Blog | May 8, 2015

Avocados, Bird Flu, Cooperatives & Other news

With worldwide dairy consumption rising 32% from 1990 to 2005 and showing no signs of slowing down, there have been concerns surrounding the environmental impacts of this rapidly growing industry. California, the center of global debate over dairy’s environmental impacts, is home to large, industrial-scale farms that produce 20% of America’s milk. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization says the dairy industry has made considerable strides since it was warned that livestock is capable of massive-scale pollution, such as the increased use of digesters that turn methane from manure into renewable energy. However, residents in communities that surround industrial dairy operations, such as San Joaquin Valley, CA, are still experiencing heavy exposure to tainted water, odors, flies, and fumes. According to the American Lung Association, this region is also the most highly exposed to airborne particles linked to ailments like heart attacks and strokes. The dairy industry claims to comply with environmental rules. The trouble is, these rules can be expensive for small, family-operated dairy farms. Lynne McBride, executive director of the California Dairy Campaign, said on behalf of the small farms her campaign represents, “Our dairy farm families, they live and work on their operations, they are stewards of the land, they consider the health of their soil and the environment there to be paramount.” Therein lies the challenge: small dairy farms are closing across California for many reasons, but in part because dairy owners cannot pass the costs of complying with new regulations on to customers.

In honor of the thousands of green fruits (and we’re not talking about limes) that were consumed on Cinco de Mayo, National Geographic writer Dan Stone tackles all things avocado: the untold history, the skyrocketing demand, avocado cartels, and what’s wiping it out. Avocados didn’t hit “superfood status” until recently. Since 2010, consumption rose between 10% and 30% each year, and just like its fellow trendy superfood, quinoa, this growth is unsustainable. Avocado production is becoming insufficient to meet demand. And while avocados aren’t particularly difficult to grow, they do demand a lot of water. They’re rapidly draining the aquifers of Mexico, the largest producer of the fruit by far. About three-quarters of Mexico’s avocados come from the state of Michoacán, where their high value has caused them to replace hard drugs as the currency for dominant cartels, who extort them from farmers in exchange for security. In the United States, the major avocado production areas are facing challenges to meet demand: California’s drought problem, and Florida’s laurel wilt invasion, a deadly fungus that is being spread by a tiny beetle from Asia. While avocados have been a beloved part of our diets, consumers may soon reap the costs of decreased production: less avocado on the market, and higher prices.

An additional $330 million in emergency funds has been approved to combat what is said to be the worst avian influenza outbreak in history. According to the USDA, H5 influenza strains have spread across 14 states, infecting 24 million birds, mostly egg-laying hens and turkeys. In Minnesota, the largest producer of U.S. turkeys, farmers are taking a major hit. “Farmers across Minnesota are in a financial and emotional whirlwind,” said Minnesota state Representative Jeanne Poppe. “Turkey processing plants are being forced to idle production lines because of the drastic decline in turkey supplies and workers are being laid off.” With the additional emergency funds, farmers are expected to see some relief – they’re approved to use funds for sanitizing their equipment and culling their infected flocks.

With 80 farms in 21 Minnesota counties living the horrors of the outbreak, state and local health officials are making sure that mental health assistance is available for farmers experiencing emotional stress. According to Nancy Carlson, behavioral health preparedness director for the Minnesota Department of Health, farmers dealing with the outbreak are likely to experience trouble concentrating, difficulty sleeping, and getting upset more easily. While the challenges brought on by the avian flu are present now, Carlson doesn’t expect farmers to reach out about their mental health right away, “They can’t, until they get those immediate needs done, focus on that emotional impact,” she said. Renee Frauendienst, one affected county’s health director, has her staff training people in contact with farmers to recognize signs of stress, and provide basic aid when needed. She is also committed to making sure that there aren’t any barriers for farmers to receive aid, such as a lack of medical insurance.

Could an elementary school be the answer to Puerto Rico’s agricultural development? The territory produces very little of its own food; in fact, since World War II, over 80% of what’s consumed on the island is imported. Dalma Cartagena, an agricultural science teacher for grades 3-8 in the small town of Orocovis, has taken it upon herself to develop a new agricultural movement for the past 15 years. By teaching her students to grow their own food in a sustainable, community-based way, Cartagena is deconstructing the idea that many parents had told their children for years, that “agriculture is for people that don’t have anything to do.” Since the appointment of a new agriculture secretary in 2015, Puerto Rico’s agriculture industry has seen some major changes. Under the leadership of Myrna Comas Pagan, the new agriculture secretary who made it her mission to improve food security, Puerto Rico’s government has provided farmers with $13 million in subsidies in the past two years. These subsidies have created jobs, brought new income to the economy, and increased agricultural production. Comas believes the island’s food production has the potential to double within a decade if young people, like the students in Cartagena’s class, remain interested in agriculture.

A new installment in’s series Farm Size Matters explores the pros and cons of the cooperative–the agricultural business model owned and operated by members who share benefits and profits. The nearly 3,000 agricultural cooperatives in the United States range in size from huge, national brands, to a small group of farmers meeting locally. See first-hand what a small cooperative faces in the film Grazers, a documentary about the challenges that the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative encountered on their quest to sell local beef in New York City using their united New York state beef cooperative. While this collaborative business can get messy and time-consuming, a successful cooperative evokes a sense of community and stability for the mid-size farmer. Learn about starting your own cooperative in the Adirondack Grazers How-To Guide.

By Emily Eagan

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