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Vilsack: America’s voluntary approach to agriculture is better than Europe’s mandates

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BOONE, Iowa — The more than $1 billion the federal government is devoting to voluntary efforts to reduce agriculture’s adverse effects on the environment is a better long-term strategy than mandating new rules for farmers, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

While state and federal officials in the United States have tended to avoid implementing rules that might force farmers to radically change their long-held practices, the European Union has specific requirements about crop rotations, permanent pastures and the use of buffer strips and other conservation practices that improve soil quality.

Dutch farmers have protested some of their country’s efforts in recent years to limit pollution from agriculture, particularly proposals to significantly reduce the number of livestock raised in the country. The European Union also recently suspended some of its crop rotation requirements to increase production because of global food shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Candidly, our view — and I’ve expressed this to EU officials — our view is that their approach may very well result in reduced production,” Vilsack said at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, in response to a question about whether U.S. farmers might eventually face similar requirements. He added: “I think our approach is better.”


Virginia’s General Assembly has in recent years debated whether certain agricultural practices that reduce runoff from farms should be voluntary or mandatory, particularly as the federal 2025 deadline for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay looms. During the 2020 session, lawmakers weighed making both streamside fencing and nutrient management plans mandatory but ultimately settled on a voluntary course for the near future. The intensely negotiated final legislation included a clause, however, specifying that the practices will become mandatory if pollution reduction targets haven’t been met by 2025.

When asked to elaborate later about his comments, Vilsack said they pertained to organic farming and were the views of some European farmers. The European Green Deal seeks to increase the amount of farmland that is being managed to produce organic crops to 25% by 2030. The practice is more environmentally friendly but often produces lower yields.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered programs to expand organic farming in the United States but hasn’t set goals for converting farmland to organic. Vilsack said Tuesday that demand for U.S. agriculture products will continue to rise.

“The challenge is, how do you do it sustainably?” he said. “How do you increase production but at the same time do it in a climate-smart way?”

He stressed repeatedly that federal initiatives announced in the past two years seek voluntary participation.

Later in the day, U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, echoed those sentiments when he was asked about potential provisions of the upcoming farm bill: “We need to make sure we have voluntary conservation practices,” he said. “That is so crucial.”

Vilsack talked at length about the tremendous amount of federal funding available to support agricultural commodities that are produced in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In February, the USDA offered up to $1 billion to support new “climate smart” products.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack tours an Amelia County farm in June 2021 along with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

 

He said the USDA will announce its first grant recipients in mid-September and hinted that projects proposed by universities in Missouri and South Dakota and by the Iowa Soybean Association will be among them.

Vilsack and the USDA have unveiled a flurry of new programs in the past two years with the goal of transforming aspects of American agriculture, especially to help reverse the consolidation of certain sectors into the hands of a few companies and to increase the number of farmers.

The USDA is also working to provide billions of dollars of debt relief to farmers who have struggled to make payments on farm loans: “The most important piece of this is keeping people on the land,” Vilsack told reporters last week about major legislation to aid agriculture.

The USDA recently announced it will distribute up to $300 million for projects that help farmers who have received limited help from the department in the past. Those groups of people have typically included new farmers and ranchers, those with low incomes and those of racial or ethnic minorities. Eligible projects for the funding would expand their access to land, money and markets, Vilsack has said.

The department is also offering up to $250 million to minority-serving colleges and universities to help educate food and agriculture professionals.

In June, Vilsack announced hundreds of millions of dollars of funding to support smaller, independent meat processors to help diversify that sector of agriculture, which over the years has become dominated by several large companies.

Federal dollars have also been earmarked for organic farmers and to make new products from agriculture waste and the wood remnants from thinning forests to protect against large fires.

This story first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sister publication of The Virginia Mercury within the States Newsroom network.

by Jared Strong, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Agriculture

New technologies in agriculture

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Have you considered how advances in technology are impacting agricultural production? Here are some fascinating examples.

Robotics
Milking robots are now deployed by many dairy producers. In addition to saving time and reducing labor requirements, these machines collect and record valuable data pertaining to feeding, production volumes, and animal behavior. In addition, researchers are pursuing new and improved means of using robotics to simplify tasks and further accelerate workflow.

Digital solutions
These days, farmers are using information and communication technology (ICT) to improve various stages of production. Depending on their application, these technologies can enhance operations, refine support services, boost land use and improve value chains.

ICT enables farmers to collect a wealth of data to facilitate decision-making. Agricultural sensors with this technology deliver real-time transmission of crop data. In addition, ICT lasers provide food comparisons that help optimize taste and texture.


Farms are also increasingly using agricultural drones to detect the presence of predators and determine crop hydration levels.

Finally, among the many other technological innovations available to farmers are self-driving tractors, genetically modified plants, and pedometers for livestock. To learn more about how these technologies work, consider visiting a farm in your area.

 

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What makes food organic?

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Organic farming is practiced on many farms, and a variety of foods can be organic, including fruits, vegetables, wheat, meat, dairy products, and more. But what criteria does it take for a food to be certified as organic? Here’s an overview.

Fruits, vegetables, and wheat
Produce and grains must be grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers to be certified as organic. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are also not acceptable. Growers must practice crop rotation to prevent the depletion of nutrients from the soil and improve harvests.

Meat, fish, and poultry
Animal breeding must be done under decent living conditions, without cages, and in a sufficiently spacious environment. Livestock must receive adequate health care and be fed with organic foods. The use of antibiotics and growth hormones is also prohibited.

Processed foods
Organically processed foods must not contain preservatives or artificial colors, or flavors. The USDA does approve some non-agricultural ingredients, such as baking soda in baked goods and pectin in jams. In addition, food irradiation, which kills certain microorganisms, must not be practiced.


In addition to being grown using eco-friendly practices, organic foods are good for your health. Encourage your local organic food producers by buying their fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, and other goods.

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Agriculture

What you should know about animal husbandry

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A considerable portion of the agricultural industry involves breeding animals for foods such as meat, cheese, and eggs, as well as products like wool and leather. How much do you know about animal husbandry? Here’s a brief introduction to this type of farming.

Environment
Farms can raise animals differently, and farmers adapt their practices according to their values, available facilities, and geographic region. Some agricultural operations use intensive farming methods, which require cages or equipped enclosures to house livestock. Other farms opt for extensive farming tactics, which involve raising animals outdoors or free-range. Some operations employ a combination of these two models.

Each approach to livestock management offers its advantages. While intensive farming results in increased production, extensive farming yields products that are superior in quality.

Species
Breeding farms typically concentrate on a single animal species for meat or hides. However, animals may also be raised for their other attributes, which is the case with racehorse farming, for example.


Cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats are most commonly raised on North American farms. Other agricultural operations engage in beekeeping, aquaculture, or poultry farming. LFarmsraise bison, camels, llamas, rabbits, foxes, or insects. less frequently

Livestock farmers provide communities with many everyday products. Be sure to support the ones in your area by regularly purchasing meat, cheese, eggs, textiles, and more from them.

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Permaculture: farming inspired by nature

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Unlike intensive agriculture, which destroys habitats, pollutes waterways, and decreases soil quality, permaculture aims to emulate natural ecosystems rather than trying to fight or control nature. Here’s what you need to know about this sustainable practice.

Origins
The permaculture principles were developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. They don’t solely focus on agriculture but on buildings, energy, and technology. Today, permaculture is a design approach that integrates land, people, and other resources to align with nature.

Principles
Permaculture is based on 12 principles, all focused on caring for the land and the people who live on it. These principles include observation, which aims to develop effective and intelligent strategies for each situation. Other principles include:

• Self-regulation
• Valuing renewable resources and services
• Zero waste
• Promoting modest solutions
• Incorporating diversity


Examples
In agriculture, permaculture practices focus on restoring soil health and fertility. In the garden, permaculture aims to maximize the use of water, sun, and other natural energies. Permaculture also involves building living spa¬ces with biodegradable and locally sourced materials with a low ecological footprint.

Permaculture aims to create productive ecosystems that are diverse, stable, and resilient. Supporting the companies that practice it supports everyone.

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3 questions to help you learn more about barn cats

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Discreet and adventurous, barn cats are found on many farms. Learn more about these little four-legged felines with the following three questions.

1. What are they like?
Farm cats generally can’t adapt to living in a home because they’ve grown up outdoors. They’re quite active and don’t necessarily crave the companionship of humans. They may even be a little fearful of people and flourish better in a barn or outdoor environment.

2. What do they do?
Barn cats often make friends with other animals on the farm. These felines also have keen stalking skills and make great hunters. Consequently, they help farmers keep pests like mice under control.

3. How do you care for them?
Like all non-breeding domestic and farm animals, barn cats should be spayed or neutered. They also require annual veterinary visits for vaccinations and deworming. If you own a barn cat, you must provide it with fresh food and water, as prey isn’t always available. Moreover, farm cats require shelter from bad weather.


Overall, barn cats are handy animals to have around the farm.

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4 farm safety tips

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Celebrated from September 18 to 24, 2022, National Farm Safety and Health Week is an annual occasion that focuses on promoting health and safety on farms. If you live or work on a farm, you share the responsibility of keeping yourself and others safe. In honor of this event, here are four things you can do to ensure neither you nor anyone you’re working with is involved in a farming accident.

1. Keep your warning signals functioning
Ensure the warning lights and sounds on the machine you’re using are functioning and that the labeling is clear and visible. These signals provide essential warnings to their operators and those around them.

2. Be careful around power take-off (PTO) shafts
PTO shafts transfer power from a tractor to an attached implement. Although extremely useful, PTOs can be dangerous. Therefore, make sure to keep loose clothing and items away from the shaft and never reach or step over one while in operation.

3. Invest in rollover protection
If you don’t already have one, consider investing in a rollover protective structure (ROPS) for your tractor. Every year, farmers are injured or killed in tractor rollovers.


4. Get plenty of sleep
If you’re tired, you’re more likely to make mistakes that could cost you or someone you’re working with a limb or their life. Get the sleep you need and quit working if you’re too tired to continue safely.

Safety and health are the responsibility of everyone working on a farm.

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