SUSTAINABILITY: THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE

Kicking off National Ag Week and on the eve of 2011’s National Ag Day, I have an opportunity to discuss a topic that draws plenty of attention, yet defines the future of agriculture. In today’s society, there is a big misconception concerning production agriculture. This misconception is that farmers don’t care about the environment; they only look at making a profit. If I were to mention the word sustainability, what comes into your mind? Since only two percent of our population live on farms, that leaves about ninety-eight percent of the population that may associate the term sustainability solely with the organic food movement. Although organic farming does incorporate sustainable practices, conventional farming operations are becoming more sustainable. For me to present this topic and dispel a few myths I need to give us a base definition.

Referencing the USDA’s website, “Congress defines sustainable agriculture as ‘… an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long-term—(A) satisfy human food and fiber needs; (B) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends; (C) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; (D) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and (E) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.’” In simple terms sustainability is the capacity to endure. It is my goal to break down this definition, dispel a few myths and convey information concerning the agriculture industry as it moves forward in the 21st century.

Intrigued by this definition, let me start with the first portion of the definition. Sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of practices and it is site-specific, meaning that each farm will have sustainable practices unique to that operation. For example, a grain farmer in the south may not be able to access swine manure for fertilizer as easily as a grain farm in the Midwest due to the concentration of swine operations in that area. Some examples of practices that may be integrated are tillage practices such as no-till and strip till, use of hybrids, biotechnology, and/or manure handling in livestock operations.

Looking at point A, satisfying human food and fiber needs, I strongly feel that biotechnology is critical here. Through hybridization and plant breeding strategies, many of our food and fiber crops are increasing yields and are more efficient when it comes to nutrient requirements. Despite the current debate over food vs. fuel, there is plenty of corn being produced to satisfy our needs and increased technology is resulting in higher yielding hybrids. Other crops are seeing similar results. In livestock production, farmers are using production data for breeding selections that maximize production of our meat proteins. Also, many livestock feed rations are now including more forage based ingredients, reducing the demand on our grains.

Point B, enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends, really points to where the future of agriculture is moving to. The use of transgenic crops has reduced the need for herbicides and insecticides, keeping those chemicals out of the equation when it comes to reaching our water system. More and more farmers are using modern tillage practices, reducing soil erosion, and preserving the medium in which our crops grow in. The use of cover crops to further reduce erosion and build the soil’s nutrient levels and organic matter is increasing in popularity. Using tillage radishes or turnips as “bio-drilling” tools to reduce compaction in the soil, reduces the power needed to work the soil, thus saving fuel and reducing carbon emissions from farm machinery. Personally, I am very interested in the use of cover crops and am working to encourage more use of them in my area. Using natural means to build soil nutrient levels reduces the amount of additional fertilizers needed, thus reducing the potential for runoff. Farmers are applying improved techniques for nutrient delivery such as variable-rate applicators and banding to reduce the total amounts of fertilizers needed.

Point C, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls, looks at improving the performance of our farm power machinery to make them more fuel efficient and preserve the nonrenewable resource we know as oil. Many farmers are using on-farm resources, such as animal manure for fertilizer as opposed to synthetic fertilizers, maximizing the production from each animal unit as well as reducing input costs for crops. Farmers using conservation practices such as terracing and contouring are further reducing soil loss and controlling erosion. These are just a couple of examples of using natural controls in agriculture.

Parts D, sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and E, enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole, go together nicely. Through sustainable practices like I mentioned earlier, input costs are reduced, increasing the potential for profit and self-sufficiency in farming operations. In addition, sustainable practices, keep the land going to support future generations of farming on the same land. Efficiency in farming operations through sustainable practices improves family life because more time is spent with the family instead of the fields or barns. And, properly managing nutrients, farmers are working to keep our soils healthy and our water safe, thus enhancing the quality of life for the people of this nation.

Looking at the definition of sustainability in each of the components, it is easy to see that farmers are concerned about the environment. They are working to reduce soil loss, reduce energy needed for farming, and reduce inputs, and protect our water systems. With more and more farmers adopting more and more sustainable practices, I am confident that moving into the future, that in the long term, our farming system will be sustainable.

David Taylor
Joliet Junior Student & Part-Time Farmer

WEATHER GIRL TURNS TO AGRICULTURE

One day every year we allow the fate of our weather for the upcoming months to be determined by the fears of a woodland rodent.  People’s reliance on this fuzzy creature’s prediction dates back to the 1840s.  Even with advanced weather technology to warn us of upcoming blizzards days in advance, thousands still come to see Punxsutawney Phil each year. Weather plays an important role in both agriculture and the environment.  

As a little girl I dreamed of one day standing in front of a weather map telling the world what to expect.  However, as I grew older I began to develop an interest for learning about the interaction between humans and the environment.  Coming from a suburban background, my education never included the effects that an altered environment would have on agriculture.  

Now, as an agricultural and environmental communications student at the University of Illinois, I’ve come to learn that the environment and agriculture are not two separate issues.  Instead, they are revolve in an endless cycle.  Last week I sat in a lecture and learned about climate change and how it can affect agriculture.  Agriculture faces long term challenges from heat stress, water stress, pests and diseases.  If carbon dioxide concentrations continue to double, the North American climate average is estimated to warm by 5 to 11 degrees Farenheit.  This might not seem like such a drastic change but that would make Illinois’ climate similar to that of Mississippi.  

Learning about the current issues agriculture and the environment face is important if we want conditions to remain the same.  Although I was never able to deliver the weather to thousands of viewers or give Punxsutawney Phil’s annual report, I was able to expand my knowledge and learn how agriculture is part of everyone’s daily lives.  

Hope you are staying warm today, despite the nasty conditions out there today!  Be safe!

Ashley LaVela
University of Illinois student

FARMERS ARE FEEDING A HUNGRY WORLD BY DOING MORE WITH LESS

Farmers have to be part agronimist, conservationist, meterologist, economist …

and all optimist!

Find out more about Illinois farmer’s best management practices at www.ilcorn.org.

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ILLINOIS EPA PREPARES TO REGULATE PESTICIDE APPLICATIONS

In January 2009, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, OH ruled that National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits under the Clean Water Act are required for any pesticide applications that reach waters of the U.S. This was a game changing decision, as the ruling was written so broadly that growers now have no assurance that they are exempt from this requirement.

You and I are more vulnerable to citizen lawsuits on the Clean Water Act than ever before.

In the past, the EPA had decided that pesticides were adequately regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and did not subject farmers to Clean Water Act requirements. That is no longer the case.

The new permitting program is scheduled to take effect in April, 2011 which is sneaking up on us. Legislation introduced in the House and Senate this past year would have overturned the 6th Circuit decision and clarified that permits are not necessarily with pesticide applicators are following the FIFRA label. As we begin a new session of Congress, we’ll have to start over on this type of legislation and try, try again.

But while we wait on that …the Illinois EPA moves forward preparing their rules for the new NPDES permits. And they don’t look pretty. In fact, Illinois Corn’s initial assessment (and that of other commodity and farm organizations within the state) is that the state of Illinois is taking the new ruling much further than they need to.

Whether this is due to oversight or intention remains to be seen. What I can assure you is that Illinois Corn and NCGA continue to watch over this matter, making sure that realistic guidelines for the application of crop protection products are considered.

Stay tuned.

Rodney M. Weinzierl
ICGA/ICMB Executive Director

WHAT DOES NOVEMBER 2 MEAN FOR ILLINOIS AGRICULTURE?

In the wake of a long night waiting up to see the results of the elections (and still waiting to see the outcome of the Gubernatorial race) I’d like to take a moment to reflect on what the outcomes, or proposed outcomes, mean for agriculture. If we assume Governor Quinn wins, we already know he supports an income tax increase and I have to assume that it will be a priority to help resolve our budget mess. The problem with this plan of attack is that it only solves half the annual shortfall at most and does nothing to address our State’s huge backlog of past bills yet to be paid. That means either greater revenue increases or budget cuts, neither of which will be easy.
Furthermore, if Governor Quinn decides to only represent the Chicago area, ag and business are in for a rough four years as additional revenue and/or cuts will not be made over a broad base. Long-term, this continues to put the Illinois economy in a tailspin and business leaves the state.

Farmers can’t move the land so our businesses can’t leave the state! Our choice is to be proactive early on so that the “pain” is shared as equitably as possible and our state’s economy can grow. If not, the result will be that our state will continue its economic decline.

illinois election congressional districtsMoving on to the federal races, I was blown away by the magnitude of the Republican wave. We had four Congressional seats “flip” from Democrat to Republican: Halvorson, Foster, Hare and Bean. I had expected only one or two.

What does this mean? First of all I hope that the zealousness of USEPA on regulations slows down and in some cases stop. Although it was not an election issue, I believe that USEPA is not well-liked in the rural areas for the agenda they have been trying to move forward. The danger for agriculture though is to assume that all of this goes away. Some will slow down, some will be put on the shelf, but some will continue. As an example, nutrient regulation will continue because the movement of nutrient regulation is based on the Clean Water Act that all states were to implement and USEPA was to enforce back in 2000. There’s no getting away from this one.

The other major effect to agriculture is in the area of funding. Nearly everyone elected last night in either the US House or the US Senate will want to demonstrate to the electorate they did something about the deficit when they are up for re-election. This will be a priority. That means that Farm Bill, business tax credits, ethanol tax credits, research, and any other spending by the Federal Government will be under the microscope. This is not a bad thing, but if we expect our elected officials to reduce the federal deficit, ag must be prepared that some of our own programs will be part of the solution.

All in all, it was a fun election night that offers a host of new challenges and opportunities for ag. We have four new US Congressman and a new US Senator that know very little about ag issues and I look forward to the dialogue as we teach them what Illinois’ number one industry is all about.

Rodney M Weinzierl
ICGA Executive Director

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WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION RECOMMENDS LESS STRINGENT GUIDLINES FOR ATRAZINE IN DRINKING WATER

Originally published in Pesticide and Toxic Chemical News

The World Health Organization has increased its drinking water quality guideline for atrazine from 2 parts per billion to 100 ppb — a far less stringent level than EPA’s current drinking water standard of 3 ppb.

Atrazine proponents say the new guideline reaffirms the safety of atrazine, which EPA is currently re-evaluating. But a long time critic of the herbicide says WHO failed to take into account infants and young children’s special vulnerability and higher exposure per body weight than adults.

The new 100 ppb guideline will be included in the 4th edition of WHO’s Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, to be published in 2011. The purpose of the guidelines is to assist regulators and policymakers in the development of national standards.

“The WHO has no regulatory force at all, and the drinking water guidelines are merely recommendations,” Jennifer Sass, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells Pesticide & Toxic Chemical News via e-mail. “They are often adopted by countries that do not have the resources to conduct their own assessments.”

Sass says while both WHO and EPA rely on the same study to achieve their guideline and standard, respectively, EPA has attempted to address the vulnerability of infants and children, “albeit not to our satisfaction,” by applying the 10X Food Quality Protection Act safety factor.

Furthermore, to arrive at its drinking water guideline, WHO assumes a 60kg adult drinking two liters of water a day, with 20% of total daily intake of atrazine coming from drinking water. But kids drink more water per body weight than adults, Sass says, noting EPA has a default water intake rate of one liter of water per day for a 10kg child.

However, others say EPA should take a page out of WHO’s scientific playbook.

“Here in the U.S., activists, insisting that atrazine levels at or even below 3 parts per billion are dangerous, have led EPA and the American taxpayer on an expensive wild goose chase,” says Triazine Network Chairman Jere White, referring to what he believes is a politically motivated atrazine re-evaluation. “The U.S. EPA should follow the lead of the World Health Organization and continue to rely on sound science to evaluate atrazine,” White adds in an Oct. 5 statement.

James Lamb, director and principal scientist at consulting firm Exponent’s Center for Toxicology and Mechanistic Biology, says EPA’s current drinking water standard for atrazine appears to be too severe.

“These new findings from WHO suggest that the EPA should re-evaluate the current 3 parts per billion standard in order to bring it into line with the latest scientific data,” he says in the statement.

MR. PRESIDENT, WHERE ARE THE LOCKS AND DAMS?

Labor Day, the day we American’s celebrate our nation’s workforce, is a great day to announce plans for more jobs. I definitely understand what President Obama was thinking when he stood in Milwaukee, WI and announced plans for massive infrastructure investment, which will not only modernize American roads, rails, and runways, but will also create millions of jobs.

What I don’t understand is the conspicuous absence of funding for upgraded locks and dams.

Will investment in waterway transportation create jobs? Yes. Updating our waterway infrastructure will create 48 million hours of labor for skilled trade workers throughout the Midwest.

Does investment in waterway transportation offer a return on investment? Definitely. America’s inland waterway navigation system moves more than a billion tons of domestic commerce valued at more than $300 billion per year. Agricultural products are a significant portion of that commerce and agriculture is one industry with potential to pull our economy out of the black hole it’s in.

Does investment in waterway transportation garner industry support? Undoubtedly. The shipping industry is the only industry stepping forward to provide additional funding streams for upgrades to their system that will match federal dollars. In other words, upgrading locks and dams provides jobs and return on investment in a much bigger dose than other projects because the industry is financing a portion of the project.

So what’s the problem? I’m not sure. President Obama used to support lock and dam upgrades. As a US Senator he was an advocate for upgraded locks and dams and even played a key role in the passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 that now simply sits for lack of funding. He used to be in favor of allowing the US to be competitive in a global market. He used to understand that Midwestern agriculture, the powerhouse of the American economy, relied on efficient infrastructure to get goods to markets all across the globe.

What’s changed? Again, I’m not sure. What I do know is that investment in waterway transportation offers a greener option for transporting goods, a bundle of great jobs for Midwestern workers, and a means to allow agriculture to further drive our country out of an economic mess.

All I know for sure is that that no matter what question I ask, upgraded locks and dams are the answer. More jobs, greener transportation, supportive to our nation’s largest economic powerhouse …

Mr. President, where are the locks and dams?

Jim Tarmann
Frustrated IL Corn Waterway Transportation Specialist

COMMON SENSE SHOULD PREVAIL – WILL IT?

“We respect efforts for a clean and healthy environment, but not at the expense of common sense.”

If we had an awards show for things elected officials say, (why not? Everyone else has an awards show!) this quote about the EPA would win in my book, hands down.

And to what issue is the quote referring? The EPA is now considering regulating dust as a harmful pollutant.  If this isn’t some sort of indication that we’ve let the EPA go a little too far, I don’t know what is.

I leave it to you to figure out how exactly the EPA will regulate farm dust … perhaps they will fund replacing all those dirt roads and driveways with pavement? Perhaps they will loosen the reins on our water supply so that we can spray everything down? Perhaps they will just decide that they would rather go hungry?

When did common sense become … well … less common?

Becky Finfrock
ICGA/ICMB Communications Assistant

ETHANOL EFFICIENCIES FUEL A GREEN REVOLUTION

During a recent tour of Illinois River Energy in Rochelle, IL, the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and staff learned about new and innovative techniques to produce ethanol that lesson the energy requirement and create more valuable co-products.  Corn-based ethanol gets more and more efficient every day!
Did you see in this recent study by Stanford University, the researchers determined that high yield agriculture prevented the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere?  According to the researchers, their results, “Dispel the notion that modern intensive agriculture is inherently worse for the environment than a more ‘old-fashioned’ way of doing things.”
High yield agriculture is good for the environment.  And these higher yields are what is producing enough corn to fuel our countries green-energy revolution. 

Thank Farmers for Role in Conserving Resources

Happy Earth Day to everyone! Here is a great letter to the editor that was featured in the Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL) today. Unfortunately, the comments on it show the lack of knowledge that people have about farming, even ones that live right in the middle of the largest corn producing county in the U.S. Go add your comment today and don’t forget to come back and let us know!

Don’t forget to include farmers as we celebrate the 40th annual Earth Day this week. Farmers have a direct daily interface with the Earth. They are literally getting their hands dirty caring for livestock, tending the soil and growing crops.

While most people only connect with food and fuel at the point of purchase, farmers face the reality of producing it each day.

The next time you hear an expert who gained their knowledge from afar rather than a field, ask yourself, “Who might have better solutions for agriculture — someone who has skin in the game or their head in the clouds?”

 Like all farmers, corn farmers rely on an intimate understanding of the environment while also playing a significant role in modern production agriculture. Corn is the world’s largest crop, a staple of U.S. agriculture and a cornerstone of our national economy. It touches our lives in many ways every day. So, it’s not surprising that this versatile crop is often in the news.

Corn is in the food we eat, cars we drive, packages we open, fabrics we wear and medicines we take. Our ability to feed and fuel a world population that will double in the next 20 to 40 years is in the hands of a small, but dedicated pool of professionals.

So the next time you meet a farmer, thank them for the hard work, knowledge and skills that help us conserve our natural resources. We’re going to need them.
 Ron Fitchhorn, Rural McLean