Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions
In the run-up to the 2020 Democratic nomination for U.S. President, would-be candidates literally elbowed each other out of the way to show who would be toughest on ‘Big Business.’ Senator Elizabeth Warren fired one of the loudest shots in an article titled “Here’s How to Break Up Big Tech,” where she promised to break up Facebook, Google, and Amazon, among others. Senator Cory Booker doubled down on this idea, tweeting “Tech platforms are becoming engines for discrimination, harassment, misinformation, and extremism, while stifling innovation. We need to use every antitrust remedy – including breaking up firms – to protect consumers, competition, and our democracy.”
And it’s not just Big Tech that’s in the cross hairs. Over the past decade, a bipartisan group of House and Senate members have steadily steered Congress toward a farm-based incentives approach to protect wetlands, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality. As part of this initiative, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created regulatory definitions that bucket livestock operations by size, called CAFOs, short for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. For instance, a ‘Large’ CAFO has 1,000 or more cattle; a ‘Medium’ CAFO has 300 to 999; and a ‘Small’ CAFO is one with fewer than 300 animals.
Prompted by environmental groups and farm organizations that believe eliminating “mega-farms” and “corporate farms” will improve farmer lives, increase competition, and improve water quality, Senator Booker introduced a bill last December to abolish Large CAFOs completely by 2040. Senator Warren endorsed and sponsored the legislation. Few political insiders believe the proposal will see the light of day – introducing the bill might burnish a candidate’s green credentials, but enacting it would be a death wish in battleground states including Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
But this wasn’t Booker’s first run at ‘Big Ag.’ In October 2018, the New Jersey Senator introduced legislation to curtail mergers between agribusinesses, food/beverage manufacturers, and grocery chains. And it likely won’t be the last, as fevers against large corporations in general and agribusinesses in particular continue to rise.
‘Big Ag’ is approaching a tipping point. What seemed in December as improbable-to-impossible has moved to possible in 2021. Let me give you an example of how fast things can move legislatively and politically from my home state of Virginia. Similar to the federal approach to agricultural runoff, Virginia has taken an incentives-based approach to meet farm-related Chesapeake Bay nutrient reduction goals. Examples of incentives are cost sharing for fencing out cows from streams, cover crop payments for row crops and access to free nutrient management planning.
On the first day of the state legislative session in January the new Democratic majority proposed mandatory nutrient management planning on farms greater than 50 acres. Seriously. Fifty acres. Advocacy groups that had strongly supported the voluntary measures jumped ship overnight to support mandatory nutrient management.
Virginia Farm Bureau did a great job of crowding the hearing room with very concerned farmers. There were not enough votes to stop mandatory nutrient management but there were enough votes to develop and pass a compromise signed by the governor. Farmers now have five years to meet Chesapeake Bay nutrient reduction goals using the voluntary measures. However, if nutrient reduction goals are not met, mandatory nutrient management is imposed on all farms applying fertilizer on greater than 50 acres.
Are we at a tipping point for federal nutrient management and regulating farm size? Not today. Senator Booker’s legislation is dead on arrival in the Senate. But the Virginia example suggests that attacks on agriculture are just beginning.
Those of us who work closely with farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness professionals on a regular basis need to make sure our voices are heard. As is usually the case, staying informed is the first step. Start by following agricultural national advocacy groups, including the American Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers Association, National Dairy Council, and National Livestock Producers Association, and look for state-wide groups in your specific areas, such as the Illinois Soybean Association. Make sure that your clients, customers, and social media followers are aware of damaging potential legislation.
We have a voice, and we have a vote. Together we can ensure that the Tipping Point lands on the side of the men and women who continue to raise the safe and inexpensive food supply that many take for granted.