'Toxic Algae' Fouling Nebraska Lakes, Raising Water Quality Concerns

Bosley was a giant of a dog – a cross between a mastiff and a Rottweiler. But he had a playful spirit, so it wasn’t unusual that on a spring day in 2004 he’d dash headlong into the sandpit lake near the Kappas family home, gulping water and chasing fish. The only remarkable detail of the otherwise routine trip to Buccaneer Bay, recalled owner Tom Kappas, was the bright green color of the water. Algae, he and his wife figured. Within an hour, Bosley was dead. And within days, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a scientist on an airplane, headed to Nebraska to investigate Bosley’s death and that of another dog. The scientist looked at the “green yuck” in the Cass County lake, Kappas recalled, and said, “Oh that’s not supposed to be here.” Continue reading

Pillen's Water: High Nitrate Detected on Hog Farms Owned by Nebraska's Governor

Covered swine barns dot the landscape near Platte Center, where tens of thousands of hogs are raised and fed. Many of these barns are owned by a local boy who grew up a few miles west of the village, built his small family farm into a global pork empire and then became governor. Gov. Jim Pillen’s hog operations bring jobs and prosperity to this area near his hometown. They also may bring risk to Platte Center’s drinking water. The town had to dig a new municipal well three years ago, after another well recorded nitrate at nearly 12 parts per million. That’s higher than the level the federal government says is safe to drink.  Continue reading

Rise: After Building Pork Empire, Nebraska's Governor Stands at Intersection of State and Ag Power

In July, Jim Pillen flew to Vietnam for his first trade mission as Nebraska’s governor. Pillen was there in part to promote the state’s livestock exports, such as pork. As demand for the meat stalls in the U.S., the Southeast Asian country has become an important market.  Including for a business with close ties to Nebraska’s governor. Pillen helped found Fremont-based meatpacker Wholestone Farms in 2018. His family owns a minority stake in the company. His son, Brock, still sits on Wholestone’s seven-person board,  as did Pillen until stepping down earlier this year. Wholestone now slaughters more than a third of the hogs produced by Pillen Family Farms, the company Pillen founded and his children now run. Wholestone shipped to Vietnam nearly 16,000 times between November 2019 and November 2020, shipping records show. The Vietnam trip, and Pillen’s political and agribusiness ties to a country halfway around the globe, underline a simple truth: He’s more connected to the agriculture industry than any U.S. governor in recent history.  He’s also no regular farmer. Continue reading

Law Passed Last Year to Reduce Nitrates in Nebraska Water 'Hasn't Left the Ground

A new state program, approved in 2022 to help reduce nitrate pollution in drinking water, is struggling to get started, more than a year after it became law. Legislative Bill 925, the Resilient Soils and Water Quality Act, provided $1.25 million over five years to hire a non-government “facilitator” to organize small-group, educational meetings with farmers to promote conservation practices that reduce nitrate pollution in groundwater and surface water. But so far, no facilitator has been hired, and education sessions are still being mulled. A website is in the works, however, and a five-page annual report was produced in December while an employee with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources is sorting out the best way to use the funding. Former State Sen. Tim Gragert, who led passage of LB 925, said Friday that overall the program “hasn’t left the ground” while nitrate problems in Nebraska’s water resources persist. Continue reading

Farming Carbon: Farm Bill Presents Opportunity to Unite Farmers, Climate Activists

On the rolling plains southwest of Chamberlain, South Dakota, lies a 30-square-mile farm and ranch that serves as a testament to the power of soil health practices. Bryan Jorgensen has devoted his life to nurturing the soil and maintaining the ecological balance on his family’s land. Jorgensen said the practices not only improve his yields at harvest time but also cut back on the need for pesticides and fertilizers, and drive more carbon into his soil – which is good for the plants. “Carbon is not an enemy,” he said. “We have an ecosystem problem, not a carbon problem.” However, Jorgensen said centering farm policy on the health of the ecosystem is an uphill battle against the forces supporting more traditional practices. Continue reading

Nebraska Students Demand Action by Elected Officials on Growing Climate Crisis

From unprecedented flooding to extreme droughts and wildfires, the growing effects of climate change are becoming impossible to ignore. At least some would think so, but for many in the younger generation, it feels like our elected leaders aren’t interested in seriously addressing the problems behind climate change. “The scariest thing for me is just the idea that whatever I plan for my future, whatever degree I work for, any life plans I might make could be utterly disrupted by natural disasters entirely outside of my control, simply because of lack of action from the generations before me,” said Chloe Johnson, a senior at Central High School. Over the years Chloe and other students from Students for Sustainability have been campaigning to change the way the community of Omaha looks at climate change. On Friday they held one of two Climate Strikes scheduled in the next week, gathering to share the success they have had and the work they still have left to do. Continue reading

Climate Change Already Impacting Nebraskans' Health

Like so many 8-year-old kids, Easton Gray loved being outside, so it was no surprise that a summer day last year found him doing what he loved: swimming in the Elkhorn River. But within two weeks, Easton died of a water-borne infection, marking the first known case in Nebraska of the amoeba-related illness linked to warm rivers and lakes. For 60-something Lana Brodersen, it was her love of mushroom hunting – and a close encounter with ticks – that brought her brush with death. And for 50-something Sue Adkins, it was a single mosquito bite that left her so weak she couldn’t lift a spoonful of Cheerios. While the illnesses these three Nebraskans suffered are rare and could happen regardless of climate change, scientists say the conditions conducive for them to occur are becoming more common as Nebraska warms. The result, they say, is that Nebraska, along with the rest of the world, is on the cusp of a riskier, less healthy future. Continue reading

Stricter 'Right to Farm' Proposal Called a 'Solution Searching for a Problem'

A proposal to further limit nuisance lawsuits against large agricultural operations was criticized over and over Tuesday as nullifying all such lawsuits and as a “solution in search of a problem.” “There is not a nuisance lawsuit problem in Nebraska,” said Lincoln attorney Jonathan Urbom. He and others testified that Legislative Bill 662, a tightening up of the state’s Right to Farm Act, would “immunize” agricultural operations from virtually all nuisance lawsuits. Testifiers told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee that they were aware of no nuisance lawsuits being filed against farming operations since the last time the Right to Farm Act was amended in 2019. “LB 662 does not protect family farmers, it protects industrial entities like Costco,” said Susanne Haas, a lawyer and farmer from Washington County, who testified with a baby in her lap. Continue reading

Coalition Forms to Oppose 'Right to Farm' Revisions, says They Favor Industrial Farms Over Family Operations

A coalition of environmental and farm groups has formed to oppose the latest effort to amend Nebraska’s “right to farm” act. The groups, ranging from the Nebraska Farmers Union to Nebraskans for Peace, say thatLegislative Bill 662, which is up for a public hearing Tuesday, is an attempt to relax regulation of large, industrial livestock operations at the expense of rural residents and family farmers. “This proposed legislation exempts large corporate farms from being a good neighbor,” said Ron Todd-Meyer, a retired farmer and a Nebraskans for Peace board member.  “This legislation should be pitched into the manure pile for composting.” The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Beau Ballard of Lincoln, will be the subject of a public hearing before the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. The bill would narrow who, and when, nuisance lawsuits could be filed against farm operations for issues such as excessive odors and dust. Continue reading

Bill Aims to Protect Farmers from Nuisance Lawsuits, Restricting Who Can File and When

A proposed revision to Nebraska’s “right to farm” law, promoted as increasing protections for farmers, is being condemned by environmentalists as a way to eliminate nearly all nuisance lawsuits. Under Legislative Bill 662, introduced Wednesday by State Sen. Beau Ballard of Lincoln, only landowners who live within a half-mile of agricultural operation, and only those nearby landowners who have a majority interest in their land, could file nuisance lawsuits against an ag operation. In addition, such lawsuits would have to be filed within one year,  rather than within two years as in the current law. Lawsuits would be disallowed if an operation was utilizing “commonly accepted” practices and was in “material compliance” with applicable laws and regulations. Continue reading