Friday, June 07, 2024

Vermont is the first state to pass legislation requiring 'Big Oil' to pay for its share in the cost of climate change

A flooded road in Coventry, Vermont, pop. 1,100, on July 23, 2023.
(Adobe Stock photo)
Vermont has passed legislation to make oil producers pay a share of the costs associated with damages attributed to climate change, reports Lisa Rathke of The Associated Press. The state's popular Republican Gov. Phil Scott voiced concerns over the costs of the small state "taking on 'Big Oil' alone in what will likely be a grueling legal fight," but he recognized the pressing need to address the "toll of climate change."

In what some would call the state's worst disaster since 1927, last July's torrential rains "inundated Vermont's capital city of Montpelier, the nearby city Barre, some southern Vermont communities and ripped through homes and washed away roads around the rural state," Rathke writes. "Scores of homeowners were left with flood-ravaged homes heading into the cold season."

Vermont's approach is a polluter-pays model based on the federal Superfund pollution cleanup program. Unsurprisingly, oil companies are on the defensive. "The American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, has said it's extremely concerned about the legislation," Rathke reports. "Vermont lawmakers know the state will face legal challenges, but the governor worries about the costs and what it means for other states if Vermont fails. . . . Maryland, Massachusetts and New York are considering similar measures."

To gauge the cost of fossil fuels, the state treasurer, along with the Agency of Natural Resources, would "provide a report by Jan. 15, 2026, on the total cost to Vermonters and the state from the emission of greenhouse gases from Jan. 1, 1995, to Dec. 31, 2024," Rathke explains. The assessment will consider impacts on "public health, natural resources, agriculture, economic development, housing. . . and would use federal data to determine the amount of covered greenhouse gas emissions attributed to a fossil fuel company."

Expert explains how to use the heat index and other weather tools to stay safe and healthy this summer

The start of summer is an excellent time to create schedules and workloads based on heat safety. To get started, risk communication researcher Micki Olson reviews heat index warnings, including what they mean and how they can be used to understand how heat impacts the human body. She also gives tips on how to avoid heat-related illnesses.

What is the heat index?
The heat index is the combination of the actual air temperature and relative humidity. "It tells you what it 'feels like' outside when you factor in the humidity. For example, if it's 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36.7 Celsius) with 55% relative humidity, it might feel more like a scorching 117 F (47.2 C)," Olson explains. "But there's a catch: Heat index is measured in shady conditions to prevent the sun's angle from affecting its calculation. This means if you're in direct sunlight, it will feel even hotter.

Apparent temperature is another "feels like" indicator; however, it factors in temperature, humidity and wind speed. "This means it can tell us both the heat index and wind chill – or the combination of the temperature and wind speed," Olson writes. "When conditions are humid, it feels hotter, and when it's windy, it feels colder."

Another term meteorologists use is the "wet bulb globe temperature," which includes temperature, humidity, wind and sunlight. Olson reports, "It's especially useful for those who spend time outdoors, such as workers and athletes, because it reflects conditions in direct sunlight."

Signs of extreme heat illnesses
(CDC sign via The Conversation)
is a forecasting tool the National Weather Service uses to provide a seven-day outlook for hot weather. The tool uses a five-level scale to indicate how risky the heat level is in a specific area. Each level uses a color and number to represent risks from heat exposure.

To stay safe during summer's sultry and sometimes oppressive heat, Olson recommends:
  • Stay cool: Use air conditioning in your home, or spend time in air-conditioned spaces, such as a shopping mall or public library. Limit or reschedule your exercise and other outdoor plans that occur in the middle of the day when it is hottest.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink more water than you might otherwise, even if you don’t feel thirsty, so your body can regulate its temperature by sweating. But avoid sugary drinks, caffeine or drinks with alcohol, because these can cause you to become dehydrated.
  • Stay informed: Know the signs of heat illness and symptoms that can occur, such as dizziness, weakness, thirst, heavy sweating and nausea. Know what to do and when to get help, because heat illnesses can be deadly.

Micki Olson
Micki Olson is a senior researcher in emergency and risk communication at the State University of New York. This excerpt was pulled from her contribution to The Conversation, a platform for journalism by academics. Her entire article and research can be found here.

Coffee prices continue to spike as global demand grows and supplies lag; China is driving increases

Due to steep price increases, Americans are buying less coffee.
(Adobe Stock photo)
In what many would describe as a total buzzkill, coffee prices are increasing around the globe. "Since January 2021, U.S. coffee importers – which supply 99.6% of the coffee consumed in the U.S. have faced escalating costs for the commodity. Import prices jumped 65% between 2021-23, making a serious impact on consumer prices," reports Billy Roberts for CoBank. U.S. consumers have responded to the steep increases by purchasing fewer beans. Ground coffee sales volumes have declined 10.1% since 2022 and 15.7% since 2021.

While U.S. and European coffee sales remained level through the pandemic years and are now stagnant or dipping, world consumption has steadily increased. "Consumption in Asian countries has jumped 14.5% since 2018, as coffee has become a much more common beverage choice," Roberts explains. "China is playing the lead role in driving the world's coffee demand growth. Servings in China were up 15% Year-over-Year as of May 1 . . .  according to Circana."

Producers would usually welcome an increase in worldwide coffee drinkers, but many continue to deal with supply-line challenges and lower yields. "Droughts, frost and fires in Brazil have damaged as much as one-fifth of arabica coffee producers' growing areas, and frost and below-average rainfall continues to hamper progress," Robert reports. "Colombia has yet to fully recover its pre-Covid share of U.S. exports. . . . Colombian coffee yields continue to trend lower, likely the result of growers opting to limit fertilizer as its price spiked."

Considering demand increases and lagging supplies, coffee prices are expected to remain volatile. "The Bureau of Labor Statistics data find prices for U.S. imports of coffee fell 2.6% from May 2022 to May 2023. Yet, even with the drop, U.S. prices remained substantially ahead of their 2021 levels: 57% higher in May 2023 than in May 2021," Roberts notes. "Global crop concerns have pushed up prices of both arabica and robusta (the two major types of coffee Americans consume)."

Webinar series that begins this month offers tips and best practices for farm safety

A farm safety notice sign can remind everyone
that farms have hazards. (Adobe Stock photo)

Living and working on a farm requires common sense, prioritizing safety and participating in continuous learning.

Starting this month, a free series of webinars will provide practical tips and best practices for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers to protect themselves, their families and their operations. Sessions will cover machinery safety, infectious diseases, grain hazards, tractor safety, heat illness, and mental health.

The tentative schedule begins on June 18: Heat Stress & Illness

Aug 20: Farm Safety for Youth: Keeping the Next Generation Safe

Sep 17: Addressing Mental Stress & Health in Agriculture

Oct 15: Resources for Farmers in Crisis

Nov 19: Future of Ag Safety: How AI will transform Agriculture


Summer sessions are part of the ongoing series "Cultivating Caution: A Monthly Guide to Farm Safety &
Health" co-sponsored by the University of Illinois Agricultural Safety & Health Program, College of ACES, farmdoc and Illinois Extension. 

Many U.S. farmers use Syngenta pesticide, which is owned by China. Its CEO is working to keep farmers' trust.

Jeff Rowe is working to overcome U.S.-Chinese tensions
by being trustworthy partner. (Syngenta photo)
Farm country isn't exempt from U.S.-Chinese tensions, but Syngenta's new chief executive, Jeff Rowe, is working to smooth ruffled feathers and keep American farmers' trust.

"For years, Syngenta Group has been considered a critical partner to thousands of American farmers. Rowe is trying to ward off a different perception: that it poses a threat to U.S. national security," reports Patrick Thomas of The Wall Street Journal. While Syngenta's headquarters are in Switzerland, it is a subsidiary of China National Chemical, a "state-owned enterprise known as ChemChina. . . . The company has faced mounting roadblocks to its business in the U.S. . . ."

Concern over foreign ownership of U.S. farmland and companies has increased over the past decade. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned that "'Chinese ownership of companies needs careful review because you can have access to information concerning seeds, technology, and so forth,'" Thomas reports. "Last fall, Arkansas became the first U.S. state to order a Chinese-owned company, Syngenta, to sell its farmland."

Rowe is an Illinois farmer and past executive for DuPont Pioneer. "Despite living in Switzerland, he travels back to his hometown of Princeton, Ill., a city of about 8,000 people, a few times a year to help plant and harvest a couple of thousand acres of corn and soybeans," Thomas writes. 

Rowe understands that some policymakers are skeptical of Syngenta's intentions. He told Thomas, "Despite the publicity, we’re out in the local communities — farmers know us and respect us. If I see someone on the street in Princeton, they think, ‘That’s Jeff Rowe. I know who that is — he’s not a Chinese spy.’"

Rowe's mission is to create a bridge "between the two countries. Syngenta said that it isn’t a political organization and that legislators’ actions are potentially harmful to U.S. farmers and the agricultural market," Thomas adds. "Greg Rebman, an Illinois farmer, says he uses Syngenta pesticides for their effectiveness. If a conflict were to break out between the U.S. and China, he said he would be more hesitant to buy Syngenta’s products—but, for now, it’s a secondary issue."

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

A new tool finds abandoned farmland that could be used to fight climate change; 30 million acres have been identified

A map showing the percentage of abandoned farmland within a 36-square-kilometer area.
(University of Wisconsin graph)

U.S. farmland plays a crucial role in the country's battle against climate change, but how that role is structured and implemented is where opinions and landholdings clash. "Solar panels and energy crops are pitted against food production, while well-intended policy choices can create incentives for farmers to till up new lands, releasing even more heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere," reports Chris Hubbuch for University of Wisconsin News. "Abandoned farmlands could play a role in fighting climate change. A new study shows exactly where they are."

Scientists at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center used "machine learning to map nearly 30 million acres of United States cropland abandoned since the 1980s, creating a tool that could guide decisions about how to balance production of energy and food," Hubbuch explains. "Their findings, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, include the most detailed mapping of previously cultivated land in the U.S. to date."

Tyler Lark
Tyler Lark, one of the study's head researchers, told Hubbuch, "“If we can understand where these lands are and what the characteristics are, we can really understand their true potential for things like climate mitigation. . . . Whether it’s for solar photovoltaic, or agrivoltaics, or cellulosic bioenergy development, or just restoration of natural ecosystems: These sites could be great candidates for a lot of those applications.”

Until now, researchers used data from the Department of Agriculture to estimate how much land was no longer being farmed. "But there was no way of knowing exactly where that land was or when it was abandoned," Hubbach reports. "While satellite imagery has been around for decades, without recent advances in cloud computing, Lark says it was impossible to classify the nearly 2 billion acres of land in the coterminous U.S."

To find abandoned farms, researchers deployed their analysis tool to examine cultivation patterns. "The results accurately predict the location of abandoned croplands nine times out of 10 and can even pinpoint the year they were abandoned with about 65% accuracy," Hubbach writes. "The team found that more than 30 million acres of cropland were abandoned over those 32 years."

Opinion: American social norms and buffers are endangered as leaders 'behave without moral authority'

'Civil discourse and engaging with those with whom
you disagree' used to be an American norm. (Adobe photo)
With the next U.S. presidential election less than six months away, most Americans expect to see probable candidates such as Donald Trump campaigning across the country. But Trump has not been focused on stumping. Instead, he has been in court where Americans have seen and read coverage of his efforts to "buy the silence of a porn star on the eve of the 2016 election," writes Thomas L. Friedman in his opinion for The New York Times. While this case may not be the most critical case against him, this case "more than any of the other cases is revealing of a trend ailing America today: how much we’ve lost our moorings as a society."

Friedman uses mangroves as a metaphor for what used to support U.S. social systems. In nature, "mangroves filter toxins and pollutants through their extensive roots. . . .They create nurseries for young fish. . . . They literally help hold the shoreline in place . . . .One of the saddest things that has happened to America in my lifetime is how much we’ve lost so many of our mangroves. They are endangered everywhere today — but not just in nature."

Friedman writes, "All those things that used to filter toxic behaviors, buffer political extremism and nurture healthy communities and trusted institutions for young people to grow up in and which hold our society together. . . . Locally owned small-town newspapers used to be a mangrove buffering the worst of our national politics. A healthy local newspaper is less likely to go too far to one extreme or another because its owners and editors live in the community."

Expressing shame for misdeeds used to be a mangrove that protected social norms. Friedman writes, "To be clear: People in high places doing shameful things is hardly new in American politics and business. What is new, Dov Seidman, the author of the book How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything, told Friedman, 'is so many people doing it so conspicuously and with such impunity.' . . . That is what erodes norms. . . . Nothing is more corrosive to a vibrant democracy and healthy communities, added Seidman, than 'when leaders with formal authority behave without moral authority.'"

Some colleges offer a 3-year bachelor's degrees to address student expenses and lower enrollment numbers

Colleges are piloting 3-year degree programs in
several states. (Adobe Stock photo)
Amid decreasing enrollment and increasing student costs, some colleges are offering three-year degrees as a solution. "The programs, which also are being tried at some private schools, would require 90 credits instead of the traditional 120 for a bachelor's degree and wouldn't require summer classes or studying over breaks. In some cases, the degrees would be designed to fit industry needs," reports Elaine S. Povich of Stateline. "Proponents of the three-year degree programs say they save students money and set them on a faster track to their working life. But detractors, including some faculty, say they shortchange students."

Utah is one state where the board of higher education approved the 3-year degree. "Various areas of study would be tied to specific industry needs, with fewer electives required," Povich explains. "These degrees are broader than two-year associate degrees but narrower than a full four-year bachelor's."

Geoff Landward, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, told Povich, "We told the institutions to start working on them now and developing the curriculum. We want them to find industry partners that would be willing to hire people with bachelor's degrees of this type. . . . If we are partnering with industry and they help us develop it, I don't think it cheapens the degree. I think it creates a very specific degree."

The new three-year degree programs requiring fewer credits would still need national accreditation.

Changing social views on the importance of a college degree are some of the reasons colleges are getting creative. "A Pew Research Center survey found only 1 in 4 American adults said it is extremely or very important to have a four-year college degree to get a good-paying job," Povich reports. "More than a dozen public and private universities are participating in a pilot collaboration called the College-in-3 Exchange to begin considering how they could offer three-year programs." 

Rural Journalism Collective hosts election-year reporting webinar: Thursday, June 20, 2 p.m., E.T.

The Rural Journalism Collective is hosting a free webinar with tips on how journalists can tell more accurate stories about rural voters. The webinar will be held on Thursday, June 20, at 2 p.m., E.T. You can register here.

Session panelists include Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies; Pauly Denetclaw, political correspondent for ICT; and Cathy Darling Allen, registrar of voters and Shasta County clerk in rural California.

As Americans head into the final months before November elections, rural journalists can help their communities fine-tune their political voices while supporting poll workers and election officials throughout the election cycle.

The discussion will touch on voter polling conducted by the Center for Rural Strategies, Native and Indigenous voters, and how journalists can use their reporting to lead their communities through the democratic process.

Quick hits: Locally made farm tools; anger can hurt your heart; cybersecurity for farms; finding lost treasure

Conor Crickmore, owner of Neversink Tools, does a training video. Crickmore's company
focuses on improving or upgrading existing tools. (Neversink Tools photo via Modern Farmer)

In rural America and beyond, buying locally can have a bigger reach than signing up for Community Supported Agriculture or visiting the farmers market. "If we want a future with more farmers, more fresh, healthy food and stronger local economies, we need infrastructure that supports small growers," reports Melissa Julia of Modern Farmer. "Locally made tools, from hoes to tractors, are an important part of that support system and confer many of the same advantages as locally grown food. . . . Meet three U.S.-based toolmakers who want to change the landscape of tool buying and making to support their local farmers and communities."

Just about everyone gets angry at one time or another, but the emotion can increase the chance of heart attacks. "Researchers examined the impact of three different emotions on the heart: anger, anxiety and sadness," reports Sumathi Reddy of The Wall Street Journal. "Those in the angry group had worse blood flow than those in the others; their blood vessels didn't dilate as much." Dr. Daichi Shimbo, a professor of medicine at Columbia University and lead author of the study, told Reddy, "We speculate over time if you're getting these chronic insults to your arteries because you get angry a lot, that will leave you at risk for having heart disease."

Nordic residents tend to trust in the kindness of
each other. (Adobe Stock photo)
If repeated bouts of anger are unhealthy, what can Americans do to become happier? Research on the happiness levels of some Nordic countries may provide clues. "Nordic countries have managed to enter a very virtuous cycle, where efficient and democratic institutions can provide citizens security, so that citizens trust institutions and each other," reports Camille Bello of Euronews. For countries to model Nordic happiness, professor John F. Helliwell, editor of the World Happiness Report, told Bello countries should focus "on the six key indicators in the World Happiness Report - GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and corruption."

From extreme weather to labor shortages to fertilizer price increases, farmers have plenty to worry about; however, the average American may not realize that food producers also have to guard against ransomware attacks. "Last year Dole took a hit, losing $10.5 million in an attack that stole the Social Security numbers of nearly 4,000 employees," reports Jaclyn De Candio of Ambrook Research. "Containing the breach impacted half of their servers and several user-end computers, disrupting a portion of their fresh vegetable processing." To learn more about U.S. agriculture's vulnerability to cyberattacks and possible outcomes, click here.

A forest search for coins can be a day of treasure
hunting. (Adobe Stock photo)
Right now, the cost of just about everything seems high, and $100 does not go nearly as far as it used to; however, there is money to be found for those who don't mind searching for lost coins. "Americans toss millions in coins yearly, abandoning them to sidewalks, parking lots, airports and bus seats. Many end up in the trash," reports Oyin Adedoyin of The Wall Street Journal. "For some, it is easy money. Others do it for luck, as a game, or for the satisfaction of noticing life's tiny triumphs. Many find it downright thrilling."

Some farmland Conservation Reserve Program acreage has increased, and as the program continues to evolve, where and how the land is used has changed. "A new program, Grassland CRP, has driven all the gains. This 'working lands program' allows producers to continue some grazing or haying practices," reports Agricultural Economic Insights. "Also, the program has a much lower rental rate, overcoming the decades-long headwind of consistent program dollars but rising rental rates. . . . A few pockets reported county-level acreage increases as the specific facets of the CRP program . . .  have come forward."