A doctor’s perspective: Here’s how Sen. Thune can support South Dakota farmers

March 2, 2023 4:13 pm
Chestnut mushrooms ready for harvest in 2022 at Mother Fungi in Missoula, Montana. (USDA/FPAC photo by Preston Keres)

Chestnut mushrooms ready for harvest in 2022 at Mother Fungi in Missoula, Montana. (USDA/FPAC photo by Preston Keres)

South Dakota’s Sen. John Thune recently told the PBS News Hour, “This is a farm bill year. And it’s an issue that historically has been bipartisan. There are things that we can do there to support those who feed not only our country, but the world.”

I’m a doctor, not a farmer, but the farm bill is important to me because food is medicine and health-promoting foods come from farms. Lentils, for example, are grown extensively in South Dakota and they provide you with protein, fiber, iron, and other nutrients.

Sen. Thune is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, which is the committee that shapes the farm bill. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is also on the committee, and he has ambitious plans to fix some major flaws in our food production system. If Sen. Thune wants to “support” those who feed us, he should wholeheartedly consider Sen. Booker’s proposed reforms.

In previously proposed legislation, Sen. Booker floated a concept that will probably wind up in the current farm bill — farmers with large-scale livestock operations who wish to transition to growing food crops should get government funding and support to do so.

This positive trend is already underway. Tom Butler, for example, is a hog farmer in North Carolina who is working with his son to transition to growing mushrooms. Tom Butler’s father was a tobacco farmer and when Tom took over the farm, tobacco was on the way out. So Tom transitioned to hog farming, which seemed more profitable at the time. Now, it makes sense that Tom’s son, Will, wants to roll with the times and phase out the vast hog waste lagoon and other problematic aspects of industrial pork production.

In North Carolina, the voluntary hog farm buyout program was extremely popular with farmers who wished to transition to growing crops. Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget sets aside serious cash to restart this program. A similar initiative would probably be popular with farmers in South Dakota, and Sen. Thune should do what he can to make it a reality.

As a doctor, I know that grilling mushroom “steaks” is much more healthful than consuming pork, which is high in saturated fat and has zero fiber. Tasty plant-based foods can help people improve heart health, manage diabetes, maintain a healthy weight, and otherwise improve their health. Can my patients afford these health-promoting foods? Apples, beans, potatoes, watermelons, cucumbers and cabbages are budget friendly, according to the Food Network, and they can all be grown in South Dakota.

Drought is affecting many parts of South Dakota, but according to the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, “Pulse crops, which include peas, lentils and chickpeas, can have a good fit into cropping systems in South Dakota, especially in areas where precipitation is more limited such as central and western South Dakota.”

During times of drought, ranchers in South Dakota and elsewhere have been forced to reduce their herds. If they would like to stay on the land and transition to water-wise crops, they should receive the support that Sen. Thune mentioned.

Large-scale livestock operations require vast amounts of water, mainly to irrigate grains and grasses for feed, plus water for drinking and processing. It’s much more efficient in terms of water use to grow crops for people to eat directly. According to the Guardian, growing vegetables uses about 322 liters of water per kilogram, while it takes about 15,415 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef.

In South Dakota, about 1,614,670 acres are devoted to alfalfa, which is a water-intensive crop grown mainly to feed livestock. Alfalfa growers who would like to transition to growing water-wise crops like lentils should be able to tap into the $4 billion for drought relief, in the Inflation Reduction Act. Ranchers who wish to phase out livestock should receive funding to plant drought resistant hazelnut trees, or other food crops that can provide income.

In South Dakota, there are about 442 large-scale livestock operations, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these industrial livestock facilities contribute to climate change because they generate methane and other planet-warming gases. In South Dakota, climate change contributes to drought and wildfires.

If Sen. Thune cares about supporting farmers, conserving water, addressing climate change and improving the health of South Dakotans, he’ll seriously consider proposals to phase out factory farms.

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