Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Promises of Local Control (Part 2 of a Series)

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how agricultural zoning should be implemented in Iowa, we need to talk some more about the reasons why it needs to be implemented.

First, I think we need to come to terms with the fact that local control of agricultural zoning is not going to solve all of the world's problems.

California is the top producer of agricultural products in the United States. That state has county-level control of agricultural zoning, and it continues to lead the nation in many aspects of agriculture. But California still has problems.

Despite California's county-by-county local control of agricultural zoning, significant problems exist in its ag economy. According to a report from the International Society for Ecology and Culture, California agriculture is dominated by large corporate agribusinesses. To quote a portion of the report, "in California today, large agribusinesses dominate every sector of the food economy. Vertical and horizontal integration, as well as strategic alliances among input suppliers, large-scale producers, food processors, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, have created corporate oligarchies with immense and growing power. Today, just 1 percent of California producers supplies 38 percent of the state’s total agricultural production; just three companies control 57 percent of the huge food retail market in California. Similarly high levels of consolidation are now found throughout California’s food system."

Clearly, it won't solve everything. Nonetheless, Iowa needs to institute agricultural zoning.

As we move forward, we need to focus on the purpose of zoning. We need agricultural land-use planning at the county level in Iowa to determine precisely which areas of each county should be set aside and separated from full-scale, modern livestock production. There is a right place and a wrong place for livestock in every county in Iowa, as long as we have strong, statewide environmental protection standards.

That's how industrial development has been done in Iowa for decades, and it works. The line between agriculture and industry has become increasingly gray in recent years, and we ought to start treating them in a similar fashion.

If state legislators move forward with this as their guiding principle -- that the main purpose of zoning is to keep incompatible land uses separated -- I think Iowans will be happy with the results. When it's done correctly, zoning solves problems. But if we screw it up, we could bring a whole host of new problems upon ourselves -- like costly lawsuits that Iowa's counties simply cannot afford.

Iowa legislators need to have a public debate on how land-use planning can help farmers operate more harmoniously with their neighbors. We need to hear more discussion about how zoning can help save Iowa's valuable farmland from urban sprawl. And let's all think about Iowa's crucial role in the production of renewable fuels and what that industry might bring to rural Iowa in the coming years.

We also need to hear more debate about how county-level agricultural zoning fits into efforts to protect the environment. This is where there seems to be the most significant disagreement.

One point to consider: Watersheds don't begin and end along county lines, so why would we want different sets of regulations covering various parts of a watershed? I believe that after a rigorous public debate on this subject, most thoughtful people will come to the conclusion that environmental regulations should be statewide and they should be administered at the state level. And they need to be strengthened.

Undoubtedly, county agricultural zoning would play an important role in protecting our environment, but only if it fits into and enhances the larger set of statewide natural resource regulations. Zoning should be used to keep large-scale livestock operations from being built in environmentally sensitive areas -- but conversely, zoning should be used to determine areas that are well-suited to raising livestock.

So how should legislators begin the process of instituting county-level zoning for agriculture?

First, they might want to take a look at this:
Click diagram to enlarge. Source: County Zoning Officials of Iowa.

We have already discussed the need for statewide uniformity if we add agriculture to our county zoning regulations. This map shows us one of the first major stumbling blocks on the road to uniformity in agricultural zoning. We see that there are quite a few counties in Iowa that haven't yet implemented any form of zoning whatsoever in their unincorporated areas. That needs to change before we can move forward.

Every county in Iowa should be required to prepare a comprehensive land-use plan and create a planning and zoning commission. That's a tall order, but it is necessary.

The first step in tackling any issue of this magnitude should be the creation of a state commission to oversee the process. Let's call it the Iowa Rural Land Use Planning Board, or maybe somebody can come up with something a little more catchy.

Whatever it's called, all interested parties should be invited to the table. Members appointed to the board should include the secretary of agriculture, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, the director of the Department of Economic Development and a representative from the Iowa State Association of Counties. Others who should have a seat at the table include academics from state universities, representatives of environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, as well as agricultural organizations such as the Iowa Farmers Union and the Farm Bureau. Let's face it, we're not going to get anything done unless folks put their differences aside and work together.

First, this board would be charged with the task of reviewing and approving the comprehensive land-use plan of every county in Iowa.

The board would then need to conduct feasibility studies to determine what all of this is going to cost Iowa taxpayers, one of the subjects we will discuss in the final part of this series (Click here).

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New 'World's Largest Meatpacker' announced today

In the wake of recent news that a merger between pork industry giants Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms was finalized, news reports were popping up today about another merger of large meatpacking industry giants.

News organizations reported today that a Brazilian meatpacker has purchased Swift & Co. and as a result, will become the largest meatpacking company in the world.

A article today announced that the Latin American firm J&F Participacoes SA had purchased Swift & Co., and that the newly-formed conglomerate would become the world's largest beef and pork processor.

Swift was in the news late last year after it was the target of several federal raids by Immgration and Customs Enforcement agents that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of illegal immigrants. Here in Iowa, Swift operates a meatpacking plant in Marshalltown. The Marshalltown plant was among the targets of the December immigration raids.

Grassley hopeful for farm payment caps

Sen. Charles Grassley has pushed for years to put a cap on federal farm program payments, but to no avail.

Now that his own party is no longer in control of Congress, Grassley believes the payment limitations will have a better chance of being passed into law.

Grassley is in favor of federal farm payment limits to ensure a larger percentage of the funding is channelled to small and medium sized farm operations.

In a weekly conference call today with farm broadcasters, Grassley was asked about the prospect of getting the legislation passed.

"The key to getting it passed is to get by the House Agriculture Committee, where there's been strong Republican opposition to it," said Grassley. "I'm hoping with a Democrat chairman, who is very populist in his approach, (he) will support it. But whether you have Republican or Democrat control of the House of Representatives, it seems like we still have resistance from Southern cotton and rice farmers to any payment limitation. On the other hand, those of us in the rest of the country feel that a payment limitation is very important."

Grassley went on to explain why he supports payment limits. "First of all to save the taxpayers money; secondly, there is outrage when you find 10 percent of the biggest farmers getting 72 percent of the benefits out of the farm program."

He said that the support of "city people" in the House of Representatives is lost due to bad publicity stemming from the fact that so few large operations are taking so much of the federal farm payments and "being subsidized to get bigger."

"The farm program has always been targeted towards medium and small-sized farmers," said Grassley. "So for the reason of saving taxpayer money, for the reason of keeping public confidence in the farm program, and thirdly for not subsidizing big farmers to get bigger at the expense of maybe young people getting into agriculture, we think it has good support and I think it'll be in the farm bill that Senator Harkin brings before the Senate. So then the question comes back the House of Representatives.

Grassley is working with Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) on the legislation, which was introduced in the Senate on Thursday.

The bill, called the Rural America Preservation Act, would limit federal farm program payments to $250,000. According to a joint statement released from Grassley and Dorgan, the legislation would "close loopholes in the farm program that allow some mega-farms and corporate farms to collect seven-figure government checks each year."

“It is unfair to family farmers and to American taxpayers that the government has been awarding seven-figure payments to corporate mega-farms,” said Dorgan. “This bill would set limits on these payments, and I’m going to push to target the money saved to use for a disaster title in the farm program.”

According to the statement from Grassley and Dorgan, the legislation would cap direct payments at $20,000; counter-cyclical payments at $30,000; and marketing loan gains (including forfeitures), loan deficiency payments, and commodity certificates at $75,000.

Boswell stresses need to study nation's fuel pipelines

Stress corrosion cracking--that's probably not a phrase you're familiar with, but it is something that has been weighing heavily on the minds of ethanol producers in Iowa.

Stress corrosion cracking in pipelines is blamed as a major reason why ethanol cannot currently be pumped from the Midwest through the nation's existing pipeline infrastructure. Finding a solution to that problem is a goal of renewable fuels advocates as the production and use of ethanol contiinues to grow.

Just this morning, new legislation was announced that would provide funding for a federal study to determine the challenges involved with pumping ethanol and other renewable fuels through the nation's pipeline infrastructure. The study will also determine the feasibility of constructing a pipeline system dedicated to renewable fuels.

Congressman Leonard Boswell announced the introduction of the Ethanol Infrastructure Expansion Act today at a press conference in Pleasant Hill. The conference was held at Magellan Pipeline Company, a major fuel distribution hub for the region.

According to Boswell, the legislation is being co-sponsored by Republican Congressman Jerry Moran of Kansas. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

"This bill is a necessary first step in bringing ethanol to the rest of the country," said Boswell. "We need to break our bondage to OPEC."

Magellan Pipeline's government and media affairs director Bruce Heine thanked Boswell for his work on the bill, and explained how the legislation would help prepare the nation's pipeline infrastructure to transport renewable fuels. Heine discussed some of the technical difficulties associated with transporting ethanol through pipelines, and why new technology is necessary. He also touted the benefits of using pipelines to move fuels. "Pipelines are the most economic way to transport large volumes of liquids," said Hein. "For example, transporting a gallon of gasoline from Houston to New York can be done for less than three cents per gallon."

As he announced the introduction of the bill, Boswell said that it would fund a feasibility study on the construction of a dedicated pipeline and also carry out research and development regarding the factors that prevent ethanol and biodiesel from being transported through existing pipelines. Boswell explained that the funding would be provided through a competitive solicitation process conducted by the Department of Energy. He said that the legislation would require that the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Transportation coordinate their efforts in conducting the studies.

Iowa Corn Growers Association director Jim Meyer applauded the legislation, and talked about how corn farmers are prepared to meet the demand. "It was kind of, heartburn for the corn growers of Iowa, and growers across the corn belt, to get questioned on whether we could raise enough corn to meet the needs in the coming years," said Meyer. "We're really thrilled as corn growers to be able to show folks in the United States and maybe the world what we can do in the production of corn. Yields are going to have to be good. We've got the acres committed to corn production. And I don't think there's ever been a time that I can remember that we've had a chance to really pull out the all the stops and just see how much corn can be raised. Especially here in Iowa."

"We've got the ethanol production facilities coming on line and we've got the corn to meet the need," said Meyer. "But it isn't going to do any good unless we can get the product to the consumer. And that is why a dedicated pipeline for ethanol can be very crucial."

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association echoed Meyer's comments on the ability of farmers to produce the needed product to meet the coming demand. He discussed the national debate on energy policy and renewable fuels standards and said, "What I'm a little afraid of is we don't seem to have the same level and intensity on the public debate regarding what we're going to do with that fuel. We can produce it. We can produce the feedstocks and produce these biofuels, but how are we going to get it to the market?"

"This bill is very important," said Shaw. "We can't wait until we're producing that 30- or 60-billion gallons of ethanol to figure this out. It takes a while to build some of this infrastructure. If we determine that pipelines are the way to go, and we need them, then we need to get started now so they'll be in place." Shaw explained some of the federal legislation that has been proposed regarding new renewable fuels standards, but stressed the importance of distribution infrastructure as part of the debate. "You know, maybe it's not as fun as talking about some big RFS number, but it's just as important, if not more important."

Jamie Cashman, a spokesman for Gov. Chet Culver, was also on hand to lend support to Boswell's legislation. Cashman noted Culver's dedication to growing the renewable fuels industry in Iowa, and spoke in favor of the pipeline infrastructure study.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Northey sees dynamic times ahead for agriculture (Part 2 of 2)

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey sat down for an interview on Thursday with the Iowa Independent. Click here for Part 1 of this article.

Water quality in Iowa

Water quality problems have been a serious concern in recent years in Iowa, and farmers are often blamed for the problems. Northey discussed some of the work his department is doing to improve water quality in Iowa.

"At this department, about half of the 400 people that work here work at improving soil conservation and water quality," said Northey. "We've got projects where we're looking at trying to take nitrogen out of the water that's coming down to our streams. We've got tons of soil conservation efforts, both traditional efforts from terraces and grass waterways and filter strips, to newer kinds of no-till and other kinds of things that are done through the department."

Successful efforts to improve soil conservation practices on Iowa farms involves a collaborative effort between different local, state and federal agencies as well as private individuals. "There's a real partnership between the state and the local folks, as well as those federal folks that are out there in the (USDA) offices," said Northey.

He meets at least every two weeks with Rich Leopold, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "We had a meeting this morning, and we talked about several different projects that are going on. We talked about livestock siting regulations. There are some regulations on feedyards that we talked about, and we talked about a federal grant that we would be asking for together. So it's the combination of trying to make sure government does the best job it can with the programs we have, and looking ahead and trying to develop some of that new technology," said Northey.

Challenges of cellulosic ethanol production

Northey said that there is significant research occurring right now in the state on cellulosic ethanol production and the impact it may have on the environment. "One of the things that folks talk about is turning cellulose into ethanol. If we're going to use corn stalks, corn cobs, it makes great sense. We can use them, but how do we take them off of the ground without causing erosion? So, part of the effort has to be in figuring out how much we can take off the ground."

A lot of that depends on soil types and slope in the field, he said. "Maybe we can go out there and harvest various amounts over various parts of that field. What those numbers are, we are still learning how to do that. Soil conservation started 80 years ago after the dust bowl times of the '30s; we're still learning a lot about it and how we can do a better job."

Livestock confinements

One of the most-contentious issues around livestock production in Iowa involves large livestock-confinement operations. Northey said that a lot of improvements have been made in recent years to reduce the amount of environmental impact created by such operations.

"I think we need to kind of split it up into the separate issues," he said. "Different species out there cause different concerns. Certainly some of the attention right now is around hog facilities, and it's really more around air quality concerns. It's about odor rather than water quality concerns. If you talk to the DNR folks, they've mapped out how many areas cause real water quality concerns. Not very frequently is it a hog confinement, in fact. Not very frequently is it a large cattle or large dairy facility causing these problems. But often it may be one of the older cattle facilities, maybe built on the side of a hill, which is very traditional--the way 90 percent of the cattle were raised 40 years ago. We're trying to figure out how those facilities can continue to run but not cause water quality problems. But with these new facilities, we're not seeing much risk to water quality."

Still, air quality is a different matter. "We need to be able to do a better job on the odor research that's out there. That's not generally as big of a problem with dairy and cattle feeding. That's more of a hog issue, and sometimes poultry as well, but we need to be able to find out if we're doing everything we can, if we have the latest technology here in Iowa. It's never going to be easy. You know, we have industrial processes in some of our cities that smell also. We can't snap our fingers and solve these problems. But we sure shouldn't hide our head under a bushel basket. We should go after some of these new technologies and make sure we're doing all we can."

Many environmental activist groups have pushed for years for local zoning control of agricultural land. Northey is not in favor of such a change to Iowa law.

"I think we really need statewide regulations. If they're right to have, then we need to have those regulations all around the state," said Northey. "If (regulations) are health-based, then there's no reason one area should have them and another area shouldn't. Certainly, there are some areas where we've got folks raising livestock that aren't doing the best that they can. But most of the folks are doing a really good job, and when you take the big hammer of local control, you end up hitting an awful lot of people that are doing a good job and driving an industry away. What we need to do is we need to fine-tune it and find some way of getting that little handful of folks that aren't doing a good job without destroying the industry in the process. It's not easy, it's not quick. It's not as quick as just running everybody out."

Friday, May 25, 2007

Northey sees dynamic times ahead for agriculture (Part 1 of 2)

Now that he is settled into his new role as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey sees an exciting and dynamic future for Iowa's farm economy.

He has served almost five months of his first term so far, and his first legislative session is behind him. Northey, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Spirit Lake, sat down with the Iowa Independent on Thursday at his office to discuss the outlook for Iowa's farm products.

Northey comes to the office at a time when Iowa agriculture has intersected with the national debate on energy policy. He sees significant potential for growth in proven renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, as well as growth in new technologies like cellulosic ethanol.

"There's probably been as much attention on agriculture in our legislative session, and from non-ag folks, as what there's been at almost any time for decades," said Northey. "Certainly there was a lot of discussion across the street on ag activities, around renewable fuels, around livestock, around DDGs, around being able to get the full advantage of this opportunity we have right now."

The fact that Northey is a Republican serving with a Democratic-led Legislature and a Democratic governor has not caused any real divisions involving agriculture policy. "It's a great time to be secretary of agriculture," said Northey. "As a Republican, with a Democratic legislative leadership and Democratic governor and lieutenant governor, we got along very well on the things that we all thought needed to be done. For me, the nice thing is it's a bipartisan, kind of nonpartisan effort, because whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you can see the opportunities in agriculture right now. And we're seeing huge investments. We're seeing in the state somewhere between $2- and $3 billion last year invested in ag processing, mostly ethanol and biodiesel plants. We're seeing some livestock increases, some dairy, some new cattle feeding going in. It's a very exciting and dynamic time in agriculture."

Presidential politics

Though Iowa plays an important role in the presidential nomination process, Northey said he won't be choosing a favorite candidate or making any endorsement any time soon. "I'm focusing on agriculture, and I look at myself maybe more as a source to those candidates about agriculture," said Northey. "And I'm willing to talk to any of them about what's going on in agriculture in Iowa--what issues we ought to be looking at, what's important to Iowa folks on agriculture. And I'd rather talk to all of them rather than just pick one of them. I don't know what an endorsement means anyway. I don't know if I picked one then if anybody'd care anyway," he joked.

Northey said that it is important for Iowans to make agricultural issues a part of the debate in the Iowa caucuses. "I think we do have an advantage in that energy is a big part of the debate," he said. "Because of oil prices. Because of Iraq. Agriculture right now is involved in the energy side of the debate, and will be part of the Iowa caucus discussion."

Outlook for this year's crops

With all the new demand created by the renewable fuels industry, a bumper corn and soybean crop this year would be extremely helpful in relieving some pressure on that demand. After several challenging weeks of wet weather around Iowa, most of the crops are now planted. But certain areas of the state have been hit hard.

"We still have some pockets out there that still don't have all the corn in they need or all the beans in," said Northey. "I'm just hearing today that there were some areas over the last couple of days that had another five inches of rain, like in the Shenandoah area where they were already wet. So there are some pockets that aren't finished, but most of the planting is done."

"Overall the weather has been good," he said. "We've had good emergence, good conditions for the stuff that's in the ground. So I feel good about where we're at right now. Of course, what really makes a bean crop is August. What really makes a corn crop is pollination and that late fill, so, we have a long ways to go. I think, with the demand that we have for ethanol, a growing demand, everybody wants a good crop. We all know we need a good crop this year and we can use it up. We need it for our livestock industry to make sure that we have enough corn to go around."

Meeting the demand has been "a real challenge," he said. "One of the things that's been good for the livestock industry is, while we have higher-priced feed, their market prices are on the upper end of their range, and so they've been able to absorb it. The real challenge is going to be if they have changes in their market prices. If cattle get off of $100, if hogs go back under $50, then they have real challenges trying to feed three-and-a-half dollar corn to them. So for everybody's sake, we need a good crop."

In the next part of this article, Northey discussed his views on some of the environmental concerns involving agriculture in Iowa. Click here for Part 2 of this article.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Promises of Local Control (Part 1 of a Series)

Local control...

You've undoubtedly heard those two words a lot lately in Iowa. You've seen them displayed on bumpers stickers and painted on protest banners.

Local control -- yep, here in Iowa, we've been hearing about local control for years. Lots of people throw the phrase around. Local control is good. We need it. If we had it, everything would be just fine and dandy.

But just ask 10 average Iowans what "local control" means and you're likely to get 10 very different responses. Then ask 10 Iowa legislators, and be prepared for some really creative answers.

Let's not mince words. What we're really talking about is giving county governments in Iowa more of a say in where large livestock confinement operations should and shouldn't be built.

Iowa politicians have struggled for years to find a workable way to do this without derailing our agricultural economy. Their overly cautious approach is not entirely unfounded. According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa's cash receipts from farm commodities total nearly $16 billion a year. Iowa is the national leader in the production of pork, soybeans, corn and eggs. Iowa is ranked second in the nation in the production of red meat.

And Iowa is poised to host significant growth in beef cattle production. This is because of the abundance of dried distiller grains, a nutritious byproduct of ethanol production that is fed to cattle.

Without question, we cannot afford to choke the economic engine of agriculture in Iowa. To do so would spell economic disaster.

Nonetheless, we have a serious problem that must be addressed. Modern livestock production is simply unwelcome in some parts of the state. And with the expected growth in beef-feeding operations, something must be done as soon as possible to protect both the livestock industry and Iowa's rural residents.

There is already a legal process that has been proven over a century to resolve just these kinds of problems. Time and time again, this process has been used to direct the orderly development of land in America, protect property values and keep incompatible land uses separated.

It's called zoning. It's worked really well since the first urban planning laws were enacted in New York more than 100 years ago. For communities and rural areas in Iowa, zoning -- or the more palatable term "land-use planning" -- has served us well for many years in our efforts to keep industrial developers from stepping on the toes of residential and commercial property owners. And vice versa.

Right now, more than 80 of Iowa's 99 counties already have some sort of zoning law regulating their unincorporated areas. But there's a hitch. Because of a few short sentences in the Iowa Code, Chapter 335.2, agricultural land in unincorporated Iowa is exempt from virtually all county zoning regulations. And that's why you can build a large-scale livestock feeding operation without a whole lot of local government control over where you decide to build it. Or you can move to rural Iowa and build a luxury home, call it a "farmhouse" and proceed to complain about your neighbors for farming.

For years, agricultural lobbying groups have fought against zoning for agriculture. The Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers, a collaboration between the Farm Bureau and five Iowa farm commodity groups, calls such efforts "misguided." They say that in Nebraska, new regulations including county zoning authority have "decimated dairy, cattle and hog numbers." They say Nebraska's hog numbers have dropped by 36 percent as a result of such new regulations.

They also point to a situation in Minnesota. The coalition says an advisory group was created to study the downward spiral in livestock numbers shortly after a cheese plant closed because of insufficient local milk supplies. "Nearly $100 million in regional economic activity vanished along with 100 skilled jobs. The advisory group said a significant impediment to new livestock farms was the lack of regulatory uniformity, adding that the uncertainty has 'a chilling effect on growth of other livestock sectors.'" Farmers were simply unwilling to invest.

They make a good point. A patchwork of more confusing regulations is not what we need. If you really think about it, thick volumes of regulations can only really be surmounted by companies that can afford to hire lawyers and engineers. That does not help the family farmer who only wants to modernize to remain competitive at producing livestock.

It's not going to be easy, but it's time for Iowa legislators to step up and prepare a workable bill to give Iowans local control. What we need is a strict, uniform set of guidelines, set at the state level, that can be administered by county zoning boards.

In the next article in this series, we will examine some steps that the state should take to give county governments more control of agricultural zoning. Click here for Part 2.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Amazing wild animal video not unlike Iowa caucuses

This is the most amazing wild animal footage I have ever seen.

Watching it, I was struck by the thought that it reminded me of the Iowa caucuses. It's not for those with weak stomachs, but watch the whole thing. There is a happy ending.

You can draw your own conclusions as to which animals represent which candidates.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Aidan's first checkup

We took Aidan to his first checkup today in Ottumwa. He's really healthy and growing.

He weighs 10 pounds, 1.5 ounces, so he's grown a lot since he was born. He sure has a healthy appetite. The doctor said he's just doing great.

He really likes to take rides in the car. I never thought he would like the car seat, but he really seems comfy in it and he just falls asleep.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Loebsack highlights Americorps Week by touring Iowa programs

Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack spent his Saturday recognizing Americorps Week, visiting Iowa programs that benefit from the efforts of Americorps volunteers.

One of the stops on Loebsack's schedule was in Centerville, at the headquarters of The Abilities Fund, a non-profit organization that works to assist people with disabilities in starting their own small businesses.

Americorps Vista volunteers, usually recent graduates of Iowa universities, are regularly employed by the Abilities Fund to assist clients with disabilities fulfill their dreams of becoming self-sufficient entrepreneurs.

Abilities Fund Executive Director Patti Lind, pictured above with Loebsack, explained how important Americorps Vista volunteers are to the success of her program. "The Abilities Fund would not be here without Americorps Vista," said Lind. She thanked Loebsack and Congress in general for continuing to support funding for Americorps programs.

A freshman representative in his first year in Congress, Loebsack said he would continue to support the program. "I haven't given very many speeches yet in Congress," said Loebsack. "But I recently gave a speech on the floor of the House in support of Americorps."

Americorps was created in 1993, when President Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act. As a result, a national network of service programs was created, and the pre-existing VISTA program and the National Civilian Community Corps were incorporated into the fold.

Nationwide, these programs help get over 70,000 volunteers each year connected to programs where they can serve .

To put it simply, said Loebsack, "it's like the Peace Corps, but serving domestically in the United States."

This first-ever Americorps Week, held May 13-20, was organized as a way to recognize Americorps members for their service and to recruit more Americans into the program.

The weeklong celebration was held to provide an opportunity for Americorps members, alumni, donors and partners to raise awareness about what they've accomplished and to motivate more Americans to do community service work.

To learn more about Americorps and the opportunities it provides, check their website here.

Click this link for more information about The Abilities Fund and how it serves to help people with disabilities start their own small businesses.

Friday, May 18, 2007

New destructive pests may be chomping their way into Iowa

A certain type of little green bug has recently been devastating populations of ash trees in the upper Midwest, and now Iowa officials are concerned it may be on its way here.

The emerald ash borer is a destructive pest that has been chomping its way through Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and has also been found in Maryland and Canada. State officials in Iowa are so concerned that it may make its way here, they have proclaimed next week "Emerald Ash Borer Awareness Week," May 20-26.

Adult emerald ash borers are metallic green color and are usually slightly less than one half inch long.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Iowa Department of Natural Resources director Rich Leopold are planning a big press conference on Tuesday, May 22 to get the word out about the invading bugs.

According to the Ag Department, there are 25 million ash trees in Michigan alone that are dead or dying as a result of the damage cause by the green beetles. Here in Iowa, we have a population of ab0ut 15 million urban ash trees, and nearly 50 million rural ash trees, all at risk of being munched by the emerald ash borer.

One of the ways the pests have traveled is by hitching a ride on cut firewood that is transported by campers. The Iowa DNR is warning campers to not transport firewood from other states into Iowa.

According to the Ag Department, areas that are currently infested by the emerald ash borer are now under federal and state quarantines, but campers that are unaware of the problem could unknowingly transport infested wood.

(Photo/David Cappaert of Michigan State University and courtesy of

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Aidan with his mom and dad

Here's a photo of us while we were all still at the hospital. We came home on Monday and we're now all settled in.

Aidan had a little spot of pneumonia after he was born, so we all stayed at the hospital in Ottumwa for ten days. He quickly got better, and now he's happy and healthy here at home.

I would like to personally thank all of the staff at the Ottumwa Regional Health Center for all of their kind and caring service. We really appreciated the care we received from Dr. Bourgeous and Dr. Miller, and we'd especially like to thank the nurses for their professionalism and kindness.

I'll be posting some more pictures soon of Aidan and his family.

Merger enlarges pork giant, Iowa Senators dismayed

It began late last year, when the largest processor of pork on earth announced that it was purchasing another giant in the industry of hog production.

Smithfield Foods purchased Premium Standard Farms, creating a mega-conglomerate that would control much of the hog production and processing in the world. All Smithfield needed to proceed was a green light of approval by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Last week, that approval was given. The Antitrust Division of the Justice Department determined that the merged firm would not harm competition, consumers or farmers.

Now, according to Senate Agriculture Committee Majority Staff, Smithfield will control 20 percent of hog production and roughly 30 percent of pork processing. These big changes in the structure of the pork industry mean that the top four firms in the nation control roughly 50 percent of hog production and 66 percent of pork processing.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate Ag Committee, has been very vocal about his frustrations with the lack of action by the Department of Justice on the issue.

"Not only am I deeply concerned by this merger, but I find it frustrating that the Department of Justice continues to look the other way and not prevent or modify these increasing number of acquisitions," said Harkin. "I have asked DOJ to review this merger under anti-trust laws and I have expressed concerns regarding mergers in submitted testimony at the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee in March. Either DOJ isn't doing enough to review or alter these mergers, or the anti-trust laws aren't working."

Iowa's Senator on the other side of the aisle, Sen. Chuck Grassley, used even stronger language in response to the approval of the merger by the Department of Justice.

"It looks like nobody’s going to stand in the way of all this vertical integration until we’ve just got one meatpacker in the country," said Grassley. "Maybe then the Justice Department will figure out that we’ve got a problem. This makes it all the more clear that we need to address concentration in the farm bill to give the family farmer a fighting chance in the marketplace."

Harkin and Grassley have both supported efforts at the federal level to ban meatpacker ownership of livestock, and Harkin has introduced new legislation that would strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act.

It's Farmer's Market season in Iowa

Fresh garden vegetables, home-made baked goods, foods and crafts made right here in Iowa by local producers...these are just a few of the things you can find at an Iowa Farmer's Market.

Over the next few weeks, Farmer's Markets in almost every part of the state will be opening up for the summer season.

Pictured in the photo to the right are Kathy and Charles Newton of rural Davis County. They were busy today selling their farm fresh eggs and honey at the Thursday on Third event in Ottumwa, a weekly market featuring live music in the downtown park. There are also regular Farmer's Markets in Ottumwa on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer.

Self proclaimed hobby-beekeepers, the Newtons operate an apiary on their rural homestead near Drakesville. They produce raw, unheated honey for sale in large or small containers. They also make a health supplement called bee pollen as well as lotions, lip balms and candles made from beeswax.

Charles Newton said he enjoys selling his goods at the Farmer's Markets here in southern Iowa. He also regularly sets up shop at Ottumwa's Wednesday Farmer's Market, and at the Farmer's Market in Fairfield on Saturdays.

Some of Iowa's Farmer's Markets are big and bustling weekly events with an almost festival-like atmosphere, such as the Downtown Des Moines Farmer's Market. Others are just a weekly gathering of gardeners sitting in folding chairs offering some of the freshest Iowa produce available.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship maintains a current directory of almost all of the regular Farmer's Markets in the state. The directory provides the dates, times and location of markets throughout Iowa, as well as contact information for the event organizers. Click here for the full directory. Gardeners with extra vegetables can contact the event organizers to learn how to set up a stand and sell their products.

Some of Iowa's Farmer's Markets are certified as locations that accept Farmer's Market Nutrition Program checks. According to IDALS, the WIC Farmer's Market Nutrition Program provides resources in the form of fresh, nutritious unprepared foods such as fruits and vegetables to women, infants and children who are "nutrionally at risk." The program works through the Iowa Department of Public Health and local WIC agencies to provide the vouchers for fresh produce from certified Farmer's Market vendors.

There is also a program called the Seniors Farmer's Market Nutrition Program that provides coupons to low-income seniors that can be exchanged for eligible foods.

To participate in these programs, vendors are required to attend a free class to be certified. According to IDALS, the next vendor training session will be held on June 21 in Des Moines at the Wallace Building. Farmers and gardeners interested in being certified through the program just need to call 515-281-3632 to register.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Renewables could replace some fossil fuels in power plants

Scientists and innovators in Iowa have been studying the possibility of burning renewable fuels in power plants to generate electricity.

When we think of renewable fuels, we often think of the liquid fuels we pump into our cars. Renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are already replacing a significant percentage of the petroleum-based gasoline and diesel we use to power our automobiles.

But someday we could also be generating electricity by burning renewable fuels in power plants instead of fossil fuels like coal.

From 2001 through 2005, a series of tests were conducted at the Ottumwa Generating Station to study the feasibility of burning pulverized switchgrass mixed with coal. These tests, conducted by the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, successfully showed that a renewable commodity such as switchgrass could replace at least some of the coal used to generate power.

The goals the switchgrass test-burn were to identify the effects of co-firing on the power plant, to study changes in emissions, and to gather information to improve the design of the switchgrass handling equipment. According to the first test project report, all of the goals were met.

Now there are other possible renewable fuels that are being studied in power plants in Iowa.

Early this spring, the Wisdom Station power plant in Spencer conducted a test-burn using a different renewable fuel source. The test created electricity using 90 percent coal and 10 percent pelletized dried distiller grains.

The Wisdom Station test showed some promising results, and demonstrated that there are new possible uses for dried distiller grains, the main by-product of the process of making ethanol from corn.

Dried distiller grains are most often fed to cattle and other livestock, and will no doubt become more readily available as the production of ethanol grows.

One of the main drawbacks of dried distiller grain is the fact that it is cumbersome to ship and store. But a new technology may provide the solution to some of those problems.

According to Bruce Hansen of the Iowa Area Development Group, a company called Ag Pellet Energy has developed a new pellet product that could make transportation of dried distiller grains more efficient.

Ag Pellet Energy, based in Indiana, and Landers Machine, located in Texas, have produced a new pellet product derived from 100 percent dried distiller grain that can be burned in a power plant or as a feed for livestock.

These pelletized distiller grains were used in the test burn at the Wisdom Station power plant. Corn Belt Power vice president Mike Thatcher said that the power plant did not achieve full generation output with the blended fuel, but there was a reduction in emissions during the test. "With the fuel mixture, we saw a reduction in the percent opacity, which is the measurement of visual emissions coming out of the stack. We believe the DDG ash causes the precipitator to perform better," said Thatcher.

The company is also testing the pelletized distiller grain as cattle feed, and Iowa State University is involved with the research. Dr. Dan Loy, an ISU researcher, will be working with producers on the tests.

"Until now, a 100 percent DDG pellet was considered to be impossible to pelletize for livestock feed due to the amount of oil and fat found in the standard DDG material," said Loy. "This new product is very unique and should have a distinct advantage for the feed industry and livestock producers."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Finally home

After ten days in the hospital, we all came home last night.

Aidan is happy and healthy, and so are his mom and dad. We're here at home today getting situated and adjusted.

We had to stay at the hospital for a few extra days because Aidan had a little spot of pneumonia in one of his lungs. But that's all better now.

Thanks to everyone who sent us cards and flowers and balloons, it really made the stay at the hospital a lot more fun!

I'll begin posting some new photos later tonight.

I'm also planning to write about a new project with which I'm involved called Iowa Independent.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Aidan William Judge

Aidan William Judge was born on Saturday, May 5, at 5:27 a.m. at the Ottumwa Regional Health Center in Ottumwa. His parents are Dien and Steva Judge of rural Albia, Iowa.

His grandparents are John and Patty Judge of Albia, Nancy Plagman of Des Moines, and Steve Havick and Jill Smith of Urbandale.

His great-grandparents are Lester and Lois Poole of Albia, Bob and Donna Plagman of Council Bluffs, Jim and Betty Aken of Omaha, and Wilma Havick of Harlan.

When Aidan was born, he weighed 9 pounds, 10.5 ounces, and he was 22 inches long.

He is incredibly cute and cuddly.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dodd to visit Iowa this week

Democratic candidate for president, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, will travel to Iowa this week. Dodd will be holding events in Des Moines and Ottumwa.

On Thursday, May 3, Dodd will join Democratic activists at Jimmy's American Cafe in West Des Moines. The event begins at noon.

On Friday, May 4, Dodd will hold a "Kitchen Table Meeting" in Ottumwa. The event will begin at 8:30 a.m. at the Riverside Family Restaurant in Ottumwa.