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Should Hydroponic Farming Be Eligible for Organic Certification?

By Dan Nosowitz

Last month, the National Organic Standards Board met in Denver, Colorado, to discuss what might be the most hotly-debated subject in all of eco-agriculture: What, exactly, does "organic" mean?

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Bluebird Hill Farm

This 13-Acre Organic Farm Can Be Yours for Just 200 Words

By Dan Nosowitz

It is, we assume, the dream of many readers (and writers and artists and gardeners and ... well ... just about everyone who's reading this site probably) to someday own a little organic farm of their own. But the costs of acquiring one—and the difficulties of certification—can all make that dream seem impossible.

Norma Burns, an architect-turned-farmer, has owned and operated Bluebird Hill Farm in North Carolina for nearly 18 years. After all that time, she's decided she's ready to pass it on to someone new—but her selection process isn't limited to, say, kids or employees. She's holding an essay contest to determine who'll be Bluebird Hill's next owner.

Bluebird Hill Farm is located about three hours east of Asheville. It is a USDA-certified 13-acre organic farm on which she grows lavender, specialty vegetables, herbs and native plants and the pictures make it look absolutely gorgeous: rolling hills, fields of lavender, picturesque barns. Our State has some more information on Burns and her farm, if you're interested.

Bluebird Hill Farm viewed from the pond.Bluebird Hill Farm

The contest is simple or as simple as giving away a farm valued at $450,000 can be: a 200-word essay laying out why you and your partner want to own the farm. Yep, partner: "Experience has shown that Bluebird Hill Farm can't be operated successfully by a single individual," she writes. Aspirants must commit to keeping the farm organic, at least one of the partners must be between the ages of 25 and 50 ("to ensure that the winning couple has the life experience and physical stamina that active farming requires"), will pay the closing taxes and fees and must chip in a $300 entry fee.

That's about it, really. Oh, and the application is extremely clear that anyone entering the contest should not, under any circumstances, attempt to contact Burns via any method besides Facebook. ("Entrants who attempt to contact Bluebird Hill Farm directly will be DISQUALIFIED and your entry fee will NOT BE REFUNDED," she writes. Caps lock is hers.)

The deadline to enter is June 1, so you can while away the winter hours hammering out your 200-word essay. Make sure each one of those words is perfect. Your future might depend on it.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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Is There Such a Thing as Humane Wool?

By Brian Barth

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the animal rights organization, has a reputation for employing the oldest marketing trick in the book: selling their message with sex.

The latest example? Their campaign to raise awareness of animal abuse in the wool industry, which features a poster of Alicia Silverstone walking naked into a meadow, her head turned over her shoulder, looking back at you with seductive, pleading eyes. The caption reads, "I'd rather go naked than wear wool."

Pamela Anderson, the singer Pink and a handful of other celebrities have also bared all for the cause.

The PETA creed is that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way." In other words, keeping livestock for purposes of human consumption, whether in a factory-farming setting or a small organic farm, is ethically reprehensible. PETA is well known for popularizing veganism and exposing animal rights abuses around the world. But livestock farmers, unsurprisingly, have long despised their shock and awe tactics, which have a tendency to paint all farmers as evil animal abusers.

PETA's current sheep campaign—typically broadcast with the tagline, "there is no such thing as humane wool"—was launched in 2014 after the organization released footage of sheep being cut, manhandled and mangled at wool-shearing operations in the U.S. and Australia. The effort got major press coverage around the world and led to the prosecution of several of the Australian shearers who were depicted in the footage on animal abuse charges. Now that Alicia Silverstone has put her skin in the game (pun intended), PETA's wool campaign is back in the media once again.

Wool producers, along with a number of large agriculture organizations, have fought back. In Australia, the Victoria Farming Federation filed a formal complaint when a locally popular vegan musician was featured in PETA ads holding a bloodied lamb carcass with the caption, "here's the rest of your wool coat." It turned out the carcass was made of Styrofoam. PETA admitted to using a prop, but maintains that it was a realistic illustration of the horrors of shearing.

Animal abuse is far too common an occurrence with pets kept by demented individuals everywhere. And as PETA's undercover sheep investigation clearly shows, along with many others that have preceded it, some abusive individuals (unfortunately) make their living handling livestock on farms throughout the world. The question is, is abuse the norm? Are examples of abuse at a few sheep ranches enough to indict an entire industry?

We thought it would be worth asking a wool producer who claims to raise their sheep in a sustainable, humane manner how their practices differ from what PETA ascribes to all wool producers. Becky Weed, owner of Thirteen Mile Lamb & Wool Company in southwestern Montana, was a little reluctant to take the call from Modern Farmer, as she's been caught in the crosshairs of the animal cruelty debate before and has better things to do than argue with activists about whether or not raising sheep is inherently evil.

"I am wary of PETA," said Weed, right off the bat. "I don't think it's a particularly rational organization … I think animal welfare is important, but I don't believe that raising sheep is by definition cruel."

What Is A Crop Mob, And Should I Join One?

By Dan Nosowitz

Across the country, at key times in the agricultural year, teams of people—usually young—alight on farms at which they do not work. They are crop mobs and they seem fun.

Here's the basics: A crop mob is an organized group of volunteers that descends on a farm to perform agriculture work, typically without pay. There's also usually an educational or outreach element in attempt to get more people involved and invested in agricultural work. The farms chosen are small, sustainable and non-commodity (meaning you're not likely to see a crop mob working a 5,000-acre soy field). The farmers will provide a meal.

Screenshot of a thorough but not necessarily comprehensive list of crop mobs.

Back in 2008, the phrase and concept of a crop mob was started as a monthly newsletter run by North Carolinian Rob Jones. But today, crop mobs aren't centralized; disparate, unconnected groups typically form in specific areas, covering specific farms. Facebook turns out to be ideal for organizing crop mob events and so many mobs find their home there. Individual organizations take on the task of organizing for their area, so you'll see groups with names like Green Mountain Crop Mob (Vermont), High Desert Crop Mob (Oregon), Keys Crop Mob (Florida Keys) and many more. The original group maintains a Google Maps map listing dozens of mobs all around the country.

The jobs performed vary, ranging from harvesting to packing to moving to construction. For the farms, the benefits are obvious; it can be very difficult for a small farm to make ends meet and volunteers lighten that load. For the volunteers, it's a chance to head out to the country, get their hands dirty and make a difference for sustainable food production.

Raleigh City Farm

What's so enticing about the concept is how it hearkens back to an earlier structure, before mega-farms and agribusiness. In recent history, and still taking place in many other countries, big jobs like harvesting and construction were too much for the operators of a small farm to manage. So communities would (or do) work cooperatively, joining to help each other with the knowledge that when your own farm needs a hand, it'll be there.

Without those community structures, the basic work of farming can seem impossible—but crop mobs are doing their best to make it possible again.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

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Trump's Pick for Attorney General Could Be Big Boost to Monsanto

Donald Trump's election win and his pick for attorney general could be a big boost to Bayer AG's $66 billion purchase of Monsanto Co. that is currently undergoing state and federal antitrust investigations.

President-elect Donald Trump has picked Sen. Jeff Sessions as his attorney general.Flickr

Investopedia reports that Monsanto stocks have risen more than 4 percent since Trump's surprise victory. Additionally, Terry Haines of the investment banking advisory firm Evercore ISI said that the president-elect's nominee for attorney general—Sen. Jeff Sessions, a pro-business conservative from Alabama—is good news for any pending mega-deals.

"Sessions' likely nomination and confirmation by the Senate, in which he has served since 1997, is a market positive for merger and acquisition activity," Haines, who heads Evercore's Political Analysis team, wrote in a note last week.

"Sessions as attorney general would shift immediately from the current mostly 'red light' Obama antitrust/competition policy and move towards one that would be friendlier to M&A activity," Haines added.

A successful merger between the German pharmaceutical company and the St. Louis-based agritech giant will form the largest seed and pesticide company in the world. Critics are concerned that the consolidation of the two multinational juggernauts will increase pesticide and herbicide prices for farmers, and will have less incentive to compete and introduce better and cheaper products.

"Farmers get paid less for their crops, more pesticides are used and there are fewer options for consumers at the grocery store," Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, told EcoWatch after Bayer and Monsanto announced acquisition plans in September.

Haines, however, pointed out that Sessions might not think that big businesses unfairly reduces competition. "[Sessions may decide] that no reflexive test for the disapproval of a merger should be applied, as Obama regulators did with their 'no four into three' doctrine," he wrote.

Although, legal experts told Reuters that as U.S. attorney general, Sessions would be tough on any corporate crime. Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor and Columbia Law School professor, told Reuters that the senator will be "a strong supporter" of corporate enforcement.

Regardless, as Carey Gillam of U.S. Right to Know wrote that President Trump's era signals "[dark days] ahead for America's burgeoning food movement," which has been advocating for more transparency and fewer pesticides in food production. Case in point, he has picked U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo to be CIA director, a "designated hitter for Monsanto and the other Big Ag chemical and seed players."

In October, Trump blamed an intern for retweeting an insult to Monsanto.

"#BenCarson is now leading in the polls in #Iowa. Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain? #Trump #GOP," the post read.

The retweet shunned Monsanto, which has a major presence in Iowa, with facilities in 18 different cities in the state. The company also happens to be a major GOP donor.

Trump, who reportedly holds between $15,001 and $50,000 worth of Monsanto stocks, does not support the labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients.

When asked by the Iowa Farm Bureau, "Do you support the use of biotechnology in food products and oppose efforts to require mandatory labeling for foods simply because they contain ingredients derived from biotechnology?" Trump allegedly responded, "Yes."

Not only that, Modern Farmer noted that Trump, a junk food lover, does not seem to have an interest in organic food or organic farmers, and assembled an agribusiness-friendly agriculture advisory council during his presidential campaign.

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