Minnesota "livestock" plan focused on CAFO needs

Cites organic hope, but provides no support, despite official promises earlier to promote alternative agricultural opportunities.

By Jim Riddle

Big Ag looks to state laws to smooth out local resistance

Public policy directly influencing farming start-ups and expansion is picking up at the state, county and township levels. Anti-corporate-farming laws, food safety rules on raw milk, farmer exemptions to packaging and labeling happen at the state level, while counties and townships also attempt to lure or limit Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

As vertical integration and concentration continues within livestock production, integrators seek to remove limits to their expansion. Variation equals expense, and expenses to adapt their model to geographical variation cut profits. Some counties and townships have adopted customized guidelines on facility siting and operation that fit local terrain and community sentiment.

Increasingly, agribusiness leaders are promoting pre-emptive, state-wide CAFO regulations so that corporate planners at the home office can efficiently project expansion costs throughout the state -- without having to fit their “procurement systems” to local or regional producer variations.

A good example is Pennsylvania’s recent announcement of the Agriculture, Communities, and the Rural Environment (ACRE) plan This proposal appears to be mostly a conflict-resolution system for siting better-regulated CAFOs. In exchange for tighter environmental controls, CAFO planners would deal with a state-appointed review board rather than local officials. ACRE doesn't pretend to be a comprehensive policy to develop sustainable livestock farming to benefit rural communities, family farmers, consumers and watershed integrity.

In this article, Jim Riddle highlights a recent Minnesota initiative that is more egregious given its alleged broader scope. It treats CAFOs as the only serious way ahead for the state’s livestock farmers, and tries to make the way plain for them to have their way across Minnesota. This is by now a standard “let’s get modern and go industrial” proposal, but what it left out is even more disturbing given previous official commitments to the state’s organic farming community – which includes livestock producers.

Tellingly, it omitted support for premium organic, grass-fed and antibiotic-free hog development. This despite a comprehensive, multi-agency MOU that commits the state government to:

  • expansion of economic opportunity
  • cooperation among partner organizations on organic activities
  • enhancement of consumer choice specifically related to organic products grown in Minnesota.

Federal farm bills demand great vigilance and set broad policy, yet without persistent attention at the state level, sustainable agriculture options will be diminished. Effective, holistic planning to build rural economics takes time and money. For cash-strapped states, it’s much easier to cut regulations when integrators lay out their program. Without tenacious advocates armed with practical proposals in our state capitals, sustainable farming groups will be marginalized in the quest for state attention and support.– Greg Bowman

August 30, 2004: Minnesota Governor Pawlenty’s Livestock Task Force (LTF) recently released a report titled “Minnesota’s Animal Agriculture Industry Report.” It does a good job of addressing the challenges and barriers faced by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), but it does not address environmentally sound, consumer-driven livestock production systems, such as organic, free-range, or grass-fed.

A word search of the report shows that there is no mention of “grazing,” “pasture,” “free-range,” or “grass-fed.” The omission of these livestock production systems reveals an underlying bias toward CAFOs.

If enacted, the LTF recommendations would provide a green light for CAFOs in Minnesota. These proposals would reduce regulatory requirements; weaken local authority; use state resources to facilitate, simplify, and streamline the approval of CAFO permit applications; provide tax credits for the creation and expansion of CAFOs; and enhance producer management skills for operations with additional animal units.

The bias against regulation of industrial animal systems is revealed on page 12, which states, “As with state permitting and environmental review process, the perception of an extraordinarily difficult local siting process can have a chilling effect on producers’ decisions to modernize, expand, or build a new livestock operation. Some areas of concern about local siting that lack a rational basis include absolute size limitations (animal unit caps), large separation distances (setbacks), and minimum acreage requirements.”

There are two positive references to organic livestock production, but these passing references are inadequate, considering the growing significance of the organic sector.

Pages 4 and 16 state, “Some have chosen to switch to alternative farming methods such as organics, which offer potentially higher per-unit returns in exchange for higher production costs.” Page 19 states, “there is an increase in consumer demand for organic and antibiotic-free/hormone-free animal products.”

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the number of certified organic beef cattle, milk cows, hogs, pigs, sheep, and lambs in 2001 was up nearly four-fold since 1997, and up 27 percent from 2000 to 2001. Poultry animals raised under certified organic management showed even higher rates of growth during this period.

ERS data shows that in 2001, Minnesota ranked sixth overall in certified acreage in the U.S., with 4.4 percent of the total U.S. certified organic acres. Minnesota ranked fourth in the number of certified organic farms. Minnesota ranked first in acres of organic corn, soybeans, and rye, and second in organic buckwheat, third in organic pasture and hay, fifth in alfalfa, and sixth in wheat, barley, and millet. Minnesota ranked seventh in organic milk cows, hogs, and pigs, and ninth in organic beef.

As reported in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s “Status of Organic Agriculture in Minnesota” report issued July 2003, “retail organic food sales showed strong and consistent growth at more than 20 percent per year during the 1990s, a trend that industry sources predict will continue. Retail organic sales reached $9.5 billion in 2001 and are expected to grow to $20 billion by 2005.” www.mda.state.mn.us/esap/organic

Organic meat in high demand

Recent media stories, as reported in the July 2004 issue of Organic Business News (OBN), indicate that organic livestock producers are scrambling to meet growing consumer demands for organic meats, dairy, and eggs. Organic beef sales reached nearly $10 million last year, according to the Organic Trade Association, which expects sales of organic meat and poultry to grow 30.7 percent annually through 2008.

“We cannot find enough certified organic cattle to provide the number of cattle that our Organic Meat Company would like to market,” reported Allen Moody, meat pool coordinator for Organic Valley in LaFarge, WI. According to OBN, Organic Valley has launched ad campaigns in farm newspapers and set up information meetings to attract new farmers in the Midwest.

Minnesota livestock producers are well positioned to enter the growing organic market. In doing so, they increase acres in resource-protecting pasture and forage crops and improve markets for Minnesota-grown organic feed grains. The expansion of organic livestock production in Minnesota also has the potential to improve local and regional economic activity by providing opportunities to seed industries, feed mills, slaughter facilities, creameries, food processors and distributors, retailers, restaurants, and more.

According to a study done by agricultural economist Dr. Luanne Lohr, “Counties with organic farms have stronger farm economies and contribute more to local economies through total sales, net revenue, farm value, taxes paid, payroll, and purchases of fertilizer, seed, and repair and maintenance services.”

A survey of organic livestock research needs that I conducted in 2003-2004 while serving as UMN Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems revealed a widespread need for improved processing, handling, and distribution systems for organic livestock products and for organic feed, feed supplements, and approved medications. These basic infrastructure needs of the livestock sector are not mentioned in the LTF report.

Only one of the LTF report’s recommendations is relevant to the organic sector. The recommendation states, in part, that the State should “provide technical assistance in the production and marketing of specialty or alternative meat and dairy products.”

All other LTF recommendations focus on deregulation of the livestock industry. These short-sighted recommendations will not maintain the countryside or build livestock systems that are safe and environmentally and economically sustainable for farmers, rural towns, and consumers.

Commitment to organic?

In 2003, the MDA’s Organic Advisory Task Force submitted comprehensive recommendations for education and information; research; business and market development; policy and regulatory support; technical and financial assistance; and leadership.

Also in 2003, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (Minnesota), University Of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension Service, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and USDA Farm Service Agency signed a groundbreaking Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on organic agriculture.

The MOU established a framework for cooperation among partner organizations on organic activities, expansion of economic opportunity, and enhancement of consumer choice specifically related to organic products grown in Minnesota. The MOU states, in part:

Through ecologically-based farming methods that emphasize soil and livestock health, farmers are producing food and other products for which a growing number of consumers will pay more. Preserving the identity of organically grown foods and agricultural products through processing and handling is crucial, and creates opportunities for new on-farm, rural, and tribal business enterprises in Minnesota to sell to local, regional, national and international buyers. It is the intention of the MOU Partner organizations to undertake complementary efforts that will help Minnesota farmers, Minnesota-based business enterprises, and Minnesota consumers make the most of the opportunities presented by this rapidly growing sector.

While the LTF report acknowledges that organic livestock systems “offer potentially higher per-unit returns” and that “there is an increase in consumer demand for organic and antibiotic-free/hormone-free animal products,” the report does not integrate the potential for organic agriculture to provide profitable, market driven, ecologically sound, and regulatory compliant solutions for problems faced by the livestock sector into its recommendations.

In order to address the long term environmental, social, and economic needs of livestock agriculture in Minnesota, the state government should fully implement the commitments made in the 2003 MOU and the recommendations made by the Organic Advisory Task Force, rather than the narrow recommendations found in the Governor’s Livestock Task Force report.

Jim Riddle
Chair, MDA Organic Advisory Task Force
Organic Policy Specialist, NewFarm.org