Iowa Supreme Court rejects challenge on Raccoon River water quality

Neil Hamilton is the former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center and professor emeritus at Drake University law school. He submitted an amicus curiae brief in this case on behalf of several Drake law professors, who urged the Iowa Supreme Court to define the political question doctrine narrowly in order to preserve “citizen’s access to the courts of Iowa for the vindication of their constitutional rights.”

In a closely decided 4-3 split ruling the Iowa Supreme Court rejected a case filed by Iowa Citizens for Community Action and Food and Water Watch alleging the state of Iowa failed to protect the interests of the public in the Raccoon River. The case involved an appeal from the Polk County District Court rejection of the state’s motion to dismiss the case. 

The majority ruled the district court’s decision should be reversed and the case dismissed, concluding the plaintiffs do not have standing to bring the suit, and their effort to use the public trust doctrine to establish the duty of state officials is a “nonjusticiable political question.” The majority’s ruling and analysis generated three separate dissenting opinions, all agreeing the case should move forward, in large part because the state had conceded the plaintiffs had standing and the merits of the public trust doctrine were not in question.

A reading of the majority opinion shows it was premised on a determination by the four justices to not involve the Court in the difficult and controversial political issues involving water quality in Iowa. This motivation was demonstrated in at least four ways:

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The "death tax" is hogwash

Neil Hamilton: “It is almost impossible to find an Iowa farm family or ‘small business’ impacted by the estate tax, let alone one forced out of business.” -promoted by Laura Belin

Election season has brought the usual flood of TV commercials – generally trying to scare voters about the evils to expect if the opponent is elected. The ads are often marked by outlandish claims and even outright lies, but the ones deserving first prize for deception concern the so-called “death tax.” 

No doubt you have seen them with salt of the earth farmers claiming the death tax threatens the very existence of their family farm and of rural communities. Who knows, perhaps these folks even believe what the political consultants asked them to say – they have been brainwashed with the claims for so long.

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Dave Murphy is working to strengthen rural economies

The Des Moines Register profiled Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now in Monday’s edition. The article mentioned the incredible success of the petition signed by more than 94,000 Americans. Two of the “sustainable dozen” candidates whom Food Democracy Now recommended for U.S. Department of Agriculture posts now work for the department. Drake Law Professor Neil Hamilton, also on the sustainable dozen list, is an “informal adviser” to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

You should read the whole Des Moines Register article. The most important passage is about how Murphy makes the case for changing agriculture policies:

[Murphy] pointed to a survey from the Organic Trade Association that showed that the U.S. sales of organic food grew nearly 16 percent between 2007 and 2008 to reach $22.9 billion. Organic foods now account for about 3.5 percent of all U.S. food sales.

For Murphy, sustainable farming is about more than the food.

He sees it as returning to a model of production that is better for the environment and one in which farmers can start without taking on deep debt to finance heavy equipment.

He said the agricultural policies today are stacked against farmers of small- to mid-sized farms in favor of larger operations. […]

Murphy stressed that he isn’t against large farm operations. He said sustainable practices can help farms of all sizes.

But Murphy does believe that the playing field ought to be leveled, for the benefit not just for smaller farms but for rural areas in general.

“That’s the best way to improve rural economies,” he said. “The more farmers there are on the land, the better it is for rural economies.”

Health and environmental concerns sparked my interest in buying local food produced sustainably, but Murphy is wise to connect the dots between agriculture policies and the economic future of rural areas. For more along those lines, read the feature on Murphy and Food Democracy Now from the Washington Post in March.

Speaking of Iowans who are incredibly committed to helping small and medium-sized farms thrive, Woodbury County’s rural economic development director Rob Marqusee has pledged to “eat only food grown within 100 miles of the Woodbury County Courthouse for the entire month of June 09 (and no meat will be allowed in the diet).” Keep an eye on Marqusee’s Woodbury Organics site next month, because he’ll be blogging about his food challenge.

Those interested in Murphy’s work should go read more on the Food Democracy Now site. Click here for past Bleeding Heartland posts that referenced Food Democracy Now’s work. Jill Richardson wrote more here about Murphy’s activist roots and the role he played during the Iowa caucus campaign.

If organic farmer Francis Thicke decides to run for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2010, expanding local food networks will be a major theme of his campaign.

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Vilsack unanimously confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture

Congratulations are in order to Tom Vilsack today. As I predicted, the Senate confirmed him as Secretary of Agriculture by a unanimous vote. The same measure, approved shortly after Barack Obama’s inauguration, also confirmed five of the new president’s other appointees: Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and White House Budget Office director Peter Orszag.

The Sunday Des Moines Register ran an article featuring Drake University Law Professor Neil Hamilton, who predicted that Vilsack will do more to reform the US Department of Agriculture than some of his critics anticipate:

His critics see Vilsack as “coming from only part of agriculture, and I don’t think that probably is accurate,” Hamilton said in an interview after Vilsack’s Senate confirmation hearing last week. Hamilton, who has long been an advocate of locally grown food systems, a priority of Vilsack’s critics, attended the hearing and chatted with the former governor afterward.

Hamilton persuaded Vilsack as governor to form a state food policy council to promote local food systems, among other ideas.

At last week’s Senate confirmation hearing, Vilsack promised to promote local foods.

Discussing Vilsack’s record on agriculture issues, Hamilton told the Des Moines Register that

Vilsack couldn’t have been expected to be anything but an advocate of biotechnology or ethanol when he was governor. “It would have been hard to be the governor of Iowa, just as it’s hard to be the senator from Illinois, without being a supporter of ethanol,” Hamilton said in a reference to Obama, a leading supporter of corn ethanol as an Illinois senator.

“The fact that you can see a role for genetic modification and science in agriculture doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t also see an opportunity for local food and organic” agriculture, Hamilton continued. […]

Hamilton said he is “very confident that whether it’s a year, two years, or four years, that most of the people” who signed the Food Democracy Now! petition “will be impressed and pleased” with Vilsack.

Hamilton was one of the six potential nominees for secretary of agriculture on the Food Democracy Now! petition. He is also one of the “sustainable dozen” that Food Democracy Now! is recommending for undersecretary posts within the USDA.

Those senior USDA appointments will set the tone for Vilsack’s tenure. I have no idea whether any of the “sustainable dozen” have a chance to be hired. Unfortunately, Jill Richardson reports that some strong advocates for industrial agriculture are being considered for high-ranking positions: Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff may become deputy secretary of agriculture, and Joy Philippi, former past president of the National Pork Producers Council, may become an undersecretary of the USDA. (In 2007, Philippi was a co-chair of Rural Americans for Hillary.)

Today, I am hopeful that Hamilton, who knows Vilsack well, is right about the governor’s plans for the USDA.

I look forward to writing regularly here about the Obama administration’s food and agriculture policies. La Vida Locavore will be following these issues in even more detail, so bookmark that blog if you are interested in these subjects.

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Food Democracy Now pushing "sustainable dozen" for USDA jobs

In November, Food Democracy Now started a petition drive urging President-elect Barack Obama to appoint a secretary of agriculture with a vision for a more sustainable food system.

Now that Obama has decided on Tom Vilsack for this position, Food Democracy Now has launched a new petition:

We want to Thank You for signing the original letter at Food Democracy Now! In just three weeks, more than 60,000 Americans have joined Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, Frances Moore Lappé, and Eric Schlosser calling for a sustainable USDA.

Now that the Secretary of Agriculture has been selected, it’s more important than ever that we send our message to Washington. Today’s farmers need a serious voice for sustainable change at the USDA.

Therefore, Food Democracy Now! has created a list of 12 candidates for the crucial Under Secretary positions that will stand up for family farms, safe food, clear air and water, animal welfare and soil preservation.

We need your help to continue to spread the word to your friends and colleagues to reach our goal of 100,000 signatures in the next two weeks before the Inauguration!

These 12 candidates have spent their lives fighting for family farmers and we’re calling them the Sustainable Dozen. Help us send them to Washington.

If you’ve already signed the petition, please forward this to one other person who cares about these issues to help us reach our goal of 100,000 Americans for a sustainable food system for the 21st century.

Once the Secretary of Agriculture is confirmed, we will deliver this letter with your comments to him and President Obama in Washington DC.

We at Food Democracy Now! are continuing to give voice to these concerns with policy makers at the federal, state and local levels, to gain a seat at the table and keep these issues at the forefront of future policy decisions.

Currently we are MORE THAN 60,000 voices strong. Please help keep this conversation going…Donate today. By donating as little as $5 or $10 you can make a difference in shaping the conversation at the USDA. Through our collective efforts, this letter has successfully reached “the right people” in Washington and we need to continue this vital work to create a future that we can ALL BELIEVE IN.

From all of us at Food Democracy Now! – Have a Happy, Sustainable New Year!

Best,

David Murphy

Food Democracy Now!

http://www.fooddemocracynow.org

The links did not come through when I copied and pasted that message, so please click over to the site to read more.

Here is Food Democracy Now’s “sustainable dozen.” You may recognize several Iowans’ names on the list:

  1. Gus Schumacher: Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture. Boston, Massachusetts

  2. Chuck Hassebrook: Executive Director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Nebraska.

  3. Sarah Vogel: attorney; former two-term Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota.

  4. Fred Kirschenmann: organic farmer; Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, IA; President, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, New York.

  5. Mark Ritchie: current Minnesota Secretary of State; former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich; co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

  6. Neil Hamilton: attorney; Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and Professor of Law and Director, Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

  7. Doug O’Brien: current Assistant Director at Ohio Department of Agriculture; worked for the U.S. House and the Senate Ag Committee; former staff attorney and co-director for the National Agriculture Law Center in Arkansas, Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

  8. James Riddle: organic farmer; founding chair of the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA); has served on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Organic Advisory Task Force since 1991; appointed to the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, serving on the Executive Committee for 5 years and was chair in 2005, Board of Directors. Winona, Minnesota.

  9. Kathleen Merrigan: Director, Agriculture, Food and Environment M.S./Ph.D. Program, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center on Agriculture; Food and the Environment, Tufts University; former Federal Agency Administrator U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service; creator of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, mandating national organic standards and a program of federal accreditation. Boston Massachusetts.

 10. Denise O’Brien: organic farmer, founder of Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN); represented the interests of women in agriculture at the World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995; organized a rural women’s workshop for the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, Italy; received nearly a half million votes in her 2006 bid to become Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture. Atlantic, Iowa.

 11. Ralph Paige: Executive Director, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund; served as presidential appointment to the 21st Century Production Agriculture Commission; participates on the Agriculture Policy Advisory Committee for Trade; the Cooperative Development Foundation; and the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education & Economics Advisory Board. East Point, Georgia.

 12. Karen Ross: President of the California Winegrape Growers Association and Executive Director of the Winegrape Growers of America; awarded the Wine Integrity Award by the Lodi Winegrape Commission for her contributions to the wine industry. Sacramento, California.

If you click over to Food Democracy Now, you’ll find a link for each of these people with more information about his or her background and expertise.

Thanks to all who sign the petition and help spread the word.

P.S.: There have been rumors this week that Obama may nominate Vilsack for secretary of commerce instead of secretary of agriculture, but aides close to Vilsack told KCCI news in Des Moines that the rumors are not true. He is apparently in Washington now interviewing potential future US Department of Agriculture staffers.  

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Latest speculation about Obama's secretary of agriculture

Prominent advocates of sustainable agriculture, local foods, and more environmentally-friendly farming have sent an open letter to Barack Obama urging him to appoint a “sustainable choice for the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.” Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan and poet Wendell Berry were among the 88 people who signed the letter. They suggested six good choices to head the USDA, including two Iowans:

1. Gus Schumacher, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.

2. Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Neb.

3. Sarah Vogel, former Commissioner of Agriculture for North Dakota, lawyer, Bismarck, N.D.

4. Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.

5. Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich, co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

6. Neil Hamilton, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

Incidentally, Hamilton published an op-ed column in the Des Moines Register on Monday urging Obama to establish a “New Farmer Corps.”

Anyway, the people who signed the open letter are likely to be disappointed by Obama’s decision, because the reported short list for the post doesn’t include any advocate of sustainable agriculture. OrangeClouds115/Jill Richardson argues here that Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius would be the least-bad option among the people Obama is considering to run the USDA. Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff would be a particularly bad choice.

On a related note, Ed Fallon wrote Obama a letter applying for the job of “White House Farmer.” Michael Pollan advocated the creation of this position in an article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine on October 12. Obama read Pollan’s piece (he even paraphrased points from it in an interview with Time magazine), but it is not known whether the president-elect supports setting aside a few acres of the White House lawn to be cultivated organically by a White House Farmer.

Fallon campaigned for John Edwards before the Iowa caucuses but endorsed Obama immediately after Edwards dropped out of the presidential race. His letter to Obama is after the jump.

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