Down on the Farm

    Source Timothy Eberly

    Down on the Farm

    What's Going On?

    Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law on Thursday (with an $867 billion budget over ten years). The farm bill not only provides subsidies and crop insurance to America's farmers, but also includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP aka Food Stamps), environmental programs, funding for farmers markets and local food programs, and much more. The farm bill is a convoluted, difficult to interpret mishmash of things — here are the main points:

    Farm Subsidies: One of the most controversial aspects of the farm bill is who actually qualifies as a "farmer." The Environmental Working Group criticizes the 2018 Farm Bill for expanding farm subsidies to relatives of farmers (brothers, cousins, aunts, your aunt's dog), even when they don't actually live or work on a farm.

    Food Stamps: 42 million Americans (13%) rely on food stamps each month. SNAP only provides about $120/person per month (which equates to $1.32 a meal), but some House Republicans wanted to cut funding to the program or add stricter work requirements. The bill does include revisions to SNAP but does not shrink individual benefits for now. The White House has threatened to cut food stamps without approval from Congress and is still considering stricter work requirements for recipients.

    Environmental Programs: Includes both the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The CSP incentivizes farmers for conservation efforts and gives both technical and financial assistance to farmers. The EQIP helps "farmers and ranchers share the costs of addressing natural resource concerns." Both programs are funded in the farm bill initially, but after 5 years the majority of funding shifts from the CSP to the EQIP.

    Hemp: Hemp production is now legal under the farm bill. Some farmers have been gearing up for this for years and experts say the industry has the potential to grow to $20 billion by 2022.

    Permanent Funding: 6 small but important programs received permanent funding in the farm bill (a big win for sustainable agriculture). Included are programs that provide assistance to farmers of color and veteran farmers, farmers markets and local food, and organic food production.

    Why You Should Care

    The farm bill, which is renewed every five years, is America's most important food and agriculture bill. It affects what crops are subsidized, land use, food prices, and food security for the poor, yet with each cycle it becomes more complex and confusing. Leading food politics writer Marion Nestle has said that the farm bill is "too big, bloated and sprawling for any one human mind to absorb, certainly not mine." Read her piece in Politico, where she talks about how the farm bill is not only skewed to benefit Big Agriculture but is also a disaster for public health, the environment and even democracy.

    Throw it in the Ocean Santa

    What's Going On?

    A couple months ago we broke down the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and the 24 year-old Dutch innovator trying to clean it up. Since then, Boyan Slat's company The Ocean Cleanup has deployed their first beta apparatus to the patch (called 'Wilson'), after five years of testing, modeling, and running simulations. Most of the system's dynamics worked well, except for one important thing... Wilson is losing all the plastic it collects.

    Wilson View of Wilson from above. Source: The Ocean Cleanup

    The Ocean Cleanup says there could be various reasons why this is happening — the system moving too slowly, or vibrations in the mouth of the system that push plastics out of range.

    Slat believes they are very close to making the system work, and they will continue testing and tweaking in the upcoming weeks. Next steps include adding a dye to the water around Wilson to visualize the flow of the current (which will be recorded by drone) and using an Autonaut vessel called "Eve" to measure the current's velocity and help determine the difference in speed between the system and the plastic.

    I've Got Sunshine

    What's Going On?

    Researchers at Stanford built a machine learning tool (called DeepSolar) that analyzes satellite imagery to determine where solar panels exist nationwide with a high level of precision. DeepSolar combed through over a billion images looking for residential, business, and utility solar panels, and researchers created a publicly available database with the findings.

    They also combined this information with US Census and socioeconomic data to uncover trends. They determined that low and middle income households are less likely to install solar even in sunny areas (where they would eventually save money), likely due to the upfront cost of solar. Researcher Arun Majumdar says the trends they've found are "just the tip of the iceberg of what we think other researchers, utilities, solar developers and policymakers can further uncover." Check out their interactive maps here.

    DeepSolar Map

    Why You Should Care

    The US solar industry is on the rise, as more people install panels on their property and the cost continues to fall. Revenues for the industry have gone up by 500% in the past ten years, and total capacity in the US is projected to double in the next five years. Because solar panels are inherently decentralized and scattered, it's a challenge to integrate the power they provide into existing electric grids — knowing exactly where panels are and why people installed them could be a game changer.

    Should I Install Solar?

    Depends on where you live, if you own your home, how much you pay for electricity, etc. Check out Energy Sage's calculator to see if it would be worth it, or check out their guide. If it doesn't make sense to install your own panels, you could still get involved in a community solar program, where a bunch of people pitch in to finance a shared local installation — in return you get a credit on your electricity bill for your share of power produced.

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