For years, farmers and ranchers have cast a wary eye toward new laws and regulations from Washington that they fear will be costly and burdensome.
Agricultural producers argue they know the best way to take care of their land, not only to maximize production but to preserve the acreage they depend upon to survive.
Now, a rule being proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency outlining which bodies of water the agency would oversee under the Clean Water Act has again rattled the agriculture industry. The EPA says it is necessary after recent court rulings to clarify the 1972 law. Many farmers fear it amounts to nothing more than a land grab that could saddle them with higher costs, more regulatory red tape and less freedom to run their farms and ranches.
“This, in my career of farming, is the most scary and frightening proposition that I have witnessed,” said Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation who farms 1,750 acres of corn and soybeans with his son in Milo. “Even though they say this doesn’t affect farmers, but you read this rule and you are not convinced at all. That’s why it’s so dangerous. And that’s why we have such a lack of trust.”
Divide between EPA, agriculture growing
The proposed water regulation, better known as the “Waters of the U.S.” rule, is the latest measure that’s symbolic of the growing fissure dividing the EPA and agriculture producers.
Farmers and ranchers have become more skeptical and less trusting of the environmental agency despite promises by the regulator that it is looking out for their best interests and willing to work with them when new rules and regulations are put in place.
In the past few years alone, the EPA has been criticized for a series of proposals that would have hurt the agricultural community, including one that would have regulated dust in rural areas and another last November that would reduce the amount of renewable fuels, much of it from corn, required to be blended into the country’s gasoline supply this year.
The agency also was sharply criticized after it released private information on 80,000 agricultural producers to environmental groups in 2013 through a Freedom of Information request, a decision for which the EPA has since apologized.
Despite assurances from the EPA, farm groups contend the Waters of the U.S. rule would expand the scope of so-called “navigable waters” protected by the Clean Water Act to include not only rivers and lakes but ditches, stream beds and self-made ponds that only carry water when it rains.
Hill and other farmers fear they would have to pay for costly environmental assessments and apply for permits allowing them to till soil, apply fertilizer or engage in some conservation practices because of the impact they might have on waterways that would be newly regulated by the EPA.
Hill said that under the proposed water rule if he wanted to build a pond or terrace for soil retention, he would have to apply for a permit, a process that can take two years and cost tens of thousands of dollars — a prohibitive price tag that would likely force farmers and ranchers to abandon such projects.
In remarks before farm trade groups and agricultural reporters, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has repeatedly said the proposed rule does not increase regulation and would not add to or expand the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act. She also said it is “not a land grab” and added that current exemptions in place for the Clean Water Act that do not require permits for “normal farming, ranching and agricultural practices” such as plowing, planting seed or minor drainage would be kept in place.
“If you were not legally required to have a permit before, the rule does not change that,” McCarthy told farm broadcasters in May. “Outreach for this proposal has been unprecedented. I’ve personally met with many ag organizations.”
Agency ramping up outreach efforts
McCarthy, who became administrator in July 2013, acknowledged during her confirmation hearing last year that EPA had a “deteriorating” relationship with agriculture and said the agency has not done enough in the past to work with farmers and ranchers.
In an effort to improve their agency’s relationship and better communicate their thinking to the agricultural industry, McCarthy and EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe have stepped up their outreach efforts, conducting more meetings, holding roundtables to hear directly from local growers and giving additional speeches to farm groups.
They’re in the process of ramping up an outreach program across the country this summer to meet with agriculture groups to address concerns and clarify the scope of the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule.
McCarthy appeared at the Iowa State Fair last August, one of her first speaking engagements after taking the job; while Perciasepe says he drove a rice combine in Louisiana.
Officials at the EPA conduct meetings with their counterparts at the Agriculture Department to get a better feel for how proposed regulations could affect those in rural America. The EPA also has agricultural advisers scattered throughout the country to provide feedback.
Perciasepe, who graduated from Cornell University’s college of agriculture and life sciences, said in an interview the EPA’s relationship with the agriculture industry is “evolving,” calling their relationship “one of mutual respect.” They are natural allies, he said, with both of them focused on being good stewards of the land and protecting the environment.
“It’s always been a dynamic kind of family relationship, but I think it is definitely on the upswing,” said Perciasepe. “I think they are noticing that we are trying to do things differently.”
Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University economist, said the breakdown in the relationship between agriculture and the EPA can be attributed to consolidation in the livestock industry where some animal feeding operations raising cattle, turkeys and chickens have grown significantly in size.
Livestock operations always have released methane in the air and sent manure flowing into nearby creeks and streams, but agriculture was left largely unregulated. The growth of massive animal operations, coupled with highly publicized spills into nearby streams, prompted questions during the 1990s about why farmers were essentially allowed to pollute, and didn’t have to meet clean water, air and other regulations that were strictly imposed on other businesses, Babcock said.
He said it was only natural that the EPA “would bear the brunt of animosity” from farmers facing new regulations.
Tension between ag, regulator natural
Babcock said the EPA is often left in a position where Congress writes the basic policy framework in the law, but leaves it up to the EPA to draft the detailed rules implementing it. The result is the EPA is left to face criticism from unhappy agriculture or environmental advocates no matter what decision it makes.
“The EPA is not like the USDA,” Babcock said. “USDA is really an advocate for agriculture. EPA is not an advocate for agriculture, they are a regulator of agriculture. There is an intrinsic tension that is going to have to exist. If not, the regulator is not doing their duty.”
In May, nine U.S. Senate farm leaders asked to sit down with McCarthy to discuss what Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley describes as “heavy-handed” regulations that “threaten the very livelihood of farmers and rural communities.” Congressional leaders said their concerns ranged from pesticide and methane gas regulations to the handling of personal information from farming operations.
Grassley told reporters earlier this month the “anti-EPA” sentiment is one of the “highest visible issues he has to deal with” when he holds town meetings in Iowa. So far, the Senate Republicans have not been able to schedule a visit with the EPA. “It’s frustrating,” Grassley said. “They’re busy people, but you’d think we’d at least have a meeting set up.”
Don Parrish, senior regulatory relations director for the American Farm Bureau Federation, agreed with the EPA that the agency and his members all are working together to solve the same problems. The difference, he said, is how they get there.
For example, farmers apply nutrients, such as manure or fertilizer, based on information they have received from the USDA, land-grant universities, soil tests and other sources. The amount of nutrients needed, and when they should be applied, can change based on moisture, temperature, the presence of bugs or diseases — all factors that are beyond the farmer’s control. Parrish said the EPA — which holds environmental considerations above everything else, regardless of economic or social impact — allows little wiggle room, penalizing farmers and ranchers if they deviate too much in how much nutrients they apply.
“I don’t think they quite grasp the art aspect as to what it takes to be productive, efficient producers,” said Parrish.
Farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, contend the EPA regulations such as the Waters of the U.S. rule lead to higher costs for producers, with some growers unable to swallow the added expenses. They argue the stringent regulations are creating a ripple effect that is damaging the long-term health of the agricultural industry.
“You’re just seeing over time farmers unable to afford that, and they go out of business,” Parrish said. “And you’re seeing fewer and fewer people go into agriculture.”
Contact Christopher Doering at firstname.lastname@example.org