Four Major Federal Agriculture Stories from 2017

The past 365 days have been a wild ride, complete with major changes to federal programs relied on by farmers and ag businesses. Four federal stories dominated 2017:

WOTUS - in 2015, the Obama administration expanded the definition of "Waters of the United States," to include many streams, ditches, ponds, wetlands, and areas adjacent to other covered waters. This gave the federal government jurisdiction over those waters. A federal appeals court temporarily blocked the rule. Agencies went back to using the pre-2015 definition during the stay. On February 28, 2017, Trump issued an executive order directing the EPA and Army Corps to reconsider the federal WOTUS jurisdiction of "navigable waters." On June 27, 2017, the EPA proposed a rule to eliminate the Obama-era WOTUS definition and formally return to the pre-2015 standard. The EPA and the Army Corps are working on a new rule to define WOTUS. The rule will be subject to a public comment period. Local, state, and tribal governments, as well as Farm Bureau, industry groups, and environmentalists are already involved in the re-write. Stay tuned.

NAFTA - the Trump administration has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). Trump's focus seems to be on the manufacturing sector. Most groups agree this course of action would hurt U.S. agriculture. Farms are already dealing with low prices and thin margins. Exports are a huge part of grain and livestock farming. Canada and Mexico are the U.S.'s two largest agricultural trading partners. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, a total withdraw from NAFTA would likely increase consumer prices on value-added food products and would make U.S. agricultural exports  more expensive and therefore less competitive on the global market. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates 13 million jobs rely on NAFTA. In short, U.S. farms need NAFTA. Ag groups are cautiously watching the Trump administration attempt to renegotiate this trade deal. The U.S. ag economy hangs in the balance. 

GIPSA - new GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Act) rules were released in December 2016. The Farmer Fair Practices Rules modified the poultry tournament payment system and addressed livestock buying practices deemed by many to be anticompetitive. Ag groups were split on the Rule changes: some said it leveled the playing field for contract growers, others said it would open the litigation floodgates. It was no big surprise when Trump withdrew the Rule soon after taking office. As with the original Rule, the ag industry's response to Trump's reversal was mixed. Packers and integrators praised Trump, saying the rule would have lessened competition, stifled innovation, and increased costly litigation. Some farmer groups criticized Trump's move, because the Rule would have made it easier for them to prove that a meat packing or processing's actions were illegal, without having to prove that those actions harmed the entire industry. 

AIR EMISSIONS - toward the end of 2017, we saw another flip flop by federal agencies. In December of 2008, the EPA released a final rule which exempted all livestock operations from CERCLA air emissions reporting requirements and most operations from EPCRA air reporting requirements. On April 11, 2017, a federal court invalidated that exemption and set a November 15, 2017 deadline for livestock operations to begin reporting. In October 2017, the EPA issued a guidance document to help livestock operators figure out how to report air emissions as "continuous releases." Then, on November 22, 2017, the federal D.C. Circuit Court stayed its decision from taking effect until at least January 22, 2018. During this 60-day stay, stakeholders and the government are attempting to find a reasonable way forward. Notably, there is no accepted way to measure air emissions from livestock operations. As the law sits now, most livestock operations will have to begin reporting air emissions (likely as estimated continuous releases) beginning January 22, 2018. More details here.

2017 was a bumpy year. I expect 2018 to bring more of the same. Check back here often for information related to livestock, poultry, and egg production.