Native Pollinators in Trouble

  • Jeffrey Pettis says while honeybees are a concern because they pollinate crops, the wild plants that rely on native pollinators can be in trouble as well. (Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Honeybees have been dying by the millions because of colony collapse disorder. But government officials say it’s not just the bees that are in trouble. Lester Graham reports.

Transcript

Honeybees have been dying by the millions because of colony collapse disorder. But government officials say it’s not just the bees that are in trouble. Lester Graham reports.

Jeffrey Pettis heads up the USDA’s bee lab in Beltsville, Maryland. He says there’s a lot of concern about honey bees because they pollinate crops. But he’s also really concerned about wild native bees, butterflies, bats that pollinate plants in the wild.

“The wild plants that rely on native pollinators can be in trouble as well. So, there’s certainly should be concern for all pollinators in addition to honeybees, which I like to think of as a major agricultural pollinator.”

Pettis says habitat destruction is hitting nature’s wild pollinators hard, but bats are also dying because of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that’s spreading, killing bats by the millions.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Big Plans for Big Livestock Farm

  • Bion's proposed project would consist of 84,000 beef cattle (Photo by Bill Tarpenning, courtesy of the USDA)

Corporations are taking a new approach to farming. They’re combining ethanol production with feeding animals. The corporations need land, water, and a willing community. They turn to economically depressed rural communities and promise jobs. But some researchers think these rural communities could end up with more problems than benefits. Kinna Ohman reports:

Transcript

Corporations are taking a new approach to farming. They’re combining ethanol production with feeding animals. The corporations need land, water, and a willing community. They turn to economically depressed rural communities and promise jobs.But some researchers think these rural communities could end up with more problems than benefits. Kinna Ohman reports:

Bion Environmental Technologies is just like a lot of big businesses trying to capitalize on the ethanol trend.

Over the past year, people from Bion have been working with local officials in St. Lawrence County, a rural area of northern New York. Bion plans to build their first project there. It’ll be a huge indoor feedlot for eighty four thousand beef cattle and a large corn ethanol plant.

They have everything accounted for – they’ll ship cattle and corn in from the Midwest. They’ll use distiller’s grain from the ethanol plant to help feed the cattle. And they’ll even use manure from the cattle to power the ethanol plant.

Jeff Kappell is a manager with Bion. He says this kind of scale and integration is the future of agriculture. And he thinks it’ll be great for the community,

“Establishing a brand and establishing the ability, the knowledge in a consumer marketplace that there is value associated with activity in St. Lawrence County is a tide that can rise all boats. So we see this as symbiotic.”

But not everyone agrees. They wonder how much water the project will need. And they wonder about pollution from all those cattle.

Shane Rogers knows a lot about pollution from factory farms. He’s a professor of environmental engineering at Clarkson University in St. Lawrence County. He tests for certain pollutants in the water and soil around factory farms. Rogers often finds antibiotic resistant E-Coli and other pathogens. He says that type of discharge can happen every day – even at the best run facilities.

”And these are from operations with good practices. Or what we would call good practice because they’re following nutrient management plans. Because they’re treating their manures the way they’re supposed to be before applying them to land. Because they’re collecting and doing things the way they’re supposed to be. But they still can contribute pathogens to the environment and those pathogens still affect us.”

Rogers says factory farms don’t need to remove these pollutants. But people at Bion say their system will remove a lot of them.

James Morris is one of their engineers. He says they’re motivated to keep environmental impacts low,

“A facility of this sort wants to have the minimum possible environmental liability. Because that lowers the risk and raises the probability of profits. And we’re in the business to make money.

But researchers are still unconvinced. And some think there are better ways to provide meat and dairy products for the country.

Doug Gurian-Sherman’s with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He’s the lead author of a new report critical of large factory farms. He says small and medium sized farms can provide what people need without the risks to those in rural communities.

“When you spread these animals out, and you have smaller operations you have benefits to rural communities in terms of not as many problems with the pathogens, or the odors or the nutrient problems. What we’re talking about are sophisticated, smart alternatives that work with nature rather than against it.”

But Bion insists their large integrated project will work. And they expect to receive millions in taxpayer subsidies to help make it work. It’s unclear what the costs will be to the community. In the meantime, the trend continues. Bion plans to build at least five more of these projects throughout the country.

For The Environment Report, I’m Kinna Ohman.

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Study: Biofuels Grow Dead Zone

There’s another possible downside to the national
boom in the production of corn-based ethanol. A new
study says increased ethanol production would further
pollute the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Chuck
Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

There’s another possible downside to the national
boom in the production of corn-based ethanol. A new
study says increased ethanol production would further
pollute the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Chuck
Quirmbach reports:

Most of the ethanol currently made comes from corn grown in the central part of
the US.

Chris Kucharik is part of a team of researchers that has been studying
what agricultural fertilizers do to the Mississippi River Basin. Kucharik says,
based on his study, ramping up the growing of corn for ethanol would increase
nutrient pollution in the river by 10 to 20%.

“That pretty much will make it impossible for us to reach a goal of reducing
nitrogen export by the Mississippi River.”

Kucharik says nitrogen pollution already contributes to a huge dead zone in the
Gulf of Mexico. The area is depleted of oxygen. He says his prediction of more
problems may not come true if a lot of ethanol production is switched to crops
that don’t need much artificial fertilizer.

For The Environment Report, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

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Feral Pigs Run for the Border

  • Feral pigs have become a nuisance in Wisconsin, and DNR officials fear that if their numbers do not decrease, they will do a significant amount of damage. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR)

Ag officials are tracking a big pig problem across Wisconsin. Since 1999, growing numbers of feral swine have appeared across the state. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brian Bull reports, officials now fear the spread of the wild pigs:

Transcript

Ag officials are tracking a big pig problem across Wisconsin. Since 1999, growing numbers of feral swine have appeared across the state. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brian Bull reports, officials now fear the spread of the wild pigs:


The woolly porkers have appeared in 23 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. They’re damaging crops, digging out ground-nesting birds, and killing small deer. They may also cary pseudorabies and swine brucellosis, threatening domestic pigs.


Wayne Edgerton is agricultural policy director of Minnesota’s DNR. He says the problem could easily spread into his territory.


“They can certainly walk across the ice, so this time of the year they can come across to Minnesota. And I’ve heard they’re actually good swimmers. So even in summertime, they could get their way over to northern Minnesota.”


Some people have speculated that Minnesota’s intense winters would kill off any feral swine crossing the border. But Tim DeVeau, a veterinary medical officer of the USDA, says that’s unlikely.


“As long as they’ve got food, and they’re gonna put fat on, they’ll be well-insulated.”


DeVeau adds that in order to keep wild pigs’ numbers under control, at least 75% of the population has to be destroyed every year. He says that’s not happening.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brian Bull.

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Breaking Down Groundwater Pollution

  • While the idea of cleaning up the water with bacteria may be oxymoronic, Michigan State University is saying that it works. (Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation)

Scientists in the Great Lakes region are seeing good results from a new method that fights groundwater pollution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner has more:

Transcript

Scientists in the Great Lakes region are seeing good results from a new method that fights groundwater pollution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner has more:


Researchers at Michigan State University are using a process that introduces microbial bacteria into contaminated aquifers. Over time, the microbes break down hazardous waste, usually from industrial spills. Before this new technology, the most common cleanup technique was called “air stripping.” That requires groundwater to be pumped to the surface, where toxic chemicals are basically blown out of the water and into the air.


Professor Mike Dybas says the new process doesn’t leave pollution in the ecosystem.


“It’s treatment actually occurring where the pollution is, and it is physically destructive of the contaminant. So at the end of the day, the contaminants are broken down into harmless end products.”


Dybas says the process could be used in any type of industrial or agricultural spill. He says since the microbes move with the water, cleanup could stretch for miles underground.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

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Audubon: Bird Populations on the Decline

  • According to the Audubon Society report, the population of the Bobolink, which nests in hayfields and other U.S. grasslands, has fallen to about 11 million birds — half its earlier recorded numbers. (Photo by S. Maslowski, USFWS)

A new report warns that nearly a third of North America’s bird species are in trouble. And it says habitat loss is to blame. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has more:

Transcript

A new report warns that nearly a third of North America’s bird species are
in trouble. And it says habitat loss is to blame. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has more:


National Audubon Society researchers analyzed data on more than 650 bird
species. They found that since 1966, certain bird populations have been
declining in all habitats.


Birds that thrive in grasslands are especially at risk. The study found 70
percent of grassland bird species are declining significantly.


Greg Butcher is the study’s lead author. He says today’s farming practices
have reduced available bird habitat.


“In the 50’s, field sizes were small, there was a lot of variety of crops
being planted, there were a lot of hedgerows and field edges that were good
for bird populations. Most farming is done road to road now. And so, in the
1950’s, agricultural landscapes were very favorable for bird populations,
and today, they’re just not.”


Butcher says creating grass buffers around farm fields can help some
grassland species. But he says other species need larger areas of land to
succeed.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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Group Calls for U.S. Ban on Lindane Use

  • (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of the USDA Agricultural Research Service)

An environmental group is calling for the United States to ban a pesticide used to treat head lice. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports:

Transcript

An environmental group is calling for the United States to ban a pesticide used
to treat head lice. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports:


Lindane is most commonly used as a pesticide for corn, wheat, and other grains.
It’s also used as a medication to kill lice and scabies. But the Food and Drug
Administration warns that lindane should only be used when all other treatment
options are exhausted. That’s because the FDA has found that in very isolated
cases, lindane can cause seizures or even death.


Kristin Schafer is the Program Coordinator for the Pesticide Action Network. The
group is seeking a ban on lindane in the United States.


“This is the type of chemical that there’s no reason not to get it off the market.
It’s dangerous, it builds up in our bodies. It’s particularly dangerous to children
and there are alternatives for all uses.”


Schafer says 52 countries and the state of California have already banned lindane.
Canada plans to eliminate agricultural uses of lindane by the end of the year.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.

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Sprawl Tough on New Farmers

  • J. and Kelly Williams farm 700 acres of corn and soybeans. They also both work full-time jobs off the farm. Supplemental income is necessary for many beginner farmers trying to break into the business. (Photo by Corbin Sullivan)

In a recent survey, young farmers said their biggest challenge is finding available land to farm. That’s because there’s so much competition for the land these days. Farmers compete with developers who have deep pockets to buy land for new subdivisions or retail centers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner has the story of one young farm couple trying to get started:

Transcript

In a recent survey, young farmers said their biggest challenge is finding available land to farm. That’s because there’s so much competition for the land these days. Farmers compete with developers who have deep pockets to buy land for new subdivisions or retail centers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner has the story of one young farm couple trying to get started:


J. Williams and his wife Kelly grow corn and soybeans. Their farm is relatively small, 700 acres in southern Michigan. They do all the work themselves – they plant, treat, harvest and market their own crops. It’s a lot of work for two people, especially since both J. and Kelly also have full-time jobs off the farm. He works at a bank and she works as a farm credit analyst.


They hope to one day be able to quit those jobs, and live off the farm income, but that might take awhile. The Williams had to take out big loans to buy land and equipment. They’re deep in debt, but they say farming is the life they want.


“Part of it’s entrepreneurial, it’s being your own boss, it’s making your own decisions and not being responsible to anyone but yourself for successes and failures. Part of it’s just natural attachment to nature and being outside and enjoying that, and part of it’s just simply independence.”


To achieve complete independence, J. says he needs to buy more farmland, but when he tries, he has to compete with a dozen or so other bidders, and they’re not all farmers. Some are developers looking for places to build homes or stores. The developers can afford to spend a lot more for the land because they’ll make a quick and substantial profit once the land is turned into neighborhoods or strip malls.


It’s a common scenario. In the last two decades, the United States has lost close to 50 million acres of farmland, most of it mid-size farms – which are typically family-owned. They’ve been chopped up and sold to developers or to sometimes gobbled up by factory farm owners.


Scott Everett is the Great Lakes regional director for America’s Farmland Trust. His group lobbies to preserve farmland. He says even when crop prices are at their highest, a sweet development deal is usually too good for some farmers to pass up.


“This generation, farmers today that own farmland today, have something much different than their fathers had. They’ve got this land that is worth so much more for development than it is for agriculture.”


Everett says farmland is often sold to developers at triple what it would be worth as agricultural land. That makes land prices high… and that means young farmers have a tough time getting loans.


Bruce Weir is with the U.S. Farm Service Agency. The agency offers loans to many beginner farmers who haven’t been able to get financing anywhere else.


“Right now it is tough for a young farmer, without a lot of collateral or capital to start with to start. It’s almost impossible. We don’t like to say that, but it is tough for them.”


A lot of beginning farmers know the odds are against them, but like J. Williams, the banker who wants to become a full-time farmer; they’re still hoping to expand their farms. Williams says he’d like to know that available land won’t simply go to the highest bidder. He wants farmland to remain farmland. He’s working with a group of local farmers to persuade government leaders to develop long-term land use plans.


“There are some areas in our county that are better suited for industrial use, some better for residential, some better for agricultural, and we believe at least that there should be a targeted approach, and a common-sense approach, to planning out our community so that we can maintain a proper balance.”


J. Williams says farming is going well for him and his wife so far. He says… just like the old saying goes, his corn was knee high before the Fourth of July, and the Williams’ fledgling farm is already turning a profit, but they still have to keep their day jobs. J. says it might be that way for some time, if government doesn’t protect farmland from the high price of development, and preserve it for agriculture.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

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Preserving a Piece of Our Heritage

  • Barn preservation groups across the country are working to save old barns - both the common designs, and the more unusual examples, like this one in St. Joseph County, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Mary Keithan, from her book, "Michigan's Heritage Barns," published by Michigan State University Press.

In rural areas across the country, the landscape is dramatically
changing. But while strip malls, subdivisions and mini-marts all
contribute toward urbanization, there’s another type of transformation
going on, as well. The face of our farmlands is changing, as
agriculture
becomes more modernized. And that’s got some people worried that a
classic symbol of American farming may soon fade away. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports: