New Canadian Policies Put Pressure on Northeast Dairy Producers

Dairy-Cows-Feeding

Canada is poised to move forward with two new policies– Canada’s National Ingredients Strategy and Ontario’s Class VI pricing program– that will significantly impact northeast dairy farms.

Canada is poised to move forward with two new policies– Canada’s National Ingredients Strategy and Ontario’s Class VI pricing program– that will significantly impact northeast dairy farms. Both are expected to go into effect this year.

O-AT-KA Milk Products Cooperative, Inc. Director of Dairy Ingredient Sales and Regulatory Affairs, Craig Alexander explains that through these policies, Canada is creating a special reduced class of pricing for certain dairy products. The pricing class is set to the lowest price identified in a worldwide survey. That price is well below Canada’s cost of production and the United States’ cost of selling the ingredients to processors there.

“This is in order to eliminate imports and dump their skim solids on the world market,” Alexander said. “They have also raised other prices for other domestic milk use that will encourage more production.”

According to a letter sent to several state governors, Canada is poised to expand the product scope of that program while instituting it nationally and in addition to disrupt skim milk powder markets around the world by using the new program to dump excess skim milk powder on global markets.

Once the policies go into effect, Cayuga Milk Ingredients (CMI) CEO, Kevin J. Ellis, says it is not going to be a pretty picture for dairy farmers in the Northeast. Ellis says that CMI will decrease its daily capacity by 400,000 pounds. Currently, the plant processes 2.3 million pounds per day. That will drop to 1.9 million pounds per day.

“We’ve been able to buy other’s surplus and increase the through put at our plant. But now, we’ll be limited to our dryer capacity,” Ellis said.

Alexander estimates that the Northeast will have an excess of 300 to 400 million pounds of milk annually once the new policies are enacted. This is bad news for a region that is already struggling with a higher supply than demand or ability to handle.

“The milk surplus is real,” Ellis said. “It’s a forgone conclusion that Canada is going to do this. Now it’s a matter of when and how fast these changes will take effect. It’ll likely lead to even more dumping at plants in the northeast.”

Dairy leaders in the northeast continue to urge state and federal officials to consider all the tools at their disposal to ensure Canada understands the seriousness of this issue and the value it derives on a daily basis for the numerous Canadian exports that come across the borders of northern U.S. states

“We hope for more concrete actions by states to show Canada that their exports and trade relationships will be damaged by moving forward,” Alexander said.

“With the Trump administration renegotiating the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Canadian actions cannot be taken lightly,” Ellis concluded.

Photo credit: Scott Bauer

Regional Farm Labor Issues: A Working Landscape

man working on a landscape

The challenges in regional farm labor pose tough questions regarding immigration, fair pay, and treatment.

Over time, minimum wage, health care, housing, and safety are top concerns for those working in agriculture. With many farm workers in the country without documentation, their willingness as a group to speak up against unfair practices, or to complain about wages or benefits, is minimal. Even legal immigrants are often unwilling to jeopardize their positions, with little other opportunities to pursue. How can this diverse group of essential employees sow and reap our harvests, yet often suffer from substandard living conditions and employment conditions not acceptable in any other industry? And how can farmers – often struggling to make a living themselves – afford to meet higher standards?

Labor issues are nothing new in agriculture. From slave labor to indentured servants, much of our nation’s farming history was built on the backs of laborers who didn’t have a voice. While many family farms have and continue to have few, if any, non-family employees, others rely on farm workers. Workers hired under the H-2A temporary agricultural guest worker visa program, day workers – whether authorized or undocumented – and legal immigrants who are now U.S. citizens, are all a piece of the agriculture scene, on farms big and small, across the nation. Add in interns and apprentices, and the labor scene on our region’s small and mid-sized farms, across all agricultural enterprises, is a diversified one.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ERS (Economic Research Service) data, the total number of farm workers is approximately 775,000, with 290,000 of these workers employed in the Southwest. The Northeast labor force consists of less than 75,000 hired agricultural workers. More than 50 percent of the nation’s farm workers are from Mexico, with the next largest percentage – about 30 percent – from the U.S., including Puerto Rico. Central American workers, and those from other countries, currently comprise a small overall percentage of agricultural labor.

Although the Northeast has the least amount of hired farm labor in any region, worker rights issues have dominated the news during the past year. Minimum wage laws, the immigration enforcement on New York dairy farms, recent work-related deaths of farmers and farm workers, and the advocacy of numerous organizations in the region, have all helped to focus attention on the issues facing farmers and farm workers.

Systemic issues

Farmworker advocacy has to involve the rights of farmers, too. How to do that, while improving conditions for farm laborers now, has become the linchpin issue for many advocacy programs.

CATA – The Farm Worker Support Committee is a nonprofit based in southern New Jersey. Established in 1979, CATA serves workers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. South Jersey agriculture employs numerous amounts of migrant laborers, about 15,000 annually, to produce the produce destined for the Philadelphia and New York City markets.

Jessica Culley, an organizer with CATA, recently hosted a live webinar, along with program immigration specialist Leila Borrero Krouse. They discussed the program’s mission and the impossibility of creating a sustainable food system that doesn’t sustain its own workers or its farmers.

CATA isn’t looking for quick fixes. The organization is seeking to bring changes to a food system that is inherently inequitable. Farm workers are often disenfranchised, afraid of deportation, isolated within the larger community and ignored by the local food movement, whose emphasis thus far has been on the origins of the food, but hasn’t extended to the workers who are employed on the farms.

“Conditions faced by farm workers on our farms are often lost in translation as we build a local food system,” Culley said in the presentation. “We have to somehow work together to create an alternative,” which includes the needs of small- and medium-sized farms, farmers and farm workers alike.

Mary-Howell Martens, of Lakeview Organic Grain, in Penn Yann, New York, operates a certified organic farm and feed mill, offering seed, feed and livestock health care products. While the business does not employ migrant or temporary workers, Martens does have two employees of Puerto Rican descent, and is familiar with local labor conditions for Hispanic farm workers. Dairy farms, vineyards and apple orchards in the Penn Yann region often rely on a predominantly Hispanic workforce.

Martens focuses on the conundrum of farmer needs – which aren’t being met – as well as those of farm workers. Many of the farm worker concerns, she said, are those that many farmers can’t provide without assistance, either from the government, or from the community and consumers, due to the lack of compensation paid to the farmers who produce the food. While difficult work, long hours, and the temporary or seasonal nature of most farm work – as well as the instability of the work if a crop fails – should justify an added hourly wage, if workers are to have a decent standard of living, doing so requires more equitable pay for farmers.

“While it is true conditions should improve for farm employees, they also need to improve for farmers! This is becoming particularly important in New York, especially this year in a profound drought, and with record-low conventional milk and grain prices. When many farmers are seeing their income severely cut, while New York State is proposing a minimum wage hike to $15.00/hour,” Martens said.

In New York State, particularly the dairy industry, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been making sweeps of farms, rounding up anyone Hispanic, often including legal workers, to find the undocumented, according to Martens. Sweeps – where police patrol the streets around Catholic churches after mass, or other areas where members of the immigrant community are likely to gather – have been occurring across the region, she said.

Martens sees many issues of concern regarding the current manner in which migrant farm workers are treated. With the fear of deportation looming, many won’t seek health care, even if it is available and accessible to them, she said. The focus on allowing male workers into the country for work, but not allowing their families to come here, too, leads to social concerns here and abroad. Language barriers only add to myriad issues.

Worker concerns

Migrant Justice is a Vermont-based nonprofit focused, much like CATA, on providing a community in which farm workers can find their collective voices, and empower themselves to better represent their needs for safe and fair working conditions. The organization has prioritized the concerns facing farm workers. The program’s top priorities areas are categorized as dignified work and quality housing; freedom of movement and access to transportation; freedom from discrimination; and access to health care.

The dairy industry in Vermont is “the most economically important sector in the state’s economy,” Will Lambek, of Migrant Justice, said. “As farms are growing, and yet still facing volatile milk prices that create a need for more labor, and, at the same time, create a downward force on wages,” farm workers are bearing the brunt of this unfair industry structure.

The Vermont dairy industry’s farm worker demographic has changed dramatically in the past decade. According to Lambek, about 10 percent of dairy farm workers were migrants 10 years ago, primarily from southern regions of Mexico. Today, the state’s dairy work force is almost 90 percent migrant labor. Cost of production has increased, pricing has decreased, and Vermont has lost about 10 percent of its dairy farms in the past decade.

In Vermont, most agriculture workers are exempted from minimum wage laws. In a survey conducted by Migrant Justice, 40 percent of farm workers indicated that not receiving the state’s minimum wage of $8.63 is their biggest concern, followed by long work hours often without break periods, unequal treatment compared to that which U.S.- born employees receive, and lack of any wage increases after years of work. Thirty percent complained of overcrowded and substandard housing, and 30 percent reported having been injured on the job.

“No farmer wants to be a bad employer,” Lambek said. “The problem of poor working conditions is systemic in the industry,” and dairy pricing structure is a major culprit.

According to the organization, Vermont farms employ approximately 1,500 migrant workers annually, many in the dairy sector. Migrant Justice launched its Milk with Dignity program in 2014, which focuses on engaging dairy corporations to combat farm worker abuses in their supply chains,

Milk with Dignity was able to implement a code of conduct focused on improving worker standards of living. Corporations signing the code of conduct are made responsible for the conditions that exist on farms supplying the milk, and the enforcement of the Code is “backed by the market consequences,” Lambek said.

According to Lambek, the program attacks the industry’s Achilles’ heel, as “the industry structure, where farmers aren’t getting a fair price for milk, and workers are feeling the brunt of it,” is altered when money-making corporations have a financial risk from not upholding farm worker rights.

By targeted corporate practices, the campaign educates the consumer public about worker rights issues, and provides them with the opportunity to vote for farm worker rights via their purchases. Dairy processors who sign the code of conduct are contractually bound to pay a premium for milk from farms in the Milk with Dignity supply chain. A portion of that premium is passed onto the farm workers directly, and a portion stays with the farmer.

“We’ve added that part of the premium stays with the farmer. The farmer is working side-by-side with the farm workers,” Lambek said.

This “industry approach to the supply chain,” with third-party monitoring to ensure compliance, is “not a model that can only work with a premium or specialty brand,” such as Ben and Jerry’s – in negotiation to be the first Milk with Dignity processor – but can work across the entire dairy industry, Lambek said. “Any company that has an interest in their bottom line, and has an interest in assuring their consumers that their products are made without human rights violations,” can utilize the Milk with Dignity model.

Migrant Justice leader Danilo Lopez speaks at the 2013 signing ceremony of a Vermont law allowing immigrant drivers to obtain a license. Lopez Danilo is flanked by immigrant farm workers who fought for the bill and by Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.

Finding paid labor

Because dairy usually isn’t considered a seasonal industry, dairy farmers are not able to utilize the H-2A visa program. Outside of the H-2A program, many farmers see little choice but to hire workers who may or may not be undocumented. While some farmers use the Department of Homeland Security’s E-verify program, others rely on labor contractors to (hopefully) provide a legal work force.

While the H-2A program represents a legal route for finding migrant employees, farmers are divided over the program, often citing its myriad regulations, inspections, and difficult application process as detriments. Others have found a stable work force, which comes back to the farm year after year, and feel it is worth the hassle to obtain reliable employees.

The H-2A program is growing in popularity in the Northeast. Almost 8,000 H-2A certifications were issued in New Jersey, New York, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined for 2015. This is the highest level since 2009, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Farmers must document that they have made reasonable attempts to hire U.S. citizens before being eligible to find workers via the program. Wages for H-2A workers are set by the program, and any employees not in the program, but doing the same work, must receive the same wage. Free housing, provided by the farmer, is inspected before acceptance, and often in unannounced visits. Safe transportation to the farm, a day off per week, and paid transportation to and from the worker’s country of origin are all farmer responsibilities.

But it is program safeguards such as these that farm worker justice advocates have identified as being the root of abuses.

The Farmworker Justice Program’s report, “No Way To Treat a Guest: Why the H-2A Agricultural Visa Program Fails U.S. and Foreign Workers,” details many of these concerns.

Whether farmworkers are here via the H-2A program, are legal residents, or are undocumented, they often lack community support systems, have language barriers and fear repercussions if they speak out against unfair practices. With labor laws that exempt farmworkers from some of the protections non-agricultural employees enjoy, and a bleak economic outlook for many farms, farmworkers will remain an overlooked piece of our food system’s puzzle. Assuring that small and mid-sized farmers are compensated fairly within our food system may be the best chance for reforming the lives of farmworkers.

“The people that are growing our food are the people with the least access to the food,” Culley, of CATA, said. “How do we build support for sustainable farms that offer dignified work to both the farmers and farm workers?”


The Biobased Economy: A Look Into The (Bio) Plastics Sector

biobased-economy

Biobased products enable farmers to cash in by growing a new crop, finding a new market or making use of farm waste products.

Biobased products enable farmers to cash in by growing a new crop, finding a new market or making use of farm waste products. The development of biobased products, made from renewable resources such as wood, grass, crops, organic waste products or even algae, has the potential to shrink our carbon footprint; reduce dependency on petroleum and other nonrenewable sources we rely on not only for fuel, but as the basis of many consumer products; and provide us with safer chemicals.

Innovations in use of biofuels include corn or sugar beet ethanol; biodiesel from canola, sunflowers or soybeans; woody biomass crops such as shrub willow or perennial grasses, which can be combusted or modified into ethanol; or algae-based fuels. Product and infrastructure development to support this emerging biofuel industry has been in the news with increased frequency as the specter of climate change has grown over the past decades.

But biobased fuels are not the only option for biobased product development, nor are they new: Henry Ford’s first cars could run on biobased fuels, and he was a well-known biofuel advocate. Ford predicted that fuel would come from fast-growing trees, potatoes, apples, sawdust or weeds, not petroleum. While Ford’s predictions of a future energized by biobased fuels has not yet been fully realized, a new focus on a biobased economy is emerging today.

Biobased products are an expansive category. Many consumer products have traditionally been derived from natural materials. Cellulose, a plant material, is used in the production of a diverse array of items, including paper; cellophane; film; varnishes; textiles; and many other common household goods. Plastics, commonly derived from petroleum, can also be biobased.

Bioplastics, feedstocks and agriculture

The USDA has a program designed to support the use of biobased feedstocks in the creation of consumer products. The BioPreferred Program, originally created in the 2002 Farm Bill and expanded in 2014, has as its goal the mission “to increase the purchase and use of biobased products. Biobased products are derived from plants and other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials and provide an alternative to conventional petroleum derived products. Biobased products include diverse categories such as lubricants, cleaning products, inks, fertilizers, and bioplastics. For purposes of the BioPreferred program, biobased products do not include food, animal feed or fuel.”

According to a 2014 NewBio report “Market Opportunities for Lignocellulosic Biomass,” bioplastics can be glucose-based, which are derived from polylactides (PLA), or starch-based. Glucose-based products include plastic bottles, carpeting and clothing. Glucose-based bioplastics have been made from cellulose for over 100 years. Starch-based bioplastics are commonly used in food-service ware and can come from a variety of sources such as potato, corn and cassava.

But it’s not that simple. The report stated that “currently, producing bio-based polymers using bacteria to ferment sugars into polymers remains more expensive than using fossil fuel-based inputs.” Even products made from nature-based materials often use petroleum and other nonrenewable resources in the manufacturing process.

Researchers today, however, are working to develop processes that rely solely or primarily on renewable resources to create these biopolymers. There are numerous biopolymers that can be used in plastics production to replace petroleum-based processes. These polymers can be derived from a variety of agricultural feedstocks.

One concern with biobased feedstocks as building blocks of consumer products has been the potential conflict between food use and feedstock use. When crops are utilized for uses other than human consumption, concerns emerge. But not all bioplastic feedstocks are traditional agricultural crops.

According to the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance:

“Bioplastic Feedstocks are generally divided into first generation (traditional agricultural crops), second generation (cellulosic crops as well as residue and agricultural waste products) and third generation (nontraditional organisms like some forms of algae and nonagricultural wastes).”

Types of bioplastics

Polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, is a biodegradable plastic polymer. It can be created in various ways from organic resources. Bacteria convert the carbon from the organic materials into PHA, and with at least 300 known wild bacteria species able to do so when conditions are right, these “production workers” are readily available.

One agricultural feedstock that can be used for PHA production is manure. According to Erik Coats, P.E., Ph.D., associate professor of civil engineering at University of Idaho, PHA granules are raw plastic, with the same material properties as thermoplastics. Coats has led research developing PHA from fermented manure liquids. During fermentation, some manure converts into organic acids. Bacteria can feed on these, and then store any excess carbon as PHA. Killing the bacteria and extracting the PHA makes it available for use in manufacturing bioplastic products. Coats has predicted that moving these processes from the laboratory and small-scale fermenters and scaling up for production purposes could be done in an economically viable manner sooner rather than later.

PHA can also be made from methane gas. Manure produces methane gas, contributing to global warming. Methane can also be captured from landfills. Captured methane gas not only can serve as a renewable energy source, it can also serve as a bioplastics feedstock.

Mango Materials, along with University of California researchers, have utilized methane from waste sources as a PHA feedstock. The process has received funding from the National Science Foundation, aimed at developing the process for commercialization. The process here, like with Coats’ method, is born in a fermenter.

Using a waste crop such as manure or methane gas reduces the cost of the feedstock, enhancing the potential for economic viability of the bioplastics industry, and eliminates the controversy that can arise when first generation feedstocks are used. Utilizing manure or the methane captured from manure can also offer a boon to the livestock industry, helping it to become climate friendly – a big industry issue today.

Coats emphasized that creating PHA from manure is compatible with the use of methane digesters. The anaerobic digestion process uses the solid manures, not the liquid, and PHA production can be readily integrated into a digester, potentially enhancing the economics of on-farm anaerobic digester use, making digester installation economically feasible for more farms.

For farms with covered manure pits, capturing the methane and flaring it is one method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If that methane could be used as a bioplastic feedstock, it could represent potential income and help to offset the cost of manure storage covers, enabling more farmers to invest in this climate-saving practice.

PHA plastics are extremely biodegradable under wet – but not dry – conditions, Coats said. Single-use goods would be a good match for PHA, including agricultural products such as seed coatings, erosion control matting and weed barriers. In the Mango Materials system, the PHA products can be anaerobically broken down, creating methane in the process, which would then be reused as a feedstock for more PHA production.

While both of the manure-based bioplastic feedstocks aforementioned utilize wild, commonly occurring bacteria, PHA has also been made using genetically modified bacteria fed a plant-based sugar feedstock, and some plant-to-polymer research has focused on genetically modifying plants to produce PHA directly. However, the manure and methane methods can be feasibly produced without genetic modifications, avoiding controversy and expense.

Grasses provide livestock with energy, nesting birds with habitat, act as feedstocks for bioenergy production, and prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff in riparian areas. They can also provide a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastic production, and its accompanying waste and pollution. PHA plastics can be made from native C4 grasses – the warm season perennials, including native big bluestem, little bluestem and switchgrass (panicum virgatum). Native grasses can be grown on marginal lands not suitable to food crop production. Because the grasses play a role in ecosystem enhancement; as a biomass/biofuel feedstock; and for other uses such as bedding, feed or pulp; farmers growing this crop have a variety of potential markets, and can use these grasses for dual purposes.

Polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), is an alternative to polyethylene terephthalate, or polyester, (PET), which is derived from petroleum and natural gas, and is used in many consumer plastics today. PEF instead utilizes 2-5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) from biobased processes, and is being researched at Stanford University.

Instead of using sugar from corn to make FDCA, the Stanford team has been experimenting with furfural. Furfural is derived from organic sources, typically wheat bran, corn cobs, oat hulls and sugarcane residues that don’t compete with crop production.

The process of conversion into FDCA, however, involves carbon dioxide and toxic chemicals. By eliminating the chemicals, and potentially using waste CO2 from industrial sites to fuel the reaction, Stanford researchers have been able to create a fully biobased PET alternative.

Polylactic acid-based plastics (PLA) are currently commercially produced by Cargill Industry’s NatureWorks Inc., among others, and used commercially, including in beverage bottles, clothing and food service cartons. This bioplastic comes from dextrose derived from corn. NatureWorks “Ingeo” bioplastic polymer is primarily made of PLA, and is compostable, as per the company’s website. It can also be broken back down into its lactic acid components, which can then be reused. The company emphasizes that the amount of corn utilized is minute, and does not affect the food supply.

Taking a naturally derived product and creating polymers for plastics production, or taking other biobased materials for use in common commercial applications, can be a key to a more sustainable economy. But creating this bio-based economy isn’t simple. Many factors come into play. Land use, food security, the technology to “harvest” the bio-based building blocks and then to create plastic or other products, and the energy needed to do so, are other considerations.

The emerging bioplastics industry has plenty of room for farm-based feedstocks, utilizing either farm waste products such as manure, crop residue, or methane; non-food crops such as native grasses; or food crops such as corn, grains, potatoes or sugar beets. The development and commercial production of bioplastics can provide farmers with another incentive to – once again – enhance sustainability, reduce their carbon footprint and gain economic viability. From energy crops to consumer good feedstocks, a biobased economy relies on farmers not only to feed the world, but also to provide it with life’s other necessities, too.