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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.

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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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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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turkeys in barn

Up to 140,000 chickens and turkeys culled in B.C. as officials try to contain outbreak of highly-contagious avian flu

With seven countries now turning away imports of Canadian poultry due to a Vancouver-area outbreak of avian flu, federal officials are rushing to contain the highly contagious virus before it can infect farms beyond the Fraser Valley.

While the virus is not dangerous to humans, it has the potential to kill off entire barns of poultry within a matter of days.

“To lose most of your flock within the span of a week is completely unheard of,” said Ray Nickel, president of the B.C. Poultry Association. “It’s hard to even visualize unless you’ve gone through and experienced it.”

Over the weekend, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed that five farms have become infected by a “high pathogen” strain of H5N2 never before seen on Canadian soil.

As of Sunday, all five properties were subjected to “biosecurity” quarantines as crews in HAZMAT suits destroyed as many as 140,000 chickens and turkeys.

As many as 90 additional poultry farms fall within the three-kilometre-wide quarantine zones established around the infected farms.

The stocks at these other farms will not be culled if no evidence of avian flu is found, but they are subject to strict conditions about moving their birds out of the Fraser Valley.

In a weekend statement, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it has “mobilized all available resources to manage this situation.”

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young farmer in field

More than 60 young people took part in this year’s Ontario Young Farmers Forum.

The forum is an annual event held in conjunction with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture annual convention.

The Executive Director of Agricultural Programs for Junior Farmers of Ontario – Justin Williams – was among the attendees.

He says the delegates all appeared to have a positive outlook on the future of the industry.

Forum Administrator Amy Matheson says they also talked about the importance of telling the story about farming.

She points out that what farmers find ordinary in agriculture, non-farmers find extraordinary.

And she says while there are a lot of people talking about food, few are involved in agriculture.

The 2014 Ontario Young Farmers Forum was held this week in Niagara Falls.

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Turkey production is at its lowest level in nearly three decades and wholesale prices are at an all-time high, but Thanksgiving cooks probably won’t see much difference in the price they pay at the stores for their frozen birds.

This year’s anticipated stock is 235 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service — the lowest since 1986, when U.S. farmers produced roughly 207 million birds.

While the estimated 2014 number doesn’t indicate a shortage of turkeys, which can remain in cold storage for a year or longer, it does reflect a pullback in recent years by poultry producers who were forced to reduce their flocks to remain afloat.

“Last year was a bloodbath. It was bad,” said John Zimmerman, a farmer in Northfield, Minnesota, who produces about 300,000 turkeys a year. He said scaled back his numbers in recent years because higher feed and transportation prices, among other things, cut into his bottom line. Even the price of soybean meal — which accounts for about 30 per cent of turkey feed — is at a historical high, he said.

All areas of livestock production — poultry included — were drastically cut after the widespread 2012 drought in an attempt to stifle losses, says Corinne Alexander, a Purdue University agricultural economist. Plus, many farmers are using feed that they bought in the wake of the drought, which cost more than the current market price.

“What’s happening in the turkey sector is a mini-story of what is happening in other sectors, where the impact has been really dramatic,” Alexander said. “If you look at beef cattle, we have the smallest beef cattle herd since 1951, and prices for beef are up 17 per cent this year.”

October wholesale prices for live turkeys jumped 12 per cent from 2013, from 72 cents per pound to 81 cents, NASS commodities statistician Michael Klamm said. And frozen turkey wholesale prices were expected to be between $1.12 and $1.16 per pound in the fourth quarter — up from $1.05 per pound at this time last year, the USDA said.

But consumers won’t necessarily see that reflected in the price of their Thanksgiving meal centerpiece.

“There’s really no correlation between what grocery store chains are paying and what they’re selling them at,” USDA agriculture economist David Harvey said.

Turkey numbers peaked in 1996, with nearly 303 million birds.

Read the full article here.

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farm in uganda

Small-Scale Farms Can Beat the Odds

Ugandan producer earns $100K a year on one acre

There are many knowledgeable and respected experts who would write off the small-scale farmers as inefficient and incapable of feeding themselves, let alone feeding the world.
People like Shenggen Fan, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., who identifies closely with the 84 per cent of the world’s 570 million farmers who survive on five acres or less.
He grew up on one of those farms — a five-acres farm in China he shared with his parents and two brothers.

The agricultural economist, honoured earlier this year by the World Food Program’s Hunger Hero Award for his commitment to fighting global hunger, is well aware small farmers produce 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and Africa.
“However, that does not mean small is beautiful,” Fan said last month at the Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa. “In many cases, small means hungry.”
For Fan, “move up or move out” should be the mantra for reducing hunger and improving the profitability and sustainability of small-scale farming. “There are small farmers who simply cannot be sustainable,” he said. “It is not fair to keep smallholders hungry and malnourished.”
It’s a view that is widely held. But it is also one that other experts warn must be tempered with a new reality.

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grey wolf

A group of Alberta farmers who pasture their cattle near Cooking Lake are asking for the province’s help to manage a pack of wolves that are killing their animals.

Farmer Dan Brown sends his herd of 60 cows to a community pasture owned by the province and shared with 22 other farmers from May to October each year.

But this year, within a month of pasturing the cattle, a pack of wolves moved in and started picking them off one by one.

“Probably the biggest frustration with the whole thing is our first kill was the 28th of May, so we’ve been struggling with this all summer,” he said.

In total, Brown says nearly 30 grazing cows were killed by wolves, and many others were traumatized by the attacks.

Read full article.

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red barn and white farmhouse

Family Farms Remain Vital to Agriculture

In a survey, 79 percent of respondents who left a family farm report that they continue to work in agriculture.

The world recently focused on 500 million family farmers while observing World Food Day Oct. 16.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has recognized family farmers as central to solving global hunger and malnutrition….

The FAO also reports that family farms account for an average of 80 percent of all holdings, based on data from 93 countries, and are the main producers of locally consumed food.

“The world cannot do without the family farmer,” says Amy McMillen, FAO’s partnerships and outreach co-ordinator.

“It’s because of the family farmer that we eat a variety of healthy foods every day, and yet family farmers still make up the majority of poor and hungry people in the world. We must do more to incentivize, celebrate and exponentially improve the lives of family farmers to ensure all people have access to fresh, healthy food.”

The face of family farming in North America is dynamic.

A new survey of 75 North American family farmers, led by Humanitas Global in collaboration with the FAO and Food Tank, shows they remain committed to family farming, despite the challenges.

Read full article.

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tractor and wagon on road

Farmers in Essex County are making the most of the current stretch of unusually warm weather.

Many had been unable to harvest due to the cool and wet weather, according to Leo Guilbeault, a director with the Grain Farmers of Ontario.

Guilbeault says the forecast for the next few days is a welcome relief.

“We haven’t had too much nice weather up until now to get harvest going, with all the rain and cold weather we’ve been getting,” he said. “It hasn’t been conducive to harvesting soybeans. We need a stretch of five or six days in a row to dry off the fields a little bit and dry off the crop.”

Overall, the fall field work is behind schedule, according to the Grain Farmers of Ontario.

Read full article.