USDA: Sequester Impacts

Sequester_ImpactsWe homesteaders are among the citizens who pay a good deal of attention to the programs and operations of both state and federal agricultural departments because they can directly affect us (for good or ill). We often make use of our state ag departments’ extension services for education in things like beekeeping, land use, community ag promotional programs, etc. And we keep track – often with some trepidation – of the various ways that the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] can make or break our attempts to make our livings off the land and the work we put into it. Under this rubric come permissions and restrictions for selling our produce and other home-grown products to the public, to local and regional government programs, food banks, schools, etc., as well as all those expensive and tiring hoops we must jump through to obtain and keep certifications for organic labeling, etc.

We live on and off the land, and must keep ourselves abreast of the tricks of that trade. In this blog I have expressed some reservations about Tom Vilsack, who was appointed Secretary of Agriculture by President Obama some years ago, due to his corporate-friendly policies. Particularly in regards to Monsanto’s agri-chem and GMO activities, which are a considerable threat to organic producers. He has also been somewhat less than supportive of local producers being allowed to supply raw and processed foods to local schools and food banks, which we see as an important part of the ‘locavore’ – “Eat Local” movement. Buying and eating foods grown and processed close to home removes one of the most environmentally insidious government-subsidized cost-adds to our food supply – the costs of transporting foods grown in other states, regions and countries from farm to processor, and from processors to market. Almost all of it accomplished by the burning of fossil fuels.

The U.S. government has been operating for some months under what is known as “sequester,” one of those hostage threats Republicans in the U.S. Congress used to try and get their policies enacted despite being unable to win actual elections on the merits of their ideas. This seq uester has cut spending levels across the board fairly drastically, and crippled many government agencies and departments to the point where some of their most important jobs don’t get done. USDA is one of those crippled departments.

For example, the sequester has slashed government subsidies to school districts to help support their school breakfast and lunch programs. At the end of this month (October) schools will have to provide their own funding exclusively, though the government claims they will be reimbursed at some point. If the sequester is ever recinded, and now presuming those same Republican hostage-takers won’t keep the entire government shut down indefinitely while crashing the world’s economy by refusing to pay the bills for appropriations they’ve already allotted from the budget.

Concurrent drastic cuts and cut-offs to both the SNAP (Food Stamps) and WIC food programs are cutting deeply into the ability of families – many of them working full time but earning minimum wage – to put food on the table. With neither school feeding programs or food assistance from the government, a great many people will simply have to do without. We know that doing without food isn’t a particularly healthy way to live, but at least one party in our political system doesn’t think that’s a problem. I presume they and their families eat very well, thanks. We certainly pay them enough for that.

Both SNAP and WIC will run out of funds nationwide by mid-November. Just in time for the holidays! Funding for rental assistance has also been cut, and no new farm/business loans are being processed. Farmers who had previous loans through USDA and have sold this year’s crops can’t get the checks cashed because county offices for the Farm Service Agency are all closed. A freak autumn blizzard in the Dakotas killed thousands of cattle and horses, but the conservation arm of the USDA cannot help to get the dead livestock buried. This is obviously a serious issue for the immediate health and well-being of both rural dwellers and healthy livestock.

From here on, until and unless our government flunkies in Congress wake up and do their too well paid jobs, we are all on our own. Severe weather affecting farmers and ranchers will not be mitigated by the usual government emergency loans and/or mobilization of resources. Families going homeless and hungry through the winter will not be aided, nor will they or their pets or any farmer’s lost livestock get buried when they finally die. Hell, in another [not ag related] outrage of Congressional shananigans, the families of our soldiers dying in Afghanistan and elsewhere are no longer receiving the ‘death benefit’ they are entitled to, so not even our war dead are getting buried if the families don’t have cash on hand.

This situation is obviously untenable and cannot keep going for long, but I see no signs that the radical reactionaries in Congress are willing to do anything whatsoever that might save the nation from absolute ruin. If something doesn’t give very soon, by the time agricultural America gets started planning the spring crops there may be no national government at all and no help for anyone to access adequate food.

There are a few things we can do. First and foremost, call and/or write your congressional representatives and let them know this obstructionism must stop. Now. Let all your friends and family know how important it is that our representatives face harsh pressure on these issues. Get involved with your county and state electoral organizations and help draft decent candidates to challenge die-hards in next year’s elections. Think hard about running yourself if you believe you can do a good job, everyone you know will be thankful.

Get together with your homesteading and farming neighbors and meet with your community aid organizations (like Lions, Kiwanis, 4-H, etc.) to expand community shares programs, community gardens and crop set-asides to go directly to local food distribution services and schools for feeding hungry people. Do as much fund-raising as you can – host events, give public presentations, lobby county and state governments as well as local businesses and corporations – to replace necessary funding for programs to help our communities.

If we go ahead and act as if the federal government is no longer in the business of serving the people, we can make concrete plans to serve each other. Then, when (and if) the dust in Washington settles, we may find ourselves much more committed to each other and much more capable of doing for ourselves. Which, in the end, may be the best lesson the political class in D.C. could ever be taught by ‘We The People’.

USDA Sued Over Salmonella

SalmonellaThe US Department of Agriculture [USDA] is being sued by the

Center for Science in the Public Interest
[CSPI] in an attempt to force the
agricultural watchdogs to treat antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella
bacteria as adulterants that would prevent the sale of tainted meat to the
public.

The complaint
is specific to four strains of salmonella – Heidelberg,
Newport, Hadar and Typhimurium – that have been identified in dozens of
outbreaks of salmonella poisoning via ground meat and other products, but more
resistant strains are showing up almost weekly.

CSPI petitioned the USDA three years ago to address the growing problem, but
the department never got around to a response. Antibiotic resistance is an
inevitable result of the overuse of important antibiotic drugs solely for the
purpose of making livestock grow fatter and faster, as well as to sustain what
is in truth an unsustainable production model that has food animals being raised
in grotesquely overcrowded and unhealthy conditions.

This past Tuesday (May 27th), the

Center for Disease Control [CDC]
reported 50 more illnesses in an ongoing
“outbreak” of seven strains of drug-resistant salmonella tied to Foster Farms
chicken parts. That brings the total of reported cases to 574 since March of
2013. 40% of those people required hospitalization. The company involved, Foster
Farms, has refused to issue a recall on the tainted meat, and USDA does not have
the power to force a recall.

Politicians Harming Americans. Again.

Major Issues in Farm Bill Negotiations

AmericansAfter costing the nation plenty to pointlessly shut the U.S. government down for two weeks beginning October 1st, the Republicans in the House and Senate are now back at their job of desperately seeking ways to hurt as many Americans as possible.

Seems nobody was impressed by the shutdown grandstanding, which cost my region of Western North Carolina a million dollars a day to our biggest industry – tourism – at the very height of Leaf-Looker season. The Blue Ridge Parkway was open for driving, but all amenities were shut down. Smoky Mountains National Park was closed down entirely. All so the Tea Party wing of the Republican bloc could throw their little temper tantrum over the idea that Americans might be able to obtain affordable medical care under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010. So now that they’ve cried uncle on that, they’re going after SNAP [“Food Stamps”] big time as the Congress tries to clear its slate for the year for the session before the members go home for the holidays.

SNAP benefits are already being cut on November 1st as the 2009 stimulus bill, enacted in response to the Great Recession of 2008 when a consortium of the world’s biggest banks and insurance companies crashed the economy and threw tens of millions of Americans out of work, expires. The Senate version of the Farm Bill cuts $400 million from the SNAP program, while the House version seeks $4 billion in cuts. The two versions will have to be reconciled in order to bring about a bill the President can sign into law, so hold on to your napkins!

SNAP has been part of farm legislation for many years, as it is tied in with certain farm subsidies. Now, few of us small-time producers would be very upset if ADM or other huge Agribiz outfits lost their lion’s share of subsidies, but a growing number of us understand only too well how much of a good economic stimulus the program really is as our outlets have been authorized to accept SNAP benefits for produce and value-added food products we work so hard to offer our neighbors and larger communities. Worse, some of us are only too aware of how much this is going to hurt our normal customer base as children and families are forced to do without something so vitally important as food. In America! What is wrong with these politicians?!?

There are a number of petitions circulating to denounce these cuts, and I also urge my fellow homesteaders to get in touch personally with phone calls and letters to representatives and senators in D.C. Let them know that making hungry people do without food is NOT an acceptable fall-back position after your attempt to make sick people do without health care fails. There are mid-term elections next November. Make sure all eligible voters in your household are duly registered and can jump over the voter suppression hoops Republicans in several states (including mine) have erected, then vote for some real honest-to-goodness humans who don’t see their task in life as making sick people do without medical care, and hungry children do without food.

Energy: The Good News, The Continuing Struggle

Boston Globe
Boston Globe
First the good news. The Boston Globs reports this week that Massachusetts’ largest utilities have signed long-term contracts for wind generated energy from six wind farms in Maine and New Hampshire at a mere 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Which is actually cheaper than electricity from coal [10 cents/kwh], nuclear [11 cents/kwh] and solar [14 cents/kwh].

The utilities – National Grid, Northeast Utilities and Unitil Corp. – are together purchasing 565 megawatts of electricity, enough to power ~170,000 homes. The Cape Wind offshore project in Nantucket Sound is expected to serve more homes overall when it is fully on-line, but the price per kwh will be higher. As more wind projects get built, the price should even out in the face of competition, so we may all look forward to something eventually cheaper even than natural gas. Which at 6 cents per kwh is now the least expensive electricity generation technology, but that will inevitably go up as gas reserves dwindle and environmental regulation puts a crimp in the destructive practice of fracking.

Wind generation has tremendous potential in the most populous regions of the country, including the Megalopolis corridor from D.C. to Boston, and in Texas and California. The entire Great Plains is ripe for wind as well as solar, and solar technologies are enjoying a hefty level of research funding to see if its costs can be brought into competitive line with wind and hydro. New storage technologies for all renewable sources are also being researched and developed apace, while coal plants are being shut down and new ones aren’t getting built.

Now for the less-than great news. Confusing and contradictory signals from the Obama administration about approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta through the heartland has a consortium of 25 environmental groups signing on to a letter to President Obama urging rejection of the project. Tar sands oil is the most environmentally damaging form of petroleum to capture and refine, making the pipeline a serious threat to efforts to battle global warming.

Groups signing on are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Action, CREDO, 350.Org, Public Citizen, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sierra Club and others. For years groups of indigenous people in Canada and the U.S., farmers and ranchers from Nebraska to Texas and citizen activists as well as environmental organizations have protested the project.

Those of us who have chosen to live our lives in such a way as to serve as example of a more aware and involved partnership with this home planet are not usually at the forefront of civil actions pushing for better government and corporate policies related to energy, but we do need to increase our outreach to those who are on the front lines. Please do check in on groups in and near your area, maybe attend some gatherings or subscribe to newsletters, offer what you can offer to help support this important work. Even if it’s some fresh organic food, a nice place to hold a planning meeting, or an offer of shelter for participants from far flung places, we need to be part of the needed changes on as many levels as possible.

Who knows? There’s even a chance you could get to know some local/semi-locals who would love nothing better than to put in a little time on your project here and there, at planting or harvest time, maybe help with some very cool energy projects they could then use as inspiration to others along their travels and among their contacts. The real changes happen at home, not in D.C. Which seems always to be playing catch-up with what the people have already figured out for themselves. Changes that need a community’s commitment and support and labor are best done with the help of a community. So let’s get plugged in!

“Protect America’s Pollinators Act”

H.R. 2692; 2013

Honey bees: About those neonics
Honey bees: About those neonics
The extermination of our priceless honeybees is proceeding apace, with devastating ramifications. Back when CCD – [Colony Collapse Disorder] first hit the news in 2006/7, it was reported that we were losing a third of our honey bee colonies every year [33%]. Today that figure it up to 45.1%, nearly half.

Many causes have been proposed over the years, and scientists with the USDA have been looking into four general categories to try and discern the most prevalent cause. Those are listed as:

1. Pathogens – Scientists are looking at Nosema (a pathogenic gut fungi) and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, amog other likely culprits. So far it does not appear that there is any one pathogen responsible for the majority of losses, although there does seem to be a higher viral and bacterial load in affected colonies.

2. Parasites – Varroa mites are often found in honey bee colonies affected by CCD. It is not known if the mites are directly involved or if the viruses that Varroa mites transmit are a significant factor in causing CCD.

3. Management Stressors – Among the management stressors that may contribute to CCD are poor nutrition due to apiary overcrowding and increased migratory stress brought on through transporting the colonies to multiple locations during the pollination season.

4. Environmental Stressors – These include the impact of pollen/nector scarcity, lack of diversity in nector/pollen, availability of only pollen/nectar with low nutritional value, and accidental or intentional exposure to pesticides at lethal or sub-lethal levels.

USDA colony surveys have revealed no consistent pattern in pesticide levels between healthy and CCD-affected colonies, and the most common pesticide found was coumaphos, which is used to treat Varroa mites.

A very good article by Tom Philpott for Mother Jones last month explains what, exactly, the scientists are looking at, and why they feel it’s a combination of environmental and bacterial, viral and fungal infections as well as the pesticides used to control them that are at fault in the CCD disaster.

Unwilling to wait for the government scientists to come up with definitive causes for CCD before acting to protect the bees, the U.S. House of Representatives is now considering an action bill, H.R. 2692: Protect America’s Pollenators Act of 2013. The bill is sponsored by Democratic congressman John Conyers of Michigan, and boasts 17 co-sponsors. It directs the administrator of the EPA (not the USDA) to take certain actions related to pesticides. Including neonicotinoid insecticides, a relatively new class of pesticides powerful enough to kill a songbird with just the amount coating a single kernel of corn.

Earlier in the year the European Food Safety Authority determined that the most widely used “neonic” pesticides pose unacceptable hazards to bees, so the European Union has suspected their use entirely on open-grown agricultural crops. But as hinted above in the ability to kill birds, neonics present clear and present dangers to other pollinating insects and beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. I have been unable to find information on neonic toxicity to hummingbirds and various species of butterfly, but if they can kill songbirds and ladybugs, neonicotinoids certainly seem like a strong suspect.

CCD should concern us all as homesteaders, happy rural dwellers, and as regular citizens. A full third of our food supply relies upon bees for pollination. Please call or write to your Congresscritter today and let him/her know that this is important to you and all your neighbors, urge them to vote for the bill.