Farm and Dairy’s top stories of 2021

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Homewood Historical Community Farm
Essence Howze, 29, of the Hill District, Pittsburgh, picks some fresh lettuce on a rainy day at the Homewood Historical Community Farm on Monticello Street in Homewood. [Photo by Lucy Schaly] rOriginal Caption:Essence Howze, 29, of the Hill District, Pittsburgh, picks some fresh lettuce on a rainy day at the Homewood Historical Community Farm on Monticello Street in Homewood. [Photo by Lucy Schaly]

2021 was another year full of ups and downs for agriculture — and the rest of the world. As we wrap up the year, we’re taking a look back at some of the top stories we covered in 2021.

New president

The presidential administration of Joe Biden launched in January and immediately focused on issues like climate change and infrastructure. In a flurry of executive actions in his first 100 days in office, Biden canceled the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, rejoined the Paris Climate accord and reversed more than a dozen other Trump-era policies on things like immigration and the nation’s COVID-19 response.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden poses for his official portrait Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in the Library of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) rOriginal Caption:President Joe Biden poses for his official portrait Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in the Library of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

That pattern continued into late 2021, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revisiting a rule on what “Waters of the U.S.” includes, and a new infrastructure bill passed in early November, that’s set to make investments in energy, transportation, rural broadband and more. Early missteps, including Biden’s inability to move the debate forward over the infrastructure bill for months, slowed the momentum of his first year, however.

Energy transition

Over a decade has passed since the shale gas boom began in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Production of natural gas and new drilling has picked up since the lull in the midst of the pandemic. Some companies even hopped on the climate-friendly bandwagon by committing to produce responsibly sourced natural gas.

There’s also a new energy player in town, and not everyone is happy about it.  Renewable energy projects, particularly solar and wind, are planned for a lot of agricultural land in the tri-state area.

 

solar

The Ohio Power Siting Board approved more than a dozen projects in 2021, with total project areas covering more than 25,000 acres of land, if they are all built.

At the same time, the Ohio legislature passed a bill that put power into the hands of county governments to approve these land-intensive projects. Senate Bill 52 went into effect in October, after a strong lobbying effort by grassroots groups to get the legislation made into law.

The second pandemic year

COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic still rages on, having claimed more than 800,000 lives in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

Things began looking up late last year with the emergency approval of the Pfizer vaccine against the virus. Approval for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccine soon followed. With many individuals vaccinated, things opened back up this summer. Full county and independent fairs were held in most areas, as were other summer and fall festivals and events, although the Ohio State Fair still opted to hold only the junior fair.

Some of the issues from 2020, like supply chain slow-downs and labor shortages, have only gotten worse, particularly as the delta variant spread and vaccination rates slowed. Some of the bright spots from 2020 — like the massive buy-in to local food systems — were passing fads in some sectors.

As the calendar flips over to 2022, the omicron variant has spread at lightning speed, cases are spiking to record numbers again, and medical systems all over the country are, again, over capacity.

Growing farmers

We covered the issues facing new and beginning farmers in early summer, delving into topics like land access, transition difficulties, knowledge barriers and discrimination.

Some of these things have only gotten worse as the year has gone on. Land, home and farm prices have skyrocketed. Farmland prices in the Midwest have hit record highs, and the average price for farm real estate or cropland in Ohio and Pennsylvania increased in 2021 as well, according to USDA stats.

A move to give Black farmers billions of dollars in debt relief was halted by a federal judge in June, after white farmers in several states filed lawsuits claiming the program was unfair.

Spotted lanternfly

spotted lanternfly

The spotted lanternfly was first seen in Ohio last fall, in Jefferson County. This year, the bad bug has spread to Cuyahoga County, resulting in Ohio’s first quarantine. It has also continued to spread in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Pennsylvania’s spotted lanternfly detecting dog, the first of her kind in the nation, helped the state keep tabs on the bug. Researchers looked for more ways to fight it, from native species to circle traps. And they continued to urge residents and travelers to watch out for hitchhikers on their vehicles to help keep the spotted lanternfly from spreading.

Ohio farmland preservation

farmland preservation

The Ohio Farmland Preservation program came to a standstill in 2021 after it overspent in 2020. Officials looked for another $7 million to catch up on easements through the state’s operating budget, but that was cut to just $1.5 million over two years, in the final version of the budget.

The department of agriculture also faced heat from farmers already in the program. A Union County farmer filed a lawsuit against the department and a natural gas company over a pipeline set to go through their preserved farmland. In the past, the department has stopped two utility development projects from happening on that preserved land. This time, however, the department has stayed silent.

Hearings started in late 2021, and are set to continue in January. The outcome could set a new precedent for just how much protection farmland in the program receives.

Water quality

Lake Erie

Talks about Lake Erie, water quality and agriculture that have been ongoing for several years continued into 2021. Farmers in the Western Lake Erie Basin got their first H2Ohio payments in February, and the program expanded to another 10 counties later in the year. The state-funded the water quality program for another two years with its most recent budget.

Meanwhile, private sector groups and nonprofits explored ways to help pay for water quality improvements through ecosystem markets — a similar concept to carbon markets — both around Lake Erie, and in other parts of the state.

While U.S. agencies began revisiting the federal rule that removed some waters, like ephemeral streams, from federal protection, Ohio legislators considered a rule to remove ephemeral streams from state protection. Supporters said this would prevent the state from overreaching in regulation, and relieve financial burdens. Opponents say it could threaten Ohio’s water quality. The bill passed the house and has had two hearings in the senate.

Broadband expansion

braodband

In 2020, the pandemic revealed what many in rural America already knew — rural areas need better access to broadband. States and local groups built up momentum, and, in 2021, took more action.

Ohio passed its first residential broadband grant program and later funded it with $250 million in the budget. Electric co-ops, nonprofits and private companies have launched or supported broadband expansion efforts.

In Pennsylvania, legislators and broadband advocates expressed concern about whether the state’s new budget dedicates enough to broadband. But legislators are continuing to push for progress on regulations, and for a plan to dedicate some federal dollars to the issue.

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