On May 16, 2017, an initiative passed to ban all aerial pesticide applications for forestry in Lincoln County, Ore. The ballot measure passed by the narrow margin of 61 votes, and Lincoln County became the first county in the U.S. to ban aerial applications of pesticides by public vote.
“In the Pacific Northwest, we do vegetation control one to two times in a 40- to 50-year cycle,” says Bruce Alber, certified forester and sales representative with Wilbur-Ellis. “Aerial applications are an important tool to control invasive species and competing vegetation. It’s done efficiently and safely to apply herbicides evenly and thoroughly.”
That ballot measure passing by five dozen votes is just one example of local and state regulations that are focusing on specific aspects of agricultural production. Although such measures lack nationwide immediate impact, many in industry are concerned these initiatives will limit tools for farmers and also possibly drive future federal regulations.
“These applications aren’t that frequent, but they are necessary. All farmers and foresters need to be able to protect their crops from competition taking the water, light or nutrition that our crops need,” Alber says. The other option for spraying—manual application with a backpack sprayer—isn’t feasible given the rough terrain in Oregon’s commercial forests, he explains.
Oregon is one hot spot for local and state initiatives to introduce new regulations for agriculture. Many of the efforts focus on banning practices that are already regulated.
“Because of our local ballot measure process in Oregon, we are the tip of the spear on a lot of these issues,” says Katie Fast, executive director of Oregonians for Food & Shelter. “So it’s our goal to share our experience with folks who are in different parts of the nation.”
She explains Oregon has defeated two measures to label all genetically engineered foods and has faced local measures to ban genetically engineered crops and restrict pesticide use. Three Oregon counties have passed such measures, which the group has fought in the courts.
The successful ballot measure in Lincoln County to ban aerial applications is also currently being challenged in court.
“There is a trend of more activist groups turning attention to local-level initiatives, and if we don’t successfully form our own grassroots campaigns, we are left to fight these in court,” she says. “If the ag industry loses ballot measures, then we can’t keep a good regulatory framework coming out of a state capitol because legislators and agencies see mistrust from constituents, and that is influential.”
These local efforts are “trial balloons.” That’s how Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, describes issues that are raised first at the state level and then at the federal level.
“We have seen regulations that could affect the products we sell, the services we provide and the businesses we are in,” Byrum says.
From his experience, he says the world is controlled by those who show up, and he encourages others to be engaged and support the industry.
In Washington state, there was a bill in the senate to require a four-day notice for all pesticide applications.
“That’s a problem if you need to treat a field or orchard that has a pest problem today,” says Scott Rawlins director of regulatory and government affairs for Wilbur-Ellis. Rawlins has 29 years of experience in regulatory affairs and works in the 30 states where Wilbur-Ellis does business.
“We’ve seen the Trump administration do a couple of things at the federal level that are encouraging, but we see quite a bit more activity of concern outside of the federal level,” he says.
All politics are local. “Politics can drive us crazy when we are trying to do our jobs every day,” Alber says. “But we have to pay attention to what is going on in the local, state and federal levels. And when we are involved, big things can happen.”
Ag retailers are at an important intersection to provide farmers with tools for crop production. Fast with Oregonians for Food & Shelter says her group has had success helping retailers develop these skills and deploying these tactics:
- Engage with local communities by hosting educational tours and events, speaking at civic groups and sponsoring community events
- Train spokespeople
- Create social media campaigns
In Michigan, the industry has taken a proactive approach to prove not only its compliance but also its stewardship of the environment.
“A lot of issues center on water quality,” Byrum says. “We have started voluntary programs—the certified fertilizer applicator program and the certified manure applicator program—to get ahead of potential added regulations.”