With 2016 an election year, many in the agriculture industry are asking what the pending changes will mean for farm policy. Here are some of the top issues to track this year.
Clean Water Act
Turn your eyes to the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. Attorney and ag law expert John Dillard says this case will tell us what we need to know about the reach of the Clean Water Act. Des Moines Water Works is suing drainage districts in three rural Iowa counties for increased levels of nitrates in their water. “The suit alleges that excess nitrogen is coming from tiled fields,” Dillard explains. “Because they can’t target farmers for this pollution, Water Works is arguing that the water leaving the drains is a point source of pollution.” This is the first case of its kind and could have major implications for farmers.
A new twist to the Clean Water Act is the Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS). Heavily debated and opposed by agriculture groups, WOTUS is at a stalled point that won’t be resolved any time soon. “WOTUS is held up in court,” Dillard says. “In 2016, we’ll see some movement in the litigation, but it’s not likely we’ll see a solution this year.”
Another big issue facing agriculture? Activists, who are working to target livestock facilities as they did recently in Yakima, Wash. Cow Palace dairy was the first dairy to be targeted under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), but Dillard says “copycat lawsuits are spreading throughout the West.” The lawsuits allege that spreading dairy manure in excess of agronomic uptake rates amounts to open dumping of solid waste, which would violate RCRA. Proactive tip: Have your nutrient management plan ready to go, and give a copy to your lawyer.
Trade: TPP, TTIP, Cuba
The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was signed by President Obama on Feb. 3. However, policy analyst Roger Bernard with Informa Economics told Top Producer Seminar attendees we won’t see a vote anytime soon, and Dillard agrees. “Mitch McConnell has already made it clear he’s not going to bring it up for a vote before the election,” Bernard said. Both agree it could even be 2017 before the deal is finished. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a trade deal with Europe, won’t be completed anytime soon either, according to Bernard. “TPP and TTIP can help address trade problems that aren’t related to currency but other matters, to help increase export sales.” While trade restrictions are slowly easing in Cuba, it could be some time before the doors are blown open; only Congress can remove the embargo, which Bernard doesn’t envision happening in the near term. “Broadening trade in Cuba is going to be a longer process than anyone thought it would be,” Bernard says, adding: “U.S. agriculture stands to gain a lot in Cuba.”
Crop insurance faced scrutiny in 2015 and it won’t be any different this year, according to Dillard. Bernard explains the program narrowly escaped death by budget cuts this year, and it’s not over. “Be aware, crop insurance will be in the cross hairs again,” Bernard says. “That seems to be the place most anti-subsidy folks are focusing their attention.”
The Presidential election hasn’t included many agricultural topics other than the Renewable Fuel Standard. “I think ethanol’s probably been the one that’s come up the most, and that focused really on Mr. [Ted] Cruz,” Bernard says. “His statements (and) his positions were not very favorable.” Bernard says that no matter who wins the Oval Office, RFS won’t just disappear when its 2022 expiration date arrives. Congress would have to repeal the law.
While the race to the White House commands the most attention among the media and voters, farmers and ranchers probably will be most impacted by whoever is tapped for the top spot at USDA, according to Bernard. “What is their focus going to be?” he asks. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been on the job since 2009 and this year, he’s expected to move onto a new role. Though he might not leave Washington, some analysts think he could be selected as Hilary Clinton’s running mate, a possibility, according to Bernard. “You can’t rule it out,” he says. “Keep in mind that when Mr. Vilsack ran for president, when he pulled out of the race, he threw his support behind Hillary Clinton.” It all depends on where the Clinton campaign thinks it needs support, according to Bernard, but he adds that having a person who understands agriculture in the No. 2 spot in Washington would be a “major plus for U.S. agriculture.”