FERN’s Friday Feed: Vilsack’s checkoff problem

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

The obscure federal programs haunting Vilsack’s new USDA job


“When Joe Biden nominated Tom Vilsack to run the Department of Agriculture late last year, the former Iowa governor had a somewhat paradoxical political liability. After eight years as Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary, Vilsack was easily the most qualified politician for the job,” writes Clint Rainey. But critics spotlighted the failed promises of Vilsack and the Obama administration to rein in Big Ag. “To many in farm country, there is no better symbol of that failure — and Vilsack’s role in it — than a series of scandals that stretched from 2009 to 2017 inside a cluster of obscure federal programs known as the commodity checkoffs that farmers and critics say have been captured by corporate lobbyists.”

Iowa’s powerful ‘hog baron’ and how the state was captured by CAFOs

FERN and Vox

“Jeff Hansen, who owns Iowa’s largest hog operation, brought about 5 million pigs to market last year. Each one spent its entire life in a windowless metal shed called a confinement,” write Charlie Mitchell and Austin Frerick. “Citing damage to health, livelihoods, property values, the environment, and the farm economy, rural communities in Iowa have campaigned fiercely against them. While their efforts have yielded small victories, they have lost the war: The state’s hog industry, led by Hansen, has cultivated close relationships with state politicians on both sides of the aisle to roll back regulations, and confinements have flooded the countryside.”

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How one bakery expanded, and treated its workers well, during the pandemic


“Most businesses — cash-strapped and desperate — had to lay off employees and downsize significantly during the early fallout from the pandemic,” writes Dayna Evans. But Shannon Roche and Meagan Benz of Philadelphia’s Crust Vegan Bakery “didn’t see that as a viable option, as they wanted to prioritize their employees’ wellbeing.” Roche and Benz have managed to pay their workers a fair wage and benefits. But the trade-off is grueling hours for the owners, Roche says. “‘We’ve tried really hard to start a business that doesn’t exploit the earth or our workers. But we haven’t figured out how to run a business that doesn’t exploit the owners yet.’”

The rise of “French tacos,” which aren’t really tacos at all

The New Yorker

“In the American imagination, French cuisine can seem a static entity—the inevitable and unchanging expression of a culture as codified by Carême and Escoffier and interpreted by Julia Child,” writes Lauren Collins. “Although these dishes remain standbys, alongside pizza and couscous and other adopted staples, French cuisine can be as fickle as any. The latest rage has nothing to do with aspics or emulsions. What are French people eating right now? The answer is as likely to be French tacos as anything else.”

A foreseeable — but not prevented — environmental disaster

The Counter

“On March 26, a leak sprung at Piney Point, a phosphate mine and fertilizer plant that’s been defunct since 2001. The facility—one of more than two dozen in [Florida], nine of which are still active—houses stacks of phosphogypsum, a toxic, radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer production process,” writes Lela Nargi. “These flat, white, mesa-like ‘gypstacks’ of accumulated solid waste, which can stretch up to five stories tall, then become crudely efficient containment ponds for liquid waste…It’s a precarious system in which small problems can quickly become emergencies. And that’s the story at Piney Point, where a potentially manageable leak got suddenly serious.”