Soaring temperatures and low precipitation could not occur at a worse time for many farmers in the United States. Intensifying drought conditions are affecting corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, raising grain prices as well as concerns about future food prices. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 88 percent of this year’s corn crop and 77 percent of the soybean crop are now affected by the most severe drought since 1988. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing drought assistance to 1,584 counties across 32 states and warns of increased food prices in 2013 as a result of corn and soybean yield losses.

Corn is currently selling at around $9 a bushel, a 50 percent increase from June, while soybeans are selling at a record high of $17 a bushel as a result of drought-related losses in crop yields. “The increased prices may benefit farmers in the short run,” said Danielle Nierenberg, director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project, “but consumers will experience the aftermath of price increases in the form of more money spent on poultry, beef, pork, and dairy products.”

Climate change is making it increasingly important to protect local agriculture in the United States and address the issues underlying its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as drought. “Fixing our broken food system is about more than just food prices,” said Nierenberg. “It’s about better management of natural resources, equitable distribution, and the right to healthy and nutritious food.”

The Nourishing the Planet project highlights 12 agricultural innovations that can help make U.S. and global agriculture more drought resilient, as well as sustainable.

  1. Agroforestry: Planting trees in and around farms reduces soil erosion by providing a natural barrier against strong winds and rainfall. Tree roots also stabilize and nourish soils. The 1990 Farm Bill established the USDA National Agroforestry Center with the expressed aim of encouraging farmers to grow trees as windbreaks or as part of combined forage and livestock production, among other uses.
  2. Soil management: Alternating crop species allows soil periods of rest, restores nutrients, and also controls pests. Soil amendments, such as biochar, help soils retain moisture near the surface by providing a direct source of water and nutrients to plant roots, even in times of drought.
  3. Increasing crop diversity: Mono-cropping often exposes crops to pests and diseases associated with overcrowding, and can increase market dependence on a few varieties: in the United States, almost 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished in favor of mono-cultured staples such as Pink Lady apples and Yukon Gold potatoes. Encouraging diversity through agricultural subsidies and informed consumption choices can help reverse this trend and the threat it poses to domestic food security.
  4. Improving food production from existing livestock: Improved animal husbandry practices can increase milk and meat quantities without the need to increase herd sizes or associated environmental degradation. In India, farmers are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover, and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals. This also reduces pressure on global corn supplies.
  5. Diversifying livestock breeds: Most commercial farming operations rely on a narrow range of commercial breeds selected for their high productivity and low input needs. Selective breeding, however, has also made these breeds vulnerable to diseases and changing environments. Lesser-known livestock such as North American Bison are often hardier and produce richer milk.
  6. “Meatless Mondays”: Choosing not to eat meat at least one day a week will reduce the environmental impacts associated with livestock as well as increase food availability in domestic and global markets. Current production methods require 7 kilograms of grain and 100,000 liters of water for every 1 kilogram of meat. Livestock production accounts for an estimated 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and roughly 23 percent of agricultural water use worldwide.
  7. Smarter irrigation systems: The Ogallala High Plains Aquifer, which supplies essential groundwater to many Midwestern states, is experiencing record rates of depletion due to extraction for irrigation purposes. Almost 50 percent of commercial and residential irrigation water, however, is wasted due to evaporation, wind, improper design, and overwatering. Installing water sensors or micro-irrigation technology and planning water-efficient gardens or farms using specific crops and locations can significantly reduce water scarcity problems.
  8. Integrated farming systems: Farming systems, such as permaculture, improve soil fertility and agricultural productivity by using natural resources as sustainably and efficiently as possible. Research and implementation of permaculture techniques, such as recycling wastewater or planting groups of plants that utilize the same resources in related ways, are expanding rapidly across the United States.
  9. Agroecological and organic farming: Organic and agroecological farming methods are designed to build soil quality and promote plant and animal health in harmony with local ecosystems. Research shows that they can increase sustainable yield goals by 50 percent or more with relatively few external inputs. In contrast, genetic engineering occasionally increases output by 10 percent, often with unanticipated impacts on crop physiology and resistance.
  10. Supporting small-scale farmers: Existing agricultural subsidies in the United States cater disproportionately to large-scale agribusinesses, 80 percent of which produce corn for animal feed and ethanol. This means that small-scale producers are affected more acutely by natural disasters and fluctuating commodity prices, even though they are more likely to be involved in food production. Government extension and support services should be adjusted to alleviate this deficit.
  11. Re-evaluating ethanol subsidies: Although ethanol’s share of U.S. gasoline is still relatively small (projected at 15–17 percent by 2030), in 2009 the Congressional Budget Office reported that increased demand for corn ethanol has, at times, contributed to 10–15 percent of the rise in food prices. Encouraging clean energy alternatives to crop-based biofuels will increase the amount of food available for consumption, both at home and abroad
  12. Agricultural Research and Development (R&D): The share of agricultural R&D undertaken by the U.S. public sector fell from 54 percent in 1986 to 28 percent in 2009, and private research has filled the gap. Private companies, however, are often legally bound to maximize economic returns for investors, raising concerns over scientific independence and integrity. Increased government funding and support for agricultural research, development, and training programs can help address issues such as hunger, malnutrition, and poverty without being compromised by corporate objectives.

Although food prices will certainly continue to rise as the current drought runs its course, it is clear that the United States has the knowledge and the know-how to make its agricultural system more sustainable and food secure.

For more information, see www.worldwatch.org.

Subsequent to a news release by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) condemning a statement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supporting the “Meatless Monday” campaign, USDA publicly stated it does not support the extremist “Meatless Monday” campaign and stated that the statement was posted on its website without the “proper clearance.” NCBA President J.D. Alexander issued the following statement regarding this most recent USDA action.

“We appreciate USDA’s swift action in pulling this disparaging statement off its website. USDA publicly stated today that it does not support this campaign. We appreciate USDA making this right. The agency is important to all cattlemen and women, especially as we face unprecedented challenges, including drought and animal rights extremist groups spreading fiction to consumers who need to know the importance of beef in a healthy diet.”

For more info, see www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/07/meatless-less-monday/#.UBZ-c9VrhVo.email

Mark your calendars to attend the citywide neighborhood conference scheduled for Saturday, October 13th, from 8am-4pm at Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center. Neighborhood information will be available in September at www.cityofmadison.com/neighborhoods/.

The 2012 Mayor’s Neighborhood Conference will be a dynamic event for community leaders to share, network, and take steps to ignite ideas within our extensive networks of neighborhoods. The full-day event will feature hands-on workshops covering neighborhood organizing, neighborhood-based projects, and ways to connect in the community. Participants will have the opportunity to network with neighborhood leaders, governmental staff, and local resource representatives.

Contact Linda Horvath, Planning Division, at lhorvath@cityofmadison.com or 608-267-1131 with questions.

In conjunction with the Town of Windsor, the Natural Heritage Land Trust permanently protected a 136-acre farm. Like most of eastern Dane County, most of the Town of Windsor is underlain by rich, productive soil. In 2006 the Town and Land Trust joined forces to protect its farmland through a program to purchase development rights (PDR) from willing farmers. The farm is the second one to be permanently protected in the town; out of the 21 applications to the town’s program, the two highest-ranking farms have now been protected.

This makes the 31st farm Natural Heritage Land Trust has permanently protected through the use of agricultural conservation easements, covering more than 4,500 acres, mainly in Dane County. Under the agricultural conservation easement placed on the farm, the land stays in private ownership and on the tax rolls, and the landowners have voluntarily agreed to limit non-agricultural development.

Natural Heritage Land Trust and the Town will visit the farm annually to ensure that the protection of the farmland is always upheld. Funding to purchase the agricultural easement came from the USDA Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the DATCP Working Lands Initiative PACE program, and the support of Natural Heritage Land Trust members.

For questions about this easement, contact Natural_Heritage_Land_Trust@mail.vresp.com.

One Willy Street Co-op Owner’s Determination to Harvest Solar Energy
Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.” This quote sums up our family’s motivation to install solar panels on our home this summer through the Willy Street Co-op group buy.

Most Co-op Owners know approximately 20% of our individual and collective use of electricity is in Wisconsin is provided by nuclear power plants susceptible to problems of Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and new tragedies yet to unfold. Most of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels which releases carbon into the atmosphere, a less dramatic, but equally certain path to global warming and destruction of our world ecosystems. The great benefits of the Willy Street Co-op solar group buying program have given us all the chance to switch from business as usual to being the change we want to see in the implementation of solar energy.

Some Owners rent and don’t have the ability to install solar; some Owners have shade or other significant structural barriers. Our home, however, has a small piece of perfect roof that soaks up sunlight all year long. If we can’t commit to installing solar energy on our home and reduce our dependence on deadly energy production, who do we expect to do it?

Our 3 KW solar energy system will require an investment of about $10,000, about 50% less than two years ago because of cheaper panels. It will meet up to one-half of our electricity needs each year—maybe more if we can improve our conservation. Unlike buying a new car, or remodeling our home, however, this is truly an investment in a better future. Because solar panels come warrantied for 25 years, it’s likely our investment will return over 6% or more during its lifetime. But even more important, when our grandchildren ask us what we did to stop global warming, we can proudly point to our choices today.

Like my fellow Co-op Owners, I want to see our businesses, schools, homes and government buildings gathering the energy of the sun to replace the deadly energy sources we have come to rely upon. Thanks to the Willy Street Co-op solar buy, we can actually be the change we want to see. Can you join us this year or plan for next year?

Check www.willystreet.coop/group_solar_project for more upcoming informational workshops and how to join. -Willy Street Co-op Owners Dave and Debi Leeper

Renew Your Neck

Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs

Shaarei Shamayim