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Thursday April 26, 2018

Would Trump's Mexican immigrant policy break the nation's dairy farms?

Bloomberg Politics reports in early June several sources within the nation's dairy industry are fearful that presumed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's promise to build an immigration-tight wall between Mexico and the southern United States would cause the nation's milk-producing farms in particular to suffer.

Trump’s immigration stance “scares the hell out me,” Wisconsin farmer and president of the state's Dairy Business Association Gordon Speirs told Bloomberg.

The fact our state is better known for beef cattle masks the reality that some 55,000 dairy cows generate more than 100 million gallons of milk and roughly $275 million a year in economic activity. How vulnerable would those Nebraska dairies be to a potential loss of migrant labor? A 2015 study by Texas A&M pointed how reliant the dairy industry is on immigrant labor, which is often here off the books:

  • On U.S. dairies as a whole, of the estimated 150,418 workers employed in 2013, immigrant labor made up 51 percent of all dairy labor. Dairies that hire immigrant labor produce 79 percent of the U.S. milk.
  • Additionally, other researchers have found that, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics estimates from 2001 and 2002, about half of all immigrant agricultural workers in the United States are unauthorized.
  • Eliminating immigrant labor would reduce the U.S. dairy herd by 2.1 million cows, cut milk production by 48.4 billion pounds and the number of farms by 7,011.
  • Retail milk prices would increase by an estimated 90.4 percent.
  • Eliminating immigrant labor on dairy farms would reduce U.S. economic output by $32.1 billion and reduce employment by 208,208 jobs. Approximately 64 percent of the losses noted above would occur in input supply sectors and services provided to U.S. dairy farms.

In addition to those direct losses, indirect productivity losses also can be assumed. Although dairy farm workers on average are paid well above minimum wage--one study showed average annual equivalent compensation of $34,443--and dairy farms that hire immigrant labor pay higher average wages than farms that do not hire immigrants, the reality that those illegal immigrant workers often work in the shadows causes productivity losses. One study, reported by Farmer Goes to Market here, suggested farm employers often avoid issues caused by facing a worker deportation, by refraining from promoting immigrant workers into more advanced and publicly visible positions. They also typically refrain from training and granting responsibilities to unauthorized immigrant workers or promote them to positions that require them to have insurance for fear they might lose that investment if the workers were arrested for immigration violations.

Whether Trump's plan to wall off Mexican immigration comes to fruition or not, the labor outlook for America's farms doesn't look good, according to an analysis by University of California Davis, titled The End of Farm Labor Abundance. In it, the ag economists suggest demographic data from rural Mexico shows the same shift out of farm work that occurred in U.S. labor history is well underway in Mexico. At the same time, demand for agricultural labor in Mexico is also rising. That means U.S. agriculture will compete with Mexican farms for a dwindling supply of farm labor. The decline in foreign labor available to man U.S. farms will ultimately drive them to find ways to save labor and switch to less labor-intensive crops and technologies--all as they pay higher costs.

Is the Humane Society of the United States a friend of farming, or foe?

Promises by former Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman in 2010 to "kick their butt out of Nebraska" notwithstanding, the Washington, D.C., animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States is back in the state, and back big. And its appearance is building some friction between farmers here.

HSUS chose Lincoln to announce in early May it was forming a national agriculture advisory council, to create an umbrella group for its 11 similar state agriculture advisory councils. Small boards of farmers from within the state whose members "share the principles" of the organization, the state councils are made up of "farmers, producers and agriculture professionals who believe in compassionate, responsible farming," according to the society. The councils are centered in midwestern farm states where HSUS has attempted to influence legislation and place ballot initiatives to force changes in animal agriculture over the last decade.

HSUS' new national council will be headed by Litchfield organic farmer Kevin Fulton, who said through an HSUS press release, "We are fully committed to working with The HSUS to improve the welfare of farm animals in a way that benefits not only the animals, but the family farmer, the consumer and our environment.”

“I think a lot of us [farmers] have common ground and common values with the organization,” Fulton told WNAX radio in Yankton.

But Fulton's fellow farmers in Nebraska are skeptical.

"Our coalition was formed actually to combat the Humane Society of the United States and organizations like [it]," said Ansley Mick, Executive Director of We Support Agriculture, a Nebraska coalition of the livestock-producer groups in the state. "Most growers would agree they represent the No. 1 threat to animal agriculture in Nebraska and, frankly, in the U.S." With $135.5 million in revenue and $214 million in assets, HSUS has very deep pockets, Mick told Nebraska Rural Radio Network, and they have shadowy ties to misinformation campaigns about animal agriculture and more radical animal-rights groups, including those that create inflammatory "undercover" cruelty videos aimed at giving animal production a black eye.

"We've been telling people all along this is not the organization you think it is. Their actual goal here is to end animal agriculture. Their forming councils like this sort of solidifies our argument."

Not so, says the Nebraska state director for HSUS, Jocelyn Nickerson. "I want to set the record straight," she writes in a letter to the Lincoln Journal Star. " The Humane Society of the United States wants more traditional farmers on the land, not fewer." Nickerson argues the "industrial factory farming processors" have caused a 96 percent drop in the number of Nebraska pig farms in the last 50 years.

"Maybe it's time for a different approach—one that puts our farmers, our communities, the land, the environment and the concerns of our customers first for a change," she writes.

But the new conciliation likely marks only a change in strategy for the long-time advocate for reducing consumption of meat, milk, eggs, leather, commercially bred pets and other products of animal agriculture. When controversial HSUS head Wayne Pacelle last publicly appeared in Nebraska in 2013, he signaled a similar change in direction for the organization, from pushing legislation to end objectionable farming practices like the use of gestation crates that pig farmers typically use to manage pregnant animals toward high-visibility PR shaming campaigns to force big food manufacturers and retailers to do it for them. "[Legislation] is entirely unnecessary,” he assured the Lincoln Journal Star at the time, “because the market atmosphere has overtaken gestation crate issues.”

Despite an absence of any meaningful research that demonstrates real consumer demand for an end to the practice—except that research created by the association in order to support its mission—retailers do appear to be proving Pacelle correct: The market may be changing to favor the HSUS position that many mainline farm organizations continue to see as simply the first shot in further restrictions on agriculture. Agriculture interests consider such "market driven" tactics as simply another means by which HSUS hopes to make animal farming so financially burdensome as to make it ultimately unsustainable in present form.

Groups like Nebraska's We Support Agriculture argue that despite what HSUS and Pacelle say, they see collaboration by retailers and fringe farm groups like the Nebraska Farmers Union as an unhealthy alliance that will ultimately damage the financial viability of Nebraska's food system, not just for the large farms Nickerson and HSUS in general currently uses as a whipping boy, but for small farms and other chain members, as well.

If the HSUS is really intent on working with farmers," writes a San Antonio lawyer who advocates for animal-use freedom in horse issues, Randy Janssen, in a Facebook post, "the first thing it should do is get rid of [avowed vegan HSUS spokesmen Pacelle and Paul Shapiro]. These men destroy any credibility the HSUS has with meat producers. Then the HSUS should disavow Meatless Monday. If the HSUS does not, then it truly is just a vegan cult that wants to shut down animal production in the US."

How food attitudes reflect presidential support

As part of his regular montlhy surveying of at least 1,000 US consumers that match the demographics of the country in age, gender, education and region, Oklahoma State Ag Economics Professor Jayson Lusk tracks the ebb and flow of concern over typical food-safety issues, such as E. coli, Salmonella, GMOs and others.

In February, Lusk threw in an additional question asking survey respondents to pick their favored candidate for the presidential primaries. "Just for fun," he says (because the sampling is not big enough to be highly dependable), he matched the survey respondants' level of concern about certain food issues against their choice of candidate, creating a food-based matrix showing likelihood of candidate support.

Lusk found Donald Trump supporters had the highest concern for E. Coli and placed the lowest relative importance on the food values of naturalness and the environment. Trump supporters also ate the most red meat. Sanders supporters eat the least beef, pork and total meat, and also put the least relative importance on food prices. Clinton supporters were the most concerned about GMOs, and they placed the highest relative importance on naturalness, nutrition and environment when buying food. How do your food concerns and candidate choice measure up?

How does your food concern predict your presidential candidate?

Does Nebraska have a food deserts problem? One legislator wants to find out

Two related legislative actions this session attemped to get their hands around the issue of "food deserts" in Nebraska, those areas the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed are under-served by retail outlets capable of providing healthy, affordable food, leaving residents there at higher risk of obesity and other diet-related health problems. Lincoln Senator Matt Hansen's LB 945 would have directed $150,000 annually for the next two years toward economic-development grants aimed not only grocery stores, but also farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and community gardens. LB 945 stalled in committee, based on the objections of, among others, NGIA Executive Secretary Kathy Siefken, who argued the bill could actually exacerbate the problem it was meant to solve. Funding food cooperatives or farmers’ markets that compete with small rural grocery stores operating on already thin margins, she said, could drive even more retail outlets out of business.

Hansen followed up with another resolution, minus the pricetage, calling for the legislature's ag committee to study the issue and report back to the legislature along with recommendations. The study would look at existing scientific literature and consult with experts to identify factors that limit access to healthy, affordable food, look for  public and private initiatives that can stimulate private investment in grocery and "other food-sourcing enterprises," inventory public and private money to combat the problem, and examine the role of public and private stakeholders in the issue.

The idea of food deserts, as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, has an intuitive attraction, according to University of Arkansas ag economist Di Zeng. With a supermarket difficult to get to in those areas, residents presumably obtain and consume more energy-dense, unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in poorer diet quality and more obesity. It's a narrative that's become conventional wisdom in the new food movement and was reflected in Hansen's comments in support of the initial funding bill. USDA says millions of Americans now live within one of these low-income pockets of limited food access, and Hansen claims 325,000 Nebraskans live in such food deserts, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities.

But how certain are those numbers?

An extensive review of the literature in the May 2015 issue of the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy attempts a more exhaustive examination of the reasons why nobody has yet successfully established a meaningful definition of food deserts nor even how to measure one. Even the definition of what it means to lack access to healthy food remains elusive. In the review, a team of economists from USDA argue too much of the focus has been placed on the amount of distance between healthy food sources and low-income citizens, and too much attention has been paid to the resources consumers have to get to stores and buy once there. Their list of what's wrong with measuring food deserts includes these holes:

1. Too much emphasis on geography and not enough on individuals

Focusing only on low-income areas and neighborhoods implies that everyone in the same area has the same access to healthy food, which isn't necessarily true. And because results can be easily changed by the way the geographic data is sliced, it's often too easy to juggle the numbers to correlate with the outcome you want, the researchers say. Although some individual-level measures of food access like Gallup Polls have been tried and "are a step in the right direction," the need for more individualized data about food access is still lacking.

2. Over-emphasis on low-income areas

Although the intentions may be good in targeting public dollars to areas that may have high concentrations of individuals who face food access barriers, the poverty level of a neighborhood doesn't always accurately predict supermarket proximity. In fact, the review authors note, because higher-income areas are typically less population-dense than low-income ones, poorer residents within those higher-income blocks could be more likely to be too far from a healthy food retail outlet. Using some of the current estimates, in fact, of the estimated 2.3 million households that are located more than one mile from a supermarket and do not have a vehicle to get there, 1.4 million live in moderate- and higher-income areas, while only 900,000 are in low-income areas

3. It all may be relative

One of the most important holes in the research that leads to criticism of food-desert definitions is the uncertainty whether relatively poorer access to healthy food sources really translates into inadequate access. For example, one relative measure of poor food access compares the relative square footage of grocery retail space per person in a neighborhood against with the average square footage of grocery retail space per person for a whole city. In order to justify such a relative measure of access as meaingful, you have to assume that having relatively unequal access to healthy food means anything in terms of absolute deprivation of access to healthy foods. We really don't know whether those two follow, the researchers argue.

4. Definitions may be painted with an overly broad brush

Over-generalized and sweeping definitions of poor food access by geography brush aside vast differences across the country in factors we know affect food access: factors like population density, vehicle availability, natural and man-made barriers to access and availability of roads, sidewalks and public transportation, to name only a few. For example, under USDA's original definition of food desert, people in rural areas must be 10 miles from a store before they are considered low-access, while in urban areas the distance is only 1 mile. Rural populations as a whole may have greater access to vehicles, but USDA's  measure does not consider vehicle availability. Obviously, any household in a rural area without a vehicle and located more than one mile from a store would likely have just as much trouble accessing food as their urban counterpart, yet they would not be considered in a food desert by that definition.

5. Store square footage may be meaningless

One of the common food-desert measurements, square footage of grocery per capita in an area--typically less than 3 square feet of grocery retail per person--may be one of the most meaningless. It assumes availability of healthy food falls when square footage falls, which is not a safe assumption, they argue. What if store space grows for a region, for example, but more space is  devoted to non-grocery goods or larger-sized products? In fact, according to one study they cite, that 3-square-feet food-desert threshold would mean the entire city of New York qualifies as food desert.

6. Need doesn't equal store viability, and vice-versa

Methods of measuring food deserts that compare estimated demand within an area against actual grocery sales are likely to underestimate the real need in some areas even while overestimating the need in others.

7. “Adequate” and “inadequate” are judgement calls

To be useful in making policy decisions, food-desert distinctions have to eventually be turned into actionable numbers, they note. Yet how the meaningful numbers are distinguished from the trivial ones are "not always obvious." Distinctions like distance from a store and vehicle availability "may be reaonsable from an empirical standpoint," they write, "may have precedent in literature, and may be conceptually straightforward; but they are, ultimately, judgments."

8. General holes in assumptions

Attempts to gauge the level and importance of food deserts are hampered by general limitations like availability of accurated lists of stores in an area, vast differences in food offerings across stores, presence of non-traditional outlets like dollar stores and pharmacies, and the reality that low-income shoppers in low-access areas may be just like all other consumers--they may shop where food is cheapest and not where the analysis says they should. All those factors confound attempts to easily define a food desert and its meaning.

Does this look like a navigable waterway?

Nebraska's representatives in Washington have stepped up the fight against what farmers believe to be regulatory over-reach by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding how it intends to regulate  small streams, ditches and wetlands. They say they oppose a proposal by EPA to widely expand its oversight of business and farms by changing the definition of waters that fall under the agency's regulation.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse joined Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe to pen an official letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in late January seeking a formal investigation into whether EPA broke federal law by promoting the so-called Waters of the United States regulation. Sasse's letter followed a December rulling by the Government Accountability Office finding the agency violated the law by using social media to push the regulatory change, including urging people to pressure their congressional representatives. Calling the campaign "covert propaganda," GAO found EPA personnel had posted on nearly 1,000 social media accounts in favor of the regulation without identifying that the messages were coming from a government agency.

“Despite the fact that the Government Accountability Office found that they broke federal law by running a covert propaganda campaign to support their sweeping WOTUS (Waters of the United States) rule, the EPA has doubled down on their lawlessness,” Sasse said in a written statement. “It’s time for the Department of Justice to investigate.”

Sasse's letter comes on the heels of a vote in the Senate by Democrats that blocked the chamber from taking a vote to override President Obama's veto of a law that would have shut down the WOTUS regulations. That vote to invoke cloture was eight votes short of the majority needed to attempt an override, ending the latest Republican attempt to dump the rule.

“The bill the president vetoed would have stopped a rule that threatens the economic security of countless Nebraska families," said Nebraska Senior Senator Deb Fischer. "Nebraskans value clean water. They also work hard to preserve and protect this critical natural resource. While the courts explore the legality of this rule, I will continue the fight to protect Nebraskans from this unnecessary federal intervention.”

Earlier this year, the American Farm Bureau Federation released a set of maps from neighboring Missouri showing how EPA's re-interpretation of the act would "radically expand" its jurisdiction over land use. "That expansion comes even as major parts of the rule remain largely incomprehensible to experts and laypeople, alike," Farm Bureau adds. The maps show the dramatic expansion of EPA's regulatory reach under its new interpetation.

As currently interpreted. The maps' base layer shows areas regulated as tributaries and adjacent wetlands, without what EPA considers a significant connection, which must now be shown on a case-by-case basis.

EPA's interpretation, adding "ephemeral streams." The next map adds low spots in the land that drain and channel water away from farmland after a rain but are otherwise dry. The EPA has sometimes asserted jurisdiction over that type of area in the past, but only when a specific investigation has shown it connects with downstream waters. Under the new rule, all such "ephemeral tributaries" are automatically regulated.

Adding "adjacent waters." By expanding the definition of regulated "adjacent waters" to cover all waters (including wetlands) that lie, even partially, within 100 feet on either side of these newly regulated ephemeral drains, EPA's regulatory reach vastly expands.

Adding the entire flood plains. Next, and according to Farm Bureau where the vast uncertainty for farmers comes in, EPA adds any part of a water or wetland lying within the 100-year floodplain of a tributary, and not more than a quarter-mile from the tributary. Farm Bureau argues the uncertainty springs from the fact that many areas lack flood zone maps, and that most ditches and ephemeral streams lack mapped flood zones. The result is that farmers and other landowners lack even the basic tools to identify wetlands or other waters that are automatically regulated under the rule.

The final reach. The almost unlimited reach of the rule shows in the final map layer that covers waters that are not "tributaries" or "adjacent," but may still be jurisdictional based on a "significant nexus" to downstream waters. Expanding this zone of uncertainty covers the entire landscape in many parts of the country, the group points out.

“This is far from over," Sasse said. "WOTUS still faces a battle in the courts. The president’s disappointing veto sides with overreaching EPA bureaucrats instead of Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers — those who know and care most about agriculture and conservation policy. Nebraskans are committed to seeing this fight through.”

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