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Smithfield’s Plans to Cover Hog Lagoons Could Spur N.C. Biogas Industry

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The Optima KV project in Duplin County pipes methane gas from nearby hog farms to this new refinery in Kenansville. There the gas is converted to pipeline-quality natural gas. Duke Energy uses the gas to produce electricity at its Smith Energy Complex in Richmond County. Photo: Courtesy of Duke Energy

Smithfield announced last year that it will use covered lagoons and digesters on 90 percent of its hog finishing farms within 10 years, a move that could reduce greenhouse gasses, create renewable energy and open opportunities in the biogas sector.

A man stepped out of the side door of his home in Kenansville and refused to give his name.

“I have to live here,” he said.

“Here” is hog-farming country, where signs reading “Stand up for Farmers” sprout from the roadsides.

Signs supporting hog farmers have been placed around Kenansville, the county seat of Duplin County, one of the largest pork-producing counties in the country since a court handed down decisions against farmers in 2018. Photo: Rose Hoban

Here, in Duplin County, hogs outnumber people 32-1.

Just outside of view from the man’s home lies Optima KV, a pilot project involving five farms that use covered lagoons and anaerobic digesters to convert methane from hog waste into renewable natural gas. The biogas is then injected into pipelines and sold to Duke Energy.

The man complained about odors and flies from Optiva KV. He said he built his sun porch for that reason. But he admitted that the smells aren’t as bad as they once were, before the covered digesters were installed.

Optima KV could be viewed as a microcosm of the not-too-distant future, a time when almost all of Smithfield Foods’ hog finishing farms in North Carolina will use covered lagoons and digesters to convert methane into biogas.

Smithfield announced in late October that 90 percent of the lagoons on those farms will be covered within 10 years. Similar projects will also be done in Missouri and Utah.

The announcement was followed by another one a month later in which Smithfield said it was partnering with Dominion Energy, a public utility based in Virginia, to spend at least $250 million in the next decade on hog farms in North Carolina, Virginia and Utah.

Smithfield says it is taking the steps partly to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025 by capturing 85,000 tons of methane each year to generate renewable natural gas. That’s the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from the roads.

Smithfield spokeswoman Lisa Martin said the pork producer and Dominion Energy will pay for the infrastructure, including piping, transportation, gas cleaning and equipment to inject the gas into pipelines. Farmers will pay for the digesters and lagoon covers if they choose to participate, Martin said

Biogas could lead to thousands of jobs

Supporters of the project say it will open the door to a fledgling biogas industry in North Carolina, creating thousands of jobs.

“It’s a really big step, there is no doubt about that,” said Tatjana Vujic, director of biogas strategy for Duke University. “I’m very pleased with this development. It’s going to move the needle on biogas in the state, and I think it’s going to open the door to making use of more of our waste streams,” such as poultry.

Tweet from the American Jobs Project, a bipartisan think tank geared at advancing “green” energy initiatives.

Vujic pointed to a 2016 report by the nonprofit American Jobs Project that identified biogas and utility-scale batteries as showing particular promise for economic development in North Carolina.

“With the right policies, utility-scale batteries and biogas can support 19,000 jobs per year through 2030,” the report found.

But some environmental groups say Smithfield’s plans don’t go nearly far enough. They want the company to stop using lagoons and spraying the waste onto adjoining farm fields. That method has led to millions of gallons of hog waste spilling out of the lagoons, most recently during Hurricane Florence. It has also led to concerns about overapplication of nitrogen, runoff into creeks and streams and complaints about odors, flies and related issues.

People living next to hog farms, each of which house thousands of animals, say mist from spraying manure on the fields drifts onto their properties. They worry about health problems from pathogens associated with the waste.

“Biogas technology that doesn’t address water pollution and public health issues associated with industrial-scale hog production is not a complete solution,” said Blakely Hildebrand, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We need technology that addresses those.”

Reducing greenhouse gases

Some environmental groups argue that Smithfield must begin using new and expensive technology that has been proven to work without harming the environment or the health of its neighbors.

But it’s hard to object to covering the lagoons and adding digesters, strictly from the standpoint of creating renewable biogas and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Smithfield’s plans are backed by the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped the company create its goals for reducing greenhouse gases.

North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the United States, home to 2,126 permitted industrial swine operations housing nearly 9 million animals. If all of those farms used covered lagoons and digesters, they could provide enough natural gas to power 140,000 homes.

And they could do that for as little as 6 cents per kilowatt hour, or roughly the same price as solar power, according to a  study  published in 2013 by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

At the same time, covered lagoons and digesters would be reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists say causes global warming and has contributed to diminished Arctic sea ice, rising ocean levels, flooding from more intense storms and bigger and more frequent forest fires.

“Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth,” the National Climate Assessment warned in a study released in November.

Carbon dioxide is the most common form of greenhouse gas, 200 times more prevalent in the atmosphere than methane. But methane is at least 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide, and its levels have been growing. Agriculture contributes 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Joint venture

Besides covering lagoons and adding digesters, the joint venture between Smithfield and Dominion Energy also calls for expanding the Optima KV pilot project to two larger farm clusters, in Duplin and Sampson counties. Construction was to begin before the end of 2018.

“Our companies recognize the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the future of our planet,” Thomas Farrell, Dominion’s chairman and chief executive, said in a news release. Renewable natural gas “is an innovative and proven way to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry by converting it into clean renewable energy.”

Maggie Monast, senior manager of economic incentives and agricultural sustainability for the Environmental Defense Fund, is optimistic about the plans.

“Overall, I think it’s long overdue and much-needed progress,” Monast said. “We haven’t seen progress in a long time on this issue, and I think this creates momentum that we can harvest.’’

Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy, welcomes the initiative, too, but he said biogas has a long way to go before making a significant contribution to the state’s energy needs.

“I don’t think it will be a large contributor to an overall energy mix unless the technology improves greatly,” he said.

Nevertheless, Wheeless believes Smithfield’s plans will transform a small but growing waste-to-energy industry in North Carolina.

“I think it’s put biogas on the radar in North Carolina as a very viable way to create electricity,” Wheeless said.

Optima KV leading the way

North Carolina got its first good look at the potential for biogas from the hog industry in 2011 on Loyd Ray Farms in Yadkinville,  about 25 miles west of Winston-Salem.

That year, construction of a covered anaerobic digester system was completed on the farm as a demonstration project overseen and partly funded by Duke University, Google and Duke Energy. The $1.2 million project captures methane from hog waste and uses it to produce renewable electricity.

Using a 65-kilowatt microturbine, the system generates enough electricity to power itself and about half of the farm. Any extra electricity is sold to Duke Energy.

Two years after the project began, Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions published its study that found that the barebones cost of producing electricity from swine biogas could be as little as 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

The researchers also determined that the most cost-effective approach was either to create electricity on a single farm, such as Loyd Ray Farms, or use a cluster of farms to refine the waste into natural gas and then inject it directly into natural gas pipelines. They determined that the best cluster of farms was in an area covering Sampson and Duplin counties, where most of the state’s hogs are raised.

In 2016, Duke Energy entered into an agreement with OptimaBio, the company that oversees the Optima KV project on the five Duplin County hog farms in Kenansville. Combined, the farms raise more than 60,000 hogs for Smithfield Foods.

Under the agreement, OptimaBio will convert swine biogas from the five farms into renewable natural gas and inject it into a pipeline owned by Piedmont Natural Gas. Duke will then use the natural gas to generate electricity. The project is expected to produce enough renewable natural gas to power about 1,000 homes.

Optima KV is the first project in North Carolina to directly inject refined swine biogas into a natural gas pipeline, said Mark Maloney, OptimaBio’s founder and chief executive.

The five farms began injecting the gas into pipelines in March, Maloney said. The project became fully operational in June, with what Maloney called some hiccups in technology along the way.

“Like anything, when you do it for the first time it takes longer than you would hope, but it’s getting easier,” he said.

Other benefits of covers and digesters

An anaerobic digester is essentially a big, air-tight chamber that sits either beside or under a covered hog lagoon. Hog manure is pumped into the chamber, which is heated to spur communities of microorganisms to rapidly eat the waste and convert it into methane, which is trapped under the lagoon covers, siphoned off, cleaned and converted to natural gas.

Smithfield and Maloney point to other advantages of covered lagoons and digesters, besides creating reusable biogas and reducing greenhouse gases. They say the covers will significantly lessen the chances that the lagoons will overtop their banks during major storms.

And Maloney estimates that the covers have reduced odors at Optima KV by 20 percent to 40 percent. While the Optima KV farms still use uncovered lagoons, Maloney said, those with covered digesters receive only fresh manure, where much of the smells come from.

John Kilpatrick owns three farms that are part of the Optima KV project. He agreed that the covered lagoons and digesters have substantially reduced the smells coming from his farms. The digesters also greatly reduce the sludge at the bottom of his lagoons, he said, all but eliminating the expensive costs of hauling it away.

Kilpatrick said he and another farmer have invested about $11 million into the Optima KV project. Kilpatrick said he took out a 10-year loan for his part of the investment and expects to pay it off in five years. He said he makes up to a 15 percent profit on the sale of the methane, above the cost of the loan.

“It’s not that much money when you term it out,” he said. “It should pay for itself within 10 years.”

Whether other farmers will agree to such a large investment to cover their lagoons and digesters remains to be seen.

Martin, the Smithfield spokeswoman, did not provide a cost, other than to say it would be substantial.

“Farmers will have the opportunity to invest in covers or covered digesters,” Martin said, adding that participating farmers will profit from the sale of the natural gas.

“Farmers, I think, are supportive,” Maloney said. “They see it as being good shepherds of the industry, and i think they also see it as a new agricultural commodity.”

Martin also did not say how many of the state’s hog waste lagoons may be converted into covered digesters.

“At this point, it is premature to provide a figure quantifying the number of lagoons involved, as the number of lagoons per farm vary,” she said. “This is why our commitment is based off the number of hog finishing spaces. That being said, it is fair to say that many hundreds of farms will be involved in this effort.”

Angie Maier, the N.C. Pork Council’s director of government affairs and sustainability, noted that the value of renewable energy has increased substantially recently, driven in part by California’s quest to offset its carbon footprint.

“It doesn’t work for everyone, but folks who want to do it and it works for their farms, I think there are opportunities to cover their costs,” Maier said.

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years.

This story was originally published in North Carolina Health News .

Agriculture

Chicken Farmers Thought Trump Was Going to Help Them. Then His Administration Did the Opposite.

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When Weaver bought his farm, he expected the income from his chicken houses would help him afford a little more land and supplement his retirement. Instead, he said, everything he earned from the chicken operation had to go back into new investments that the processing company required. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

The Agriculture Department is barely enforcing regulations on big meat companies.

By late 2016, many of the nation’s 25,000 chicken farmers said they had grown bitterly frustrated by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Under Obama, top officials had promised to help farmers by tightening regulations on meat processing companies, which for decades had been growing bigger and more powerful. The industry consolidation extended to beef, dairy and pork as well as poultry, but the Obama administration was particularly concerned about the effects on farmers who raise chickens on contract for giants such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride.

Farmers complained that they had been lured into the business with rosy profit projections only to discover that the processing companies — which they depend on for supplies of chicks and feed — could suddenly change their contract terms to impose additional costs or drop them for any reason.

By the time the Obama administration finally pushed through the rules meant to address these problems in December 2016, Donald Trump, a Republican, had won the White House, backed by many farmers who said they had been let down by Obama, a Democrat.

Now, some say their expectation that Trump would be different may have been misplaced.

Over the last two years, Trump appointees have not only reversed the regulations put in place at the end of Obama’s presidency, they have retreated from enforcing the preexisting rules. The Trump administration dissolved the office charged with policing meat companies for cheating and defrauding farmers. Fines for breaking the rules dropped to $243,850 in 2018, less than 10% of what they were five years earlier.

“The chicken company cost me my ability to feed my children and pay our bills,” said Tony Grigsby, a retired cop in Alabama who recently quit chicken farming. Grigsby identifies as a Republican and enthusiastically supported Trump, but he said he wished Trump hadn’t scrapped Obama’s regulations. “I hear the president saying he’s doing things for the American farmer,” he said, “but it’s almost like it’s only a certain percentage.”

The White House declined to respond to questions about its decisions related to the meat industry, and the USDA declined to provide an interview with the top enforcement official. A USDA spokesman said the agency “is committed to supporting the president’s commitment to reprioritize spending and redefine the proper role of the federal government.”

The National Chicken Council, which represents the big chicken companies, has cheered the Trump administration’s rollback of the proposed regulations, saying the rules would have cost the industry — and, by extension, consumers — billions of dollars.

“Companies have waiting lists of potential farmers that want to partner with them to raise birds,” Tom Super, a spokesman for the trade group, said.

The administration’s moves underscore its ties with the meat industry. One of the largest donations supporting Trump during the campaign was a $2 million super PAC contribution from a poultry magnate, and several industry stalwarts took positions with the Trump transition team or in the Agriculture Department.

The administration’s siding with big meat companies over small farmers is already becoming campaign fodder for Trump’s opponents. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have vowed to restore the Obama-era regulations and dust off atrophied antitrust laws to break up big meat companies. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, is promoting the creation of an independent agriculture regulator, akin to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Weaver at his farm in West Virginia. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Chicken farmers who considered themselves staunch Trump supporters say their worsening circumstances since he took office are making them reconsider their votes. Mike Weaver, a West Virginia farmer, said he gave up raising chickens this year after the company wanted him to waive his right to sue — something the Obama administration’s rules would have prevented.

“I made excuses for him for a while, thinking he’s going to eventually get a grasp on the dire situation small family farmers are in,” Weaver said of Trump. “It hasn’t happened yet. If it doesn’t happen by the next election, I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing.”


The main law regulating meatpackers was passed almost a century ago after a Federal Trade Commission investigation found that five companies had a stranglehold over the country’s meat supply and used it to fix prices, crush competition and defraud farmers and consumers.

The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 prohibited meatpackers from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices, manipulating prices, creating monopolies or giving undue preference to particular people, businesses or places. The law’s scope expanded over the next several decades to apply to livestock dealers, live poultry dealers, swine contractors and other related businesses.

Eventually, however, courts, the Justice Department, the FTC and the USDA softened their stance on consolidation. From 1986 to 2016, the top four companies’ market share rose from 55% to 84% in beef processing, 33% to 66% in pork, and 34% to 50% in chicken, according to USDA data. Counting the fifth-largest chicken company, the top firms control 61% of the market.

The industry says consolidation has improved productivity, allowing the U.S. to grow more food using less land and labor.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Congressional Research Service

But another upshot of these changes is that the five biggest chicken companies — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms and Koch Foods — exert “such comprehensive control” over the contractors who raise chickens for them that the Small Business Administration’s inspector general said these farmers should no longer qualify as independent small businesses. (The SBA hasn’t decided whether to follow that recommendation.)

Chicken companies contract with local farmers to raise and care for birds for several weeks until they’re ready for slaughter. The farmers bear the cost of housing the birds, equipment and fuel. The companies, in addition to delivering chicks and feed, rank the farmers based on how plump their birds get and pay accordingly. This so-called “tournament system” rewards the most efficient producers, the companies argue, but farmers say the companies control key variables, such as who receives the healthiest chicks and the most nutritious feed, and, thus, who comes out on top.

One clear indicator of companies’ growing leverage over farmers: Farmers’ average pay rose by just 2.5 cents a pound from 1988 to 2016, while the wholesale price of chicken increased by 17.4 cents a pound, data from the USDA and the National Chicken Council shows.

In the early years of the Obama administration, top officials visited farmers in Iowa, Alabama and Wisconsin — places where the Tea Party backlash was giving Democrats trouble with white working-class voters — and promised help to those who said the system was rigged against them.

“This is a top priority for today’s Department of Justice,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the crowd in an auditorium at Alabama A&M University in May 2010.

Weaver spoke at a hearing that the Justice and Agriculture departments held in Alabama in 2010. He spent hundreds of hours rallying support and contacting lawmakers about the Obama administration’s proposed regulations on meat companies. (Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Farmers at the Alabama meeting detailed how chicken companies dictated contract terms and how they were powerless to resist, even if the terms were financially ruinous.

“Either I sign it or I ain’t got no chickens,” Garry Staples from Steele, Alabama, said at the hearing. “Without any chickens, I can’t pay any bills. I can’t pay my mortgage because chicken houses are designed for one thing: grow chickens.”

Staples said he was risking his livelihood just to be there, since the companies were known to use the tournament system to punish farmers who spoke out. Some farmers read messages on behalf of others who were too afraid to come.

The Justice Department’s top antitrust enforcer, Christine Varney, told Staples she would have his back. “Mr. Staples, let me say, I fully expect you will not experience retaliation by virtue of your presence today,” Varney said at the hearing. “But if you do, you call me at this number because I want to know about it.” The audience clapped and cheered. (When Staples tried to call Varney a few years later, he discovered she’d left the Justice Department for a partnership at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. She declined to comment.)

Ultimately, the meetings and promises didn’t lead to action by the Justice Department. In 2012, the Antitrust Division issued a 24-page report summarizing farmers’ concerns but concluding that many, or possibly most, of them “fall outside the purview of the antitrust laws.”

The USDA, however, proposed regulations in June 2010 designed to address many of the chicken farmers’ chief complaints. The rules would clarify prohibited practices, such as retaliating against farmers and terminating their contracts without notice. They would make it easier for farmers to sue, without their having to show that companies were harming competition across the industry, an almost impossibly high bar to clear. And they would restrict chicken companies from using the tournament system to mislead farmers about their projected income or to favor some farmers over others by providing unequal quality of chicks and feed.

“The rules addressed fraud, bad faith, retaliation and denial of due process,” said Dudley Butler, a Mississippi lawyer who helped develop the new rules in the USDA during the Obama administration.


The meat industry opposed the proposed regulations and lobbied Congress to block them. Meatpackers spend more than $4 million a year on lobbying, and the top recipient of their campaign contributions in the 2014 House elections was Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who led the agriculture appropriations subcommittee. The House Appropriations Committee also included Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican whose district is home to Tyson Foods, the biggest chicken company.

When annual funding bills made their way through Kingston’s and Womack’s panels, lawmakers inserted a prohibition against USDA staff spending any time to work on finishing the regulations. Republicans on the Appropriations Committee said the rules would “allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.”

Spokespeople for Womack and Kingston didn’t answer requests for comment. Kingston retired from Congress in 2015 and became a lobbyist.

With Congress barring the USDA from working on the regulations, the Obama administration could not put them into effect. At a 2014 meeting with farmers who supported the regulations, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told them they’d been outgunned by the industry. “You don’t have enough horses,” Vilsack said, according to two people present: Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a populist advocacy group for farmers; and Chris Petersen, a hog farmer from Clear Lake, Iowa. Vilsack didn’t respond to requests for comment. (He’s now head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which did not have a position on the regulations.)

Since Trump took office, the Agriculture Department has scaled back enforcing rules against meat processing companies that cheat and defraud farmers. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Just before Obama left office, Congress stopped preventing the USDA from working on the regulations (in part because of public outcry over a television segment by the comedian John Oliver). The Obama administration raced to finish the regulations before Trump’s inauguration.

In December 2016, the USDA released a watered-down version of its 2010 proposal. The agency published an interim final rule on making it easier for farmers to sue. The agency also proposed a rule spelling out deceptive practices and another against using the tournament system to treat farmers unequally. But under the legal process for implementing new regulations, these rules couldn’t take effect for several more months. That left them vulnerable to being changed by the incoming administration.


After doing away with the Obama administration’s interim final rule and proposed rules, the Trump administration says it will propose a new regulation this summer. The USDA has been holding talks with industry groups to discuss the new policy. Farmers and their advocates fear the new regulations could be even more favorable to big meat companies than the status quo, according to Steve Etka, who lobbies for small farmers. Some in the industry, though, say they hope the administration will ditch its rulemaking effort entirely.

“We’d love to see them do nothing,” Colin Woodall, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said. “The action the secretary took to stop this is exactly what we wanted. We believe the USDA’s efforts are better focused on implementing and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act as it exists.”

But that’s not happening either. The staff in the office responsible for enforcing the law has dwindled to 137, from 166 in 2010. In 2017, the most recent data available, the office finished 1,873 investigations, down from 2,588 in 2012. The office suspended five people and companies for violating the Packers and Stockyards Act in 2017, down from 34 in 2013.

Source: USDA
* The 2018 figure is based on preliminary case data on the USDA’s website. The final tally is not yet available. (Source: USDA)

The USDA declined to allow ProPublica to interview Stuart Frank, director of the Packers and Stockyards Division. In a statement, the department said compliance varies over time depending on economic conditions, and penalties depend on severity and the violator’s “ability to pay and stay in business.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue also has eliminated the enforcement office as an independent administration within the USDA, moving it under the Agricultural Marketing Service, the branch of USDA whose primary mission is facilitating sales for big agriculture companies. In a memo, he described the reorganization as “Improving Industry Engagement.”

“That’s outrageous,” said Weaver, the West Virginia farmer who spoke at the 2010 Alabama hearing. “How’s the agency that supports the industry and helps them increase revenue going to put the guys out there to police those companies and make them do the right thing?”

Weaver started growing chickens 15 years ago, after retiring from being a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He bought a farm in Fort Seybert, sheltered between Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest, expecting that the income from his chicken houses would help him afford a little more land and supplement his retirement. Instead, he said, everything he earned from the chicken operation had to go back into new investments that the company required in order to keep receiving flocks to raise.

Weaver dedicated hundreds of hours to rallying support and contacting lawmakers about the Obama administration’s proposed regulations. “I can’t tell you how disappointed we were,” he said. “Obama bowed to industry like all politicians. They made all kinds of promises and nothing was done.”

Weaver said he thought Trump would be different. He wasn’t another politician, he was a businessman. He said he would end business as usual in Washington and make things fair for the little guy. That was a big reason why Weaver voted for Trump.

Last year, Weaver received a new contract from the company he grew for, Pilgrim’s Pride, a subsidiary of JBS, the world’s largest meat company. The new contract required farmers to drop all legal claims against the company and forbade them from participating in class-action lawsuits.

Weaver wouldn’t accept that, since he is part of a federal lawsuit in Oklahoma alleging that Pilgrim’s Pride, Koch Foods, Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms and Perdue Farms conspired to hurt farmers by fixing chicken prices. The companies said the farmers failed to demonstrate any illegal conduct. A judge has not yet ruled on whether the case can proceed.

The regulations proposed by the Obama administration would have prevented Pilgrim’s Pride from forcing Weaver to waive his litigation rights. But since those rules were blocked, Weaver was on his own.

Weaver crossed out the offending provisions and signed. Pilgrim’s Pride rejected it. A spokeswoman for JBS, which owns Pilgrim’s Pride, said farmers who opted out of the new contract could remain on the old contract. Weaver said he couldn’t afford to continue under the old contract, which paid less, so he had his last flock in January. He’s done with chicken farming.

“I miss it like a toothache,” he said.

But Weaver hasn’t given up on trying to get Trump’s attention. He wrote an open letter to Trump published on the website of Fox News, lamenting the decision to overturn the Obama administration’s regulations and asked Trump to uphold his campaign promises: “As farmers, with families who depend on us, we are dismayed by the move and we’re calling on President Trump to make good on his campaign pledge — to drain the swamp of big meat lobbyists who continue to cut bad deals that hurt rural economies and families.”

Weaver is still hoping to draw Trump’s attention to family farmers’ struggles. Otherwise, he said, “I’m going to tell everybody some of the promises he made were never kept and I don’t see it changing.”(Annie Flanagan, special to ProPublica)

Weaver also made a personal appeal to Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law. He met her at a July 2017 event in Washington with the U.S. Humane Society, since she is vocal about animal welfare. Weaver gave her a hat branded with his local association of chicken farmers and a note to the president. Lara Trump assured Weaver she would deliver the note, he said.

The Trump campaign, where Lara Trump is an adviser, didn’t answer requests for comment.

Weaver is still waiting to hear back from her, too.

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom based in New York. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

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Agriculture

Ohio Valley Farmers Unsure About New Trump Trade Aid Payments

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Small farms are squeezed by the dairy crisis. Photo: Nicole Erwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday details of a second round of aid totaling $16 billion for farmers affected by the trade war with China. But some Ohio Valley farmers worry about the ongoing consequences of these payments and tariffs.

As with the first round of tariff relief offered last year, farmers will again be paid extra for the soybeans, pork and dairy they produce. But instead of paying farmers a flat rate, USDA officials said these payments will depend on the assessed “trade damage” and the commodity production of each county.

USDA Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said agency economists first will assess the county-level impact of tariffs. “We then divide that by the acres planted within that county, and then have a [payment] no matter which crops you plant,” he said.

USDA officials say this will more accurately determine the right amount of payments for each farmer. But it also  leaves farmers without specifics about how much they might receive from the payments. Specialty crops including cranberries, grapes and tree nuts were also included to be eligible for relief payments.

The new payments are scheduled to be delivered in three phases, the first in July or August.

West Kentucky soybean farmer Jed Clark said while he appreciates these new payments, he’s worried that payments by county might lead to unintended discrepancies in how much each farmer receives.

“I think it will happen, and I think you’ll probably see some pretty drastic cases of it happening,” Clark said. “It’s hard to cover the diversity of farmers and their practices in a county and throw a blanket over that whole county.”

Clark said because these payments give farmers incentive to grow more, it could potentially increase the already large supply of crops such as soybeans, and that could make depressed crop prices even worse for farmers.

Farmers have been facing financial struggles because of low crop prices, caused in part by  retaliatory tariffs and the overproduction of crops. Most Ohio Valley farmers hope the new payments cover more of their losses than the last round of payments, but more importantly, they hope to see trade deals struck with China and other countries soon.

“Corn farmers only got a penny per bushel [last time], and that certainly didn’t account for the price loss they’ve had,” Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Spokesperson Brad Reynolds said. “I think those safety nets are there, farmers are glad that they’re there, but they’d rather not rely on programs.”

Central Ohio dairy farmer Chuck Moellendick said for the dairy industry, other trade deals in the works with Mexico and Canada are just as important because of the large supply of milk products that await shipping.

“Mexico’s our biggest exporter,” Mollendick said. “All of those things will disappear a lot quicker without tariffs on them. It makes us a lot more competitive.”

Mexico dropped retaliatory tariffs on U.S. cheese and dairy-based whey products last week after the Trump administration dropped tariffs on Mexican steel and aluminum.

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USDA Researchers Seek Help from Union on Trump Restrictions, Relocation

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Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue meets with National Association of Farm Broadcasting members in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) headquarters, Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2017. Moderating the meeting is NAFB President Max Armstrong. Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

Besides the plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside Washington, D.C., USDA has also clamped down on the agency’s ability to disseminate its finding through academic journals, a union representative says.

USDA Economic Research Service employees are seeking union representation to help them deal with Trump-administration changes including a restriction on releasing research without clearance from Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office, according to a union representative.

“The agency is trying to restrict how the ERS employees are publishing papers,” said Peter Winch, who works for the American Federation of Government Employees.

“They have to get an OK from USDA before submitting a paper for publication, is the change as it’s been described to me, whereas before they didn’t have to.”

Winch has been working with ERS employees since late last year to explore the possibility of union representation to help address numerous concerns about how the Trump administration is re-organizing science and research at USDA. ERS employees will vote May 9 on a proposal to join AFGE.

“As professional practitioners in a field, the ERS employees would be able to just send the journal articles in their respective field, and if they were published, that was a sign of the worthiness and merit of their work,” Winch said. “Their peers could tear it apart if it wasn’t done correctly. That’s how science works. Now, that’s a change in the research element at USDA, which would put the ERS researchers more directly under the secretary’s office.”

ERS employees are also concerned about USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate ERS from the Capital region.

ERS conducts research on agricultural economics, rural development, demographics, and a host of other topics. The Daily Yonder frequently uses ERS reports and data.

Former ERS administrator and 29-year employee Katherine Smith Evans shared these concerns in testimony presented to the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee on March 27.

Smith Evans said putting ERS under the supervision of the USDA Chief Economists’ Office instead of its current place within the Research Education and Economics Mission Area of USDA will damage the agency’s scientific credibility.

The change “reduces assurances of the scientific integrity and objectivity of ERS statistics and research, and threatens the accuracy of its critical statistical products,” she said.

In a related move, the Washington Post uncovered a July 2018 memo written by acting USDA chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young mandating that researchers include the following statement in their reports published in scientific journals: “The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.”

Winch, the union representative, said the ERS reorganization is unlike any other he’s seen at USDA. “This move seems designed to be as disruptive as possible, to be very high-handed, to not be democratic in process,” he said. “That’s a trend, really, throughout the Trump administration.”

He said the relocation is occurring “without appropriate Congressional oversight and input, without regard to the lives and families of employees, without a stated reason.”

At the March 27 meeting of the House ag committee, Representative Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said USDA had failed to provide a cost-benefit analysis to back up its claims that relocating the agency will save money.

“It’s very unlikely that this move will be a cost savings for the government,” Winch said.

USDA is supposed to announce the relocation plan on May 15, two days after the ERS unionization vote.

AFGE has also submitted a petition of interest for USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture employees to form a union. Winch said the NIFA union vote should occur in late May or June. Like ERS employees, many NIFA employees are likely to be relocated outside of Washington, D.C.

NIFA supports research, education, and extension activities through three primary funding mechanisms – competitive grants, formula grants, and non-competitive grants. “We fund and provide leadership for research, education, and extension programs that address national agricultural priorities,” the NIFA website states.

In written statements, Secretary Perdue has said moving NIFA and ERS save money and put the agencies closer to “stakeholders.”

“Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers,” Perdue said, according to a March 12 press release.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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