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Farmers Support Proposed Bill That Would Offer More Protections

The nation’s agriculture industry is pushing for better protections for crops and the people who grow them against a changing climate, like the unprecedented drought that hit Illinois this summer.

Vast fields of corn line the roads near the village of Beecher, Ill. Over one hill, the landscape shifts, revealing plots studded with medicinal and industrial hemp plants.

First-generation farmers Rachael and Jesse Smedberg grow hemp on their 120-acre organic and regenerative farm, Tulip Tree Gardens. Five years ago, the couple decided to buy the farm near the Indiana border, and they have since been experimenting with sustainable techniques.

“We feel like this is our purpose, to restore soil together,” Rachael Smedberg said. “This is our purpose, to educate our community. And it’s our purpose to raise up our kids and teach them that we need to protect the Earth.”

After the expiration of the 2018 federal farm bill last month, those involved in the nation’s agricultural industry are pushing for the new bill to better protect crops and the people who grow them as a rapidly changing climate threatens livelihoods, human health and, consequently, the entire food system.

In their short time farming, the Smedbergs noted how so much has changed and even more is in question about the future.

Crops across Illinois were affected by unprecedented drought at the beginning of the summer, and days of bad air quality from Canadian wildfires presented an unusual problem for those who rely mostly on outdoor work.

“The month of June, we didn’t see any rainfall. And June is so critical for crop production; plants are super small, they don’t have established roots,” Rachael Smedberg said. “So the June drought was awful, not only for organic farmers, but row crop conventional farmers too — that’s soy and corn.”

Later in the summer, many faced heavy rains and extreme heat; some farmers across the country even chose to avoid the daytime temperatures and harvest fruits and vegetables in the middle of the night.

“The smog has also taken a big toll. That was a big hurdle for us because you could see this haze out in the field, and you knew it was awful. But you had to go outside and get it done,” Rachael Smedberg said. “No matter the weather, no matter climate change, that’s the mindset of every farmer: You just get up and go. Regardless of the chaos that is around us. Because we’re growing food for our community.”

A Matter of Political Will

Since 1933, Congress has passed 18 farm bills to govern policy in the agricultural sector such as income support, food assistance, trade, conservation and more.

In the last few years, however, climate change, a pandemic, supply chain disruptions and inflation have significantly challenged the food and farm systems in the country. These unprecedented hurdles have motivated farmers and workers to more vehemently advocate for financial investment and protections in the next bill.

Despite the recent expiration of the farm bill known as the Agricultural Improvement Act, the program funding and laws that it put in place won’t expire, said Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist with the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She said the food and farming systems will run on autopilot for a while.

Nonetheless, farmworkers, owners and advocates are holding out hope that Congress can pass the new bill sooner rather than later. The farm bill is updated roughly every five years.

“There’s definitely some political will,” said Elena Grossman, a senior research specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the Climate and Health Institute at the university’s School of Public Health.

At the end of July, Grossman said, President Joe Biden directed the Department of Labor to issue the first-ever hazard alert for heat to protect outdoor workers.

According to Goswami, the administration’s initiative represented a groundbreaking move by the federal government.

“There are no federal heat standards or federal outdoor worker protection standards in the United States, period,” Goswami said.

While Biden’s heat alert might indicate some willingness on behalf of the executive branch to pursue more protections against climate change for farmers and other outdoor workers, it says little about where Congress stands.

If the federal government shuts down, something that was only barely averted at the end of September, it could further delay work on the new bill between mid-November and possibly the rest of the calendar year. The removal of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has created turmoil in the U.S. House and is also likely to put any action on hold for the foreseeable future.

“In terms of protecting farmworkers from the extreme weather events that we’re seeing in more severity and frequency because of climate change — that, I think, definitely has to be at a federal level,” Grossman said.

A New Wave of Farmers

On a recent weekday morning, a high-density baler packaged hemp fiber into cylindrical bundles as heavy as 750 pounds and so tightly packed that a knock on the outside produced an echo. The Smedbergs looked across the road at land that was historically used for corn. They purchased the field in the spring to convert it to hemp crops.

“In our efforts here, we try to remediate landscapes after so many years of mismanagement at such a large scale,” said Greta Larson, a worker at Tulip Tree Gardens and longtime farmer.

This month marks harvest season or “Croptober” for outdoor cannabis farmers. And this year, Tulip Tree Gardens is projecting their agriculture sales from hemp fiber will top retail sales from products like smokable hemp and extract for the first time. The fiber can be used as animal bedding, for textile production and in “hempcrete,” an alternative to concrete.

“Just for a corn and soy reference, you’re yielding 30 to 40 percent more profit with industrial hemp,” Rachael Smedberg said.

Before moving to Beecher, the couple lived just north in the village of Crete. They tried microfarming and small-scale gardening for a few years while Rachael Smedberg was a stay-at-home mother to their now 8-year-old twins, and Jesse Smedberg was a small-business owner providing engineered solutions for large manufacturing and infrastructure markets.

But one day, the Smedbergs decided to drop everything and fulfill a far-fetched dream of buying a farm.

“What’s beautiful is we don’t have great-grandpa’s way of saying ‘No, this is the way to do it,’” she said. “It’s like we can experiment and say ‘Hey, let’s try this crazy idea and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’ So that’s kind of what we’re focusing on this following year, trying to figure out even more solutions to share.”

They have taken risks not many established and conventional farmers might be willing or able to afford to take.

Many in the agricultural industry hope the new farm bill will continue funneling resources to typically underfunded conservation programs so farmers are less apprehensive about costs and trying climate-adaptation techniques.

Rachael Smedberg said the legislation might even renew excitement for regenerative agricultural practices.

“I think that this farm bill embodies that (excitement),” she said. “We’re seeing a new wave of farmers come on board, so many first-generation farmers. You can see the shift of agriculture right now. And you can see the federal government, and even at the state level, investing in conservation.”

The Smedbergs hope growing hemp fiber on land severely eroded by long-standing corn and soybean crops will benefit soil health by pulling out heavy metals and forever chemicals, known as PFAS.

Selling hemp fiber that has absorbed harmful toxins for use in projects such as “hempcrete” would also mean those toxins would not be reintroduced to an ecosystem through animal and human waste.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign and other universities will be helping the Smedbergs study crop rotation from corn to hemp fiber and then to soybean over the next five years.

Crop rotation is not unusual in the United States — a classic two-crop rotation includes corn and soybean crops. But incorporating hemp fiber into the strategy is uncommon. If the Smedbergs’ approach works in the long run, their findings could give conventional corn and soybean farmers financial inspiration.

While their well-being and livelihoods might be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the Smedbergs are also an example of how farmers and workers are uniquely positioned to play an important role in its mitigation.

“The beautiful thing about regenerative agriculture is that we’re leaving cover crop and pasture in place,” Rachael Smedberg said, “So when we have these downpour rains, we’re seeing a significant difference in our land compared to the conventional farms that we’re surrounded by. Because our land is able to absorb that.”

Cover crops are plants grown to cover the soil and protect it from erosion rather than for harvest. Another regenerative agricultural practice is that of agroforestry, which integrates trees and shrubs into crops and pastures to, among other things, protect soil, animals and plants from extreme weather.

“Most people would understand agroforestry as ‘orcharding,’ where farmers may graze animals through an orchard. And we don’t see that much in the state — really, in the Midwest,” said Larson, resident agroforestry expert at Tulip Tree Gardens. “Why not? That’s what we need to do.”

In addition to expense, it can be hard to find time to learn about alternative practices, Rachael Smedberg said.

“It’s tough when you’re one hailstorm away from losing it all. Especially specialty growers, like small-scale vegetable farmers, don’t have any access to any insurance,” Rachael Smedberg said. “I think a lot of farmers right now are just really trying to keep the business alive, trying to make sure their crops are good. And it’s hard for them to sit on the computer at the end of the night and focus on this.”

Promoting Resiliency

According to a U. of I. study, cover crop adoption rates in the Midwest reached 7.2 percent in 2021 — what the researchers said was a fourfold increase in the past decade but “still a very small percentage.” And the U.S. Forest Service said 1.5 percent of all farm operations in the country implemented at least one agroforestry practice in 2017.

“Farmers (need) to partner with researchers and continue to design systems that are as resilient and remediated as possible,” Larson said. “We know how to do this. It’s just a question of financing. And really the first place is hopefully the farm bill.”

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act allocated an additional $19.5 billion to farm bill conservation programs for farmers to participate in climate change mitigation over the next five years. Some of these programs include cover crops and agroforestry.

“There’s currently a debate right now between the House and the Senate majorities on whether or not to redirect some of that money and spend it on other things,” said Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union. “And I think that would be a big mistake, because that investment in conservation funding is really what’s going to help build in a climate resiliency.”

Larew explained this investment means farmers operating on really thin financial margins — and often even negative margins — would be able to, through conservation programs, improve soil health, sequester carbon and ultimately make their crops able to withstand wetter periods and extended droughts that they’ll experience going forward.

“It just shows how all sectors can be part of the solution, right?” said Grossman, the UIC research specialist. “Energy, farming and agriculture, transportation — we can all be part of the solution in trying to slow down climate change.”

Sweaty Corn?

Illinois is one of the top producers of corn and soybean in the United States, but these crops are not as labor-intensive as those in other states like tomatoes in California and Florida; that is, they don’t require many workers to be out in the fields.

“But there isn’t a state that I’m aware of where farmers and farmworkers are not going to be impacted from these changes that are happening,” said Larew of the National Farmers Union.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Union of Concerned Scientists projected that by midcentury, outdoor workers in nearly 1,200 counties across the country — concentrated primarily in the Southeast, southern Great Plains and the Midwest — will experience 30 to 90 days per year with a heat index above 100 degrees. This measurement represents how it actually feels for humans to be outside.

In Illinois and other Midwestern states, corn growers might be affected by a changing climate in an unusual manner. Higher temperatures are speeding up global rates of evapotranspiration, a process by which plants like corn absorb water through their roots and release it as vapor, increasing humidity in the air.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 1 acre of corn can release between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of water each day as “corn sweat.” For context, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 10.8 million acres of corn were planted in Illinois in 2022. As this phenomenon accumulates moisture in the atmosphere, it can cause more frequent and intense rains.

The combination of this humidity with already high temperatures also further exacerbates heat indexes. Axios in Des Moines reported that corn sweat significantly worsened Midwest heat indexes this summer, sometimes making them higher than heat indexes in southwestern states like Arizona.

“This summer in particular has been, I think, the most severe summer in all of our lifetimes, but also perhaps within recorded history. Every new week was a new record,” said Goswami, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “When it rained, it poured. And when it was hot, it was insufferably hot. What does all of this mean for a workforce who spends predominantly all day working outside, exposed to heat, exposed to sun, exposed to rain and often exposed to conditions that don’t allow them to go to work?”

Heat Illness and Fatigue

Perhaps the biggest but least visible danger to farmworker health and well-being is heat stress, a risk that will only increase as global temperatures do.

“Heat is the biggest killer of all natural disasters. You can’t see it like you can see a flood or a wildfire or a hurricane, but it’s the most deadly,” Grossman said. “And it’s my understanding that farmworkers are the most susceptible to heat-related deaths among outside workers.”

Heat exhaustion causes weakness or tiredness, a fast or weak pulse, a headache, dizziness, thirst and heavy sweating. It can also lead to vomiting and fainting. Heat stroke, with similar but worsened symptoms, can be fatal.

“Heat is 100 percent preventable, nobody should die from heat,” Grossman said. “We know how to protect people from it.”

Some preventive measures for extreme heat include providing farmworkers access to shade, as well as offering them plenty of breaks for resting and hydration, and training them in first aid.

In a less immediate manner, farmworkers carry fatigue from one day to the other, especially if they don’t have access to drinking water or to cooling systems at home. “So their bodies basically carry over from one day to the other,” Goswami said, which can have cumulative consequences on their well-being.

For instance, she said many farmworkers suffer from chronic kidney disease, but health professionals rarely attribute the condition directly to heat exposure.

“Season in and season out, you’re working in the sun and a couple of years out you have developed a kidney condition,” she said. “But the exposure to heat and high temperatures is often missed as a source of the problem, basically.”

Beyond hot and dry weather, unpredictable heavy rains or unhealthy air can also threaten the livelihoods of those who work outside. This summer, wildfire smoke carrying particulate matter blew in from Canada to the United States, as far south as Virginia. The farmers and workers at Tulip Tree Gardens in Beecher said they noticed a haze in the air on some occasions.

Fine particulate matter from wildfire smoke may initially cause burning eyes and a runny nose. But once in the deepest portions of the lungs, it can cross into the bloodstream, messing with blood chemistry and causing heart stoppages. Fine particulate matter has also been linked to premature births, diabetes and even dementia, according to scientists.

Hard to Predict

Advocates point out that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers were recognized as essential workers, upon whom the entire food supply chain relies. According to Larew, as the new farm bill is drawn up in a tight economy and in the face of unprecedented weather disasters, financial assistance needs to be prioritized to support farmworkers and increase the resilience of their crops.

“As farm bills come around every five years, one thing that this last cycle taught us was that we have no idea what to predict is going to happen over the next five years,” Larew said. “We had a trade war with China, we had a pandemic; in effect, massive disruptions throughout the system. What’s this next five years going to bring?”

The Smedbergs are hopeful that new generations of farmers will be more open to farming methods that are kinder to the land and the environment while caring for crops that are resilient and yield better, higher quality products in the long run.

“You’re gonna see the younger generations taking over and saying ‘I don’t want corn and soy there; I need something that has some type of conservation value,’” Rachael Smedberg said. “Or, ‘I don’t need a phosphate sprayed on it three times every year throughout the season.’ So that’s been beautiful, too. More and more people are waking up to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t good for our environment.’”

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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