Farewell from Matt Russell

For the past six weeks, Pat and I have been trying to burn some pasture at our Coyote Run Farm. Finally, on Easter Sunday, we were able to get the job done.  The Easter holiday seemed like a terrible day to try to do this big job, but with good weather and family and friends coming together, burning off the dead prairie of last year and celebrating the new life that will poke out of the blackened earth turned out to be perfectly timed.

Just like burning the pasture brought an end and a new beginning, tomorrow marks the end of 12 years of working at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center and a new beginning as the Executive Director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light. Iowa Interfaith Power & Light is a statewide organization mobilizing the religious community to become leaders in the movement for climate action. My new position combines my life’s work in faith, sustainability, public policy and agriculture with my passion for the value non-profits bring to individuals, communities and the greater good. My work and colleagues at Drake have prepared me well to lead efforts to find hopeful, empowering, unexpected solutions to the great challenges of climate change.

As I reflect on these years of serving farmers and landowners, I’m honored to have helped key agriculture stakeholders make profitable and sustainable decisions regarding our nation’s land and agricultural production alongside our director Neil Hamilton.

The list of interesting projects I got to work on is long and diverse.  Some of my favorites include exploring rural community ownership of grocery stores, coordinating Central Iowa’s Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign, developing a tool to help farmers craft fair manure management agreements, identifying opportunities for the state of Iowa to purchase more food from Iowa farmers, promoting food policy councils, educating landowners and farmers about crafting leases to put more conservation on farms and increasing agricultural opportunities for under-severed farmers.

I am proud that I was able to help Neil host more than a dozen statewide and national conferences.  We filmed and produced scores of videos. I was able to travel to Cuba—twice.  Whenever an opportunity came to go speak about agriculture, rural communities, or conservation, Neil’s response was always yes, and he always found the resources to make it possible for me to go.

After speaking at different events and writing many articles, including an article on agriculture and climate change for the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law, I am prepared for my last day tomorrow and my new career at Iowa Interfaith Power & Light.

I am fired up for the work ahead, because I believe we can solve climate change. Iowans can lead the world in finding the solutions, and Iowa farmers can innovate on our farms to sequester carbon and reduce emissions.

Looking back, I have so many fond memories of the exciting work and inspiring people at Drake.  Looking forward, I can see Drake Agricultural Law Center has prepared me well for this new leadership position.

Don’t mess with SNAP

In the 1980s, my brother, sister, and I participated in a federal nutrition program.  My parents scrambled to continue to farm.  Our bank had failed.  The family was in crisis.  I assumed I’d have to sell my horse and mule and move with my family to some far-off city.  Fortunately for my family, the Grapes of Wrath-type scenarios didn’t happen.

For numerous reasons, many of them stemming from farm bill policies, my family’s farm survived the 1980s farm crisis. Today, my brother and sister-in-law are farming with my parents on the farm where I grew up.  My husband and I own and operate our own farm.

One of the things that made a real difference for my family during the 1980s farm crisis was free school lunch.  Over the few years we participated, those free lunches freed up a couple thousand dollars.  My family spent that money on non-food necessities and much of it at local stores.

I’ll always remember our superintendent who encouraged families to sign up for free lunch. He said participate—it helps your family and also benefits the school.  His reasoning was something about a reimbursement formula. A lot of families from my hometown applied and used the program because we were all told it was the right thing to do. It was, and it still is.

Fast forward to 2018.  President Trump’s budget includes a radical proposal to remake the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), what used to be known as the food stamp program.  Termed “America’s Harvest Box,” the program would cut roughly half of SNAP dollars and replace them with a box of shelf-stable foods delivered to individuals and families participating in SNAP.  Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is now vigorously defending this proposal.

The Harvest Box contrasts the innovations in the SNAP program from the 2014 farm bill designed to incentivize eating more fruits and vegetables.  Our farm participates in Iowa’s Double Up Food Bucks to encourage SNAP participants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.  The “Harvest Box” would remove the ability of SNAP beneficiaries to choose. They lose the opportunity to select healthier foods, purchase from farmers and retailers in their local community, and decide when and where to use the benefit as they need.  In lieu of the flexibility, SNAP families and individuals would see those opportunities slashed and replaced by a box of “shelf-stable milk, juice, grains, ready-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables”.

Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center, was a guest earlier this week on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River.  The hour-long program explored the history of SNAP and implications of implementing America’s Harvest Box.  Neil argued this proposed change to SNAP looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Kathie Obradovich devoted her political column in Monday’s Des Moines Register to the Harvest Box.  She claimed the proposal, if implemented, would have a spiraling downward effect on Iowa’s economy. Food prices would rise, Iowa retail sales would drop, and federal farm programs on which Iowa farmers depend would lose support.

To be fair, some of her criticism was sardonic. She said, “Everything I’ve read suggests Congress has as much interest in the Harvest Box as the average 5-year-old has in canned spinach.”

However, by mid-week, Politico’s Morning Ag reported that Secretary Perdue “has a message for all the ‘America’s Harvest Box’ haters: We’re serious. So serious that Perdue tells POLITICO that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway is open to considering a small-scale pilot of the program in the 2018 farm bill.”

As the politics of the policy development around the Harvest Box play out, there’s a very important message farmers need be sending to SNAP participants.

Thank you for using SNAP to help your family, for spending those benefits in your communities, and for responding to our commodity marketing campaigns by purchasing the food we raise such as our beef, milk, pork, poultry, produce, and grains.

For over half a century political forces interested in making sure all Americans have enough to eat and political forces interested in making sure American farmers are economically able to grow that food have joined forces in federal farm policy.  These proposed changes to SNAP threaten a coalition of urban and rural lawmakers working together to insure both goals.

My participation in a federal nutrition program is more the norm than the exception.  They are well-directed, efficient, good for families and local communities, and an excellent tool for helping families navigate a crisis like mine did.  Federal nutrition programs also provide effective and efficient services to those with chronic needs like the disabled and elderly.  America’s Harvest Box seems to fall short on every measure of good government.  But maybe that’s the real point of the proposal: to undermine the effectiveness of a good government program.

As a farmer, when the going gets tough, I have depended on government programs. They’ve helped me throughout my entire life, from free school lunches as a farm boy in the 1980s to the Livestock Forage Program (LFP) during the Iowa drought last summer.  As a farmer, I am well served standing with fellow Americans using SNAP. As a farmer, I must not stay silent while political forces redesign one of the most popular and efficient government programs to become less effective and less beneficial to the people it is supposed to serve.


Farmers Claim Cost of Health Insurance Most Serious Threat

You might not realize health care is a critical issue for farmers if you have only been reading the agriculture press headlines this year. Tax reform—especially the estate tax, Waters of the United States (WOTUS), and trade policy remained in the limelight for the duration of Trump’s first year in office.

However, according to a new study published by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, “65% of commercial farmers identified the cost of health insurance as the most serious threat to their farm, more significant than the cost of land, inputs, market conditions, or development pressure.”

With a majority of farmers finding the cost of insurance to be a serious threat to their livelihood, the agriculture industry needs to advocate for more affordable health care for farmers and rural communities.

Between 2015 and 2017, the researchers used case studies from 10 states and collected surveys from 1062 farming households.  Researchers found that about 90% of those involved in the study had health insurance, but the sources of insurance varied widely, even within the same household.

According to the study, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) broadened farming family insurance options since its inception in 2010.  The authors report about one out of five farmers in the study claimed ACA marketplace health insurance allowed them to enroll in health insurance for the first time.

The research included an example of a ranching family with five children who experienced how the ACA improved their access to healthcare. It said, “their three oldest children had never gone to the doctor because they had no health insurance. After the ACA implementation, the two younger children had preventative well-child visits and the family had access to a wider range of health services.”

According to the study, farmers can especially benefit from the ACA because the health care law uses income rather than assets to determine eligibility for Medicaid and market subsidies. As the Agricultural Law Center has pointed out in the past, the economic model for American agriculture incentivizes asset or wealth accumulation and discourages income generation.

The researchers point to a provision in the ACA, which “decouples the family from the assets of the enterprise and addresses the ‘land rich, cash poor’ conundrum farmers often face.”

This study suggests that farmers, like all Americans, continue to struggle with access to affordable health care. Almost three quarters of the participants in the study said they had a desire that the USDA “represent their unique needs in national health insurance policy discussions.” Hopefully those advocating for farmers and rural communities will read this report and pay attention to the findings.

Governor’s Water Quality Law Is Not Enough

The issue of water quality continues to increase in political importance.  Candidates, on both sides of the aisle, from areas rural and urban, are running on platforms of water quality.  Two Republicans, Craig Lang and Ray Gaesser, are currently running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture focused on water quality and soil health.

Last November, Des Moines voters elected Josh Mandelbaum to the city council.  “Protecting Public Health and Standing Up for Water Quality” was one of the pillars of his campaign.

Governor Kim Reynolds set water quality as a high priority during her Condition of the State address last month.  On January 31, Reynolds signed SF 512 into law.  Clearly, Reynolds saw value in having the water quality bill be the first signed this session, thus making it the first law for her to sign as governor of Iowa.

SF 512 is projected to produce $270.2 million for water quality projects over the next 11 years, according to Iowa’s nonpartisan data agency.

According the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “The money will come from converting an existing sales tax on metered water to an excise tax and, as Vision Iowa bonds are repaid, using those funds, too.”

The water quality law will not generate new money for the state, which means under the law the state will fund water quality efforts by reducing money currently being used to fund other programs.

The level of water quality action does not appear to match its political attention. The state needs to address more questions, engage more interests, and leverage more money to attack the enormous problems with water quality in Iowa.

Several Iowa organizations argue the solution that has been signed into law is not adequate.  They claim Iowans expect more significant action on water quality.

  •  “Where are the voices of environment, habitat, conservation, watershed planning, public health and sustainable agriculture in this process and in this bill?”
    -Iowa Environmental Council Executive Director Jen Terry
  • “Senate File 512 represents a timid response to a vital need for establishing widespread, sustained and measurable progress on an issue important to farmers and all Iowans.” Iowa Soybean Association (ISA)  ISA CEO Kirk Leeds adds, “It’s nibbling around the edges of what’s truly needed. While some additional funding continues to point us in the right direction, it doesn’t get us too much further down the road in achieving the kind of results we all know are attainable and necessary.”
  • “We appreciate the Legislature’s continued attention to water quality, but this effort is incomplete.  There remains much more work to be done. The cost of the nutrient reduction strategy is estimated at over $4 billion and Iowa needs immediate, substantial, dedicated funding and a collaborative watershed approach to adequately implement that strategy.”
    Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWILL) Coalition

According to the IWILL Coalition, Iowa voters overwhelmingly support funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund: 83 percent support the Trust and 69 percent support raising the sales tax 3/8 of a penny to fund the Trust.  IWILL further argues almost 90 percent of likely Iowa voters describe pollution of rivers, lakes and streams as a serious problem in Iowa.

Iowa voters created The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2010. It is a permanent and constitutionally protected funding source to ensure these natural spaces are preserved for generations to come. However, the legislature has not yet funded it. IWILL advocates raising the sales tax 3/8 of a penny to fund the Trust Fund.

Hopefully, Governor Reynold’s signature is the beginning of the discussion surrounding water quality in this legislative session and not the end.  There is still much more work to be done to clean up Iowa’s water.

The Agricultural Law Center continues to engage in this debate with Our Water and other resources, like Director Neil Hamilton’s presentation “High Hopes Meet Hard Truths: Facing the Reality of Iowa’s Water Quality Policy.”

Who Else May Have An Interest

Of the 36,000,000 acres of land in Iowa, more than 33,000,000 acres are farmland.  Iowa landowners include people who inherited the land, while others are new farmers who purchased farmland as an investment or as a rural residency.

The Drake Agricultural Law Center created the Iowa Landowners Legal Guide as a tool to be utilized by any type of landowner. This guide provides videos and text for those who want to gain a better understanding of the legal rights and responsibilities of owning Iowa farmland.

Today’s post features the video “Who Else May Have an Interest?”  In the video, you’ll find that even if a person owns land, he or she does not have total liberty to do whatever he or she wants to do to the land.  In Iowa, there is a long list of people and institutions other than the owner with a legal interest in the farmland.  The video explores 10 of these groups.

We encourage landowners and aspiring landowners to watch the video to better understand how owning farmland legally binds them to others in ways they might not have considered.

Tax bill means more of the same for farmers

My dad told me when he first started farming in the 1970s that he was making money and was proud to pay taxes.  As the world changed, he realized the only way he could continue to farm was by figuring out how not to pay income taxes.  His realization was not to break the law, but to follow it strategically.

Farm bills are important to the success of us as American farmers, but arguably second in importance to the tax code.  Previous congresses have passed, presidents have signed, and courts have upheld tax law that encourages farmers to reinvest farm income in their farms.  Significant tax incentives discourage farmers from spending farm income on anything other than farm expenses.

The new tax bill continues a familiar theme by encouraging farmers to reinvest income in their farms to avoid taxation.  When farmers reinvest in their farms, individual farmers benefit with more successful operations, rural communities benefit from more circulating dollars, farm employees benefit from more jobs, and American families benefit with more abundant food.

Already tax professionals are working overtime to help farmers understand what this new law will mean for our farming operations.  Despite the added professional help for our understanding, a growing number of farmers are being left out of the conversation because they have little knowledge the tax code treats farms differently than most businesses.  Many new farmers do not understand that taxes are one of the most important tools for success on their farm.  New farmers doing retail agriculture, or local foods, are a group particularly uninformed about the special tax provisions offered to farmers.

I have attended farming conferences focused on new farmers for 18 years. I can count on one hand the number of times my fellow panelists and presenters have talked about Schedule F, the form used to report income and expenses related to farming. While Schedule F is obscure to the general public, it is essential to farm survival.

Unfortunately, food and agricultural professionals avoid educating new farmers about Schedule F, especially those serving the non-commodity farmers practicing alternative, sustainable, or retail agriculture.

This lack of information hinders new farmers from building lasting farming operations. If a farmer uses farm income for household or living expenses, they will slow their wealth building potential. On an hourly basis, it makes a lot more sense to work off farm for $20 an hour and pay taxes on that income than to pay taxes on the return to labor and investment from the farm.

To be fair, the incentives for farmers to have off-farm income are very high and extend beyond the tax code.  For one thing, it generally takes longer than an hour to generate $20 of net income on the farm.  Having someone in the household earning money away from the farm is an economically rational choice.  Employer-provided health insurance is another incentive for an off-farm job.

In fact, the majority of farms in the United States use almost none of their farm income for household living.  Instead, they use farm income to build wealth by investing in their farms and they use off-farm income from sources such as employment or nonfarm investments for household expenses. This tax bill, the first major income tax reform in over 30 years, continues to support the current model for American farms encouraging wealth creation while discouraging taxable farm income, which is net farm income after expenses.

The fine details of what this tax bill will mean for farmers will emerge in the coming year, but it appears this bill reinforces the need for farmers to understand and use tax provisions unique to agriculture to maintain successful farms, especially in the face of low commodity prices and tightening margins in retail agriculture.

I heeded my dad’s observations when my husband and I bought our own farm in 2005.  We have not earned net income from farming, but we have built wealth by reinvesting more than 100% of our farm income back into our farm. We have hired teenagers, spent nearly a fortune at the local coop, hired contractors to put conservation structures like ponds on our farm, and paid tens of thousands of dollars in interest on loans.  We have kept every receipt for gloves, tools, tractor repairs, and vet bills.  We have tracked every mile driven whether it was a delivery or a trip to the bank or a visit to the county USDA office.  We have also hired someone to prepare our tax returns to make sure we are both following the law and claiming every expense (deduction) congresses, presidents, and the courts have allowed us to claim.

In my nearly 20 years of advocating for those pursuing sustainable agriculture, I have seen a great need for helping new farmers understand the importance of the Schedule F to their farming operation.  The new tax bill continues an economic structure that both new farmers and those who serve farmers need to be better understand.

A Farmer’s Take on the Iowa Statewide Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report

My dad didn’t farm like my grandpa, and I don’t farm like my dad.  For five generations, my family has been changing how we farm in Iowa and I fully expect the next five generations to keep changing as well.

It is time for a change in the way farmers farm.

The 2016 Iowa Statewide Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report from the Iowa Department of National Resources provides some bad news by the numbers for agriculture. While all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Iowa are down 2% from 2015 and 9.29% lower than the peak in 2007, emissions from agriculture have slowly risen over the past four years nearer to the peak in 2007.

Agriculture continues to be the largest contributor toward Iowa’s GHG emissions, making up 31% of the total.  Not included in this total is GHG emissions from fossil-fuel fired agricultural equipment like tractors and combines, as they are included in the transportation sector.

Iowa farmers are not yet fully engaged in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change that is caused by us.  This is to all of our detriment, and the time has come for us to act. We have the opportunity to embrace the change and make a profit.

Farmers have already done this. Farmers led in wind energy generation policy, development, and practice, which, in turn, benefitted the environment and our pockets. The lion’s share of the reduction in GHG emissions since 2007 came from an increase in wind energy generation and the decrease of coal fired energy. Farmers and landowners were paid over $20 million in 2016 in lease agreements for the generators turning on their land.

As we lead the nation in wind energy generation, we can also lead the nation in carbon farming while reducing emissions and increasing our profits.

Obviously, we’ll have to modify our farming systems, but that’s something we are doing all the time.

The 2016 Iowa Statewide Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report provides an opportunity to develop a vision to how Iowa agriculture can change to sustainably produce commodities to meet the growing demand.  As we evolve our farming systems to reduce emissions and to sequester carbon, we can solve most of our water quality problems, too.

I’m going to keep trying to improve Iowa farming practices, because I know that’s what my great-great grandfather did and I hope my great-great grandniece will keep doing.

Iowa Landowner’s Legal Guide in Practice

My husband Pat and I bought a farm in 2005.  In the first 5 years of owning our farm, we had more questions than we had answers.  I grew up on a farm.  Pat had spent his whole life in and around Des Moines.  Together we had to navigate the challenges and opportunities of developing our farm while leveraging all the resources we could find.

I drew on my childhood experience and called my parents who had farmed for more than three decades.  We reached out to professionals, such as our attorney, our banker, and our ag service providers.  Pat offered important insights because he wasn’t locked into ways of thinking about the farm that might have been part of my family’s traditions but not necessarily limited by Iowa ag law.  We also tapped into my network of fellow food and agriculture professionals.

Not everyone who owns or is planning to own farmland is as fortunate as I have been to work with agriculture lawyers, extension educators, and elected officials.  But, many of the questions we’ve dealt with are answered in the Agricultural Law Center’s new resource The Iowa Landowner’s Legal Guide.

The guide covers many of the issues that challenged us whether we were dealing with fences, working with other farmers to put crops on our farm, or building ponds and waterways.

Owning a farm is an incredibly rewarding experience.  Those rewards can be financial, but they also include the feeling of achievement when you solve a problem creatively and learn first-hand about how we live together with others in our communities.

The Agricultural Law Center is creating this resource to help landowners maximize the rewards of owning farmland and to minimize the challenges, especially as those things relate to Iowa law.  We encourage you to use the book chapters, videos, and accompanying directional documents to help you maximize all of your returns from your piece of Iowa farmland.


Center Update Nov. 10, 2017

The Drake University Agricultural Law Center continues our commitment to lead efforts to improve Iowa’s water quality.

In July, the Center hosted “Sustaining Our Iowa Land (SOIL) 2017: Cultivating Your Investment—Landowners and Stewardship.”  The conference included over 120 speakers and land owners from nearly half the counties in Iowa interested in protecting land, caring for soil and water, and developing the value of Iowa farmland.

“We were excited to partner with Iowa leaders to put more conservation on Iowa farms,” said Neil Hamilton, director emeritus of the Drake Agricultural Law Center. “There is growing concern that Iowa’s commitment to protecting soil and water resources has waned. Our goal is to help landowners re-focus their efforts to not only improve their own farms, but to help Iowa again become a leader in protecting our state’s greatest resource.”

“We help landowners develop the natural resource that is their farm,” said Mark Gannon, owner of Farmland Stewardship Solutions. “This conference was a great way for our company to partner with the Drake Agricultural Law Center and other Iowa groups to empower Iowa farmland owners to combine agricultural productivity and environmental stewardship.”

Agricultural Law Center hosted the event in cooperation with Farmland Stewardship Solutions, the Iowa Water Center, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and The Nature Conservancy.  Videos are available of all of the presentations from the conference.

Hamilton is also working on two related projects.  “Our Water” is a series of short radio clips.  Listeners can hear the first six commentaries from our website.

The second project is “Iowa Landowner’s Legal Guide”  The guide is still in editing but 10 companion videos are available.

The Agricultural Law Center will continue to partner with organizations and funders to advance the role Iowa agriculture must play in cleaning up our state’s water and protecting our state’s soil.