Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Food & Agriculture

Plant Politics: The Changing Roles of Beet and Corn Crops in the West

Both corn and beets have been used to sweeten the billions of soft drinks Americans have consumed for decades. And both crops have shaped and been influenced by the politics, perceptions and changing technologies that have driven the sweetener market for decades. One of the latest such developments has been genetically modified versions of both crops. This summer in the Bighorn Basin of north-central Wyoming, there was the conspicuous absence of a sight seen for many decades: migrant farm-worker families toiling with hoes in the beet fields, their camper-topped pickup trucks with Texas plates parked by the road. With the soil saturated by heavy rains, you would expect to see, along with thriving crops, a riot of sprouting weeds attacked by squads of busy field workers. But — save for a few hardy, insurgent Canadian thistles — there are no weeds in the long, neat rows of leafy sugar beet plants. And so, no workers. Read More »

Why Newspapers Thrive in the Rural West

Walk in to a town council meeting in Pinedale, Wyoming, and you're likely to find as many as three local reporters scribbling notes and asking questions. That news in a town of 2,030 residents is covered by two newspapers and a website is partly explained by the abundance of mineral wealth in surrounding Sublette County, which produced $3.6 billion in natural gas last year. Add to that the urgent concern about breaching a local dam threatened by record snowmelt coming from the Wind River Range, and you've got a recipe for a small-town media frenzy. This scene is also illustrative of how rural journalism is surviving, even thriving, in the rural West and across the United States, in an era of precipitous decline for major metropolitan newspapers. In the United States, some 7,500 community newspapers – papers with under 30,000 in circulation – still hit the streets, front porches, and mailboxes at least once a week. A 2010 survey conducted by the University of Missouri, Columbia for the National Newspaper Association produced some enviable statistics: More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week. And in news to warm the heart of any publisher, a full 94 percent said that they paid for their papers. Read More »

Open Letter to Montana Governor Regarding Keystone XL Pipeline

Dear Governor Schweitzer: The Exxon pipeline rupture shows that pipeline leaks can and do happen, and that it is a disaster when landowners, emergency responders and community officials are not adequately prepared for such an occurrence. We are landowners along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route and downstream from the Missouri and Yellowstone river crossings who are concerned about the impact that another spill would have on our families’ health, water quality, and ability to make a living on the land in Montana. The Keystone XL will be nine times the size of the Exxon pipeline which recently ruptured – with exponentially larger impacts should there be a spill. The Keystone I pipeline, which runs through North Dakota, has had 12 leaks in its first year of operation. Because the Keystone XL pipeline needs a permit from the state of Montana, we call on YOU to protect Montanans along the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers by: Read More »

City Chickens in Sandpoint

Sandpoint’s inaugural “Coop Crawl” revealed a significant interest in urban poultry among sophisticated city dwellers. Organized by three chicken aficionados in the south end of town, and arranged as a fundraiser for the healing garden at the hospital, it drew a quite a crowd of chardonnay-sipping backyard coop viewers. The Coop Crawl was instigated by a Sandpoint chicken keeper after she attended a similar event in Moscow, at which a much larger number of coops were up for touring. At this year’s event, several chicken fancying residents wondered when it had become allowable to keep chickens in the city, and they learned that it has, in fact, always been okay, as long as the chickens were of the sort that supplied eggs rather than wake-up calls. Read More »

Demand for Lamb, Military Wool Means Montana Sheep Ranchers Need to Grow

Charles Bair was a famous member of the Montana Wool Growers Association. Around 1910, Bair’s ranch was estimated to have roughly 300,000 head of sheep and produce nearly 1.5 million pounds of wool a year. Bair’s accomplishments as a sheep producer are almost unrivaled; and his production numbers are made even more impressive when one compares his ranch’s production to total sheep production in Montana in 2010. According to the United States National Agriculture Statistics Service, Montana’s total sheep and lamb inventory in 2010 was 230,000 head and wool production was roughly 2 million pounds. These numbers were down from 2009 production by 6 percent and 7 percent respectively. Looking at these numbers, it is clear that Montana’s sheep and wool industry has shrunk since Charles Bair ranched in the Treasure State. Yet, despite the drop over the years in overall production by our sheep producers, the members of the Wool Growers Association find themselves in an encouraging position. Lamb prices are presently at an all-time high, the wool market is booming and the cull ewe and pelt markets are very profitable. Further, Montana’s sheep producers are tapping into the growing ethnic purchasing and nontraditional markets, such as local food markets. Further, sheep producers are experiencing an unprecedented demand for wool products. The increased demand for wool is coming, in part, from our nation’s military, which many readers may not realize is the largest domestic consumer of U.S. produced wool. In fact, most readers probably don’t know that Montana’s sheep industry is on the forefront of producing advanced next-to-skin wool and washable products for use by our soldiers and sailors. Read More »

Flooding Still Affecting Rockies, But Water Expected to Recede

Idaho’s Lemhi River reached its 6.5 foot flood stage at 5 a.m. Friday, triggering a warning from the National Weather Service, aimed at local ranchers, who should expect flooding along the waterway from Tendoy to Salmon. Upstream rains mean alerts are still out for the Teton River in Madison and Fremont counties, which is just below flood stage. Minor flooding on low ground near St. Anthony, Sugar City and Rexburg is expected late Friday through Saturday. Flooding on Henry’s Fork Thursday is also impacting agricultural lands and local roads around Rexburg. Lake Pend O’Reille at Hope and the Pend O’Reille River below Albeni Falls are flooding Bonner and Pend O’Reille counties. Lake residents can expect flooding in yards, boat ramps and local recreational areas. Snowmelt is feeding flood waters on the Bear River from the Wyoming border to Stewart, Idaho. Dingle and Pegram areas are advised to keep close watch. Read More »

Canadian Tar Sands Pipeline Still Opposed by EPA

As the third phase of work on the international Keystone XL pipeline looms, the foreign corporation behind the tar sands project is posturing as a handful of landowners in eastern Montana gear themselves up for a fight over land rights. The $13 billion project comes courtesy of TransCanada, a Canadian firm. It runs approximately 1,711 miles from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the proposed route -- 1,384 miles of it -- is in the United States. The first two phases of the pipeline have already been completed and are fully operational, the company's website reports. It is supposed to be completed by 2013 and has been in the works for more than three years. The company says it has already held dozens of meetings for public involvement and points to a Department of Energy study that concluded the pipeline could reduce American dependency on foreign oil from nations outside North America by up to 40 percent. The American Petroleum Institute, which supports the pipeline, also suggested recently that the U.S. could lose the tar sands crude to more cooperative overseas markets if the process continues to be stalled. But the proposed route cuts through a small triangle of northeastern Montana, and locals are not happy about it. Read More »

Subsidized Crop Insurance: The Next Ag Boondoggle?

Over the past few weeks, the House of Representatives has been hacking away at the budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The dollars cut and kept in these negotiations set a baseline for the spending in the 2012 Farm Bill debate, and since the farm bill is the primary way agriculture policy is determined and federal food and ag dollars are doled out, this first round of budget negotiations matters. But this most recent debate has left out a crucial piece of the farm spending puzzle: the ever-increasing chunk of taxpayer dollars subsidizing crop insurance. Insurance spending reform seems off the table right now, for reasons I'll get to shortly. First, some background: For as long as I've been tracking the debate over farm spending, direct payments to farmers have been a big target of reformers. This pot of money goes to farmers regardless of crop prices or acres planted. The budget crisis is finally making the issue of direct payments come to a head; as well it should. (Although the latest House budget back-and-forth didn't end up cutting direct payments, it's likely they'll come under attack as the budget debate continues.) But what this debate, perhaps willfully, ignores is the growing role subsidized crop insurance has come to play in farm payouts Read More »

Recipe: Whole Wheat Rhubarb Biscuits

At last, the season I’ve been dreaming of while wading through snowdrifts is finally here. It’s warm enough to go hiking again! I will be spending most of this summer inhaling the pine-scented air somewhere on a trail in the Bitterroot Valley. All I need is a buddy or two, good boots and some snacks for the trip. I like to bake hearty biscuits to take on hikes with me, and struck upon these one morning when I had rhubarb to use up. Thanks to my family and friends with rhubarb patches in their gardens, it’s coming out my ears, so I’ve been putting it in everything. The rhubarb’s sweet tang makes a nice flavor contrast with the rich, buttery flavor of these whole wheat biscuits. These bake within the amount of time it takes my friends to wake and dress, so they're easy to make should the spontaneous hiking mood strike you. Packed with a bit of cheese and an apple, they make the perfect, easy midday lunch. Read More »

Value-Added Agriculture Takes Root in Montana

Old concepts are becoming new again in agriculture. The concept of farmers processing their own commodities died away during the industrialization of agriculture in the mid-20th century, but now is coming back with a name: value-added agriculture. Food processing was Montana’s biggest employer in the 1930s, and now in the 21st century, members of the agricultural community are trying to make that happen again. The state’s Growth Through Agriculture program funds value-added agriculture projects large and small. In the last 10 years, more small, locally focused companies have applied for funding assistance, even while state budget cuts have limited the program’s reach. These days, value-added agriculture in Montana doesn’t have any one face, Agriculture, Marketing and Business Development Bureau Chief Collin Watters said. Read More »