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marijuana field

Is Marijuana making the California drought worse?

California continues its struggle against crippling drought-everyone is looking for someone or something to blame. The latest “villain” to come under attack is an easy target for headline-hungry media – cannabis farming, legal or otherwise, is ” sucking rivers dry”, according to Mike McGuire, Chairman of the California State Senate Joint Committee of Fisheries and Aquaculture.…

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drone used for farming

Drone use on the rise by U.S. farmers

Agricultural use of drones is about to take off in the U.S. after being grounded for years by the lack of federal guidelines.

The small, relatively inexpensive vehicles could replace humans in a variety of ways: transmitting detailed information about crops to combines and sprayers, directing them to problem spots and cutting down on the amount of water and chemicals that a farmer needs to use in those areas.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, says agriculture could account for 80 per cent of all commercial drone use.

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved more than 50 exemptions for farm-related operations since January. Companies with those exemptions say business has grown, helped by quick advances in the technology.

Bret Chilcott of AgEagle, which sells unmanned aerial vehicles and the software to help operate them, says his company took its first orders last year. Now it has a backlog of several hundred orders.

“Last year, users had to land their aircraft and then take the data to the computer,” he says. “Now the data appears on your iPad or hand-held device a few minutes after flight.”

That data could be pictures, 3-D images of plants, thermal readings of crops or animals or other observations. Information that in the past took days to collect, or could not have been collected, can be gathered now in minutes or hours. In some cases, it can be integrated with data collected from other high-tech farm machinery.

“In five years, we won’t have to blanket a field with chemicals,” Chilcott says.

Still, most farmers cannot legally fly the vehicles yet.

The FAA is working on rules that would allow the drones to be used regularly for business while maintaining certain safety and privacy standards. An FAA proposal would allow flight of the vehicles as long as they weigh less than 55 pounds (24 kilograms), stay within the operator’s sight and fly during the daytime, among other restrictions.

Operators would have to pass an FAA test of aeronautical knowledge and a Transportation Security Administration background check.

Pilots of crop dusters and other planes that operate around farms are concerned the rules do not go far enough to ensure safety.

“We can’t see them,” says Andrew Moore of the National Agricultural Aviation Association. His group advocated for the unmanned vehicles to include tracking systems or lights to help airplanes figure out where they are, but that was not included in the proposal.

Full article:

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grain elevators

From wheat to rice to beans, US agriculture has big appetite for expanded trade with Cuba

U.S. agriculture has a big appetite for freer trade with Cuba. From wheat to rice to beans, the industry stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of President Barack Obama’s plan to ease economic and travel restrictions imposed against the communist-ruled island.

Agricultural exports have been among the few exceptions to the half-century old U.S. trade embargo, though they’ve been subject to cumbersome rules — requiring cash payments up front before products are shipped, and that the payments go through banks in other countries that charge hefty fees for their services.

As a result, Latin American and Asian countries with fewer restrictions and easier financing have gained market share in recent years.

The removal of such trade barriers will make U.S. agricultural products “far more price competitive” in Cuba, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday as the Obama administration announced plans to restore diplomatic relations and to try to persuade Congress to lift the embargo.

Major U.S. farm groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union, as well as leading agribusinesses such as Cargill Inc., have long advocated normalized trade relations with Cuba, a market of 11 million consumers just 90 miles off U.S. shores.

Sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba peaked at over $710 million in 2008, before the recession, but fell to $350 million by 2013, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Frozen chicken, soybeans and soy products, and corn are the main products Cuba now buys from the United States.

It’s hard to quantify just how much of a boost the planned changes will give to U.S.-Cuban agricultural trade, said C. Parr Rosson III, head of the agricultural economics department at Texas A&M University. But he predicted it could grow to $400 million to $450 million within a couple of years.

“That’s just a back-of-the-envelope estimate on my part … but the market can make those swings very readily,” he said.

Cuba remains a poor, relatively small country, Rosson said. Its economy shifts depending on remittances sent home by Cubans living abroad, tourism, and nickel exports, he said. But liberalized rules for remittances and tourism should provide an early boost in demand, he said, and easier banking rules will eventually make a difference too. The boost would be even bigger if Congress ever dismantles the embargo, he said.

“We’re talking a monumental move to lift the embargo right now,” he said. “But things can change.”

Wheat growers in the Midwest expect new export opportunities since Cuba now buys nearly all its wheat from Canada and Europe. Cuba hasn’t bought U.S. wheat since 2011, but could import at least 500,000 metric tons of it annually, according to the National Association of Wheat Growers.

“If Cuba resumes purchases of U.S. wheat, we believe our market share there could grow from its current level of zero to around 80-90 per cent, as it is in other Caribbean nations,” Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, said in a statement.

Dry beans, dry peas, lentils and potatoes are also big parts of the Cuban diet. That creates more opportunities for farmers in colder states like North Dakota, though they’ll still have to compete with cheaper Chinese beans, said Bill Thoreson, president of the U.S. Dry Bean Council.

“If we have normalized trade relations with them and are able to do away with some of the banking regulations, I believe there’s some real potential to do business with Cuba,” Thoreson said.

Rice producers in southern states and California are hoping to resume exports to Cuba for the first time since 2008, according to the USA Rice Federation.

“It’s an enormous rice market,” said Dwight Roberts, CEO of the U.S. Rice Producers Association. Roberts said believes imports of U.S. rice could someday reach the levels Cubans bought before the revolution.


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organic crops in field

Activist Groups Says Not All Food Labeled Organic Really Is

In the world of food production, conventional agriculture and organic farming have always had sort of a David and Goliath relationship.

Conventional ag employs enormous scale and enhanced production tools, including chemical fertilizers. Organic operates on a small scale and was completely natural. As a result, Organic was not much competition for Big Ag.

But changing demographics have resulted in increased demand for organic food and researchers at the University of California Berkley now say organic crop yields are increasing to the point that they can go head to head with conventional food production.

Claire Kremen, professor of environmental science, policy and management and co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute. says a review of over 100 studies comparing organic and conventional farming sets the record straight.

Taking another look

“With global food needs predicted to greatly increase in the next 50 years, it’s critical to look more closely at organic farming, because aside from the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, the ability of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields has been declining,” she said.

Specifically, the Berkley researchers maintain that organic yields are only about 20% lower than conventional ones, a much smaller difference than previous estimates.

In the past, conventional farming yields may have been over-estimated while organic yields were under-estimated. Organic yields may also be much higher than previously assumed, depending on the crop. In fact, there was hardly any difference in the output of the two types of farming when it came to growing leguminous crops, such as beans, peas and lentils.

“Our study suggests that through appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management and in breeding cultivars for organic farming systems, the yield gap could be reduced or even eliminated for some crops or regions,” said Lauren Ponisio, the study’s lead author.“This is especially true if we mimic nature by creating ecologically diverse farms that harness important ecological interactions like the nitrogen-fixing benefits of intercropping or cover-cropping with legumes.”

But is it all organic?

While organic output appears to be growing, an activist group says a lot of product labeled as organic isn’t. The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute says its investigation has resulted in formal legal complaints against 14 industrial livestock operations producing milk, meat and eggs being marketed, allegedly illegally, as organic.

Criticizing the U.S. Agriculture Department for alleged inaction the Institute says it employed aerial photography in nine states, from West Texas to New York and Maryland, over the past eight months. It says it found a systemic pattern of corporate agribusiness interests operating industrial-scale confinement livestock facilities providing no legitimate grazing, or even access to the outdoors, as required by federal organic regulations.

“The federal organic regulations make it very clear that all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and that ruminants, like dairy cows, must have access to pasture,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. “The vast majority of these massive, industrial-scale facilities, some managing 10,000-20,000 head of cattle, and upwards of 1 million laying hens, had 100% of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots.”

The group says USDA inaction is placing thousands of family-scale farmers, who are competing with a couple of dozen giant dairies, at a competitive disadvantage.

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fresh blueberries in a bucket

Business booming for berry growers

KENAI, Alaska (AP) – Alaska Berries, which started out as a hobby for Brian Olson and his wife Laurie Olson, has expanded into a full-fledged business. Located on West Poppy Lane between Soldotna and Kenai, Alaska Berries sells a variety of jams, syrups and wine, all of which are produced from fruit grown on the Olsons’…

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old grain elevator

The universe is unfolding as it should at the old Canadian Wheat Board, but the federal government isn’t doing a very good job explaining it.

When the Harper government ended the board’s monopoly on the sale of western-Canadian wheat and barley in 2012 amid much anger and resistance, it set up in its place an interim organization with a plan to privatize or dissolve it before 2017.

It would either survive as a viable grain-marketing company, or face an ignoble demise.

The possible privatization of CWB, as the new entity is now known, has raised questions about the fair disposition of assets, which include a building on Main Street in Winnipeg, as well as grain elevators, rail cars and ships. Ottawa also provided the new group with $350 million to help with transition costs.

A court has ruled CWB’s assets do not belong to the farmers who did business through the board and funded its operations, but a group of loyalists to the old organization wants to appeal that judgment to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The government’s strategic goal, according to grain analysts, is to give farmers more choice by boosting competition in the grain-marketing industry in Western Canada, which would undoubtedly be a good thing. The more buyers the better.

The new entity has only just begun the process of transforming itself into a private-sector grain-trading company, but it needs a partner to gain expertise, new markets and capital.

For obvious reasons, the government would prefer to sell to a company that is not active in western Canada today. Selling to an existing player would hardly increase competition.

The idea is sound, although the execution has left some critics a little nervous.

A Saskatchewan group called Farmers of North America says it has raised about $50 million towards the estimated sale price of about $300 million. The government rejected the overture without explanation, but Ottawa apparently doesn’t think it would add to the competitive environment in the region.

Speculation has since emerged that the preferred buyer is Archer Daniels Midland Company, a multi-billion dollar Chicago-based food-processing conglomerate that currently has very little presence as a grain marketer in western Canada.

Critics, including Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin, say they are puzzled that all the money from the sale will remain with the CWB and its new owner, instead of the government or even farmers.

The government’s intent, however, is to help recapitalize the CWB, which has invested heavily in recent years in grain-handling infrastructure.

The book value of the CWB is unknown because the government refuses to release its financial statements for reasons of commercial confidentiality, but most of its assets are probably highly leveraged.

The government should disclose more information if a sale is ever achieved. It needs only to look at how the sale of Petro-Canada was handled as an example of complete transparency.

Federal legislation requires the new owner to give farmers an equity interest in the CWB, based on the volume of grain delivered. Any farmer who delivers grain against a CWB contract since 2013-14 is eligible to participate. And it won’t cost farmers anything to participate. CWB will continue to buy and sell their grain at market prices.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz may have the best interests of farmers in mind in promoting competition, but he needs to provide a few more kernels of information so everyone can be comfortable with the outcome.

As usual, the Harper government suffers from its abysmal performance as a communicator.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

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field of corn at dusk

The US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced $9.7 million in grants to 62 community-based and non-profit organizations, and educational institutions to conduct training, outreach and technical assistance for socially disadvantaged (including tribal) and veteran farmers and ranchers.

These awards are distributed through the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, also known as the “2501 Program.”

“Our nation’s farmers and ranchers are diverse in experience, background and knowledge, giving us the tools we need to build a resilient agricultural system,” said Vilsack. “Today’s announcement is part of our ongoing commitment to identify, recruit and train a vibrant next generation of farmers and ranchers who can carry American agriculture into the future. It is also part of our pledge to assist military veterans find economic opportunity as they return to civilian life.”

Secretary Vilsack made the announcement at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference, a gathering of leaders from the country’s 566 federally recognized Tribes. The 2501 Program primarily partners with Historically Black Land Grant Universities (1890 Land Grant Institutions), Native American Land Grant Tribal Colleges and Universities (1994 Land Grant Institutions), Hispanic-Serving Institutions of higher education, and community-based and non-profit organizations that work with minority and veteran farmers and ranchers.

The 2501 Program has distributed more than $66 million to 250 partners since 2010. The 2014 Farm Bill reauthorized the program and expanded assistance to include military veterans. The program is administered by the USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach.

Of the announced grants, 31 (50 percent) will support efforts in states participating in USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative, an effort to direct USDA support and services to underserved rural areas experiencing chronic poverty. Twenty-five (39 percent) of the grants will go to partnerships directly targeting veterans interested in farming and are part of USDA’s enhanced commitment to expanding services to veterans in agriculture. Twelve grants (20 percent) will directly benefit tribal and native communities.

This year’s awards will be distributed in 34 states, Puerto Rico and the Federated States of Micronesia and are part of USDA’s efforts to support new and beginning farmers.

During his remarks at the Tribal Nations Conference, the Secretary announced additional support to Native communities including:

•A $5.4 million loan to upgrade broadband service for residents of New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache Reservation. This is the first telecommunications loan USDA has made under the Substantially Underserved Trust Area (SUTA) provision of the 2008 Farm Bill. Congress implemented SUTA to help USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) improve Tribal infrastructure including offering Tribal borrowers lower interest rates and extended payment terms for RUS loans. It also waives some requirements that applicants provide matching funds for approved projects.

•28 loans and grants totaling $4.1 million to 1994 Land Grant Tribal Colleges through USDA Rural Development’s Community Facilities program. This program provides loans and grants to construct, enlarge or improve community facilities for health care, public safety and public services.

•Partnerships between USDA and three Tribal Colleges (Oglala Lakota College, Kyle, S.D.; Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, N.M.; United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, N.D.) to provide grant writing assistance and other services to help traditionally underserved communities access federal resources as appropriate.

USDA has made significant investments in economic development, housing and infrastructure projects benefiting American Indians and Alaska Natives. More information is available at

0 1998
colorful bee hives

Canadian farmers may need to follow the lead of producers in North Dakota if they want to preserve their right to use modern agricultural technology such as seed treatments.

The state passed a right-to-farm amendment to its constitution in 2012 that enshrines a producer’s right to use scientifically proven agricultural practices.

“It’s going to give us a big leg up on special interest groups that come in from outside and want to tell us what to do and what not to do,” North Dakota Farm Bureau president Doyle Johannes said shortly after voters in the state approved the amendment in a ballot initiative.

“They’re not going to stop. That was the big thing, to beat these people back. We don’t need outsiders coming here and telling us how to do things.”

North Dakota Farm Bureau executive vice-president Jeff Missling said neonicotinoid seed treatments are an example of a scientifically approved practice that activist groups would like to eliminate.

The Ontario government announced Nov. 25 that it plans to cut the use of neonicotinoid seed treatments by 80 percent on corn and soybeans. Provincial officials said the reductions are necessary because the insecticides are a threat to pollinators and the broader ecosystem.

Grain Farmers of Ontario and other agricultural groups have said the policy is outrageous and unscientific.

Barry Senft, GFO’s chief executive officer, said environmental groups had a disproportionate influence on the government’s decision.

The David Suzuki Foundation and the Sierra Club of Canada helped lead the campaign against neonicotinoid seed treatments in Ontario.

Missling said the Ontario decision is a classic case of activists meddling in agricultural practices.

“Your (Ontario) example is so appropriate because we see things happening every day to our industry,” Missling said from his office in Fargo, N.D.

“Challenges to the use of modern technologies that have been proven and have been tested.”

Missling said North Dakota’s constitutional amendment doesn’t provide absolute protection for producers. An environmental group or animal rights organization that wanted to test its validity would have to initiate a campaign to alter a farm practice in North Dakota.

“It would have to be challenged in the court system for it to have any teeth,” Missling said.

“We hope the language is strong enough to address issues like (neonics), but ultimately it will take a lawsuit to prove that one day.”

Keystone Agricultural Producers president Doug Chorney said activist groups might claim they are acting in the public’s interest, but typically that’s not their goal.

“It seems like they are motivated more by changing the method of agricultural production for crops and livestock,” he said.

“They have some reminiscent image of agriculture that doesn’t exist anymore…. These activists’ goal of taking us back to that is not only regressive for farmers … but it has ripples through our whole economy.”

Missling said he’s received inquiries from agricultural groups in other states that would like to follow North Dakota’s lead.

Missouri voters approved a similar constitutional amendment ensuring producers “right to farm” earlier this year.

“It would not surprise me at all if Canadian producers got together… and tried to put together some protection,” Missling said.

“The resounding theme I continue to hear is that these regulations are coming at us more rapidly than ever before. And they’re coming at us from angles we’ve never seen before.”

Missling said the pressure on agriculture is not going to abate. Farmers in places such as Montana or Manitoba should not feel safe just because they are thousands of kilometres from major cities.

“North Dakota is one of the more desolate (and rural) states in the United States,” he said.

“But even a state like ours continues to be under attack. We’re having meetings next week with government agencies galore to try and solve some issues…. Just because you have a more (isolated) setting does not mean you’re immune to these attacks.”

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farmer working on laptop computer

A new scientific text, Convergence of Food Security, Energy Security and Sustainable Agriculture  is now available through Springer Science+Business Media. The book explores the concept of “convergence,” as the foundation of a stable global agricultural platform.

Edited by David Songstad, Ph.D., Director of Research/Cell Biology, Cibus; Jerry Hatfield, Ph.D., Laboratory Director and Supervisory Plant Physiologist, USDA; and Dwight Tomes, Ph.D., recently retired Senior Scientist at Pioneer Hi-Bred, the text also features the world’s leading researchers within each field.

“Clearly a balance is necessary regarding the definition of Sustainable Agriculture and, more so, regarding the interaction of Food Security, Energy Security, and Sustainable Agriculture. This was the impetus behind the creation of this book and its title Convergence of Food Security, Energy Security and Sustainable Agriculture.

It is the convergence where we need to be as a global community to serve the caloric needs of humanity.

It is the convergence where we need to be as a global community to grow the food that we need for life.

It is the convergence where we need to be as a global community to insure that our children and grandchildren have food to eat in the next generation and beyond,” said Dr. Songstad. “Convergence of Food Security, Energy Security and Sustainable Agriculture brings together the leading work in this field, from researchers around the world, and will be an important guide moving forward.”

From the use of farming chemicals to agricultural policy to cutting-edge genetics, Convergence of Food Security, Energy Security and Sustainable Agriculture seeks to address some of the world’s most pressing scientific and humanitarian issues.

By curating the work of leading experts in disparate fields, this text gives a complete and digestible picture of what obstacles lay ahead and what our current capabilities are in advancing food and energy sustainability.


For the full article click here.

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train engines at grain elevator

Alberta farm groups welcomed the federal government’s weekend decision to extend minimum grain hauling mandates, but cautioned more still needs to be done if producers are to have long-term confidence in Canada’s grain transportation system.

With just hours remaining before the expiration of a government order put in place last March, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced Saturday that minimum grain volume requirements will be extended until March 28, 2015. Under the new order, Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway will be required to move specified amounts of grain — ranging from 200,000 metric tonnes per week to 465,000 metric tonnes per week — all winter long.

The volume targets are smaller than the 500,000 metric tonnes per week the railways were required to haul under the last government order, put in place after Canada’s railways struggled last year to transport a record-breaking crop in the midst of one of the harshest winters on record. This year’s harvest is smaller than 2013’s.

Farmers have alleged grain shipments are being rejected by the railways in favour of crude oil.

The new rules carry the threat of a $100,000 per week penalty for non-compliance, and the railways will also be required to submit detailed winter contingency plans to the government.

CN spokesperson Mark Hallman said in a statement that the regulations should have been lifted, since CN has been meeting demand since the new crop year began on Aug. 1 and continues to set a record-setting pace.

“More regulation threatens to increase costs, stifle innovation and potentially discourage investments that are critical to building the strong, safe and resilient supply chains of the future,” Hallman said in an e-mail.

Canadian Pacific also questioned the need for extended government intervention, issuing a statement saying it is working with all its commodity customers to improve efficiency and increase capacity.

“More than anything, it is market forces that have driven the record volumes of grain that CP has delivered this year and last,” the statement read.

But Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said his organization had been pushing for the government to renew the regulations. He estimates last year’s transportation backlog cost Prairie farmers an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion, as crops that could have been sold at premium prices sat in bins and elevators instead.

He said there’s no reason to think a similar situation couldn’t happen again, especially in the event of another harsh winter.

“We’ve been pushing for this, because it’s about the only lever we can bring against the railways,” Jacobson said. “If they took all the penalties off and transportation went sideways again like it did last year, that wouldn’t look too good for the government.”

Jacobson cautioned the minimum volume regulations are only a short-term solution. The federal government is currently conducting a review of Canada’s Transportation Act, and many farm groups believe legislative changes are needed to ensure the rail system can meet the needs of the agricultural sector for decades to come.

“The railways have never been compelled to do anything they didn’t want to do. They’ve basically been allowed to do whatever they want,” he said. “And that’s good for them and their shareholders, but it sure doesn’t mean much for the rest of Western Canada.”

Many farm groups, including the Alberta Wheat Commission and the Grain Growers of Canada, have called for a mechanism that would allow for reciprocal penalties to be part of any service agreement signed between a railway and a grain company.

Jacobson said he also wants to see more transparency in the system, so that farmers know how many cars are available and what a railway’s capacity is in any given week.

In a statement announcing the government’s decision, Ritz called on all parties in the supply chain to work together to ensure the efficient movement of grain to markets this winter.

Read the full article here.