More than 250 Farmers Union members from across America participated in the 2014 legislative fly-in to Washington, D.C. The fly-in focused on four priority issues: opposing any legislative changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and rejecting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s flawed proposal for 2014 blending targets; stopping any effort to undermine Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL); bringing attention to rail issues in the Midwest; and ensuring the Trade-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between the U.S. and 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region is not supported in its current form.
Vilsack, McCarthy meet with members
During a special meeting held in the Department of Agriculture, USDA Secretary Vilsack told fly-in participants to be aware that some program payments may be reduced by about seven percent should sequester budget cuts kick in on October 1. Of particular concern to Secretary Vilsack is the aging number of farmers. He said USDA wants to encourage a new generation of farmers. “We’ve got to get more young people in this business,” he said. Farming is a partnership, he said, adding that women need to be engaged in the decision making process.
Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, gave a shout out to RMFU for its educational and advocacy efforts supporting the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule making process. The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 and two subsequent Supreme Court rulings resulted in ambiguity for landowners, as well as uncertainty for the EPA. The new rule making process is meant to better clarify what is and is not the responsibility of EPA as it relates to pollutants in headwaters that lead to oceans. She said when the process is done, EPA wants farmers and ranchers to find the rules will be “workable and allow you to do your jobs effectively and with less worry that someone has to be looking over your shoulder.”
McCarthy noted farmers and ranchers and their families have been living on their land for decades, if not centuries. “You’re not just another industry. You are tied to your land.” She said the EPA exceptions for agriculture are not affected by this process. Producers will not need permits to move cattle, plant or harvest, despite what some individuals and organizations have suggested.
On the topic of the Renewable Fuels Standard, McCarthy said, “Biofuels are just getting to that point when all of this investment we are making is really paying off. We will not backslide.”
At the White House and on Capitol Hill
During a White House briefing for Farmers Union members, President Obama’s senior policy advisor for rural affairs, Doug McKalip, answered questions about priorities for the administration. Members also met with the President’s deputy director of intergovernmental affairs and special assistant for energy, and special assistant for immigration for the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Farmers Union members also attended an Agriculture Committee briefing. Farmers Union members then hit the halls of Congress to talk about COOL and the RFS. Country-of-Origin-Labeling requires muscle cut of meat to be labeled so consumers know from what country the product came from. COOL was included in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, and more than 90 percent of consumers support the law. However meat packers, a few larger livestock operations, and foreign competitors have challenged the law. Three separate federal suits all have resulted in decisions in favor of COOL. The concern of American ranchers is this: without labeling, packers can blend in less expensive cuts of meat and profit from the inability of consumers to make an informed choice. This also comes at the expense of American ranchers. Some in Congress have suggested “reforming” COOL, which would effectively weaken the law. Such action would favor the meat industry and harm family-sized ranches. Farmers Union supports keeping the COOL law as it is. In fact, COOL is working well for vegetables, fruits, and other agricultural products.
In addition to COOL, Farmers Union members spoke in favor of keeping the Renewable Fuel Standards in place. The RFS now supports more than 850,000 jobs in the United States and account for nearly $185 billion in economic impact. The RFS has been calculated by Iowa State University to reduce the price of gasoline by more than $1 a gallon.
Members also talked about their concerns over the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPA is a form of “fast track” process that allows the White House to submit the agreement to Congress for an up or down vote. This means Congress cannot attempt to correct regional or industry disadvantages. TPP is now being negotiated with 11 Asia-Pacific countries. Farmers Union is asking for more transparency in these negotiations in order to understand how they affect agriculture.
Finally, Farmers Union members asked for Congressional oversight of railroads that are falling far behind in hauling crops from many farm states. Rail service from Montana through the Dakotas and into Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois has been faltering due to the large volumes of oil moving in unit trains. There just isn’t enough track capacity, crews, cars and locomotives to keep everything moving. Farmers and grain elevator managers are concerned that railroads are sidetracking agricultural shipments in favor of meeting oil delivery contracts.
Timely congressional action
During the fly-in, leaders in Congress took action to address two of the immediate concerns of Farmers Union. Senators Mike Enzi (R-N.M.) and John Tester (D-Mont.) sent a bipartisan letter to their colleagues urging them to reject any actions to weaken or suspend COOL. “Congress enacted COOL in response to demand from consumers and livestock producers for reliable information about where their meat and seafood come from,” states the letter. “COOL has overwhelming public and producer support but its implementation has been challenged in an international trade dispute for more than five years. It is critical that Congress not short-circuit ongoing efforts to support American producers and consumers.”
Senators Thune (R-S.D.) and Rockefeller (D-W.V.) introduced a bipartisan bill that would improve the functioning of the Surface Transportation Board and ensure that the agency is more responsive to the needs of its many customers. The “Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2014,” would establish STB as an independent agency, streamline rate case procedures, give STB limited investigative authority, and spell out arbitration procedures for disputes between shippers and railroads.