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Trump’s USDA Is Letting Factories With Troubling Safety Records Slaughter Chickens Even Faster

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Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Workers are getting injured, but the Department of Agriculture says their safety is not its responsibility.

Sixty miles northeast of Atlanta, a chicken statue atop a 25-foot monument proclaims the small city of Gainesville, Georgia, the “Poultry Capital of the World.” In the rolling hills outside of town, white feathers trail the trucks turning into a slaughterhouse operated by a local company called Fieldale Farms.

The Fieldale factory employs about 1,900 people. A lawn sign advertises jobs for $11-plus an hour and a big banner shouts “Think Safe, Work Safe.” But in recent years, according to federal safety records obtained by ProPublica, the factory has been the site of several grisly accidents, resulting in hospitalizations, amputations and death.

Those accidents didn’t prevent Fieldale from getting special permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to speed up its processing lines. Chicken companies have long wanted to operate their plants faster so that they can boost profits, either by producing more chickens or using less labor. But speeding up increases the risks to employees already working in dangerous conditions, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

It’s been only a few months since the speed increase took effect, not long enough to make meaningful before-and-after comparisons. And there is no available data to compare injury rates at the factories with higher speeds to the industry average because the Trump administration scrapped a requirement for employers to submit their injury logs. What is clear, from safety records obtained by ProPublica, is that most of the 11 plants that received permission to run faster did so despite having a history of serious accidents, including deaths.

The chicken industry has higher injury rates than coal mines or construction sites, and it’s the biggest source of finger amputations. Workers are under constant pressure to keep production going at a grueling speed. They typically perform one motion over and over, handling knives just a few inches from the next worker, surrounded by harsh chemicals and spinning blades.

“Increasing line speeds will increase poultry workers’ exposure to all of these hazards,” David Michaels, the head of OSHA from 2009 to 2017, said in a 2012 memo opposing a USDA proposal at the time to increase line speeds. Scientific studies, including both government-funded and industry-sponsored, have established that going faster worsens the risk of repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. There is also evidence that feeling rushed or struggling to keep up with the work pace are factors in traumatic injuries.

“My conclusion from conducting this detailed research is there is no doubt that increasing line speed will increase laceration injuries to workers,” Melissa Perry, chair of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said in a submission to the USDA opposing a similar plan to raise line speeds in pork slaughterhouses. The USDA is moving forward with that policy despite an internal investigation into whether the agency relied on flawed data to justify it.

For chicken factories, the USDA isn’t going through the time-consuming and contentious process of making a new regulation with a higher speed limit. Instead, it agreed to waive the existing cap for companies that ask. “This deregulatory action would advance the president’s objective to reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens,” the National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, said in its formal request for the waivers.

When the USDA started issuing line speed waivers to poultry plants last year, the agency said it wouldn’t consider the impact on worker safety. “The agency has neither the authority nor the expertise to regulate issues related to establishment worker safety,” the USDA said in its official announcement of the speed waivers. “OSHA is the federal agency with statutory and regulatory authority to promote workplace safety and health.”

But OSHA has no control over line speeds. A spokeswoman with the agency said the USDA “has sole jurisdiction over line speeds at these plants.”

This gap in the regulatory framework puts workers at risk, said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff. She now directs the National Employment Law Project’s Worker Health and Safety Program.

“The USDA doesn’t care about worker safety, they just care about increasing profits for huge meatpacking companies,” Berkowitz said. “If production increases and everybody has to work harder and faster in an already dangerous environment, that increases injuries.”

The National Chicken Council’s request for waivers acknowledged that “worker safety is a factor plants must consider when deciding the most appropriate line speed for their operations.” But the trade group argued that this shouldn’t prevent the USDA from issuing waivers because companies could take actions to address the risks.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator, Carmen Rottenberg, has said in a December interview with trade press that the agency plans to use the line speed waivers to revisit the case for lifting the limit everywhere. The USDA declined to provide an interview with Rottenberg, and her spokesman declined to comment on the timeline for that proposal.

“A Deadly Trap”

Before it received a waiver, the Fieldale plant repeatedly broke safety rules, and managers clashed with OSHA over its enforcement efforts, according to hundreds of pages of records obtained by ProPublica.

Inside the plant, there’s an insulated room for storing ice. Ice cubes fall from the ceiling into a huge mound; they then slide through turning screw-shaped blades that break up the ice and feed the cubes into the factory. The blades are covered by a grate in the floor.

One morning in 2014, a worker went inside to fetch some ice. Some of the bars in the floor grate were loose or missing, but the worker couldn’t see the gaps buried under the ice. His foot fell through the faulty grate and onto the screw-shaped blades, severing his leg below the knee. He crawled out of the ice house and cried for help.

“He’s bleeding bad and he’s in shock,” an employee told the 911 dispatcher. “Please tell them to hurry up before the man dies.”

The worker survived, but his leg was so damaged that all but five inches had to be amputated.

The plant manager, David Rackley, told the OSHA inspector that the worker got hurt because he was “thin” so his foot must have fit through the regular spaces in the grate. The inspector measured the width of the thick rubber boots that the worker was wearing (5 inches) against the spaces in the grate (2 inches). Then Rackley abandoned his claim, according to the OSHA report. The inspector called Rackley’s shifting explanations “deceptive” and “not true.”

The inspector learned from interviewing employees that Fieldale hadn’t bothered to fix the grates despite repeated complaints about the missing bars. Then, right after the accident, the company immediately fixed the grates and “covered up” records of the sudden repair. The inspector called it “a deadly trap.”

Rackley, who is still the plant manager, referred questions to Fieldale’s president, Tom Hensley. In an interview, Hensley repeated the false claim that the worker was injured because he was “small” and “somehow his small little foot got through the guard.” When presented with the inspector’s measurements and discovery that Fieldale “covered up” its repair of the faulty bars, Hensley said he wasn’t aware. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard that,” he said.

The OSHA inspector had previously warned Fieldale about maintaining protective barriers around dangerous equipment, after an unguarded conveyor had sliced open an employee’s arm. It wouldn’t be the last time, either.

The Fieldale plant had a longtime handyman named Ricardo Aburto. Aburto’s job was to patch things up to keep the line running until a full repair could occur during downtime on the weekend, according to his wife, Alicia De La Paz.

On a Tuesday in July 2015, Aburto climbed up on a ladder to fix a high-power light, according to OSHA records. To remove the cover, he touched his screwdriver to a bolt. Instantly, he dropped to the floor.

“He stopped breathing,” a nurse told the 911 dispatcher.

The wires that powered the light were supposed to be surrounded by insulation. But over time the coating wore down and Fieldale hadn’t replaced it, the OSHA inspector found. The exposed conductors electrified the light’s casing, shocking Aburto as soon as his screwdriver touched it. He was killed.

OSHA cited Fieldale for failing to insulate the wiring and for leaving the light on while Aburto was working on it. Fieldale paid a fine of $4,900.

Despite the coroner’s finding that Aburto was electrocuted, which was reported in the local newspaper, Hensley maintained to ProPublica that Aburto died of a heart attack. He also said his engineers found nothing wrong with the light, even though the OSHA inspector took a photo of the exposed wiring. Hensley acknowledged that the light should not have been on while Aburto was working on it.

De La Paz said she was furious when she learned that Aburto’s death was so easily preventable. She said she wanted to sue but she couldn’t get a lawyer who would take the case because none of the witnesses would agree to testify against Fieldale.

“I miss him every single day,” De La Paz said. “That’s a pain nothing can ever take away.” Four years later, she still describes him in the present tense: “Ricardo is,” instead of “Ricardo was.”

De La Paz said that since Fieldale failed to take simple and required safety precautions, it should not have received special permission to speed up operations, possibly exposing employees to additional risks.

In response, Hensley disputed that the line speed increase has any effect on worker safety. “It wouldn’t matter how many birds a minute were processed through the plant for that accident,” he said. “So we had a couple of bad ones, and we regret them, for sure.”

A few days after the USDA announced that it would start granting line speed waivers, Hensley introduced Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia, at an industry conference in Atlanta. Georgia is the country’s No. 1 chicken producer, and agriculture is its top industry.

“President Trump could not have selected a better person for secretary of agriculture than Georgia’s own Sonny Perdue,” Hensley said at the event. Hensley and Perdue have known each other for years. Fieldale has bought corn from Perdue’s farm, Hensley said. (The secretary is not related to the chicken brand.) Hensley sends Perdue Christmas cards.

Fieldale became one of the first companies to receive a line speed waiver, in October 2018. In May, the USDA granted a second waiver to another Fieldale facility nearby, where a worker clearing an air pipe had lost several fingers in the blade of a rotary valve.

Hensley told ProPublica he hasn’t been in touch with Perdue outside of the conference and he doesn’t think their relationship had any effect on the waiver. A USDA spokesman said the waiver decisions were made by career staff, not political appointees.

After the speed increase took effect, an employee’s fingers were cut off while he was trying to remove a piece of chicken stuck in a machine that removes neck skin, according to OSHA records. Hensley said this machine’s speed hasn’t changed.

“Our backs hurt when we go faster,” said Luis Miguel Santiago Torres, a 30-year-old worker who said he injured his knee at the Fieldale factory and recently left. “We are humans.”

“An Odd Coincidence”

In October 2018, the USDA gave a line speed waiver to Gerber Poultry in Kidron, Ohio, 60 miles south of Cleveland. The company had requested the waiver with a one-page cover letter that made no mention of worker safety.

In anticipation of cranking up the speed, the company decided to order a spare set of motors so it wouldn’t lose any time if one of them broke. So the staff needed to look up the part numbers. A maintenance man named Bill Derwacter climbed up on a stepladder to read the number off one of the motors, suspended 10 feet above the factory floor.

Derwacter said he knew that federal regulations require factories to turn off equipment whenever it’s being serviced, but he didn’t think it was a big deal to climb up and read the part number, something he’d done many times before.

As Derwacter stood up there, the motor’s spinning sprocket snatched his sleeve, pulling his arm into the machine. The motor sliced his arm open and snapped a bone. It yanked him off the stepladder and threw him to the floor.

Gerber’s vice president for compliance, Glenn Mott, said he saw the ambulance outside just as he was stepping out of a meeting with USDA officials about implementing the speed increase. “I thought, that’s such bizarre timing,” Mott, who signed the letter requesting a speed waiver, said in an interview. “It was an odd coincidence.”

Derwacter said he’s grateful to Gerber for covering all his medical expenses, including multiple surgeries, and holding his job for him. “They took amazing care of me; I can’t even say nothing bad,” Derwacter said. “It was truly 100% an accident.”

OSHA, however, faulted Gerber for failing to turn off the motor and for not making sure employees followed the rule to do so. The inspector proposed a fine of $14,782, which was later reduced to $11,086.

Mott acknowledged that the line should not have been running while Derwacter was near it. But he said the accident did not cause him to rethink his plans because it could have happened at any speed. Starting the next day, the company gradually increased its speed over several weeks until reaching the new maximum.

“I Can’t Do a Lot of Things Anymore”

The injuries from working in chicken factories are often not from traumatic accidents, but from the steady strain of doing one thing over and over, at a fast pace. These injuries, which can be painful and debilitating, were already common, and researchers say speeding up the lines will make them worse.

“Despite repeated studies in this industry in the past 20 years that found high prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome, poultry processing jobs continue to be hazardous,” researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said in 2014. “We found that the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome increased with increasing exposure to the occupational risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders,” such as repetition.

Ethan Doney said that, on his first day at Peco Foods in Pocahontas, Arkansas, in 2016, he and other new hires were told by the company that they should report any injuries to the on-site nurse, and anyone who went to an outside doctor would be fired.

Peco officials didn’t respond to requests for comment. (Peco’s facilities in neighboring Mississippi were among the sites raided by immigration authorities in August, part of the largest sweep in decades.)

Doney was tasked with cutting meat off the bone. By the second month working shifts as long as 12 hours, Doney’s fingers started locking up and he felt a burning sensation all the way up to his shoulder.

He said he went to the nurse every day for three months, but she refused to send him to a doctor because she said he was faking. Doney said the nurse put some balm on his hands, wrapped them up and sent him back to work.

After six months, Doney got so fed up that he quit and went to the doctor, who diagnosed him with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands and nerve damage in both elbows. Both arms needed surgery. Doney asked Peco to pay for the procedures, but the company said no, because he was no longer an employee. The company also refused to rehire him, Doney said, because the same nurse who previously accused him of faking now said he couldn’t work until he had the surgeries.

Doney had the operation on his left arm, but he didn’t have surgery on the right one because it was scheduled for the day his twins were born. He still hasn’t had the procedure and continues to feel the effect of his injuries. “I couldn’t hold them for long periods of time,” Doney, 25, said of his children. “I can’t do a lot of things anymore.”

One of Doney’s co-workers at Peco, Lazaro Villegas, took pride in how fast he could pull chicken breasts off the bone. Villegas said he knew the workers were supposed to rotate through different positions to avoid repetitive strain injuries, but the supervisors often shifted them right back or didn’t move them at all. “They put a lot of stress on the supervisors to make sure the line keeps moving,” he said. “It’s all about the money.”

Villegas, 48, started waking up in the middle of the night with intense pain in his hands. “It would hurt like needles poking at you,” he said. “I’d be dead asleep and boom, the pain would just be way too much.” Peco moved him to a different department that was supposed to be less strenuous, but the pain didn’t go away. After a year, the company finally sent him to a doctor, who said he had carpal tunnel in both hands. Peco paid for surgery on the right hand but fired Villegas two days before the operation, he said, because he’d missed too many days of work. The doctor said Villegas’ left hand wasn’t bad enough to justify surgery, but it still bothers him.

“Peco needs to learn how to treat their employees better,” Villegas said. “Even if they gave me more money right now, I still wouldn’t go back.”

This story is co-published with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was originally published by ProPublica.

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Agriculture

New SNAP Rule Could Hit Ohio Valley Hardest

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Photo: Glynis Board/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates almost 700,000 people across the country will lose food stamps in a new Trump Administration rule announced December 4. Regional anti-hunger advocates and policy analysts say the Ohio Valley — and Appalachia in particular — could be disproportionately affected by this rule. 

In general, the rule will make it harder for states to waive requirements that low-income able-bodied adults without dependents work (or participate in a work program) for at least 20 hours or lose their food stamps. USDA officials said the rule is to encourage SNAP recipients to find employment.

“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an infinitely giving hand,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a conference call Wednesday. “What’s happening is that states are seeking waivers for wide swaths of their populations, and millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits.”

Current SNAP rules limit recipients to receiving three months of aid out of a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in worker training or other education. But states can issue waivers to high-unemployment, economically distressed counties where it may be more difficult to find employment to meet this requirement. Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia are all receiving partial waivers for the newest fiscal year. 

This new rule, first proposed in February and planned to go into effect in April, will raise the bar for how economically distressed a county has to be to qualify. Specifically, a county would have to have an unemployment rate that is 20 percent higher than the national average while also having an average unemployment rate of six percent or higher over 24 months.

According to the research group Policy Matters Ohio, 41 counties in Ohio currently receive waivers — most of them in the southeastern Appalachian portion of the state. An analysis of SNAP data last year by The Daily Yonder, an outlet reporting on rural issues, shows out of the top 100 counties most reliant on SNAP, about 20 of those are in Kentucky and West Virginia. 

In Clay County, not far from West Virginia’s capital, nearly half of the county’s 9,000 people receive SNAP benefits. According to a 2018 USDA report, SNAP recipients in the Ohio Valley made up nearly 6 percent of all recipients in the country, totaling an estimated 2,305,000 people that year.

Advocates working on poverty and hunger issues say that means the rule change will hit harder in the region.

“You will not see food banks make this up. We cannot make up for the loss of these kinds of benefits. We just can’t,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks. “If we see a massive surge on our system, the very agencies in our communities will give away what food they have, and when the food is gone, the shelves are empty, they’ll close their doors.”

Hamler-Fugitt also said she considers “able-bodied adults with dependents” to be a misnomer, because other people including extended family members that are not legal dependents could rely on the food budget provided by SNAP. 

Dustin Pugel, a policy analyst at the left-leaning research group Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said most counties in Kentucky already qualify for waivers. But this new rule could make it difficult for states to request new waivers in the future, especially during economic downturns. 

He said while more than 100 counties in Kentucky qualify for waivers currently, only around 30 would qualify under the new rule.

“There’s over 4,000 retailers in the state that accept SNAP benefits. And they’re keenly aware of people who come in each month to buy their groceries,” Pugel said. “When you start losing that, you also start losing the economic benefit it has to grocery stores and the benefit to the broader economy.”

Pugel said this new rule is only one of several the Trump administration is proposing to alter access to SNAP, including a rule that could take away benefits from more than three million people across the country

Other analysts say the continuing collapse of the coal industry in the Ohio Valley will only increase reliance on the program. Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, points to the recent bankruptcy of Ohio-based coal giant Murray Energy as an example of that decline.

“There are entire swaths of our southern coalfields that have yet to recover at all from the collapse of the coal market. So, the impact is very simple, it just hurts people,” DiStefano said. “When these federal food assistance dollars come out, they’re just pulled out of the economy, there will be parts in West Virginia where the only place to buy groceries will close.”

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Agriculture

Grassroots Growing: Hemp Farmers Form Cooperatives Amid Growth and Uncertainty

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Tony Silvernail with a handful of crumbled hemp, on his farm near Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource. 

Tony Silvernail swings a heavy machete at a stalk of bushy hemp and chops the plant near the root, grabbing the five-foot-tall shoot with his sun-weathered hand.

It’s an unusually hot October day on his farm, Beyond The Bridge LLC, tucked in the hills outside of Frankfort, Kentucky. But the heat doesn’t faze Silvernail, sporting a sweat-soaked shirt, a huge smile, and a fat cigar between his teeth.

Silvernail and hundreds of others of farmers across the Ohio Valley are finally getting to harvest thousands of acres of hemp, the first harvest since the federal government legalized hemp cultivation last December.

“Oh, I’m happy as hell,” he said with a laugh. “We’re all like little kids, Shawn and I, getting all excited when we’re sitting here harvesting and talking. This is actually the glory part of being a farmer, as anybody whose livelihood depends on this. When you’re harvesting, it’s a happy time.”

Tony Silvernail picks up a stalk of hemp he chopped during the harvest. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

He’s been an organic farmer for decades in Kentucky, and it wasn’t until last fall when he and his business partner, Kentucky State University professor Shawn Lucas, decided to try their luck at growing organic hemp for cannabidiol, or CBD. Silvernail said when he first became an organic farmer in the ’90s, he appreciated the advice experienced farmers shared with newcomers in the industry. But he said that hasn’t been the case with hemp.

“I’ve really adopted that sense of helping, and you didn’t really get that with the hemp industry. The hemp industry is still very closed,” he said. “So, I got in a bad mood and sitting there eating lunch with Shawn downtown, and I really came into a moment of ‘you know, we just got to do our own thing.’”

They co-founded an organic hemp cooperative for smaller hemp farmers. The cooperative purchases hemp seed and other supplies in bulk to get a better deal. It sells the members’ collective hemp harvest to processors, using the strength in numbers to bargain for better prices. And the cooperative helps farmers figure out how to even grow the crop in the first place.

Their cooperative is starting out small – 15 farmers in central Kentucky growing about 30 acres – and has already seen some challenges. They unknowingly purchased faulty seed and have had thieves stealing the crop right out of the fields. But Silvernail said it’s all part of the learning process.

 “Ask us in November where our sales were at, how we all did,” Silvernail said. “We can cry on each others’ shoulders over a beer when we realized how badly we may have screwed up or what we didn’t do, but hopefully next year will be better.”

Cooperatives aren’t a new idea in farming. But they’re new in the hemp industry, and many Ohio Valley hemp growers are choosing to join cooperatives to share supplies and give small growers a better shot in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Regional agriculture leaders are championing hemp’s potential for farms of all sizes. But these hemp farmers worry that the sort of corporate consolidation they’ve seen in other agriculture sectors will soon come to the new hemp industry.

Consolidation Concerns

Hemp farmer J. Morgan Leach has already seen attempts by larger corporations to corner the hemp and CBD market.

Leach, founder of the West Virginia Farmers Cooperative, said he testified in 2017 against initial versions of a state bill, that he said would have prevented the sale of CBD products in the state unless the product was approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

That portion of the bill was supported by lobbyists from the British company GW Pharmaceuticals, the proprietor of Epidiolex, used to treat epilepsy-caused seizures. It is currently the only CBD-derived drug approved by the FDA. Other CBD advocates that year in other states also worried about similar state legislation being pushed by the company.

Leach said initial versions of bill could have closed off a lucrative market for West Virginia hemp farmers.

“So that was one of the, I think, apparent instances where you get kind of these bigger companies that come in and try to monopolize the market,” Leach said. “We were able to overcome that and preserve this market opportunity.”

Leach doesn’t want the new hemp business to follow the route some other agricultural sectors have, such as the poultry industry. 

Large poultry companies often have extensive control over a farmer’s production and pricing. That has led to a massive class-action lawsuit alleging that large firms use data to keep prices for poultry high while payment for farmers remains low.

Leach sees that as a cautionary tale about the effect larger corporations can have.

“The company owns those birds from the time they hatch to the time they purchase them, and then the farmer is stuck with the bill for raising those and the chicken house to do it. I think that’s a poor example,” Leach said. “Some are making money, but they’re totally hamstrung to the price that the company gives them, because it’s just how it goes in that industry. [Hemp] is a new frontier.”

Hemp sprouts from the ground at a farm near Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

Leach founded his co-op in 2015 in part because he doesn’t want a similar situation to happen with hemp.

“That’s our goal, is to be able to keep the five-acre farmer in business even when the bigger companies move into this space,” Leach said. “A co-op is a one member, one vote organization, so all of my members hold shares of stock. That stock is restricted only to farming members. So, farmers are the entirety of the makeup of our organization.”

Leach said it’s ultimately up to the individual farmer whether they want to grow in a co-op, grow independently, or grow under contract for one of many hemp processing companies entering the business.

“I think it’s just kind of a difference in philosophy,” Leach said. “I’d just rather be part of a farming co-op where I have a voice and I have a vote.”

But Leach said he’s worried about the potential for future large-scale hemp production that could push smaller hemp growers out. By banding together, small farmers can compete with larger-scale production.

Booming Growth

Jeffery Young is an agriculture economist with Murray State University’s Center for Agricultural Hemp in west Kentucky. He agrees the potential is there for future hemp consolidation.

“I don’t want to say ‘join or die,’ but it would definitely be in a smaller operator’s best interest to join in on that,” Young said. “They wouldn’t have the acreage, or the volume or the clout that a larger operator would have.”

Young said the new industry is still years away from reaching a level of large-scale production that would pressure smaller hemp farmers. But the nascent industry is booming, and the amount of hemp grown in the Ohio Valley continues to skyrocket.

The number of hemp acres planted in Kentucky this year, compared to last year, nearly quadrupled to about 26,500 acres. West Virginia saw a similar jump with 641 acres planted, according to state agriculture officials. With zooming demand for hemp to turn into products like CBD, prices for the crop are far from set in stone.

“It depends on things like geography, what kind of processors are there nearby, how many are nearby, what variety is being grown, what quality of product is being produced,” Young said. “The market is still trying to get its sea legs, if you will. There’s a great deal more risk with hemp…and so through sharing of risk, that would would be a key benefit from forming a cooperative.”

Much of the risk comes from the learning curve many new growers face. Pesticides are still being tested to control weeds and insects, federal crop insurance for hemp won’t be available until next year, and in some cases, THC levels in hemp can spike above the federal limit that classifies the crop as hemp. THC is the psychoactive compound in marijuana, and is also present in trace amounts in hemp. Hemp with THC levels above 0.3 percent is reclassified as the crop’s illegal cannabis cousin, and has to be thrown out.

While cooperatives can shelter hemp farmers from some risk, the set-ups can bring on new perils for farmers as well. Aleta Botts, Executive Director of the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, works with cooperatives of all kinds to help them become sustainable.

She said because most hemp farmers are still learning how to consistently grow the crop, there’s a chance that a co-op might promise a hemp processor to grow a certain amount of hemp and fall short because of crop failures.

“We’re going to get to harvest and not have those pounds to market. So we’ve built our financials on a level that we’re not gonna be able to achieve,” said Botts.

Unlike in the rest of the Ohio Valley, Ohio farmers aren’t harvesting hemp this fall because the state only legalized growing hemp in July. But that hasn’t stopped widespread interest in growing hemp, something that was apparent at a recent summit for potential hemp farmers in southern Ohio.

Tony Silvernail (left) and Shawn Lucas (right) inside their high tunnel where hemp is drying. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

 “I printed off, I think, 480 some lunch tickets, and they were all gone. So the interest is huge,” said Julie Doran, who founded the Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative in December.

She was also one of the few critics who panned parts of the state legislation legalizing hemp cultivation in Ohio. She feared that the bill’s language setting “financial responsibility” standards could limit in-state participation in the state’s hemp program and instead favor out-of-state companies with more experience and access to capital.

Doran said she believes there’s a place for smaller farmers alongside larger investors, but she also cautions that farmers need to learn how to grow the new crop reliably before working with bigger companies that might want to grow larger acreages more quickly.

“It’s not like any other crop that they farmed,” Doran said. “Yes, corporate is going to come in and we are going to need them for an outlet to sell all this stuff, too. But we need to learn ourselves first. And, you know, get our feet wet before we jump in.”

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Agriculture

How A Grass Might Generate Fuel And Help Fix Damaged Mine Lands

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West Virginia University Professor Jeff Skousen among giant miscanthus on an old mine site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Down bumpy back roads deep in central West Virginia, a flat, bright green pasture opens up among the rolling hills of coffee-colored trees.

Wildflowers and butterflies dot the pasture, but West Virginia University Professor Jeff Skousen is here for something else that stands above the rest of the Appalachian scenery – literally.

Thick stalks of green-yellowish grass reach up 10 feet into the air like a beanstalk out of a fairy tale, and Skousen is dwarfed by it.

“I just wish we could use these lands in a little bit more productive way,” WVU’s Skousen said. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“These plots I kind of know like my children,” he said. “But you see, you can’t hardly walk through this stuff – it’s worse than a jungle.”

Skousen and a team of graduate students have grown giant miscanthus for close to a decade here near Alton, West Virginia, a place that wasn’t always a pasture.

The site is one of numerous old surface coal mines across the Ohio Valley that was reclaimed, replacing the once barren ground with a layer of rocky topsoil.

The cumulative size of land impacted by strip mines across central Appalachia is roughly the size of the state of Delaware – roughly 1.5 million acres – according to a 2018 Duke University study.

This animation shows the expansion of surface mining’s footprint (displayed in yellow) from 1985 to 2015 for a 31,000 square kilometer sub-region of the study area in West Virginia and Kentucky and has county boundaries visible. Credit: SkyTruth

After land is reclaimed, it remains an open question of how to use these degraded lands, from faltering lavender farms to golf courses. But Skousen, also a land reclamation specialist at WVU, believes a potential answer might be in this towering grass.

While other agricultural crops struggle with the poor soil quality here from past mining, giant miscanthus thrives.

“We’ve never fertilized them. We’ve never done anything to them other than let them grow,” Skousen said. “Which demonstrates their ability to grow on marginal mine land areas at this kind of rate, every year.”

And that rate is rapid: for every two tons of grassy material a regular pasture produces, Skousen estimates miscanthus grows 10 to 12 tons. That grassy material is what is called biomass, which can be turned into value-added products like heating pellets, biofuels like ethanol and more.

A patch of miscanthus towers above other grasses on the former mine site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“We could grow a crop like this and sell it to an ethanol producer or some other heating agent, and suddenly we have a sort of economy develop for an agricultural community,” Skousen said.

Skousen and other researchers see potential in giant miscanthus not only to create economic opportunity in Appalachia but to revitalize reclaimed strip mines and help reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Yet the commercial market for this “power plant” has yet to bloom, and some wonder whether it’s ultimately the best path for reclaimed mine land.

Root of the Matter

Ohio State University Professor Rattan Lal’s study of soil has spanned five decades and several countries.

“The health of soil, plants, animals and people is one and indivisible,” Lal said. “We need to reclaim these mine lands in one way or the other because they’re an important resource in terms of land area.”

He led a team of researchers in a recent three-year study to grow plots of miscanthus on a former strip mine near Zanesville, Ohio, and he also saw similar biomass growth. Yet the plant’s root system also intrigues Lal.

“At the same time, it sequesters carbon in the soil,” Lal said.

Carbon sequestration is the process of trapping and storing carbon emissions from the air to mitigate the effects of climate change. Lal said giant miscanthus is especially good at doing just that through sucking carbon through leaves and storing the carbon in roots.

“[Miscanthus] could become a sink for greenhouse gases … while at the same time produce biofuel, which is a substitute for fossil fuel,” Lal said. “Once it’s established, I think it should be a carbon-negative technology.”

Not only is there a potential benefit in combating climate change, but Lal said the soil quality could improve after several years, too, as microorganisms eat the extra stored carbon.

“The soil may be improved well enough that it could be used for other things such as corn or soybeans,” Lal said. “Coal mining was the source of emission gases. And now [miscanthus is] a solution. So that is to me, as an environmental researcher, even more critical than the money part.”

Efforts to make a profit from miscanthus in the Ohio Valley also date back a decade, but not all theses efforts were successful.

Aerial view of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. The “lake” in the center is a coal sludge waste impoundment. Credit: Vivian Stockman and Southwings

Unsteady Markets

Jeff Lowe believed he was at the cutting edge of a new industry when he launched his east Kentucky company Midwestern Biofuels LLC in 2009.

“What’s only being talked about in other places is being done right here,” Lowe told the Associated Press at the time, alongside former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and other state officials.

His company had planned to recruit local farmers to grow hundreds of acres of miscanthus to be turned into pellets, which would then be mixed into coal-fired electricity plants in the Ohio Valley.

This machine at the defunct Midwestern Biofuels LLC created fuel pellets, out of miscanthus and other biomass, that could be burned for electricity. Credit: Midwestern Biofuels, LLC

He said several regional utility companies were interested, including Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp.

First Energy announced in 2009 the utility planned to transition the coal-fired R.E. Burger Power Station in Shadyside, Ohio, to burn exclusively biomass to cut costs and meet state renewable energy regulations. Lowe said a contract was in the works to burn his miscanthus pellets there, but it ultimately fell through.

The company a year later changed directions and decided to retire the plant instead, citing falling electricity prices and falling demand from the 2008 recession. Lowe closed Midwestern Biofuels LLC in 2013.

“We had no sales. We go from having complete capacity from one of the plants to nothing, overnight,” Lowe said. “If you’re not required to do it, then you generally don’t do it.”

The relative lack of commercial appeal for miscanthus is a challenge that entrepreneurs and researchers alike are still trying to tackle.

One company in Ashtabula County, in northeast Ohio, Aloterra Energy, stopped making biofuels from miscanthus because it was too costly.

“You can’t store our stuff outside in pellets because it’ll take water on, and coal is often outside in the elements,” Aloterra Energy Co-founder Jon Griswold said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we looked at everything.”

Despite those initial market challenges, Aloterra Energy is now using miscanthus to make products including recyclable food packaging and industrial absorbents.

“This is a growth industry. It just takes so long for people to figure out what you’re doing and why they need to be involved,” Griswold said.

Burning Questions

Yet some environmental activists are skeptical regarding the biofuel potential of miscanthus.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide progressive advocacy group, published a report in 2017 detailing how Kentucky could meet and go beyond the energy regulations put forth by the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was repealed and replaced last month.

The plan specifically excluded burning biomass as a viable energy option, because the organization didn’t generally consider biomass a carbon-neutral resource.

KFTC member Cassa Herron said while she isn’t completely against the idea of miscanthus as a biofuel, how these emissions are potentially regulated is key.

“The devil’s in the details in how you regulate such activity,” Herron said. “What does burning anything do to our community? And then how are regulatory agencies set up on a level to minimize those impacts?”

KFTC in its reasoning against biomass cited research from Partnership for Policy Integrity, an environmental nonprofit that specializes in biomass policy.

PFPI President Mary Booth said the added fossil fuel costs could be significant in transporting miscanthus from remote reclaimed mine sites and turning it into biofuel or biomass pellets.

“It really does eat into the net carbon emissions. It can really increase the carbon footprint of a pellet made from miscanthus,” Booth said.

Jeff Skousen is well aware that biomass energy has carbon emissions, but he believes the benefits of miscanthus outweigh the potential negatives. And past research has shown the potential for miscanthus being at least carbon neutral — meaning the grass absorbs enough carbon dioxide into the soil to make up for carbon emissions when it’s burned.

Skousen has seen the decline of the coal industry the past decade and various efforts to use the land that’s left behind. Ultimately, he wants to see the potential of that land fulfilled.

“Land is a permanent resource. And it’s always here. Even if it wasn’t reclaimed exactly the way we want it for that post-mining land use, we can change it,” Skousen said. “I just wish we could use these lands in a little bit more productive way.”

ReSource reporter Brittany Patterson contributed to this story.

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