Washington Insider-- Monday

Voluntary Pollution Control in Pennsylvania

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Rep. Conaway Vows to Roll Back USDA GIPSA Rules

Calls rules unnecessary, burdensome

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, vowed to roll back three contentious rules advanced Wednesday by USDA which it said are designed to give farmers and ranchers more protection in their dealings with poultry processors and meatpackers. But Conaway said the rules are unnecessary and insert government into the private sector, building on initial criticism of them.

Conaway said he and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had warned USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a November letter to withdraw the rules. Conaway said stronger action is needed to counter Vilsack's announcement on Wednesday that the department will publish the rules now that the Office of Management and Budget has finished its review.

"I will make it a priority to roll back these, and other midnight regulations from the Obama Administration, as soon as Congress returns in January," Conaway said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was deeply disappointed that Vilsack had not heeded congressional and industry opponents. Policy riders in Fiscal 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 spending bills blocked USDA from completing similar rules.

"The so-called GIPSA rule has been wrought with controversy since originally proposed in 2010 and will have a devastating impact on America's farmers and ranchers and how they buy and sell cattle, hogs, and poultry," Roberts said a statement.

Rep. Zinke's Appointment to Head Interior Dept. Hailed by Farm Groups, Ranchers

Enthusiasm for President-elect Trump's December 15 decision to tap Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., to head the Department of Interior was voiced by farm groups and ranchers who hope Zinke will loosen environmental and grazing restrictions on federal lands.

If confirmed, Zinke would oversee about 600 million acres of federal lands. Livestock grazing is permitted on about 250 million of those acres for about 22,000 permit holders.

Agriculture and farming groups' initial reaction to the nomination was positive, with many voicing their hope Zinke would push forward with Trump's campaign promise to broadly roll back federal regulations.

"We have a great relationship with Congressman Zinke and his office," Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents cattle and sheep producers, told Bloomberg BNA. "He's always been very supportive of agriculture and supportive of livestock grazing in the West," he added.

"Congressman Zinke has a challenge before him," Zippy Duvall, president and CEO of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), said in a statement. "Farmers and ranchers have suffered abuse at the hands of the Interior Department. Arbitrary limits on grazing have harmed animal agriculture."

In a statement announcing the nomination, Trump said Zinke would work to roll back "bad" regulations. "America is the most beautiful country in the world, and he is going to help keep it that way with smart management of our federal lands," Trump noted. "At the same time, my administration's goal is to repeal bad regulations and use our natural resources to create jobs and wealth for the American people, and Ryan will explore every possibility for how we can safely and responsibly do that."

The direction he is likely to take as Interior Secretary is seen in the positions Zinke has taken in Congress. In 2015, Zinke sided with ranchers in opposing rules from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — a division of Interior — to federally manage sage grouse populations in western states. Many ranchers contend that the rules impede their cattle from grazing.

Washington Insider: Voluntary Pollution Control in Pennsylvania

Amid all the gloom and political controversy of recent days, Bloomberg is reporting a study of actions taken by Pennsylvania farmers to prevent pollutants from entering the Chesapeake Bay. The report highlighted a public-private study that documents for the first time the role of "best practices" for water quality management that farmers adopted at their own expense to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment levels entering streams, rivers.

The effort was designed to help build understanding of the contributions farms make to reducing pollution beyond the solely government-funded efforts previously reported in the planning model for a cleaner bay, state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said. The study acknowledged "the great job" farmers have already accomplished, Redding said, and is expected to enhance a dialogue on what more needs to be done.

Christian Herr, executive vice president of the PennAg Industries Association, agreed with Redding, noting that the agricultural sector had sought the study to give agencies a broader picture of farm efforts to curb runoff in the bay's watershed. Counting only government-funded efforts obscures reality somewhat, especially since many in the state's "plain community" of Amish and Mennonite farmers don't take government money as a matter of religious principle, Herr said.

The practices documented in the survey are widely understood as good for the environment, good for production, and good for the farm," Herr told Bloomberg. "You don't necessarily need the carrot of government money to encourage farmers to participate."

The survey was developed collaboratively by the state Agriculture and Environmental Protection departments, Pennsylvania State University, the PennAg group and other state agencies and industry associations. It complements the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Strategy announced by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in January, which calls for public and private collaboration for local water quality, the sponsors said.

Accurate data on "what's happening on the ground" will help policy makers devise a realistic plan for the state's portion of farmland in the Bay watershed, by far the largest in the region, said Patrick McDonnell, acting secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection concluded. The state has made significant progress, "but we still have more work to do, as do all of the bay states," he said.

Also welcoming the study was Rich Batiuk, associate director for science, analysis and implementation at the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program Office, who called it "an accredited approach" that other states can use to measure good practices in the bay's watershed. "Pennsylvania's heading in the right direction," he said in the webcast. "This data will give us tools to continue the improvement."

Batiuk said that most pollution measures in the Bay are heading down, a development he never thought he would see in the three decades he has been working in the area. "We are seeing the signal of the good practices put into place," Batiuk said. "Pennsylvania's 33,000 farmers are making a difference."

Added McDonnell: "Achieving our water quality improvement goals is no easy task. Any solution must balance our interest in both improving local water quality and maintaining a vibrant agricultural sector."

Nearly 6,800 farmers answered the survey, an "extraordinary response rate" for a voluntary study, according to Matthew Royer, director of the Penn State Agriculture and Environment Center, who led the research. Accuracy of the responses was verified through nearly 700 farm visits, he said.

The study focused on analysis of the statewide acreage covered by systems for nutrient and manure management, animal-waste storage, barnyard runoff control, erosion and sedimentation control, conservation plans, stream-bank fencing and grass and forested riparian buffers.

The question of what voluntary conservation efforts are actually achieving has been highly contentious since the Bay cleanup efforts were begun--with controversies over both the Compact's estimates of where pollution comes from and what is needed to achieve the group's objectives. So far, the study organizers are happy with both the participation by producers and the study results, Bloomberg says—findings that may bode well for a cleaner Bay in the future, Washington Insider believes.

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