No-Nonsense Guide to Food Labels (Beef)

Farmfront Board Member

Meagan Bryant

When you walk down the aisle inside of your favorite grocery store, it is easy to spot buzzwords that may grab your eye. With consumers’ rising interest in what is in their food, words that give more details stop and make you think. Organic, grass-fed, hormone or antibiotic free. What does it all mean and do these labels really fit the goals in your head? In the second installation of the no-nonsense guide to food labels we are going to dive into understanding the beef you buy.

Grain-Finished vs. Grass-Fed

What’s the difference between your cow being grain-finished or grass-fed? 


Grain-finished cows actually eat grass for the majority of their lives, they only spend 4-6 months at a feed yard eating a balanced diet of grains, local feed ingredients, like potato hulls, sugar beets, and hay or forage. These cows may or may not have been given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Grass Fed

Compared to grain-finished, grass fed cows eat grass or forage for their entire life. When they are at the feed yard for 4-6 months, they are given grass, forage, hay or silage only. These cows may or may not have been given antibiotics or growth hormones.
One thing to note is that cows have naturally occurring hormones, like all mammals. Cows that are given growth hormones or antibiotics have to go through a withdrawal period so that when the meat arrives at your plate those hormones or antibiotics are no longer present in the meat. So, either way those antibiotics or hormones will not be ingested by the consumer.

Organic vs. Naturally Raised

Naturally raised beef and organic beef are very similar. Both have much stricter rules including what supplements are given to the cows and what they are fed.


USDA Certified Organic beef can never receive any antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones. This beef may be either grain-or grass-finished, as long as the feed is 100% organically grown. These cows can spend time at a feed yard.
Any cow that becomes ill must be treated with antibiotics in order to get better, and therefore ensuring the animal is being treated humanely. If an organic animal becomes ill and is given antibiotics it will be sold to a non-organic farm.

Naturally Raised (sometimes called Never Ever)

The main difference between naturally raised cows and certified organic cows is naturally raised cows do not have to have 100% organically grown feed. Beef that is Naturally Raised is sometimes called Never Ever, as in never ever exposed to antibiotics or hormones.

Beef Raised without Antibiotics vs. Beef Raised without Hormones

If the beef you are buying is organic or naturally raised, you don’t have to worry about these labels because both organic and naturally raised cows cannot be given either antibiotics or growth hormones. Although, as noted above due to the withdrawal period, neither antibiotics or hormones will be in any meat when you eat it, so the decision is yours on whether or not you care about these labels!

USDA labels “beef raised without antibiotics” mean the cattle have never received antibiotics but may receive growth-promoting hormones and “beef raised without hormones” mean the cattle have never received growth promoting hormones but may receive antibiotics.

Certified Humane

Certified Humane labels are not handled by the USDA but a separate nonprofit certification organization. In order for food to have the certified humane label it must come from a farm where Humane Farm Animal Care’s precise, objective standards for the humane treatment of farm animals is implemented.

The Power is in YOUR HANDS! -er- WALLET!

When it comes down to it, I encourage you to research any labels you are unsure of the definition for, to make sure they mean what you think they are supposed to. If those labels don’t meet the standards in your head maybe you should re-evaluate your purchases. Remember consumer dollars drive the industry. If nothing else, always look for local means of food markets in your area, where you can approach the farmer and they can tell you about all their practices and why their products are worth it!

Garden Diaries: Stephanie Stewart, Part 2

by Stephanie Stewart




Lots of progress has been made since my last entry here for Farmfront. Starting with expanding our gardening space! It seems my ambitions have outgrown my original amount of space. So with that and the seedlings quickly maturing, we doubled our overall tilled ground.




Tilling is hard, man.

I always thought that tilling looked easy. Grandma always made it look like no big deal. You just push the heavy turning dirt blades around. Not true at all. As can be seen, I do not think the large amount of red rock present in my soil is doing me any favors either.
After a few failed attempts at trying to get more chicken litter tilled into the new addition to the garden space, I declared that what I had done was as good as it was going to be. Time to move on. Now that I had my extra square footage, I could plant some of my seedling babies!


Seed babies! Moment

One little issue arose though. Since I transplanted my small seedlings from peat pods to a smaller plug tray, I had an assortment of squash and zucchini all mixed together.
While this will not be such a problem for myself, it makes it difficult for me to now get rid of the rest of my seedlings. I cannot distinguish between the two to give away. Just a beginner’s mistake!
The squash and zucchini proved to be the easiest as they proved to be easy to grow from seeds. Brussels sprouts were also not too bad, other than they were frail. I had accidentally lost a few along the way. My cucumbers seemed to be stuck at a point where I was hoping that getting them into real soil might do them good. For the life of me I can not get okra to grow in the plug trays, but planted a few anyway. With everything now in the ground, I am seeing slow, but consistent progress. I am even beginning to see some small heads of broccoli, and tomato blooms.
I continue to go through and hoe up the soil weekly around my older plants. I always want to get rid of any sprouting weeds and aerate any packed soil that is on the surface. We have had quite a bit of rain in Western Kentucky this spring, with even more cloudy days. I am hoping that with some more sunshine, my plants will really begin to take off. Maybe I will finally have some produce to share with friends.

Lessons I’m learning

My one largest failure so far is forgetting the fact that my strawberries exist. I have three hanging baskets of them off my deck railing. I can never remember to look at them daily. Unfortunately many of my berries have rotten spots on them when I do find them. Oh well! I guess the many birds I have hanging around will like the treats I leave them in the yard!


The Graze: Aid for Farmers During Covid-19

The Graze COVID-19 aid for farmers

What’s a Graze?

With so many news stories, problems, and solutions coming about during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have collected some of the most important resources farmers and their allies can know about right now. No bull, just the meat.

Farmfront Board Director

Elizabeth Nyman

I can’t sell my livestock or produce for anything. What gives?

The difficulty dealing with COVID-19 is that we still are learning about it. We do know issues like the proximately required at meat processing facilities is an issue. But still the overall uncertainty has caused massive issues in our food supply system. Food producers (aka farmers) have become one of the most economically vulnerable parts that system. Information changes quickly right now so expect a dynamic year.

How exactly is that affecting where I live?

States differ in how they are treating their economies. Some are more restrictive than others. Generally, all food production is considered an essential service. Farms for food production should be considering their options for moving forward.

Why can’t I sell my livestock or vegetables to whoever is processing them?

Part of our food system’s fragility is in how plants process and inspect food. Food must be processed and inspected before it goes to consumers. The processes themselves such as for meat have high standards. It isn’t a health issue. The standards do make it difficult to transport meat across state lines. It can also be hard to find a facility with the right inspection infrastructure the USDA needs. This is a partial reason for why there are so few stakeholders in meat processing. It is hardly the only reason though. Meat is a prominent example.

Some farms can use this opportunity to pivot.

* None of these are affiliate links, nor does Farmfront have any endorsement relationship with them. We encourage farmers and farm businesses to connect with colleagues your area to see what they like.

Other farms have to batten down the hatches.

Is there anything long-term to come out of this?

Some bills are trying to make meat processing more agile under thePRIME act.

In the meantime, one of the most important things you can do as a business owner is take care of yourself.

Folks like Farm Aid are ready to give you fast and effective help. Mental health is health. Seeking help for your mental health is smart.

Garden Diaries: Amanda Deplewski, Part 1

by Amanda Deplewski



Why I Garden

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I love so much about gardening. I’m not an “outdoorsy” person. I don’t camp or mountain climb. Hiking with me isn’t much fun. After my blood sugar drops to a certain point, I’m a nightmare person. Just ask my partner.

I garden because it’s a given. Some of my earliest, fondest memories are of the tomato patch we had behind the house I grew up in. The first plant I ever grew myself was sprouted from a cherry tomato I bit in half as a toddler and threw into a patch of rocks that bordered our deck. The next year it grew into a monstrous tomato plant that my parents were too amused to move.

I garden because it’s good for my mental health. Gardening is filled with tiny miracles. Living things transform from an inert seed you shoved into the dirt. Sprouts germinate indoors under the psychedelic purple glow of lights in the middle of lifeless winter. A watermelon exists and is eaten because it was grown by you.

It all brings a sense of purpose, and a deep satisfaction to my life. Maybe it’s just being outside doing something physical instead of sitting on the couch staring at a screen. Perhaps it’s the extra Vitamin D I get from being out in the sun. It could even be the illusion of control in a world that seems to be spiraling out of control sometimes. In any case, it makes me happy.

Prep Work

The house we currently live at came with two pre-made raised beds. Each are approximately 4ft by 16 ft. I use one for food crops, and the other as a pollinator garden.

The Pollinator Garden

Pollinator Bed (left) and Food Crop Bed (right)
Pollinator Bed (left) and Food Crop Bed (right)

The pollinator garden prep mostly involved winter-planting my seeds. Native species that thrive in 6a tend to need a cold period to sprout. This can either be done by cold-stratifying them in the refrigerator through 

various methods. I’ve used the paper towel method in the past.

The easiest way I’ve found is to plan ahead and plant them in November. I also amended the soil just slightly by adding peat moss and aged manure on top of the soil that was already present. Wildflowers don’t really need soil amendment, but I was already doing the same to my vegetable bed and I figured why not.

In addition to drawing in pollinators for my crops, this bed also serves as the stress-free and worry-free area of my garden. There is no weeding because wildflowers pretty much are weeds. I fuss and fuss over my food crops almost to the point of neuroses. So wild beauty that is completely out of my hands is a nice change of pace.

The Food Gardenpurple grow lights

For the food crops bed, my prep was a little more involved. I had an incredibly bad weed problem last year. I’m guessing this was caused by tilling established garden soil and bringing dormant seeds to the surface.

Around February of this year I put down a layer of pre-emergent weed killer. Over that, a layer of newspaper smothered any sprouting weeds. Finally, I laid down the aged manure/peat moss mix that I mentioned using in the pollinator garden.purple grow lights tomatoes

I also attempted to start tomato and basil seeds indoors 6 weeks before my last frost date. I’ve previously been extremely successful with this practice. For whatever reason, the same conditions that produced too many seedlings last year produced none this year. This year only 25% of them sprouted though. Of those, every single one died from “damping off”, which is a condition due to lack of airflow and high humidity.

Due to tomatoes’ long growing season and the relatively short amount of frost-free days in 6A, I’m probably going to have to forego tomatoes for this season unless I purchase plants from a garden center. COVID-19’s stay at home policies will probably make this difficult to do responsibly. I’m confident though that the basil plants will do well if the seeds are planted straight in the ground. Those plants grow fast and have done extremely well in my soil in previous seasons.

What I’m Planting Moment

  • 3 carrot varieties
  • 5 tomato varieties
  • 2 bush bean varieties
  • 3 corn varieties (two flour and one sweet)
  • 1 variety of spinach
  • 3 varieties of basil
  • luffa gourds
  • various types of wildflowers and herbs for pollinators

Final Thoughts

I’m trying a lot of new things this year and will probably have both successes and failures. I’m trying to be pragmatic about the potential failures, as it will mean I have learned something (and maybe be able to pass it on to you all)

garden prep with newspapers



Carbon Sequestering in Farm Country Made Easy


The Climate Summit in Paris in December 2015 initiated the 4 per Thousand Program.  The strategy of this program is to sequester carbon in soils of the world at the rate of 0.4% per year in the top 16 inches of soil. 


Bill Brandon

With the introduction of perennials like switchgrass into their crop management plans, farming carbon credits and energy may prove a valued product for farmers to diversify into.”

Fields of Potential

U.S. croplands pose great potential to make such goals realistic. A cornfield for example would take in about 8 tons of CO2 per year per acre.  To reach the .4% goal, 64 pounds of CO2 per acre needs to be sequestered. However, this carbon must be stable and remain in the soil over very long periods of time.

Part of this loss comes from traditional tilling practices. Intensive tillage followed by fallow fields for the production of corn and small grains have resulted in a loss of more than half of soil’s original carbon content over time.

A study at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory using spring wheat cultivated with traditional tillage practices showed how differences in cropping systems affect soil structure and soil carbon. In the traditionally tilled spring wheat, the soil had 14% water-stable aggregates, and the carbon in the top 3 inches of soil measured 6.6 tons per acre.  No-till continuous cropping of spring wheat/winter wheat/sunflowers increased soil quality by comparison. No-till soil had 47% water-stable aggregates, and the carbon measured 9.6 tons per acre.

This soil carbon is still not stable though.  The plant litter and root structure left as the crop residue will be decomposed by bacteria, which convert only 20 – 30% of the carbon into new cells with 70-80% being released into the atmosphere.  These bacteria die quickly as new bacteria replace them. The dead bacteria are consumed by nematodes and protozoa that live in the soil and release nitrogen and other nutrients the plants need in a form the plant can use.  

We are progressing but the carbon content in the top 3 inches of that system is still not stable.  It also does not account for the Nitrous oxide released by this decomposition and nutrient release process.

What Can Save the Prairie?
Prairie Grass

A five-year on-farm study by the Agricultural Research Service evaluated switchgrass for ethanol production. The study encompassed 10 farm fields in Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. The fields were located in marginal land areas that would have qualified for the CRP.  

In the study, they found soil organic carbon increased across all sites at a rate of 980 pounds per acre per year within the top 12 inches of that soil.  In Nebraska in particular, where four sites were sampled to a depth of 48 inches, carbon increased at an average rate of 2,590 pounds per acre per year.  

These were average increases measured over 5 years and represent actual stable sequestration of carbon.  At the end of five years, 6.5 tons of carbon was stored.  The permanent deep roots of switchgrass supported fungi, which annual crop roots cannot do.  Even with a cover crop, biological activity takes place primarily near the surface by bacteria.  The fungi are 40-55% efficient in converting carbon to cells and as a multi-cell structure they can live a long time and sequester carbon in a stable manner.  

The temporal cycle of carbon in the topsoil with bacterial dominated ecosystems is big, but fast.  That is, it contains a lot of soil carbon that is converted into CO2 quickly, thereby limiting its sequestration value.  Carbon in the deep subsoil dominated by fungi is not so big, but slow to be converted resulting sequestration times of many, many, many years.

It is my understanding that the Ecological Services Market Consortium will initially be assigning a credit value to a cover crop, no till practice.  We will have to wait to see how they arrive at their figures.  Whatever their final calculations are, they will not match the sequestration capable from a perennial, deep-rooted energy crop. 

From another revenue angle, switchgrass can produce twice the biomass of corn stover per acre.  After establishment, a stand can remain productive for over 10 years before it needs to be replanted.  

Sequestering new carbon in the subsoil at a modest rate of .8 tons per acre for the first year (the equivalent of 2.9 tons of CO2 when released and not counting the reduction of nitrous oxide emissions), carbon credits at $54/acre ($15/ton CO2) would equal $43 and increase after that. Add to that about $35/ton value as energy at 9 tons per acre, or $315 per acre. 

Harvesting costs are about $25 per acre or less with purpose designed machinery.  Up front planting costs are more. Some fertilizing to get 9 ton per acre will be necessary, but after that little ongoing costs are incurred. These are conservative estimates and very favorable compared to corn economics. (Other figures have calculated far greater carbon sequestration.  There is no set calculated standard.)

With the introduction of perennials like switchgrass into their crop management plans, farming carbon credits and energy may prove a valued product for farmers to diversify into.

Primary source:   



Garden Diaries: Stephanie Stewart, Part 1

by Stephanie Stewart



Why I Garden

I grew up gardening with my grandmother every summer. She always had a gigantic garden which she tended to mostly alone well up into her 80’s. I won’t pretend I retained a lot of knowledge, but I did like walking behind her tiller, and getting to pick the assorted vegetables we would get to eat later for lunch. 

Now in the present day, I have decided to make this year my first year planting my own garden. What can be better than relaxing in your garden after a long day and tending your plants, only to get to enjoy the fruits of your labor through the summer, share with friends, and even put some away for colder months. After living in this house for nearly three years and every year debating whether or not to jump in, the current situation of no socialization seemed like the perfect time to begin a new hobby! So, join me on my journey into becoming my own Martha Stewart.



Prep Work

Step one was picking the perfect garden spot. A lot of discussion went into this between my boyfriend and I, and it also proved to be a point of contention in previous years that led us to putting the goal on the back burner. Finally, we agreed that a small little plot of about twelve feet by twelve feet, that has plenty of full sunshine, very flat, and in view of my kitchen window would be our best option. Following this came tilling. Since we don’t own a tiller, we were fortunate to have friends who live nearby who let us borrow theirs. So, on Saturday, March 28, we broke ground. After my boyfriend, Adam, tilled the dirt several times, we decided to take a rest for the evening. The next day, he went over the dirt twice more.

I spent the next week in search of some chicken litter. After some inquiry’s a good friend of mine was able to provide me a few buckets for the purpose of fertilization.

For anyone not familiar with chicken manure, it has an extremely high nitrogen content due to the ammonia it holds. This makes it extremely beneficial for plants that produce food. I also added a small amount of lime due to the high clay concentrated soil here in Kentucky. The following day, the plot was tilled twice more and was ready for planting!

What I’m Planting Moment

This began with some tray plants I had purchased, including, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeños and broccoli. I also began a small seed nursery where I can raise some of my own plants in small peat pods, in hopes I can transplant them later. My selections for this process incorporate yellow squash, zucchini, okra, brussels sprouts and a form of hybrid cucumber. Today, I am at a stopping point, where I added a few more tomatoes, and a cabbage plant, purchased on a whim.

Seizing the Opportunity to Learn

I am very hopeful that this endeavor will end in my favor. I am apprehensive about my skills. But it’s fun to learn! I hope anyone reading will take this as a bit of inspiration to dip their toe into some sort of gardening. I also hope that you’ll follow me along on my journey!


Opportunity Deep in the Dirt of Cover Crops

Part 3 of our “Advanced Farming Opportunities” Series with Bill Brandon

By Bill Brandon

In this series’ previous installment, I discussed the above ground significance of cover crops. In this part I will review the below ground significance.  

This is all about microbial ecology.  Without soil microbes, plants would not grow.  Over the years of following ‘industrial’ methods recommended by large agricultural suppliers and agricultural schools and extension services, post WWII farming practices have disrupted ‘good’ microbial ecology.  Chemical fertilizers and accompanying methods created the ‘first green revolution’ that greatly increased productivity. After many years, we are learning that it also had a down side.

Radical, and often uninformed, activists have blamed famers for a linty of transgressions, lumping them in with the institutional and corporate interests that gave farmers the template for ‘modern farming’.  

The ‘new modern farming’ will need to take what has been learned to build a system that better serves our whole population and the environment which plants, animals and people must live in.  Here we must start with understanding soil organic material (SOM).

SOM is composed of:

  1. The ‘living’, all microbes, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, etc. that live in the soil and carry out metabolism, taking in ‘food’ and giving off CO2 or methane.
  2. The ‘recently dead’, plant material that has recently died and animal excrement that exist primarily near the surface.  If this material, provided to us by the sun through photosynthesis, were not broken down into energy and ‘recycled’, we would be in compost from here to the stratosphere.
  3. The ‘long term dead’, organic materials that resist decomposition and remain sequestered in the soil for long periods of time. Some small amount of these materials are man made and are often called ‘forever chemicals’ and are often toxic.

Bacteria and fungi are the two primary ‘decomposers’ of the ‘recently dead’.  They are in competition for food and some fungi are somewhat antibiotic to give themselves an advantage.  You might ask what difference it makes whether bacteria or fungi provide the decomposition of SOM and recycling of nutrients. It is generally thought that fungi dominate forests while bacteria dominate tilled farmland for very good reasons.

SOM RoleNematodes and protozoa eat the bacteria and excrete ‘chelated’ nutrients that can be taken up and used by plants.  Fungi, however, are multi-celled structures that directly deliver chelated nutrients to the plant root, which it has surrounded.  
Nutrient RequirementsBacteria are very resilient, going for long periods of time without food.  They exist dormant and then come ‘alive’ when conditions change.  Fungi need a continuous source of food.  When a field is plowed or tilled the structure of the fungi is torn apart and they have a hard time regenerating, while the oxygen supplied to bacteria makes them eat and multiply like crazy.  In the winter, food becomes scarce for fungi if their entire neighborhood is an annual plant.  
Carbon Conversion PerformanceBacteria are poor ‘carbon converters’, using only 20 – 30% of the carbon of the ‘recently dead’ to produce more cells, while 70-80% is released as CO2 into the soil and then into the atmosphere.  Mycorrhizal fungi convert 40 – 55% of their food source into new cells, thereby increasing living SOM faster.  
Nox Conversion PerformanceBacteria contain more nitrogen than fungi but when converted by nematodes and protozoa not all is converted into a form the plant can use; some is converted into Nox. Fungi use different chemical routs to make nitrogen available to plants and little or none is converted into Nox.

A well developed microbial ecology adds to soil fertility and larger amounts of SOM’s living components promote water retention in all the micro passageways created by the microbial community that is also used for oxygen access to the plant root.  Ecological offset credits will strongly focus on the amount of converted and stored CO2 in the soil and how much Nox (CO2 equivalent) is reduced. Restoring fungi to soils will greatly enhance this ‘carbon storage and offset’ component of the offset credit.

No-Nonsense Guide to Food Labels (Chickens)

by Stephanie Stewart

When you walk down the aisle inside of your favorite grocery store, it’s easy to spot buzzwords that may grab your eye. With consumers rising interest in what is in their food, words that give more details stop and make you think. Organic, free range, natural, antibiotic free. What does it all mean and do these labels really fit the goals in your head? Let’s take a deeper dive to make sure you’re spending pennies on poultry wisely. 

Eggcellent! Free Range vs Organic

Let’s get this cracking with eggs! Starting with free range and organic. Chickens labeled as “free range” must be organic, but not all organic chickens have to be “free range.” 

Free Range

The term “free range” currently has no federal definition. It can mean a variety of things. Some birds may get to be in pastures all day. Others live in a more conventional poultry house, but just have access to a pen that is outside. However, since birds are more likely to stay close to food and water, it is unlikely that they will spend much or any time in the sunshine. 


The organic label in America must be achieved by the producer by meeting several USDA standards. But, just because a meat is labeled as organic by those standards, does not necessarily mean it has any additional safety values, or nutritional values. 

At the end of the day if you are wanting the freshest, truly free-range eggs available that are probably at the best price, hit up your local farmers market, or look for signs along roadways. These eggs will likely be cheap and have the lovely orange nutritious yolks we all love!


Getting to the Meat of the Matter: “No Hormones Added” vs “Antibiotic Free”

When it comes to chicken meats, the two big labels used are “no hormones added” or “antibiotic free.” 

“No Hormones Added”

One common misconception about poultry is that all current birds are provided hormones to get to the size they are as quickly as they do. In reality, the FDA strictly enforces that no hormones can be used in poultry production. Modern chickens are as big as they are due to generations of careful and selective breeding, and better formulated feed rations than ever. So don’t let that one fool you! 

“Antibiotic Free”

Antibiotic free has also become common for most chickens we have in stores or restaurants today. This means the birds are not given antibiotics at a growth promoting level that they have in past years. However, if a disease does impact the birds, they will be treated to save them, and be unable to be sold under this label. Most antibiotics when used, also have no connection to use in human medicine. Nevertheless, birds who are still given antibiotics throughout the grow-out time of their flock will be given withdrawal feed for a designated time before they are processed. This is to make sure that all antibiotics are free of their system and clear for the consumer. 

The Power is in YOUR HANDS! -er- WALLET!

When it comes down to it, I encourage you to research any labels you are unsure of the definition for, to make sure they mean what you think they are supposed to. If those labels don’t meet the standards in your head maybe you should re-evaluate your purchases. Remember consumer dollars drive the industry. If nothing else, always look for local means of food markets in your area, where you can approach the farmer and they can tell you about all their practices and why their products are worth it!


A Busy Person’s Intro to Cover Crops

Part 2 of our “Advanced Farming Opportunities” Series with Bill Brandon

By Bill Brandon

The big news is that the Ecological Systems Market Consortium was formalized in January 2020.  This is not a government program, it is a non-profit supported by major agriculture and food companies from Cargill to McDonald’s. 4

Their first area of focus will be cover crops for the Midwest.  They are targeting a value of $15/ton of CO2e sequestration in soils plus other sustainable objectives such as reduced soil erosion, preventing fertilizer pollution into waterways and building soil nitrogen and nutrients.  There will be a variety of practices that contribute to the ultimate value of an offset credit. The farmer should view this program as an opportunity to do the right thing while making money and/or reducing costs by doing it.

Objectives of cover crops  

There are five basic reasons for using cover crops. 

  • Prevent soil and nutrient erosion
  • Produce a marketable crop
  • Add nutrients to the soil
  • Maintain a good soil microbial ecology
  • Sequester CO2 and reduce Nox (a powerful greenhouse gas) and CO2 emissions from the soil

It has been pretty well established that a cover crop with roots does a better job in preventing erosion than loose surface material.  Planting a cover crop costs money and it is reasonable to look for a return on this investment. There is always a long-term return in healthy soil, but financial decisions must often be made on a year-to-year basis.

There are also cash advantages for cover crops.  Adding nutrients to the soil for the next growing season is a reduction of future expenses.  If this is your objective, red clover is hard to beat as a cover crop. It has a large amount of protein in its leaves, which is the source of nitrogen returned to the soil.  If a marketable product is your objective, an oil seed crop like any variation of pennycress is a good choice for the upper latitudes (generally above 35 degrees). It can be sold as a high value fodder for animals or the seeds can be sold to a processor, most likely a biodiesel refiner.

Another option will be selling ecological or carbon credits into the new market being set up.  This option will be discussed further in our next installment.

Why Do We Grow What We Grow

By Bill Brandon

The answer is probably just TRADITION!  Tradition is founded on some practical foundation and wrapped in social and economic ties and laws, etc.  It is hard to break from tradition. Cost is associated with such a change.  

Farming is based on change though. When our ancestors started farming, it changed society. Most people would say for the better. They raised their basic foodstuffs of grains, fruits, and vegetables.  As our society advanced, we added domesticated animals, which sometimes added to our harvest demand, as we grew feed for them. Farming rooted itself in progress and advancement taking over several core industries for centuries.

By the 19th century in America, farming was a backbone industry for daily life’s many needs.  They provided food, of course, for themselves and those working in cities and factories.  They were also the core providers of horses and mules, the powerful farm machines and transportation vehicles of that time. These same machines helped create their own fuel with the roughage and grains used to feed them throughout their day of labor.  Food, transportation, and fuel were the sources of income a farmer could count on.

This changed with the introduction of the internal combustion engine and the development of the oil industry. Farmers adopted tractors, and instead of raising and selling ‘fuel’ they now bought it from oil companies.  The importance of the farmer started to decline in America. While the country roared in the 20’s, the farmer just held on. By the end of WWI, farmers had pretty much completely lost the transportation and ‘fuel’ market. Now they were highly reliant on a commodities market.

Today, many farmers are tied to this format. They are stuck between corporate input suppliers and corporate commodity buyers. These buyers, in turn, distribute low cost products in the form of processed foods and animal feed.  This format has drained rural farm communities of their wealth and a connection to their own community’s needs. While some brag about American agriculture ‘feeding the world’, rural food deserts are common with lack of access to healthy food options.  

Those who are concerned about poor Americans diets leading to  chronic health issues often chastise farmers for ‘farming the subsidies’.  This is a simplified criticizing concept of the problems of farmers and rural economies. However, many, including farmers, feel we need to pivot the Nation’s farm format and structure.

Farming is a critical industry in any country and deserves special support to keep it healthy and productive.  The question is to what end. What factors of agriculture deserve support? Which ones serve the nation and food consumers on the whole and not only corporate food processors and input suppliers? 

The EPA has estimated that in 2017 the agriculture economic sector (including farms and supporting business) accounted for 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.*  Others say this is actually 37% because some areas are undercounted. Undercounted may be partially true because, for example, the production of fertilizers, which releases significant CO2, is included in the ‘Industrial sector’.

Critics are not completely negative about agriculture’s ability to become more sustainable. Peter Lehner, who authored the “Agriculture” chapter of “Legal Pathways To Deep Decarbonization In The United States, stated “The good news is we can actually reach carbon neutral agriculture pretty soon, and we can reach it in a way that is profitable for the farmers and for the communities they live in.”**

Some believe that farms can even become carbon negative, sequestering more CO2e than they release. At the same time, they can once more supply local fresh produce year round without relying on food from distant growers.  It will, however, require a pivot from business as usual.  

To advance this goal, we are running a series of blogs looking at factors that might advance this pivot and return more industries like energy back to rural farm communities.