil type in the app’s database. “Once you’ve got that, you’ve suddenly opened up a world of information,” said Herrick. “Then you can look at trade-offs between productivity and sustainability, and ultimately identify those win-win situations where you can increase both.”

The goal is to simultaneously improve productivity, efficiency, profitability and sustainability, “doing more with less.” — Raj Khosla, founder of the International Society of Precision Agriculture


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CROP INVADERS Border Patrol, farmers keep watch for unwelcome insect visitors By Elizabeth Neus

Bugs and weeds top every farmer’s list of worries, but when the pest comes from abroad, the threat is more difficult to fight. Here’s a look at some of the troublemakers trying to cross U.S. borders. ◀ COCONUT

RHINOCEROS BEETLE

▲ MEDITERRANEAN FRUIT FLY

Commonly known as the “Medfly,” this tiny but destructive pest infests produce and nuts, making the crops inedible. The insect tends to enter the U.S. on imported food, which is why the Border Patrol and the U.S. Department of Agriculture question travelers closely about the food they bring in from overseas. California’s farmers keep a close eye on possible infestations; the state grows more than one-third of all vegetables and two-thirds of all fruits and tree nuts in the U.S.

The coconut rhinoceros beetle was first found in the U.S. on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu in 2013. The horned insect damages the coconut palm, a plant critical to Hawaii’s economy, ecosystem and image. It can also make its way through bananas, sugar cane and date palms. Officials watch to make sure the 2-inch-long beetle doesn’t cross into California or Mexico, sites of large date palm crops.

▲ KHAPRA BEETLE

The insidious Khapra beetle is considered a major risk to stored grains and other dried products such as noodles and spices. It’s called the “dirty feeder” for both its habit of eating only part of a grain and contaminating the rest, and because it leaves bits of hair behind. The 2-millimeter beetle is a tough guy to spot and control: It’s resistant to many insecticides, needs little moisture, hides in tiny places and can live without eating for long periods. Knowing the danger it can cause — people who eat the contaminated grain get sick — U.S. Customs and Border Patrol keeps close watch on imported goods.

◀ GIANT AFRICAN SNAIL

Eight inches long and 5 inches in diameter, the massive snail eats more than 500 kinds of plants, from crops to trees. It will even chew on stucco if it’s hungry enough. The snail can produce about 1,200 eggs per year and can live as long as 10 years, making eradication tough (although Florida officials say numbers are down). The GAS, as it’s known, is illegally imported as a pet or for food. The Border Patrol seized a shipment of 67 of the snails marked for human consumption in July 2014. CLOCKWISE FROM FLY: PEST AND DISEASES IMAGE LIBRARY, AUSTRALIA; HAWAII DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE; NATASHA WRIGHT, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE AND CONSUMER SERVICES, BUGWOOD.ORG.; USDA


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U.S. Department of Agriculture