Capitol Comments

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Will industrial hemp eventually become a viable cash crop for the Midwest’s agricultural producers and rural communities? Three states in the region have taken initial steps to begin exploring the possibility, and the new farm bill is also opening up the opportunity for research and pilot programs across the country.
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Bees are in trouble. The major pollinator of our fruit, vegetable and nut crops, they are also responsible for such agricultural staples as alfalfa, canola and sunflower. What role can states and provinces play in helping save the population of their — and the continent’s and the world’s — pollinators?
The region’s legislators explored this question in July during a session of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting, and learned how one state, Minnesota, already took significant steps in 2014.
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For farmers and ranchers, the promise of “big data” to vastly improve operations is hard to ignore. Take, for example, the idea of “prescriptive production.” By merging a decade’s worth of fertilizer, climate and yield data with advanced soil maps and existing conditions, a producer can make more-informed management decisions — down to the fertilizer used and seeds planted on each acre of land. Evidence shows that this approach can increase yields by between 10 and 25 percent.
“Big data” is the term applied to the sorting and processing of enormous quantities of data. And the ability to crunch massive amounts of data may be as important to the future of food production as the development of the tractor was for 20th-century agriculture.
But it is also hard to ignore the myriad policy and privacy issues arising from increased use of “big data.”
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For the first time, state legislatures are passing measures to require labeling of foods that contain products from genetically engineered crops — part of a recent upswing in food regulation that has producers challenging the rules as unconstitutional.

Vermont has become the first U.S. state mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. (Laws passed in Connecticut and Maine only take effect if at least four other states adopt similar measures).

In the Midwest, GMO-labeling bills have been introduced in six states. Though none has become law, some of these measures have captured considerable attention, as shown by the large turnout for an informational hearing held earlier this year on Minnesota’s HF 850.
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More than 29,000 farmers in the Midwest called it quits between 2007 and 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest census, a period in which the region also lost farmland while the average size of operations grew. The new statistics reflect longtime trends occurring not only in the Midwest, but nationally as well. But one state that bucked some of these trends is Nebraska, which recorded one of the largest U.S. gains in the number of farm operations — nearly 5 percent over the five-year period. Nebraska farmers are also the youngest in the nation, with an average age of 55.7 years old.

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