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Why I’m ‘Ginned Up’ about Regulation

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

President Obama seems to be unaware of any regulations that would concern farmers and equally ill-informed as to the source of those regulations.

President Obama recently informed a farmer in Illinois that rumors of increased regulation of farming by his administration are “unfounded,” with said rumors “ginned up” by Washington lobbyists.

I quite liked the use of the phrase “ginned up.” The president adopts a folksy vernacular when he is out on the stump. For example, one notices he sometimes drops his g’s when uttering gerunds. No doubt the reference to gin is another attempt to adapt his rhetoric to those of us who, in his mind, respond so predictably to the falsehoods and exaggerations of Washington operatives.

As it turns out, some of the corn from my farm is used in the production of gin, so that expression perfectly describes my reaction to the present regulation of agriculture. I am, without a doubt, “ginned up” about regulations. Contrary to what the president implies, I’ve reached this state without any mood-altering substances.

The president encouraged the farmer to call the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lay those rumors to rest. Obama seems to be unaware of any regulations that would concern farmers and equally ill-informed as to the source of those regulations. For all its faults, the USDA is hardly the main reason for aggie apprehension. The Environmental Protection Agency is a different matter.

The EPA recently issued a guidance document instructing its employees on the interpretation of the Clean Water Act. The document ignores two Supreme Court rulings on the subject and is an end run around Congress, which has avoided legislating what the EPA is now attempting to mandate through the use of the document.

The EPA estimates that up to 20 percent of the farmland in the Chesapeake Bay watershed may be forced out of production if the new standards are to be met.

By using a guidance document, the EPA is avoiding the formal rule making process, denying us misinformed farmers a chance to affect a change in policy. The new rules will expand EPA’s reach into arenas long regulated by the states.

For example, the EPA is establishing strict limits on the amounts of runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Although the science that the EPA is using is questionable, the agency is moving ahead with its plan. The EPA estimates that up to 20 percent of the farmland in the watershed may be forced out of production, shifting to grass and tree cover, if the new standards are to be met. The agency has made it clear that the Mississippi watershed is next. So that farmer in Illinois has every right to be concerned.

Under current law, it will soon be mandatory for to have Clean Water Act permits in order to apply pesticides. Until now, pesticide application has been governed by FIFRA, the law regulating pesticides, and farmers have been required to follow label instructions for the application of crop protection chemicals. We have not been required to have a permit each time we start up our tractor.

The new rules will require 5.6 million permits. The EPA estimates it will cost $50 million for the government to implement the rules and more than 1 million hours of farmers’ time each year to apply for those permits. The farmers’ time is not included in the cost estimate.

The benefits from this rule are hard to quantify, but one presumes that plenty of lawyers will be employed in the new business of suing farmers for mistakes in their permit applications. Maybe their compensation will be included in the assumed benefits of the rule. The lawyers will certainly be busy. Oddly enough, most farms don’t have full time EPA compliance officers.

The new EPA rules will require 5.6 million permits and more than 1 million hours of farmers’ time each year to apply for those permits.

And of course there are the famous dust regulations. The EPA is considering tightening the standards for particulate matter, following a recommendation from their Clean Air Advisory Committee. Many counties in the West already do not meet the present standard; making it stricter will dramatically increase the number of rural counties out of compliance.

Dust is sort of natural to farming, up to and including the dust from the gravel and dirt roads that are the only ways to access most farms, including my own. When we harvest, we leave great plumes of soybean dust in our wake, making harvest-time the season for the Midwest’s most beautiful sunsets.

The EPA has recommended that we harvest our crops before they are, well, dry as dust. This means we’ll have to spend more time and money on drying grain, causing us to use more energy, which will increase greenhouse gases, which the EPA is working on as well. Not only that, but grain harvested at high moisture is much more likely to grow mold.

I’ve already decided to ignore any further regulations on dust, because I can’t possibly do anything about it. If the EPA questions my decision, I’ll refer them to the president’s comments about unfounded rumors.

The gist of the president’s remarks, as near as I can tell, is that we farmers are worrying unnecessarily about regulations that haven’t yet been implemented, and aren’t likely to be implemented. Trust me, he is saying, just because my administration is studying a new rule doesn’t mean that common sense won’t prevail. Which sort of begs the question of why we are studying nonsensical rules at all. One final example of a rule under consideration might help make the point.

If this rule is adopted, rice, wheat, corn meal, peanuts, apples, lettuce, carrots, onions, and sugar will all be considered unsafe.

The EPA has proposed a rule that would revise its limits for exposure to arsenic. The EPA is proposing to set a limit that decreases the present limit by a factor of 17. Virtually all U.S. soils’ naturally occurring levels of arsenic would exceed the target. It would mean nearly every area in the United States has been out of compliance since the beginning of time. Now there is a project that will challenge even the EPA’s sense of the size of their mission.

If this rule is adopted, rice, wheat, corn meal, peanuts, apples, lettuce, carrots, onions, and sugar will all be considered unsafe. What, pray tell, is the justification for studying a rule that is as far removed from common sense as this one? You’ll notice that gin is not on the list of products that will be affected by the arsenic rule. We may not have anything to eat, but with enough gin, we’ll have the perfect tonic.

Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer.

FURTHER READING: Hurst also writes “A Big, Muddy Project Alright,” “Our Real Food Problem,” “The 21st-Century Land Rush,” and “The Sweet 'n Lowdown on GM Crops.”

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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