Intensive animal production is an $86 billion industry, but growing conflicts between confinement livestock farms and some neighbors has spilled over into legislatures across the Midwest. Indiana Sen. Susan Glick, chair of an interim committee studying whether there is a need for special regulations for concentrated animal-feeding operations, is among those seeking ways to “bridge a divide between modern livestock farmers and some rural communities” over farm siting.
The clustering of cattle, hogs or poultry makes selection of locations for larger farms critical. Geology, ground and surface water, roads, neighbors and wind direction all factor into siting decisions.
Citing the need for more legal and insurance stability for the state’s livestock industry, Iowa lawmakers have passed legislation designed to limit liability damages in cases filed by unhappy neighbors against producers.
The majority of Midwestern states determine farm property taxes through a system that assesses the land based on “use value” — how much income it can generate from agricultural production. One of the few exceptions is Nebraska, where a percentage of the land’s actual market value (currently set at 75 percent in statute) is used to determine what a farmer or rancher will pay in taxes.
With the value of agricultural land rising rapidly in recent years (see table), Nebraska’s agricultural producers have faced big increases in their tax bills, and over the past two years alone, the state’s legislators have intervened by putting more than $400 million into a Property Tax Credit Relief Fund, which for 2016 will provide $89.57 per $100,000 of property valuation. Beginning in tax year 2017, LB 958 provides $20 million in additional funding for property tax relief.
This legislative year, Sen. Lydia Brasch hopes she and other Nebraska legislators are able to find a more permanent solution.
Indiana Sen. Jean Leising knows it’s going to be another tough year for beef and hog producers, and 2016’s record national yields for corn and soybeans indicate that farm profitability will decline for the third straight year. But she says a statutory revision made by the state legislature last year might at least help ease the pain for agricultural producers when it comes to paying their property taxes.
The siting of large livestock facilities continues to be a contentious issue across the Midwest, with some states such as Wisconsin preempting local authority and setting statewide standards. But Nebraska has kept local control over the rules determining decisions on new or expanded operations. Thirteen years ago, with an eye toward supporting the industry but not stripping away local zoning authority, the Nebraska Legislature gave counties across the state the chance to be designated as “livestock friendly.”
Today, nearly half of Nebraska’s counties (41 of 92) have sought and received the designation. According to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln study, cattle operations in the state’s livestock-friendly counties expanded by 12 percent from 2002 to 2012. Over that same period, the growth rate for other counties was 8 percent. And although the number of hog farms dropped in most Nebraska counties between 2002 and 2012, the decline was much less severe in livestock-friendly counties: 16 percent vs. 62 percent.
Between 2003 and 2009, a string of high-profile foodborne illnesses hit consumers across the United States. There were salmonella outbreaks from produce, hepatitis A infections from raw or undercooked green onions, and cases of pet foods contaminated with melamine. And nine people died and more than 700 got sick from eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter traced back to a single processing plant in Georgia.
In the wake of these deaths and illnesses, federal food-safety legislation that had been many decades in the making finally got signed into law.
Could the Great Lakes be used even more to satisfy the U.S. demand for seafood? There is no question that U.S. consumers seem to have an insatiable appetite for it. In addition to the production of $9 billion worth of edible fish in 2015, we imported more than $20 billion worth. And as a result of decades of overfishing, natural fisheries cannot meet global demand — about half of all seafood is farmed fish from China, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
In Michigan, state agencies have received concept proposals to establish privately owned net-pen operations (where fish are raised in an underwater net) in the Great Lakes. And various bills were introduced this year to modify state law on aquaculture.
Inspired by some of the farmer-led projects being done in neighboring Iowa and looking for new ways to improve water quality, legislators in Wisconsin are providing financial assistance to groups of agricultural producers that collaborate on new conservation initiatives. The Producer Led Watershed Protection Grants Program was included in the state’s current budget (adopted in 2015), which provides $250,000 annually, with individual grants capped at $20,000. Participating producers must provide a 1:1 funding match.
A fiber optic connection is considered the “gold standard” for quality, high-speed Internet access, and in the Midwest, it’s in pretty short supply.
Except in North Dakota.
In the region’s most sparsely populated state, 60 percent of the households, including those on farms in far-flung areas, have fiber. (That compares to 24 percent in the Midwest, where most of the existing fiber networks serve urban areas.) In all, North Dakota ranks fifth in the nation in fiber access.This is amazing enough, considering many of the obstacles typically cited as responsible for the dearth of high-speed technologies in rural parts of the Midwest — for example, the high costs of serving low-density areas.
But the story of North Dakota’s prominence in fiber access is also a testament to entrepreneurship in the nation’s heartland, and perhaps a model for the rest of the Midwest.