NYFB’s Stance on WOTUS

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With the new rule, WOTUS was no longer defined by being just navigable water where you could float a boat. Now the federal government considered dry farmland or a roadside ditch that was occasionally wet following a rainstorm to be bodies of water, too.

Regulatory reform has long been a priority for farmers. Numerous local, state and federal agencies have a say in almost every aspect of farming. The regulations, paperwork and costs can be quite burdensome when all you want to do is get out into the fields and do your job of growing food and caring for livestock.

This is why Farm Bureau was so concerned when the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers went down the controversial path to greatly expand the Clean Water Act by redefining the “Waters of the U.S.” With the new rule, WOTUS was no longer defined by being just navigable water where you could float a boat. Now the federal government considered dry farmland or a roadside ditch that was occasionally wet following a rainstorm to be bodies of water, too. That never made much sense to farmers.

This defies the plain wording of the Clean Water Act as intended by Congress who writes the laws of the land, not federal agencies. Congress did not write the Clean Water Act to give the federal government unlimited control over all water. Because of the WOTUS Rule as implemented, farmers simply cannot reliably know what is and is not regulated. A mistake can mean $50,000 a day in fines or a loss of use of farmland entirely. This action places an undue burden and increased regulatory control on farmers with no added benefit to the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told us that they would exempt standard farm practices. Therefore, it should not be a big deal to switch from growing wheat after using the land for grazing, for instance. Actually, that scenario turned into a big deal after the EPA condemned the land, even forbidding it from being cultivated for many years. California farmer John Duarte is fighting such a charge in Tehama County, California.

Farm Bureau has been aggressive in challenging the rule. At the national level, the Ditch the Rule campaign brought many of our issues to light. New York Farm Bureau members sent thousands of postcards to the EPA asking officials to withdraw the rule until reasonable changes could be made. Instead, the EPA launched a counteroffensive to discredit publicly what farmers were saying. Launching a website and a social media campaign, and funding anti-farm billboards are not wise uses of taxpayer money, especially at a time when the EPA was asking for public comments. The U.S. Government Accountability Office also issued a legal opinion, upon completing an investigation, which found EPA had broken the law with its lobbying campaign advocating for its own rule.

Luckily, we were not alone in opposing the WOTUS rule. Nearly 30 states sued the EPA citing that both Congress and the Supreme Court had drawn a reasonable distinction between federal and state waters that the EPA’s proposal ignores. In turn, two federal courts have blocked the rule for now, but we need much more to be done. President Trump has stepped forward to ask the EPA to review the rule with the hope that it will be rescinded. Farmers across the country and in New York applauded the reasonable request. However, we cannot let up in opposing the rule until it has been reversed.

This does not mean we are looking to dismantle regulations that have proven value in keeping our water clean in this country. Healthy natural resources are important for what we do every day. It is why we value being good environmental stewards. We just want sound environmental policy that has scientific justification to back up the decision-making. We need a balance that is workable on farms in this country.

We are confident the courts will find this is a violation, and we will look to our congressional representatives to hold the EPA accountable to follow the intent of the law that Congress established under the Clean Water Act. It is Farm Bureau’s goal to pursue rational and effective environmental policies. Necessary regulations are one thing. A federal agency that oversteps its bounds and circumvents Congress is quite another.


Rural America: The Road Ahead

road in a rural area

Rural America still counts. We still have a voice. Our opinion matters.

Rural America still counts. We still have a voice. Our opinion matters. There were some who didn’t put much stock in that belief before the election of President Donald Trump last November, but his presidency has turned the political world on its head. It was largely rural voters who elected him to the highest office in the land.

I will admit that even I was not expecting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. However, hearing the news took me back to December of 2012 when U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told us that rural America was “becoming less and less relevant.” His message was that rural America needed to be more proactive and less reactive on the issues that affect many of us in agriculture.

In my opinion he wanted us to toe the line as President Obama and his administration imposed their will against our very way of life. No longer was American agriculture capable of opposing added regulatory fiat by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Labor or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Rural America was expected to acquiesce as our way of life was changed from what we knew.

On election night, rural America said, “Not so fast.”

So, we now have Trump and a U.S. Congress controlled by the Republican party. What does this mean for agriculture in New York and the Northeast? It is going to be a mixed bag. When it comes to immigration reform, we will be looking at border enforcement, perhaps a wall, and identification verification before we get any comprehensive reform. Farm Bureau has long said an enforcement-only approach would cost American agriculture tens of billions of dollars and would raise food prices for consumers. Along with border enforcement, we need a workable guest worker program that will allow for greater legal access to seasonal and yearround farm labor.

On the trade front, Trump has been very clear on his disdain for free trade agreements, and it is certain that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead as we knew it last year. This is concerning because greater access to world markets and a fair trade system that doesn’t allow for tariff retaliation on U.S. exports are essential for growing the farm economy. If TPP alone had passed, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimated that it would have increased cash receipts and net exports from New York by $111.4 million and $66.2 million per year, respectively. It also estimated that the increased marketing opportunities for New York’s farmers and ranchers would have added more than 500 jobs to the New York economy. These are economic opportunities that we still must push for with the new president.

On the positive side, we should see a slowdown and pullback on the many burdensome regulations that have affected businesses of all types. Hopefully, we will say goodbye to the expansion of the Waters of the U.S. that looked to regulate dry farmland under the guise of the Clean Water Act.

It is early in his administration, but we are hopeful officials will be friendlier to rural America and agriculture in general. Hopefully, the new administrator of the EPA will work with agriculture and rural America to establish open lines of communication and allow us to partner with the agency on issues to benefit the environment instead of dictating to us what the rules will be. Tax reform is also on the list as both Trump and congressional leaders have announced plans to reform the current tax code.

We in agriculture have much to gain and lose with the incoming administration. It is imperative that Farm Bureau, at all levels, remains vigilant on our positions and advocates for our rural way of life.

I encourage everyone in farming communities across the region to keep reminding Trump and our elected leaders at every level of government that to ignore rural America has consequences.

Agriculture Inspires Young Farmer’s Photography Passion

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Kevin Keenan’s new love of photography and his already existing love for agriculture quickly merged.

A western New York man’s new passion for photography developed from his love of agriculture. Now, through his camera lens, he is hoping others can see the wonderful things he has long known about life on the farm.

Twenty-four-year-old Kevin Keenan is an agricultural technician from Caledonia, New York, by trade. He works full time as a precision planting technician at Growmark FS, but he has always been involved with agriculture. His family still manages part of the land from his grandfather’s farm. Keenan Farms sparked his initial interest in agriculture. Then a close childhood friend had a larger farm down the road where, growing up, he began spending his free time. He eventually started working summers there and was hired full time for a period after college.

At the beginning of his career, photography wasn’t really on his radar. “It just kind of happened,” Keenan said.

In his spare time, he would capture agricultural snapshots from around the area. His mother had a digital camera that he started playing with just for fun in 2014. He quickly realized that he needed to “step up his game,” so he purchased a better camera soon after.

Keenan’s new love of photography and his already existing love for agriculture quickly merged as he was sitting in a farm field taking in the view.

“I can vividly remember: it was an awesome sunset and I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could capture that,’” he said.

It really came together later that year. He attended a dinner at a neighbor farmer, who had a guest speaker who emphasized that farmers need to share our stories. “If we don’t do it, no one will,” he was told.

The message really stuck with him, and now that’s what he tries to do. He wants to share the stories of farmers with other people through his photos. He has also started using drones and a GoPro to capture the action up close in video format. He now posts his work on his Facebook page at Kevin Keenan Photography. One video is of a nearby wheat harvest and another of #Plant16, a popular hashtag including photos and videos of the 2016 planting season.

Going forward he hopes to continue growing his Facebook page and taking on more projects. This year he shot some of the billboard photographs for Livingston County’s Farm Fest. Each year six to seven billboards around the county display photos of farm families from the area.

“This type of photography is kind of (a) niche market. We are surrounded by Livingston County, which is the highest grain-producing county in New York state. There aren’t many other photographers around here that are focusing on the same type of thing,” Keenan said.

He encourages other young people who are interested in photography to talk to other photographers.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Just go out and learn; just do it,” Keenan said.

Keenan has extended his network by becoming a member of a local photography society. They meet twice a month and offer educational opportunities and critiques, and are involved in local and national competitions.

He continues to strive to share the stories of agriculture and the people who live it.

“Paul Stein, who is 81 years old and still actively farming, is the perfect example. I think about how cool his life has been. How do you share that with people?” Keenan said. “I still haven’t mastered it.”

But people are starting to notice as he is developing a following on social media. He also received the 2014-2015 Most Improved Photographer award from The Genesee Valley Photography Society. He is well on his way to opening up new eyes to the beauty of agriculture and the passion people have for it, in front of and behind the camera lens.

American Farm Bureau President Tours New York

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When people are not from the Northeast, they often have a misconception of what rural life is like in this part of the country. They tend to think of the big cities, but overlook the vast amount of farmland that is some of the finest in America.

Many people have no idea of the dairy production, orchards and vineyards, the diversity in vegetable production or even the maple and equine operations that dot the countryside. Farming is vitally important to the rural economies in New York and across New England, and that is why the president of American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) spent a few days earlier this summer to get a firsthand look at what is happening here, so he can spread the news.

Zippy Duvall was elected to his new position in January after previously serving as president of Georgia Farm Bureau. He has a poultry and beef operation in his home state, but now spends much of his time in Washington, D.C., and traveling the country to learn about the issues affecting farmers.

This was his first real foray into New York agriculture, and he dove in headfirst. His tour took him throughout central New York and the Finger Lakes, into the Southern Tier and across the western part of the state.

“All the issues may be the same across the country, but they may affect us so differently in the regions,” Duvall said. “And everyone has a story to tell how that affects them in their region. It is important for me to know that firsthand.”

With New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton as his guide, the pair kicked things off with a roundtable discussion with winery owners where they discussed trade and border issues. He had dinner with county farm bureau leaders from throughout New York. They told stories of problems with regulations, the impact of the $15 minimum wage in New York and concerns about food labeling.

His tour took him through Cornell University where he met with leaders in the College of Animal and Life Sciences, saw the latest agricultural research happening at the Geneva Experiment Station and visited numerous family farms to discuss things like immigration, environmental regulations and food safety. It was an effort to better educate himself so he can educate policymakers.

“If I go up on [Capitol] Hill and talk to a congressman or senator and it’s about regulation, I need to know how those regulations are affecting farmers and ranchers in New York. I can testify to that and say I have been there, talked to them. That is a valuable thing for me to carry with me when I do this job,” Duvall said.

But he also needs the backup of farm bureau members. Often when there is a call to action on an important issue, farmers have a tendency to put it off until later. As a farmer, he understands that farmers are busy with a lot on their minds, and it’s easy to forget about making that phone call to an elected official or sending an email to the state Capitol. He said that thinking must change, especially as groups like Humane Society of the United States, AARP and others can generate millions of responses quickly to Capitol Hill. The farm bureau must be able to keep up or it will be left behind.

“That is when we become successful and that’s when we move the needle and make our lives in rural America better,” he said.

It isn’t just public policy that he is concerned about, but also public perception. Unlike any time in recent memory, consumers are taking a more active role in learning about the food they’re eating, where it comes from and how it is grown.

While some of the discussion, particularly in social media, can be critical of farming, Duvall said we need to move beyond being offended.

“We need to look at it as an opportunity,” he said.

He encouraged farmers he met on his tour to take a more active role in sharing their stories. He says there is no better place to do that than in our rural communities, where farmers work and live. They should be discussing this with their neighbors and looking for opportunities to get in front of an audience. That is a strength of a farm bureau that can sponsor a Future Farmers of America group or booster club event. They can get in front of a civic club and talk about their farm and production methods.

“What I have discovered all across America is public opinion is just as important as public policy,” Duvall said. “Farm bureau has spent almost 100 years promoting our policy, and now we have to realize that there is something just as important and that is what the public thinks about us.”

Duvall said he was in awe of the beautiful scenery in New York and impressed with the farms and innovation taking place. He was moved and overwhelmed by the people he met. Farmers in the Northeast aren’t much different from their counterparts across the country. They all care passionately about what they do and the care they take doing it, and he is happy to share those stories with people who may not realize what they have going for them and working against them in the region.

“I look forward to working hard for the farms and ranchers in this state and across America. It is a privilege and an honor, and I take it very seriously,” he said.

GROWING RELATIONSHIPS OFF THE FARM

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It’s an interesting time to be a farmer. For so long, most were content to do their job, produce quality food and farm products, and plan for next season. Little thought was given to what the consumers were thinking. Apparently, everyone just assumed everything was fine on the farm.

Now, farmers are realizing that cultivating relationships is as important as cultivating the crops.

With each generation fewer people are involved in farming. Neighbors may move in next door who have never lived in a rural area let alone next to a farm. And relationships with people just down the road can help or hurt a farm.

Meghan Hauser understands this. She co-owns Table Rock Farm in Castile, New York. Each spring, she hand-delivers 100 newsletters about her family’s dairy farm to her neighbors.

Her goal is to make sure that what they do on the farm is clearly explained to the people in her community. She is also prepared to discuss opinions that may be different from hers.

Newsletter packed with information

Her newsletter is full of information about the farm. It highlights farm projects, a reminder that they will be on the roads for spring work, introduces neighbors to new employees that they have hired and stresses the care that goes into making appropriate decisions about the applications of manure and pesticides. The newsletter also features a corn coupon. Neighbors can bring it back for free, fresh ears of sweet corn later in the summer. This coupon alone has proven to be very popular.

Such relationship building is important for Hauser and her family, who also include their contact information with the newsletter. They encourage neighbors to write or call with questions.

Valuing the relationship

They believe having a pre-established relationship provides a basis for communication and perhaps an easier resolution of problems. This spring, Hauser says she had a call from a neighbor who was concerned about land clearing they were doing on the edge of a field. Though she said you never know how this type of conversation will go, she was glad the neighbor reached out to her first instead of a public official or the media.

When she called the neighbor back and explained why they were clearing the land and that the project had gone through the proper regulatory groups, the call went from a negative “I’m calling the authorities on you,” to the neighbor better understanding how they approach their land work as stewards of the environment.

Kendra Lamb, whose family has 6,000 dairy cows at three locations in western New York, admits there was some apprehension from her husband Matt when she started producing a newsletter. He worried that they would receive some negative feedback, but that hasn’t been their experience. Working with the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition, they produced two newsletters in 2013 and another this past spring. Some people emailed and others called the farm office to give positive feedback, especially about the new location where they are farming in Wilson.

Their milk may have even drawn some new customers. One person noticed a change since her family began managing the location and they asked how they could buy her products.

The Lambs cover a broad variety of topics. The first newsletter was an introduction. They said “hi” to their neighbors, talked about the farm and featured a story called “What is that smell and why?” Other articles have focused on their farm’s methane digester, a growing season recap and showcasing the great care they provide for their animals.

Connecting with community

The dairy farms also are active in their communities in many ways by sponsoring little league teams, having a float in the town parade, submitting press releases to the local paper about employee achievements, maintaining a list of people to call in advance of manure spreading and keeping up the farmstead’s appearance.

The benefits of having good relationships range from having better educated consumers, as well as people who will support your business and may show empathy during the tough times. Just as important, they are people who are ultimately voters and could be lobbying in support of legislation that may be for or against agriculture. In the end, neighbors can have a lot to say about how a farmer runs their family business.

It may be scary to reach out in these ways, but it can be worth it for both you and your neighbors.