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Titanic robots make farming more sustainable

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Thursday, March 9, 2023

There’s a lot riding on farmers’ ability to fight weeds, which can strangle crops and destroy yields. To protect crops, farmers have two options: They can spray herbicides that pollute the environment and harm human health, or they can hire more workers. Unfortunately, both choices are becoming less tenable. Herbicide resistance is a growing problem in crops around the world, while widespread labor shortages have hit the agricultural sector particularly hard. Now the startup FarmWise, co-founded by Sebastien Boyer SM ’16, is giving farmers a third option. The company has developed autonomous weeding robots that use artificial intelligence to cut out weeds while leaving crops untouched. The company’s first robot, fittingly called the Titan — picture a large tractor that makes use of a trailer in lieu of a driver’s seat — uses machine vision to distinguish weeds from crops including leafy greens, cauliflower, artichokes, and tomatoes while snipping weeds with sub-inch precision. About 15 Titans have been roaming the fields of 30 large farms in California and Arizona for the last few years, providing weeding as a service while being directed by an iPad. Last month, the company unveiled its newest robot, Vulcan, which is more lightweight and pulled by a tractor. “We have growing population, and we can’t expand the land or water we have, so we need to drastically increase the efficiency of the farming industry,” Boyer says. “I think AI and data are going to be major players in that journey.” Finding a road to impact Boyer came to MIT in 2014 and earned masters’ degrees in technology and policy as well as electrical engineering and computer science over the next two years. “What stood out is the passion that my classmates had for what they did — the drive and passion people had to change the world,” Boyer says. As part of his graduate work, Boyer researched machine learning and machine vision techniques, and he soon began exploring ways to apply those technologies to environmental problems. He received a small amount of funding from MIT Sandbox to further develop the idea. “That helped me make the decision to not take a real job,” Boyer recalls. Following graduation, he and FarmWise co-founder Thomas Palomares, a graduate of Stanford University whom Boyer met in his home country of France, began going to farmers’ markets, introducing themselves to small farmers and asking for tours of their farms. About one in three farmers were happy to show them around. From there they’d ask for referrals to larger farmers and service providers in the industry. “We realized agriculture is a large contributor of both emissions and, more broadly, to the negative impact of human activities on the environment,” Boyer says. “It also hasn’t been as disrupted by software, cloud computing, AI, and robotics as other industries. That combination really excites us.” Through their conversations, the founders learned herbicides are becoming less effective as weeds develop genetic resistance. The only alternative is to hire more workers, which itself was becoming more difficult for farmers. “Labor is extremely tight,” says Boyer, adding that bending over and weeding for 10 hours a day is one of the hardest jobs out there. “The labor supply is shrinking if not collapsing in the U.S., and it’s a worldwide trend. That has real environmental implications because of the tradeoff [between labor and herbicides].” The problem is especially acute for farmers of specialty crops, including many fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which grow on smaller farms than corn and soybean and each require slightly different growing practices, limiting the effectiveness of many technical and chemical solutions. “We don’t harvest corn by hand today, but we still harvest lettuces and nuts and apples by hand,” Boyer says. The Titan was built to complement field workers’ efforts to grow and maintain crops. An operator directs it using an iPad, walking alongside the machine and inspecting progress. Both the Titan and Vulcan are powered by an AI that directs hundreds of tiny blades to snip out weeds around each crop. The Vulcan is controlled directly from the tractor cab, where the operator has a touchscreen interface Boyer compares to those found in a Tesla. With more than 15,000 commercial hours under its belt, FarmWise hopes the data it collects can be used for more than just weeding in the near future. “It’s all about precision,” Boyer says. “We’re going to better understand what the plant needs and make smarter decisions for each one. That will bring us to a point where we can use the same amount of land, much less water, almost no chemicals, much less fertilizer, and still produce more food than we’re producing today. That’s the mission. That’s what excites me.” Weeding out farming challenges A customer recently told Boyer that without the Titan, he would have to switch all of his organic crops back to conventional because he couldn’t find enough workers. “That’s happening with a lot of customers,” Boyer says. “They have no choice but to rely on herbicides. Acres are staying organic because of our product, and conventional farms are reducing their use of herbicides.” Now FarmWise is expanding its database to support weeding for six to 12 new crops each year, and Boyer says adding new crops is getting easier and easier for its system. As early partners have sought to expand their deployments, Boyer says the only thing limiting the company’s growth is how fast it can build new robots. FarmWise’s new machines will begin being deployed later this year. Although the hulking Titan robots are the face of the company today, the founders hope to leverage the data they’ve collected to further improve farming operations. “The mission of the company is to turn AI into a tool that is as reliable and dependable as GPS is now in the farming industry,” Boyer says. “Twenty-five years ago, GPS was a very complicated technology. You had to connect to satellites and do some crazy computation to define your position. But a few companies brought GPS to a new level of reliability and simplicity. Today, every farmer in the world uses GPS. We think AI can have an even deeper impact than GPS has had on the farming industry, and we want to be the company that makes it available and easy to use for every farmer in the world.”

MIT alumnus-founded FarmWise uses autonomous machines to snip weeds while preserving crops, eliminating the need for herbicides.

There’s a lot riding on farmers’ ability to fight weeds, which can strangle crops and destroy yields. To protect crops, farmers have two options: They can spray herbicides that pollute the environment and harm human health, or they can hire more workers.

Unfortunately, both choices are becoming less tenable. Herbicide resistance is a growing problem in crops around the world, while widespread labor shortages have hit the agricultural sector particularly hard.

Now the startup FarmWise, co-founded by Sebastien Boyer SM ’16, is giving farmers a third option. The company has developed autonomous weeding robots that use artificial intelligence to cut out weeds while leaving crops untouched.

The company’s first robot, fittingly called the Titan — picture a large tractor that makes use of a trailer in lieu of a driver’s seat — uses machine vision to distinguish weeds from crops including leafy greens, cauliflower, artichokes, and tomatoes while snipping weeds with sub-inch precision.

About 15 Titans have been roaming the fields of 30 large farms in California and Arizona for the last few years, providing weeding as a service while being directed by an iPad. Last month, the company unveiled its newest robot, Vulcan, which is more lightweight and pulled by a tractor.

“We have growing population, and we can’t expand the land or water we have, so we need to drastically increase the efficiency of the farming industry,” Boyer says. “I think AI and data are going to be major players in that journey.”

Finding a road to impact

Boyer came to MIT in 2014 and earned masters’ degrees in technology and policy as well as electrical engineering and computer science over the next two years.

“What stood out is the passion that my classmates had for what they did — the drive and passion people had to change the world,” Boyer says.

As part of his graduate work, Boyer researched machine learning and machine vision techniques, and he soon began exploring ways to apply those technologies to environmental problems. He received a small amount of funding from MIT Sandbox to further develop the idea.

“That helped me make the decision to not take a real job,” Boyer recalls.

Following graduation, he and FarmWise co-founder Thomas Palomares, a graduate of Stanford University whom Boyer met in his home country of France, began going to farmers’ markets, introducing themselves to small farmers and asking for tours of their farms. About one in three farmers were happy to show them around. From there they’d ask for referrals to larger farmers and service providers in the industry.

“We realized agriculture is a large contributor of both emissions and, more broadly, to the negative impact of human activities on the environment,” Boyer says. “It also hasn’t been as disrupted by software, cloud computing, AI, and robotics as other industries. That combination really excites us.”

Through their conversations, the founders learned herbicides are becoming less effective as weeds develop genetic resistance. The only alternative is to hire more workers, which itself was becoming more difficult for farmers.

“Labor is extremely tight,” says Boyer, adding that bending over and weeding for 10 hours a day is one of the hardest jobs out there. “The labor supply is shrinking if not collapsing in the U.S., and it’s a worldwide trend. That has real environmental implications because of the tradeoff [between labor and herbicides].”

The problem is especially acute for farmers of specialty crops, including many fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which grow on smaller farms than corn and soybean and each require slightly different growing practices, limiting the effectiveness of many technical and chemical solutions.

“We don’t harvest corn by hand today, but we still harvest lettuces and nuts and apples by hand,” Boyer says.

The Titan was built to complement field workers’ efforts to grow and maintain crops. An operator directs it using an iPad, walking alongside the machine and inspecting progress. Both the Titan and Vulcan are powered by an AI that directs hundreds of tiny blades to snip out weeds around each crop. The Vulcan is controlled directly from the tractor cab, where the operator has a touchscreen interface Boyer compares to those found in a Tesla.

With more than 15,000 commercial hours under its belt, FarmWise hopes the data it collects can be used for more than just weeding in the near future.

“It’s all about precision,” Boyer says. “We’re going to better understand what the plant needs and make smarter decisions for each one. That will bring us to a point where we can use the same amount of land, much less water, almost no chemicals, much less fertilizer, and still produce more food than we’re producing today. That’s the mission. That’s what excites me.”

Weeding out farming challenges

A customer recently told Boyer that without the Titan, he would have to switch all of his organic crops back to conventional because he couldn’t find enough workers.

“That’s happening with a lot of customers,” Boyer says. “They have no choice but to rely on herbicides. Acres are staying organic because of our product, and conventional farms are reducing their use of herbicides.”

Now FarmWise is expanding its database to support weeding for six to 12 new crops each year, and Boyer says adding new crops is getting easier and easier for its system.

As early partners have sought to expand their deployments, Boyer says the only thing limiting the company’s growth is how fast it can build new robots. FarmWise’s new machines will begin being deployed later this year.

Although the hulking Titan robots are the face of the company today, the founders hope to leverage the data they’ve collected to further improve farming operations.

The mission of the company is to turn AI into a tool that is as reliable and dependable as GPS is now in the farming industry,” Boyer says. “Twenty-five years ago, GPS was a very complicated technology. You had to connect to satellites and do some crazy computation to define your position. But a few companies brought GPS to a new level of reliability and simplicity. Today, every farmer in the world uses GPS. We think AI can have an even deeper impact than GPS has had on the farming industry, and we want to be the company that makes it available and easy to use for every farmer in the world.”

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Study: Nonnative earthworms are all over North America, and it’s a problem

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Nonnative earthworms have colonized much of the North American continent, posing a threat to native ecosystems, a recent analysis reveals.Writing in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers documented the presence of scores of nonnative earthworm species across the continent, calling them a “serious threat” to biodiversity because of their role as “ecosystem engineers.”The researchers relied on data spanning from 1891 to 2021, including spatial distribution information and reports of nonnative earthworms intercepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A machine learning analysis of species richness revealed that nonnative earthworms are probably the dominant species across 73 percent of the continent, with 28 percent of North America now devoid of its original earthworm species.Overall, the researchers pinpointed 70 unique species of alien earthworm, the majority of which originate from Europe and Asia. The use of earthworms for fishing bait and the sale of vermicomposting materials are partly to blame, the researchers write, and the creatures tend to enter the continent from coasts and areas with airports.The environmental changes wreaked by the new arrivals vary, from taking over areas with few native earthworms to spurring changes in the plant composition of forests and other areas.Earthworms are often seen as positive forces in their native habitats, but the researchers point out that nonnative species can have the opposite effect. The invaders’ slow movements and feeding habits can cause soil compaction that precludes plant growth, reduce biodiversity, enable invasive plant takeovers and hurt trees such as the sugar maple.“Because it is virtually impossible to remove established populations of alien earthworms,” the researchers write, “the best management option is to focus on prevention and early detection.” They call for policies to prevent the future spread of the alien earthworms, noting that climate change will probably drive future invasions.

Pregnant women in Indiana show fourfold increase in toxic weedkiller in urine – study

Seventy perc ent of pregnant women in state had herbicide dicamba in their urine, up from 28% in an earlier studyPregnant women in a key US farm state are showing increasing amounts of a toxic weedkiller in their urine, a rise that comes alongside climbing use of the chemicals in agriculture, according to a study published on Friday.The study, led by the Indiana University school of medicine, showed that 70% of pregnant women tested in Indiana between 2020 and 2022 had a herbicide called dicamba in their urine, up from 28% from a similar analysis for the period 2010-12. The earlier study included women in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Continue reading...

Pregnant women in a key US farm state are showing increasing amounts of a toxic weedkiller in their urine, a rise that comes alongside climbing use of the chemicals in agriculture, according to a study published Friday.The study, led by the Indiana University school of medicine, showed that 70% of pregnant women tested in Indiana between 2020 and 2022 had an herbicide called dicamba in their urine, up from 28% from a similar analysis for the period 2010-12. The earlier study included women in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.Notably, the study also found that along with a larger percentage of women showing the presence of dicamba in their bodies, the concentrations of the weed-killing chemical increased more than four-fold.Both studies found that 100% of the women tested had 2,4-dichloroacetic acid, better known as 2,4-D, in their urine; the more recent study showed detectable, but not significant, increases in concentration levels.The findings add to a growing body of literature documenting human exposure to chemicals used in agriculture, and various known and potential health impacts. Many scientists have particular concerns about how farm chemicals affect pregnant women and their children, but say more research – and more regulatory scrutiny – is needed.“These are two chemicals we’re concerned about because of their increasing use,” said Paul Winchester, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University school of medicine who was not involved in this study.Winchester called the findings “sobering” and said that there is growing evidence that these chemicals can be harmful to fetuses. “Fetal DNA is being shaped by these exposures,” he said. “What we’re seeing in other chemicals that have had longer pathways of study is that this is not benign exposure.”Dicamba exposure has been linked to increased risk of liver and bile-duct cancers. Though the effects of 2,4-D on humans is less understood, some animal studies of 2,4-D exposure during pregnancy found low body weights and changes in behavior in the offspring, while other studies have found that exposure to 2,4-D appears to increase the risk of lymphoma.Rising useGestational exposure to glyphosate – the key ingredient in the well-known Roundup herbicide - is associated with reduced fetal growth and other fetal problems. Glyphosate separately has been linked to cancer and other health problems.Monsanto introduced glyphosate to agriculture decades ago, followed by genetically engineered crops created to withstand glyphosate spray, allowing farmers to kill weeds in their fields without harming the crops. That technology led to skyrocketing use of glyphosate starting in the late 1990s, but its extensive and repeated use triggered an explosion of glyphosate-resistant weeds. Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.Monsanto and other companies then developed dicamba- and 2,4-D-tolerant crops, and as a result, reliance on the two weedkillers has risen 10-fold since 2010.The study notes that the vast majority of soybean and cotton seeds now sold and grown in the US are genetically engineered to tolerate a range of herbicides, including glyphosate, dicamba and 2,4-D.“There’s no other way to explain a four-fold increase in dicamba in the urine of pregnant women in the midwest other than the planting of these technologies,” said Charles Benbrook, a co-author of the study and an expert witness for some cancer patients who have sued Monsanto, alleging Roundup caused their diseases. “This is a technology they probably should never have approved.”Dicamba has particular volatility when sprayed on farm fields and is capable of traveling far from where it is sprayed, so exposure does not necessarily occur only on or near a farm where it is sprayed. Since dicamba-tolerant crops were introduced, the weedkiller has been documented on non-target crops, on trees miles from fields, even in rain.Last week, a federal court in Arizona vacated the registrations of the weedkillers, ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the law in approving dicamba by not giving adequate opportunity for public comment. It was the second time a federal court has banned dicamba.But this week, the EPA said that despite the court ruling, it still will allow millions of gallons of dicamba to be sprayed this growing season.This story is co-published with the New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group

US becoming ‘factory farming nation’: key takeaways from the agriculture census

Small farms and Black farmers are going out of business, while corporate-controlled farms are booming, raking in subsidiesRecord numbers of American farms are going out of business with small farms and Black farmers the hardest hit – again, according to the 2022 agriculture census, a comprehensive snapshot of the state of America’s farms and farmers published every five years by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Yet industrial factory farms rearing thousands of livestock in confinement have further expanded into rural America, acquiring smaller farms, raking in taxpayer subsidies and generating environmental harms.The agriculture census is a mammoth data collection effort involving more than a million farmers, which tracks the number, size and types of farm across sectors, as well as the farmers and the financials – at the national, state and county levels. It provides insights into the impact – good and bad – of government programs on farmers, workers, land use, animals, waterways and the climate, and should inform future policy. The latest data set includes the Covid pandemic – an extraordinary time when global food prices, government farm subsidies and food insecurity all surged. Continue reading...

Record numbers of American farms are going out of business with small farms and Black farmers the hardest hit – again, according to the 2022 agriculture census, a comprehensive snapshot of the state of America’s farms and farmers published every five years by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Yet industrial factory farms rearing thousands of livestock in confinement have further expanded into rural America, acquiring smaller farms, raking in taxpayer subsidies and generating environmental harms.The agriculture census is a mammoth data collection effort involving more than a million farmers, which tracks the number, size and types of farm across sectors, as well as the farmers and the financials – at the national, state and county levels. It provides insights into the impact – good and bad – of government programs on farmers, workers, land use, animals, waterways and the climate, and should inform future policy. The latest data set includes the Covid pandemic – an extraordinary time when global food prices, government farm subsidies and food insecurity all surged.There is a lot to digest in the 700-page report, but here are some of the key takeaways:The number of farms and quantity of farmland continues to decline steeply – but mega farms are thrivingLine chart of green and brown lines trending downThe number of farms fell 7% over the past five years to 1.9m – compared with a peak of almost 7m in the mid-1930s, and 2.2m in 2000. Around 20m acres of farmland were lost over the same period, as fields made way for urban sprawl, solar farms and other industrial development.The decline is by no means steady across the board. The steepest decline – 17% – was among the smallest farms with less than 10 acres. The US globalized agricultural system favors large and corporate owned operations, as smaller farms struggle more with boom and bust prices, extreme weather linked to the climate crisis and access to government subsidies and other credit.Large farms – which includes mega operations with hundreds of thousands of acres – account for only 4% of the total number of farms, but control two-thirds of US agricultural land. The largest – with sales of $5m or more – accounted for fewer than 1% of all farms but 42% of all sales. The consolidation of American agriculture continues, despite a commitment by the USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, a former big dairy executive, to shore up small and midsize farm operations.Another steep decline in Black farmersBar chart of four khaki bar going left and two green bar charts going rightThe number of Black farmers fell by 8% in the past five years, the largest decline among all ethnic and racial groups. This is another setback for Black farmers, who have been forced out of agriculture by decades of discriminatory USDA policies that systematically denied them access to low-interest loans, grants and other assistance. The number of Black farmers has dropped from a peak of almost 1m in 1910 to 41,807 in 2022.It’s perhaps too early to judge the Biden administration, which has enacted policies aimed at helping Black and other “underserved” farmers, but so far Black farmers have little to cheer. The white domination among farmers has grown from 89% in 2017 to 95% in 2022.In some good news, the number of Hawaiian and Pacific Islander farmers increased by 13%, with a whopping 50% (1,509 in 2022 compared with 1,007 in 2017) rise in new producers. This may partly reflect a resurgence in Native Hawaiian farming practices and the land back movement.Climate smart agriculture and conservation remain rare among American farmers – despite government programsBar chart of six khaki bars pointing downThe number of farms enrolled in USDA conservation programs that pay farmers to leave environmentally important areas such as wetlands fell by 7% between 2017 and 2022. Smaller farms saw the steepest decline, which is likely due to high commodity prices on the global market that offered short-term economic gains, according to Anne Schechinger from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Increasing financial support – USDA rents – for long-term conservation projects such as 30-year wetland preservation could attract more farmers and would maximize climate and environmental benefits, said Schechinger.An incentives scheme to encourage cover crops – a regenerative agro-ecology technique that helps reduce synthetic fertilizer use, improves soil health and conserves water – shows mixed results. The number of farms enrolled in the program has stagnated at around 153,000, but there was a 17% rise in cover crops overall, which was mostly down to larger farms planting more nutrient rich cover crops between growing periods for cash crops.Large farms and corporations benefit most from taxpayer dollarsA bar chart of six green bars pointing upGovernment payments to farmers skyrocketed 17% since the last ag census to $10.4bn – thanks in large part to Covid era subsidies, which boosted income for some farmers to record levels between 2020 and 2022. But the number of farms receiving taxpayer subsidies fell dramatically by 25%, and it was the larger, wealthier – not struggling small farms – that benefited most. Farms with the highest sales (at least $50,000) received 64% of the total subsidies – despite accounting for only 11% of the beneficiaries. The smallest farms account for almost half (48%) of those that got some financial assistance, but only 4% of the total money.America’s industrial agriculture complex is raising more animals on factory farms than ever beforeThree bar charts, each topped with an icon of an animal. The charts have a series of green (going up) and khaki (going down) barsIn the past five years, the US lost 34% of dairy farms, 9% of hog farms and 7% of beef cattle farms but the livestock numbers stayed more or less constant. That means fewer, but much larger, concentrated lots – which are linked to an array of harms including water and air pollution, poor animal welfare, labor abuses and climate impacts. As it stands, 1.7 billion animals – mostly pigs, cattle, chickens and sheep – were reared on US factory farms in 2022 – a 6% increase since the last census in 2017 and a 47% rise since 2002. This includes 7,406 chicken farms with half a million of more birds in 2022 – a 17% rise in the past decade.According to analysis by Food and Water Watch (FWW), 24,000 factory farms are producing a staggering 940bn lbs of manure each year – double the amount of sewage produced by the entire US population. This is 52bn pounds more greenhouse gas emitting concentrated manure than in 2017, the equivalent to creating a new city of 39m habitants in the past five years.Small and medium dairy farms have fared worst. Almost 7 million dairy cattle – 75% of the total – are now reared in confinement on factory farms, each with 2,000 or more cows. “As industrial confinements drive family-scale farmers off their land … the benefits flow to private coffers while our communities and environment are left holding the bag,” said Amanda Starbuck, FWW research director.“America today is truly a factory farming nation.”

West Virginia's new agriculture bill raises concerns over potential toxic emissions

In West Virginia, a new bill limiting county control over agricultural operations sparks fear of a toxic fumigation plant in the Allegheny Mountains. John Raby reports for the Associated Press.In short:The bill, passed by the House of Delegates, restricts counties from regulating agricultural activities, potentially paving the way for harmful industrial developments.Residents worry about the possible revival of plans for a facility emitting methyl bromide, a pesticide linked to severe health risks.The legislation reflects a broader trend of prioritizing industrial interests over local community health and environmental concerns.Key quote:The bill "is really just a backdoor way for non-local, corporate entities to build whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the impact on local communities." — John Rosato, Hardy County resident.Why this matters: This development highlights the tension between industrial growth and environmental health. The potential for increased toxic emissions poses significant risks to public health, particularly in rural communities, and underscores the need for balanced policy-making that considers both economic and environmental impacts.Commentary: Industrial agriculture is a dead end. Agroecology is the only way to ensure that all people have access to sufficient, healthful food.

In West Virginia, a new bill limiting county control over agricultural operations sparks fear of a toxic fumigation plant in the Allegheny Mountains. John Raby reports for the Associated Press.In short:The bill, passed by the House of Delegates, restricts counties from regulating agricultural activities, potentially paving the way for harmful industrial developments.Residents worry about the possible revival of plans for a facility emitting methyl bromide, a pesticide linked to severe health risks.The legislation reflects a broader trend of prioritizing industrial interests over local community health and environmental concerns.Key quote:The bill "is really just a backdoor way for non-local, corporate entities to build whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the impact on local communities." — John Rosato, Hardy County resident.Why this matters: This development highlights the tension between industrial growth and environmental health. The potential for increased toxic emissions poses significant risks to public health, particularly in rural communities, and underscores the need for balanced policy-making that considers both economic and environmental impacts.Commentary: Industrial agriculture is a dead end. Agroecology is the only way to ensure that all people have access to sufficient, healthful food.

US farms and farmers are on the decline. Can climate action reverse the trend?

The new Census of Agriculture shows carbon-intensive farms and large, factory-scale animal operations are only getting bigger.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack helped unveil his agency’s Census of Agriculture, a huge quinquennial report that covers 6 million data points and gives the current state-of-the-state of American farms and farmers.In a presentation at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Vilsack underscored his main takeaway: The number of American farms and farmers continues to decline, a fact that has broad consequences, he argued, beyond farming itself.“I’m concerned about the state of agriculture and food production in this country,” he said, before ticking off a few numbers to make his point.In 2017, the year the previous report covered, the country had 2,042,220 farms. In 2022, it had 1,900,487. In that same span, the number of farmed acres dropped from almost 900 million acres to 880 million—a loss in area the size of all the New England states, minus Connecticut, Vilsack noted.The drop, Vilsack argued, has caused ripple effects across rural America, resulting in the loss of schools, businesses and healthcare infrastructure, and the overall hollowing out of farming communities.One way to reverse the trend, he said, is to boost support for agricultural methods and practices that have climate benefits so farmers can earn money for them.“It’s important for us to invest in climate-smart agriculture,” Vilsack said, “because that creates an opportunity for farmers to qualify, potentially, for ecosystem service market credits, which is cash coming into the farm for environmental results that can only occur on the farm. The farm then creates a second source of income.”In other words, Vilsack argued, climate action could help save the American farm.The problem, the census data suggest, is that American farms, especially big factory farms that generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, are growing in size. The data also show that, overall, more government support is flowing to larger or more profitable operations. According to the census, these farms are using more of the precious and drought-depleted water supplies that climate change is projected to deplete even more, especially in the West.“This tells a compelling story, across all of these things,” said Anne Schechinger, the Midwest director of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “It’s a clear picture that these larger farms are doing the best and are benefitting the most from government policies.”Researchers and advocacy groups pored over the data after it was released Tuesday afternoon, trying to tease out trends.The number of cattle, the biggest source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions—both from burps and manure storage—actually went down by 5.6 million over the 2017 census. But the number of cattle in large dairies and feedlots—and the overall number of larger dairies and feedlots—went up.An analysis of the data by the advocacy group Food & Water Watch found the number of animals raised on large, factory-scale farms rose by 6 percent over 2017 and by 47 percent over 2002. That translates to more animals in concentrated areas, generating more manure that’s disposed of in pits and lagoons where it emits more methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas.“We haven’t seen a huge difference in the number of dairy cows,” said Amanda Starbuck, the group’s research director. “But because there’s a shift to these big facilities, we’ve seen an increase in emissions from manure management.” (According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory, methane emissions from manure management rose from 39 million metric tons in 1990 to 66 million in 2021. When animals are raised on pasture, their manure releases very little methane.)The EWG analysis found similar trends. The number of the largest cattle farms—those with 5,000 or more cattle per farm—has grown from about 1,100 in 2012 to just under 1,450 in 2022, an increase of nearly 30 percent. Of the “Big Three” livestock—cattle, chicken and hogs—the number of animals produced in the largest farms also went up by about 28 percent for cows and 24 percent for hogs and chickens.As for farm economics, Schechinger noted that the most recent income data suggest that farmers are actually doing pretty well and that farm income is roughly at its 20-year average.“Farmers don’t need more sources of revenue,” she said, referring to Vilsack’s comments. “They’re already getting subsidies and crop insurance, not to mention we have high farm incomes generally.”Schechinger’s analyses in the past have found that much of the money the Agriculture Department spends on conservation tends to flow to big-ticket items, such as irrigation systems and methane digesters, which generally go to bigger farms.“Conservation money shouldn’t be viewed as a revenue generator,” she added. “It should be viewed as having a climate benefit for the taxpayer money.”In his presentation Tuesday, Vilsack referred to the agency’s push to build voluntary carbon markets in which farmers get paid for practices—planting cover crops, stopping tillage and employing so-called adaptive grazing—that sequester carbon or limit emissions. Polluters seeking to offset emissions then purchase those credits.The Biden administration has attempted to make farmers central in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has directed nearly $20 billion to the USDA for climate and conservation programs through the Inflation Reduction Act.But to some analysts, the new census suggests that agricultural policy continues to enrich the biggest players at the expense of farmers and the climate.“Vilsack is talking about a system that doesn’t benefit farmers; it benefits big food companies and ethanol producers,” said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “He’s spinning climate action and is missing some of the lessons of the data that tell us the markets aren’t working. Farmers need to get paid fairly. Farmers are weak players in the market right now. That’s the fundamental problem.”“We don’t need to create other income streams that others can capitalize on,” Lilliston added, referring to carbon markets. “If farmers are doing things that are climate-smart, they should be paid a premium for it.”

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