For years, I’ve headed to the Virginia Diner to meet with my Farmers Advisory Board, a group of Fourth District family farmers who counsel me on issues that are impacting the agricultural industry. It’s a fitting spot – the Virginia Diner (known by many for its Virginia ham and buttery biscuits that draw visitors down Rt. 460) is surrounded by farmland, nestled right in the heart of the Fourth District’s agricultural industry. We come to our Advisory Board meetings hungry, not just for those buttermilk biscuits, but for answers to challenges farmers face every day.
Like many other industries, our farmers face significant challenges and the need for practical solutions. But unlike other industries, family farms find themselves in a unique spot.
Farmers are business owners. They care about growing their farms – they want to be the most efficient and most productive at what they do. Most farmers also have a deep appreciation for their land. About 90 percent of Virginia farms are owned and operated by individuals or families, so many of these farmers have worked their land for years. They know their plots inside and out, and they care about the proper treatment of the environment and resources around them.
Our farmers also contribute to the strength of their communities. They look for new ways to nourish the surrounding regions with their food supplies. American farmers truly labor at the intersection of innovation, business, food supply, and environmental management.
And every day, and increasingly more year after year, our farmers face the burden of unbridled regulations. Many of the conversations my Farmers Advisory Board and I have around those red-checkered tables at the Virginia Diner fall on the topic of regulations.
Farmers tell me how federal mandates force them to choose what kinds and amounts of crops to grow, not based on business decisions, but on government demands. They tell me how regulations have hampered their ability to reinvest in their farms because they have to keep up with the cost of fuel, permit, and machinery requirements. In fact, when you look at the list of regulations facing farmers, it’s incredible the red tape they have to untangle just for the regular, daily operation of a farm.
There are rules regulating the flow of agriculture products into the market, including the way they are labeled and advertised. There are rules regulating natural farm dust and other normal activities of farming, which are classified as “particulate matter” and defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as pollution.
There are rules requiring farmers to implement expensive and often unnecessary infrastructure improvements to comply with storage regulations. There are rules requiring farmers to implement lengthy spill prevention plans.
There are rules for inspecting, sampling, and testing seeds. There are rules for what abbreviations can be used in labeling seeds. There are rules for livestock feeding operations. There are rules that limit the way crop producers can utilize crop protection chemicals to fight against invasive species that threaten their production yields. There are rules regarding how farms must respond to natural farm byproducts that have moved due to normal rainfall or snowmelt.
There are rules that prohibit farmers from protecting their livestock from predators like the Black Vulture because they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. There are rules that require costly containment facilities and infrastructure improvements. There are rules that require inspection and certification processes.
To be fair, not all regulations are bad, nor were they intended to create undue hardship for our farmers. We need common sense regulations that protect human health. We need regulations that provide for safety, protect our environment, and ensure the humane treatment of animals. However, too many of these regulations are duplicative, overly stringent, and create unintended consequences. The result is costly mandates on our farmers that lead many to consider leaving the occupation they love and have lived – many of them for generations. It is why many farmers tell me that now either their children have opted out of a farming career, or the farmers themselves told their children not to follow in their footsteps.
In Virginia, agriculture is our largest industry. It has an economic impact of $52 billion annually and provides more than 311,000 jobs in the Commonwealth, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report earlier this month stating that net income for farmers is expected to fall by nearly 32 percent this year as prices for some crops remain low and expenses creep higher. We cannot afford to allow federal regulations to drag down such an important pillar in our economy nor contribute to our facing a day when we rely as heavily on foreign countries for our food as we do oil.
As we work to rein in federal regulations all around, we also have to start chipping away at burdensome farm regulations. That’s why I’ve supported legislation like the Farmers Undertake Environmental Land Stewardship Act, or the FUELS Act, which requires regulations be revised to reflect a farmer’s spill risk and financial resources. I have engaged the Secretary of Agriculture to provide flexibility for farmers seeking to protect their livestock from predators like the Black Vulture. I have also cosponsored the Waters of the U.S. Regulatory Overreach Protection Act to prevent agencies like the EPA and the Army Corps from heaping new regulatory burdens onto the shoulders of our already overburdened agriculture community. These are small steps, but ones that will make a big difference in the lives of American farmers.
Although many of us may be several generations removed from the daily upkeep of a family farm, we are all very much connected to the agricultural industry through our food supply and our economy. For years, our farmers have led us in a commitment to community, a love for our environment and countryside, and a resolve to work hard and succeed. It’s our turn to empower family farms to continue to lead the way.
Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District in Congress.