Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers
Des Moines Register. September 29, 2017
Hog Wild: Iowa must tap the brakes on record growth of pork industry
How much pork can Iowa reasonably produce?
That debate can’t come soon enough.
A record number of hogs and pigs were on Iowa farms as of Sept. 1: 22.9 million, up 3 percent from a year ago, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released Thursday. That’s about 7.3 times more pigs than people in the state.
No other state is even close to Iowa, which has more hogs than second-place North Carolina and third-place Minnesota combined.
More hogs are coming. In September, Seaboard Triumph Foods opened a plant in Sioux City, where it can slaughter 10,500 hogs per day and, by adding a second shift next year, up to 21,000 a day. Prestage Foods plans to open its plant near Eagle Grove in November 2018 and process 10,000 hogs a day. Iowa farms could expand to fulfill the demand.
More hogs and processing plants bring more jobs and income. But they also bring noxious odors that can make people sick. They threaten water bodies and groundwater — and more than half of the state’s lakes, rivers and streams are already considered polluted.
Instead of debating the right approach to pork production, we have pitched battles at meetings of county supervisors, who are largely powerless to restrict confinement sitings. Instead of finding balance between growth and regulation, our federal and state officials fail us.
All of this leaves Iowa totally unprepared for an influx of more hogs.
Let’s be clear: The economy of many Iowa cities and rural areas depends on livestock production. Confinements are here to stay, and many pork producers have improved their operations to lessen the chances for spills and emissions. And Iowa can help fulfill demand for meat among growing middle classes in developing nations.
But the scales have tipped too far in favor of the pork industry. As quickly as Iowa is adding hogs, state, federal and industry officials are resisting protections. Consider recent events:
Little local control: The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission denied a petition in September that would have given counties more ability to stop confinements. Supporters sought to strengthen the state’s master matrix, a scoring system that is far too easy for proposed facilities to pass. Members of the commission agreed that the 15-year-old master matrix needs to be revised, but they kicked that to the state Legislature. Lawmakers, however, have avoided the issue for years.
Dickinson County leaders are asking for a temporary moratorium on new animal-confinement operations.
Pitiful regulation of air pollutants: Large animal confinements are largely exempt from federal air emission rules, due to a “lack of expertise and resources” at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. An inspector general’s report released in September said the EPA has failed to develop a way to measure whether large animal-feeding operations are exceeding air pollution standards — 11 years after the EPA started an effort to do so. If you are a neighbor of a confinement, you could be breathing ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. But you may be dead before you know for sure.
Less strict bacteria rules: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has proposed changes to its water-quality monitoring rules that could endanger Iowans who swim in Iowa lakes and rivers. The change would affect standards for E. coli bacteria, which can come from livestock operations and other sources. The largest cause of impairments for Iowa streams and rivers in 2016? Bacteria.
Stealth confinements: The DNR has missed hundreds of livestock operations that require some level of oversight. More than 5,000 hog confinements and cattle lots across the state — or about half — were simply off the state’s radar, the DNR admitted to the federal government in August. The DNR discovered the facilities only through satellite imagery and only after the EPA required a survey. Most of the operations are too small to require regulation, but the state says nearly 1,300 could require some oversight. Of course, most “inspections” are never done on site. And with budget cuts, who will do the on-site inspections that are required?
State worker cuts: Gene Tinker, the DNR’s animal feeding operations coordinator, saw his job eliminated this summer. The DNR said it was due to budget cuts. Tinker told the Storm Lake Times it was because the pork industry complained that he was educating county supervisors on their rights to object to confinements. Whatever the reason, local residents have lost another resource.
Legal loopholes: A new animal confinement with 2,500 or more pigs must face state oversight and other rules. Facilities between 1,250 and 2,499 face some, but less stringent regulation. Those with 1,249 or fewer hogs can be as close as they like to neighbors and don’t have to have a manure management plan. So some producers are building confinements just one hog under the minimums, and they’re exploiting another loophole that lets corporations with different owners — even if those owners are connected — locate next to each other. The result is that producers can stack confinements next to each other, and neighbors and the DNR can do nothing about it. The stench from these bad actors taints the entire industry and harms small, honest pork producers.
Lawsuit limits: It’s not as if Iowa lawmakers are doing nothing on this issue. They’re tipping the scales farther in favor of the industry. In the last session, lawmakers limited lawsuit damages in cases filed by neighbors against livestock producers. The law allows more latitude for defendants when an animal feeding operation is alleged to be a public or private nuisance or otherwise interferes with a person’s enjoyment of life or property.
So what can lawmakers do about this? A lot. The next session, instead of simply giving lip service to the idea of local control, legislators can follow through. They can strengthen the master matrix to give local communities more ability to reject confinement proposals.
They can give the DNR more latitude to close loopholes.
They can finally fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust. Iowans voted to create the fund in 2010, and lawmakers have refused to approve the accompanying 3/8-cent sales tax increase. The fund can improve water quality, among other benefits.
They can strengthen Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which calls for a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus discharges but contains no timeline or other enforcement.
They can look toward other states that have stronger manure-management laws.
Lawmakers, led by Gov. Kim Reynolds, can demand a full accounting of the costs of pork production. And they can find the courage to have a debate over how we divide up paying for those costs.
If they can’t do these things, then perhaps lawmakers should do what county supervisor boards, rural residents, environmental groups and others have asked. If lawmakers can’t provide more local control, then they should pass a moratorium on new confinements.
That may not be an ideal solution. But pressing pause may be the only way Iowa can catch up to this fast-growing industry.
Quad-City Times. September 27, 2017
Grassley, Ernst voted for ethanol’s decline
There’s no doubt, Iowa’s U.S. senators are regretting their votes in February to confirm Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Thing is, their massive error was obvious from the outset to anyone who wasn’t solely interested in being a good partisan soldier.
President Donald Trump’s EPA could cost Iowa billions in business output and countless jobs if it follows through with its proposal to roll back mandates on ethanol-blended gasoline within the Clean Air Act. On this front, the Renewable Fuel Standard, drafted years ago by the often-derided EPA, has been a boon for Iowa above any other state.
And, now, Pruitt and his friends in the oil industry want to hobble the program.
Grassley had a veritable meltdown in a media release, on the Senate floor and on Twitter following the EPA announcement earlier this week. The righteous indignation is a little late, Senator.
In December, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst pledged that Pruitt would defend the RFS. In January, Pruitt again promised that he’d protect the program if confirmed.
It was bull from the outset. In December, this editorial board urged Grassley and Ernst to oppose Pruitt and Rick Perry, then Trump’s nominee to lead the Energy Department. Both men had spent their entire careers in service to oil companies. Trump’s lip service to middle America was laughable and unrealistic to any serious observer. It was obvious from the outset that Trump was selecting cabinet members based on their fervor for tearing down that which they were named to lead.
Grassley and Ernst were either naive or willfully oblivious. Partisan allegiance blinded them. They, like the rest of the Senate’s GOP majority, proved little more than a rubber stamp. And, in a year, Iowa could pay the price for their willingness to sell out the state.
The average price of corn more than doubled since the creation of the RFS in 2005, topping off at an $4.11 a bushel in 2014, reported The New York Times. Iowa, more than any other state, has benefited from RFS, according to multiple studies. As such, it’s become a flashpoint in political circles. Urban centers see it as a backdoor tax on food and an additional subsidy for a farm industry that already receives substantial assistance from the federal government. Officials in other rural states wonder why their crop-of-choice isn’t getting a boost from taxpayers. Politicians from oil producing states hate the competition. And libertarians and free-market conservatives are philosophically opposed to the program.
It’s within this political reality that Grassley and Ernst backed Pruitt. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he made a career waging war on any campaign that weakened oil and gas production. He filed lawsuit after lawsuit attacking federal regulation of energy. Now, Trump is batting 0 for eternity on the legislative front. The administration’s only so-called victories are in rollbacks of executive branch regulation, Rust Belt be damned.
Supporting Pruitt in February wasn’t just a gamble. It wasn’t simply being a good soldier. It was a predictable vote against Iowa’s interests.
Grassley and Ernst made promises about the RFS’ political safety that they couldn’t keep. Their assurances were grounded only in words from an administration that’s been incapable of honesty and loyalty from the outset. They got burned and slashing RFS is now on the table.
Grassley and Ernst might be shocked. But it’s no surprise to anyone who chose healthy skepticism over political patronage.
Fort Dodge Messenger. September 29, 2017
Iowa agricultural leaders have an opportunity
Selling American agricultural products internationally makes an important contribution to our nation’s economy. It’s also hugely significant for the Hawkeye State.
According to information provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, agricultural exports support more than 1 million American jobs. The importance of the international marketplace means that agricultural leaders in our state need to increase their understanding of its components.
That’s why Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey is encouraging Iowa farmers and agribusiness professionals to consider applying for a Nuffield International Scholarship.
The scholarship program was developed in 1947 by William Morris, an entrepreneur in the United Kingdom. He saw it as part of a post-war strategy to stimulate farmers to increase food production and rebuild an economy devastated by World War II. Over the last half century, more than 1,700 Nuffield Scholars have been sponsored worldwide.
This highly respected program allows individuals selected as Nuffield Scholars to travel internationally for a minimum of 16 weeks to research agricultural production, distribution, management and/or communication. This amazing scholarship has the strong support of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Pork Producers Association, National Pork Board and Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. It is open to people involved in various aspects of Iowa agriculture.
“I have had the opportunity to see firsthand some of the farmers and agribusiness leaders who have participated in the Nuffield International Scholarship program and I am excited for this program to expand in Iowa,” Northey said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Approximately 80 Nuffield Scholarships will be awarded to farmers and agri-professionals for the 2018-19 program. Applications are due Oct. 31. Information about the application process can be found at http://nuffieldinternational.org.
The Messenger agrees with Northey that this magnificent program offers an exciting opportunity for agricultural leaders in our area to broaden their knowledge of what is truly a worldwide agricultural marketplace. We urge local leaders to give serious consideration to applying. Those selected will have the chance to develop a perspective on agriculture that will benefit them personally. More importantly, it also will make them better able help their colleagues in the local agricultural community craft marketing strategies that will keep our vital farm economy thriving far into the future.
Dubuque Telegraph Herald. September 30, 2017
Transparency board on wrong side of transparency
On Sept. 3, the Iowa Public Information Board, facing criticism for ill-advised actions, if not illegal secrecy, received our statement of support.
As our headline stated, “Missteps aside, information board plays key role.”
Four weeks later, recent events compel us to state that, while we still believe that citizens are better served by having an Iowa Public Information Board than not having one, our confidence in the board is shaken.
The Iowa Public Information Board came into being in 2013 to enforce and educate on the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws.
It committed what we view as a procedural misstep Aug. 25 by taking a needless and cryptic vote upon emerging from a closed session to discuss strategy regarding litigation in a Burlington case.
That blunder — not everyone dismisses it as such — sparked sharp criticism among many government-transparency advocates, who complained that the board itself violated open-meetings law.
At this point, we will again disclose that a fellow employee of Telegraph Herald parent company Woodward Communications Inc., Mary Ungs-Sogaard, of Dyersville, chairs the Iowa Public Information Board.
Sogaard and another professional acquaintance we respect greatly, retired Jefferson publisher Rick Morain, on Sept. 21 were on the short end of a strange and disappointing 7-2 vote by the board, which decided to not cooperate with the state ombudsman looking into the Aug. 25 closed session.
The board majority argued that to release the audio recording of the session would be to waive attorney-client privilege. This, despite assurances of confidentiality and the ombudsman’s statutory authority to “examine any and all records and documents of any agency” — and that includes confidential records.
Ironically, the very agency that should be the No. 1 advocate for government transparency is reportedly No. 1 on the list of governmental bodies ever denying the ombudsman this sort of access by citing attorney-client privilege. There is no No. 2.
Not only is the Iowa Public Information Board blocking reasonable inquiries into a possible transparency violation, is it creating a blueprint for other governmental entities seeking a loophole for secrecy? Just claim attorney-client privilege and tell investigators to shove off.
The Iowa Public Information Board is, overall, needed and serving its purpose. It is helping educate citizens, governmental bodies and media outlets, and that is keeping many little issues from becoming big (and expensive) issues. Despite being understaffed and underfunded, the agency is doing good work.
Yet, in this instance, the board has put itself in a hole. Its members should recall this sage advice: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!
The Iowa Public Information Board needs to get on the right side of transparency, cooperate with the ombudsman and remove obstacles to the reasonable investigation of the Aug. 25 session.