Saturday, July 04, 2015

Archival revival...

I am in the process of translocating all my articles from Farm Journal and Top Producer to new blogs/websites. It will take some time, but I'll be able to link to them like I used to when they were on a database service that has ended. The constant upgrading at Agweb has disabled their archives as well.

You can find them here:

Farm Journal (John's World)

Top Producer

I'm starting back at 1994 and working toward the present.

Friday, July 03, 2015

It's a start, anyway...

One of the buzzwords inserted liberally in everything from corporate sales pitches to farmer humblebrags is "sustainability".  But like "WOTUS" we all think we know what it means, but try nailing it down.

I stumbled on this definition by accident, and thought it useful:

According to Herman Daly, an early pioneer in the sustainability movement, sustainability means three things: 1) For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration; 2) for pollution, the rates of waste generation should not exceed the assimilation capacity of the environment (sustainable waste disposal) and 3) for nonrenewable resources, the depletion of the nonrenewable resources (that is, fossil fuels) should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource. Achieving such sustainability will enable the Earth to continue to support life. Thus, teaching sustainability is common sense. It is our responsibility; it is not a “plot” to brainwash students. [More]
While seemingly straightforward, the trick, of course is how to measure all of these rates. Still, I think it is helpful and offers a template to guide your own definition.

The interesting angle for me is the linkage to nutrient management. This pollution, and that label is inescapable, I think, is the result of exceeding the assimilation rate for the soil and water. The is a point beyond which our fields cannot hold more N and P, it seems.

Unfortunately, the default way to measure sustainability is a weird kind of destructive testing - keep increasing the load until something gives. We used to joke about testing bridges this way in Statics classes in college.

I don't know whether we'll be able to agree on better metrics for sustainability, but if we could get some slightly clearer benchmarks, much of the uproar over regulation would at least diminish. It becomes a problem to be solved, rather than a threat to be imagined.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

What am I missing?...

OK, I am obviously clueless about the impact of the CWA WOTUS ruling. The ag community is apoplectic about its "overreaching" and "land grabbing". But time and again, when I ask what does this mean in how I farm...I get nothing.

Incidentally, there seems to be a common script with required phrases when expressing your outrage. Note these examples:
Blake Hurst, President of the Missouri farm Bureau, publicly applauded Koster’s suit.“We applaud Attorney General Koster for filing this lawsuit against EPA and hope the courts will act quickly to halt implementation of the WOTUS rule as the issue works its way through the legal system.  The EPA is guilty of a massive overreach, and we fully expect the courts will once again instruct the EPA to follow the intent of Congress.” [More]
Stenehjem, a Republican, said the rule usurps state authority over broad swaths of water, subjecting landowners to federal red tape, additional permit requirements and costly permit delays, and steep penalties and possible jail time for noncompliance.“This federal power grab is unnecessary and unlawful and will do nothing to increase water quality in our state,” he said. [More]
The claim is that the rule would extend the EPA and Corps regulatory reach tremendously by allowing regulation under the Clean Water Act of areas where water is found only a few months out of year such as roadside ditches and field waterways as well as regulation of small bodies of water including farm ponds. The claim also is that any work by farmers that might alter water flow on their property in any manner might be subject to extensive paperwork for permitting.The EPA claims the rule was issued to bring clarity to the terminology and specifics of where the Clean Water Act pertains, including private property. But those state officials filing suit on behalf of their constituencies see the rule as a tremendous overreach of authority by the EPA. The rule has not gone into force yet, and the lawsuits are asking for it to be declared illegal and or an injunction against it ever going into effect in its current form. [More]

OK, the last account suggests that if I alter water flow on my farm I'll need to get a permit. That is one of the few specifics I have ever seen in the debate. I'll point out the EPA says that's not true, but the common reply is "The EPA is lying. "

What if, for the purposes of argument, I just stipulate all these dire predictions are true.  What does the WOTUS APOCALYPSE look like? Is there a fear that the EPA will dictate how much we can spray and apply and when and how? How would that work? Who would enforce it?

The most frequent semi-answer is "we'll have to get permits".  But as I understand it, that's true only if you are going to do something bad that could end up in water that leaves your property
Agriculture groups raised important questions about what it means for waters to be “covered” under the Clean Water Act. The Act requires a permit if a protected water is going to be polluted or destroyed, however, agricultural activities like planting, harvesting, and moving livestock across a stream have long been excluded from permitting, and that won’t change under the rule. In other words, farmers and ranchers won’t need a permit for normal agricultural activities that happen in and around those waters. [Same] [My emphasis]
Lost in all the hand-wringing is the idea of clean water. That's the point we're missing. If you aren't polluting, you're not a target, it seems to me.

The idea of leaving it up to states to handle has its own problems. Budgets for one. And what do you do if the state upstream has more lax rules than your state? The idea of 50 little EPA's making 50 sets of rules doesn't seem like a good thing to me. Besides, if we're going to get paid to comply, which we will insist on and probably get, we'd better tap into the federal jugular, not say, the Kansas fiasco.

The EPA budget is almost entirely consumed with responding to lawsuits. There is no enforcement legion to patrol the backroads and strip-search farmers planting corn. If we do have to have permits to spray everything because of ditches (remember, EPA lies) how would we get them? Can the EPA even begin to handle that admin load? I doubt it.

So all farming comes to a halt while we stand in line for permits. Since this is the case constantly being predicted by opponents, a strategy springs to mind:
  1. Get long everything.
  2. Don't sell anything from now until then.
  3. Get good at getting permits. (Huge rewards to people who can handle bureaucracy, just like crop insurance or PIK certs)
  4. Rent ground away from those guys in DC picketing. (Just kidding, of course, but if such a world is inevitable, bitter-enders will be subject to replacement by early collaborators)
I exaggerate, of course. A lot. But the Doomsday scenarios seem to be suggesting this. The question is why. I offer these guesses.

First, we know this is about stuff we put in the water: N, P, and pesticides are too high even following current rules and prudent practices. There is no "land being grabbed", there is something even worse: owner/operator responsibility for what leaves our farm in the water. I think one unspoken motive here is to make sure no blame can be tracked back to me. This may seem like a good defense, but doesn't that simply leave control measures that treats good actors and bad alike? Without further delineation, probably it will be done by waters that the EPA clearly does have jurisdiction over, like the Mississippi River, and hence the whole watershed. Imagine the ruling is overturned/negated somehow, and the EPA simply says to the states, "The water flowing out of your Miss. River boundary has too much X. Take measures to drop it 50% or the AG will call you."

Second, I think there is an visceral fear that the EPA wants us all to be bucolic, organic small farmers. OK, again let's imagine this is the real hidden agenda. How we get there? If they stipulate no chemicals, less fertilizer, etc. our grain production plummets. While I can't imagine this kind of economic disruption is even faintly possible, there is an uneasiness because we know much of the public really wants cute farmers growing food. It irritates us so much we spend mucho time and dollars educating them how mistaken they are. Still, we are constantly reminded the longing for agrarian production is persistent and widespread among consumers. Totally, overlooked, IMHO, is what is the EPA just wants the water to be cleaner - not pristine - just better. Why shoot for impossible domination when you really want less stuff in the water? These imaginings are politically-fed paranoid fantasies that have tapped into a deep resentment that folks don't love us like they did when we were all labor and 4-crop rotations.

Third, deep, deep down, we know our current path is not good. All corn all the time is great for suppliers and users, but probably not as sustainable as we thought a few years ago. In fact, it appears to me, only by offloading our economic externalities downstream can we force land to produce at the 300 bpa levels we think is our goal. Our outraged response to being called to responsibility for what we do to water leaving our land is maybe a way to take our mind off the truth that we wouldn't want to be downstream of us either.

All of these scenarios are unsupported by any shred of feasibility or evidence. The agpocalyptic future being touted is laughably impracticable, politically unthinkable, and economically nonsensical. The worst/best the EPA might be able to do is begin to add some burden of accountability to the most egregious water pollution actions.

Most of the fears are slippery-slope arguments carried to ludicrous extremes as I have done. But those extremes are as far as I can see, counterproductive to the supposed EPA purpose (clean water, remember?). At any rate, these underlying anxieties need to be articulated, instead of simply ominously hinted. The fact they are not only reinforces my conviction ag simply will always  and automatically oppose any EPA action, making up reasons to do so in the face of contradictory facts.

[Ethanol mandates excepted, of course]

Like I said at the beginning, maybe there is a detailed explanation of how my life will change as a farmer because of the WOTUS rule. But all I can find are hints and innuendo, so I've tried to create some possibles to ponder.  Let me know what you think the end result might be.  After all, SCOTUS could uphold it.