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Stephanie Ogburn's Posts

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Why should EPA regulators investigate factory farm pollution when they can go get a beer instead?

A CAFO manure lagoon. (Photo by Jeff Vanugam.)

One of the biggest water polluters in our country is the factory farm. In 2008, a Government Accountability Office report panned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to know where most of these farms were located, let alone if they were releasing their manure into rivers, lakes, and streams.

So in early 2011, the EPA announced a rule asking such farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, to submit basic information, like their address and how many animals they have, to the agency. On Friday, July 20, EPA quietly announced it was withdrawing that rule, planning instead to try to collect the data from the existing records held by states, even though it has tried that before, with poor results.

In trying to understand why the EPA would back off such a seemingly innocuous yet important data collection project, I imagined myself inside a meeting of EPA clean water officials as they made the decision to withdraw the rule.

Setting: A 10-top table in a soulless gray-hued conference room, Federal Triangle, Washington, D.C.

Official One (storms into room, slams hand on table): I wish those House Republicans would all go on a schmoozy farm tour and fall into a manure lagoon! I can't believe they accused us of flying spy drones over American farms.

Official Two (looking worn): Well, we are flying planes over factory farms in Nebraska and Iowa.

Official One: That's because we can't enforce the Clean Water Act without aerial inspections. Ever since the National Pork Producers Council sued us, the only way we can know if factory farms are polluting the water is if they tell us by applying for a discharge permit --

Official Two: Not likely.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Farming with a smaller footprint: Why it matters

tiller

Conservation is an important part of federal farm funding -- the laws that shape what, where, and how we grow our food. And yet, if the negotiations around the 2012 Farm Bill go as predicted, funding for conservation is in grave danger.

Why does conservation on farms matter? Well, for starters, most large-scale agriculture is a disruptive endeavor. It requires farmers to plow under native flora and replace it with giant monocultures of annual crops, and then coddle those crops by irrigating them and applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides -- all ecologically damaging technologies.

There are ways to farm better, to wash away less soil and use fewer dangerous chemicals. But farming with a lighter footprint often costs more than it brings in, and until around the last decade, federal policy has done little to inspire conservation. Instead, farm subsidies encourage farmers to plant crops fencerow to fencerow with little regard to environmental impacts.

In 2002, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began a program aimed a shifting the balance towards conservation. The shift continued after the 2008 Farm Bill, and the new program -- the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which pays farmers to implement measures that reduce erosion and chemical drift, minimize fertilizer runoff, and improve habitat for native pollinators -- has grown every year.  It's now the most widespread conservation program in the country.

Read more: Farm Bill, Food

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Ranchers struggle against giant meatpackers and economic troubles

All cattle, no hats.Photo: Rob CrowA sea of cream-colored cowboy hats, the kind ranchers wear on their days off, fills a sterile conference room at the Fort Collins Marriott. Banners from groups like the Ranchers-Cattlemen Legal Action Fund and the Western Organization of Resource Councils add bright slashes of color, and warn that JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, now controls 24 percent of all cattle produced in the United States. It's August 2010, the night before a national workshop on competition in the livestock industry, and well over 500 ranchers, feedlot owners, and their allies are packed into this room …

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Injust deserts

Would a Walmart solve West Oakland's and Nashville's food problems?

Photo: Mark Kjerland & super.heavy via flickrTalk with healthy-food advocates in urban centers across the country, and frequently, you'll hear the same story. It goes something like this: Once upon a time, this city was full of grocery stores. Then came urban renewal/an economic downturn/a mass exodus of the wealthy and, one by one, the groceries closed up and moved to the outskirts of the city. Since then, there have been Safeways/Krogers/Publix that have set up shop here and there, but they all end up leaving. Now we have 100 liquor stores for 25,000 people in this part of town, …

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Greening the 'Hood

Can Oakland plant a policy revolution to match its grassroots efforts?

City Slicker Farms in West Oakland has a sliding-scale farmers market, a backyard-garden program, and sells vegetable starts as well.Bonnie Powell   "We're trying to grow as much food as possible for the community," said City Slicker Executive Director Barbara Finnin. Started in 2001, City Slicker Farms is one of the oldest food and farming organizations in Oakland. Founded by activist Willow Rosenthal, the group, along with the food justice nonprofit People's Grocery, has become an incubator and hub for agtivists who want to make fresh, healthy food available to all Oaklanders, especially those low-income communities and communities of color …

Read more: Food

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a shit ton of fertilizer

To reduce nitrogen pollution, we need new farm policies

California dairy farmer Joey Rocha. Photo: Stephanie OgburnTurlock, Calif. -- Joey Rocha tends 2,800 cows at his Central Valley dairy. That may sound like a large herd, but in California, Rocha is a mid-sized dairy producer. Taken together, California's dairy cows produce more than 100,000 tons of manure every day. Rocha and his fellow dairy farmers put all those cow pies to good use -- as fertilizer for the fields that grow the corn that feeds their herds. It's a perfect closed-loop system, except for one big problem: nitrogen. Manure is nitrogen rich, which makes it a great fertilizer. But …

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Fertile ground

The dark side of nitrogen

Few people spare a thought for nitrogen.  But with every bite we take -- of an apple, a chicken leg, a leaf of spinach -- we are consuming nitrogen. Plants, including food crops, can't thrive without a ready supply of available nitrogen in the soil. The amount of food a farmer could grow was once limited by his or her ability to supplement soil nitrogen, either by planting cover crops, applying manure, or moving on to a new, more fertile field. Then, about 100 years ago, a technical innovation enabled us to produce a cheap synthetic form of nitrogen, and …

Read more: Uncategorized

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The Contrarian's Dilemma

James McWilliams’ over-hyped and undercooked anti-locavore polemic

Cows on pasture: potential solution, or menace to society? What is just food? One might answer: food produced without causing undue ecological damage, food grown under production systems that allow workers and farmers to earn livable wages, food that's healthy, accessible, and affordable to everyone who eats. To James E. McWilliams, author of the new book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, just food is certainly much more than food produced and purchased locally, and his book wags a contrarian finger at the "locavores" who believe purchasing food grown close to home …

Read more: Food

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Strengthening the Movement by Shrinking It

An interview with the innovators behind ioby.org

We've all heard that eating locally is one way to reduce your environmental impact. But what about donating locally? In the urban wilds of New York City, a new non-profit is betting that locally based, small-scale giving can have a big eco-impact. Ioby, whose name stands for "in our back yards," connects people working on neighborhood-level projects with community members who can physically and financially support them. At ioby.org, launched this month by co-founders Erin Barnes, Cassie Flynn, and Brandon Whitney, individuals or groups post project descriptions and budgets, and interested donors contribute to the project of their choice. Here's …

Read more: Cities

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Diversity in the field, and at the table

A multicolored good food movement

Photo courtesy of M J M, via FlickrAs the good food movement matures, its members have begun discussing its inclusiveness. This week, at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s ninth Food and Society Conference, speaker after speaker touched upon the topic of race and access to good food.  “Who is at the table?” asked Anim Steel, Director of National Programs for The Food Project, a Boston-based organization that works to engage youth in sustainable agriculture. Steel’s rhetorical question referred to a growing conversation among members of the sustainable food movement about helping the movement grow and include all people, not just those …

Read more: Food