July 6, 2015

Gulf “dead zone” still growing due to farm field runoff

Runoff from Midwestern fields is blamed for growing Gulf dead zone.

Runoff from Midwestern fields is blamed for growing Gulf dead zone.

Chemical runoff from Midwestern farmland is still feeding an oxygen-deprived area in the Gulf of Mexico and the so-called “dead zone” isn’t shrinking, despite ongoing efforts.

Scientists and policy-makers have worked for more than a decade on a plan to reduce nutrient runoff from farm fields, which endangers marine life in the Gulf.

This year, researchers predict the dead zone will have grown to the size of Connecticut.

Louisiana State University professor Gene Turner says that means the voluntary guidelines established almost 15 years ago to clean up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers aren’t working.

Turner says, “Lurking in the background is, well, under what conditions would the nutrients be reduced and can we come up with better voluntary plans or are we going to have to come up with a punitive process?”

It took some 200 years of farming to create the dead zone situation and Turner says reversing the trend may also take decades.

“There’s no evidence that there’s been any reduction in the hypoxic zone size or the amount of nutrients coming down the river,” he says.

On the plus side, Turner says promising research does offer profitable ways for farmers to keep the nutrients they need on the land and out of the waterways.


Sen. Fischer remains optimistic about trade legislation

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer

U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer

United States Sen. Deb Fischer believes trade legislation will pass, eventually.

The House has approved so-called “fast track” trade legislation after failing to do so last week.

Fischer notes the defeat late last week came after President Barack Obama made a personal appear to his fellow Democrats.

“I think it was a huge blow to the president and his credibility. It was really done by members of his own party,” Fischer tells Nebraska reporters during a conference call.

A week ago, the House approved the Trade Promotion Authority, but it failed to approve companion pieces of legislation, preventing the package from moving back to the Senate.

This week, the House approved TPA once again and moved the so-called “fast track” bill on to the Senate for further negotiations.

Fischer believes the Senate and House will be able to reach a compromise on trade legislation.

“I believe that we’re going to get the trade bills passed,” Fischer says. “I know that the president has worked with leaders in the Republican Party in trying to get these bills passed.”

Fischer says increasing foreign markets benefits Nebraska, especially the farm sector.

“Nebraskans certainly understand how important trade is to our state and to our state’s economy. So, I am hopeful that we’re going to get it done.”

Gov. Ricketts declares trade mission to Europe a success (AUDIO)

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts calls the European trade mission a success.

Ricketts wrapped up the trade mission on Monday with a visit to Copenhagen,

Denmark where he talked about biosciences with European industry leaders. He also met with Novozymes executives, speaking about possible expansion in Nebraska. Novozymes has a plant in Blair which produces enzymes for the production of ethanol.

Ricketts says the delegation built relationships which should pay off in the future.

For now, there will be a de-brief.

“Sending out surveys to the people who were on the mission to find out what they thought worked, what we can do better on and just doing our own internal assessment,” Ricketts tells reporters during a conference call from Copenhagen. “So, we’ll take some lessons away from that.”

The trade mission began a little more than a week ago in Italy, where the Nebraska delegation visited Bologna, Italy, taking a tour of the Inalca facility.

The delegation remained in Italy to attend Expo Milano.

Gov. Ricketts met privately with CNH Industrial executives. The governor also met with FederUnacoma and Enel representatives.

The group returned to Bologna to meet with Italian business and government officials, talking up Nebraska goods and services. The group met with CopaCogeca, farm cooperatives and farmers’ association.

The group moved on to Brussels, Belgium to meet directly with officials of the European Union, headquartered in Brussels; then, on to Denmark.

The mission touted Nebraska products and invited European businesses to invest here.

“So, I think we had some learning here about how we can continue to build upon what we’ve done on this trade mission for future trade missions. So, I’m excited to see what the team can do,” Ricketts says. “But, I’m very pleased with the way this mission went.

Nebraska farm fined for paying workers less than they earned

A Nebraska farm has been found in violation of federal law and will pay nearly 100 workers almost $70,000 in unpaid wages and pay nearly $90,000 in civil penalties for violating federal wage laws.

The United States Department of Labor reports Heldt Produce of Ashland did not pay temporary foreign guest workers properly and paid their American counterparts even worse.

Heldt Produce raises melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, and squash.

The department’s Labor Wage and Hour Division found that Heldt paid 94 workers $68,898 less than they earned. The farm will also pay $89,700 in civil penalties for willful violations of wage laws.

“The agricultural industry employs many low-wage, vulnerable and transient workers of whom employers take advantage. These workers are often victims of labor violations and disparate treatment,” said Karen Chaikin, regional administrator of the Wage and Hour Division in Chicago, in a written statement released by the Department of Labor. “The department is committed to protecting the rights of all workers employed in this country. This case shows we will use all tools available, including penalty assessments, to remedy violations, promote accountability and ensure a level playing field for law-abiding employers and legitimate users of foreign-worker programs.”

Investigators from Des Moines and Omaha District Offices found Heldt violated the following H-2A temporary agricultural employment program provisions and the Fair Labor Standards Act:

-Unlawfully allowing a labor broker to demand and receive recruitment fees. Some workers paid a fee to a recruiter in Mexico to obtain a job.

-Failing to pay workers the rates stated in their contracts for all hours worked during the certified period of employment.

-Neglecting to pay travel expenses for foreign workers’ trips to and from the U.S. to perform the job.

-Failing to provide employees copies of work contracts.

-Collecting an illegal transportation fee from workers.

-Failing to pre-inspect temporary housing units to ensure they were safe.

-Not keeping accurate records of all hours worked.

-Failing to provide earnings statements to employees for each pay period.

-Neglecting to pay wages due to foreign and U.S. workers.

The Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the lawful admission of temporary, nonimmigrant workers to the United States to work in agriculture or other seasonal or temporary services.

Employers must pay according to applicable wage rates and furnish housing. Transportation must be provided to the workers.


Nebraska trade delegation faces misperceptions in Europe (AUDIO)

Gov. Pete Ricketts at a recent Capitol ceremony in which he signed the beef month proclamation.

Gov. Pete Ricketts at a recent Capitol ceremony in which he signed the beef month proclamation.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has found he needs to clear up some misperceptions of American agriculture during his trade mission to Europe.

Ricketts has been talking to Europeans about a wide range of goods and products produced in Nebraska as well as touting Nebraska as a good state in which to invest.

Ricketts says the Nebraska delegation has run up against some obstacles that have nothing to do with United States trade policy.

“There’s a perception in Europe that American agriculture is this big, corporate farming operation and, obviously, that’s just not true,” Ricketts tells Nebraska Radio Network in a telephone interview from Europe.

The scale of American agriculture creates much of the misperception.

Europeans operate much smaller farms than typical of the United States, leading many Europeans to assume corporations run American farms.

Ricketts says it has been invaluable that the Nebraska delegation includes farmers and ranchers.

“I think it made a big impact as we could go around the room and have our farmers and ranchers introduce themselves and talk about how many generations have been on that farm or ranch,” Ricketts says. “That really, I think, went a long way.”

Some Europeans expressed concerns about food safety in the United States that the delegation has had to address. Bio-technology concerns have been raised, with Europeans displaying some of the same wariness as some Americans with the use of growth hormones in livestock production.

Ricketts says the Nebraska delegation has urged European Union officials to study the science behind GMOs to better understand the role science has played in the increased production of American agriculture.

Nebraska also is fighting beef quotas, which limits the quantity of Nebraska beef exported to Europe. Ricketts says that will have to be addressed by American trade negotiators.

Ricketts says getting around the non-tariff barriers starts with a common understanding between American and European officials.

The governor says Nebraska officials will work to follow-up the contacts made while in Nebraska to build the relationships key to increasing trade.

The Nebraska delegation has visited Italy, the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and wraps up the trade mission today in Copenhagen, Denmark.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]