HURRICANES AND LOCAL FARMERS
Massive hurricanes have hit two major agricultural states back-to-back. The full effects will not be known for months, if not longer.
The storms hurt both large-scale industrial producers and small family farmers. Once it reaches a certain point, the size of your farm and the methods you use won’t stop high winds and floodwaters from destroying buildings, washing away land and killing animals. I know a pastured poultry producer who lost thirty thousand birds; one of the mainstays of the local farmers market lost all his crops and will have to reform his beds and replant completely. The devastation is overwhelming.
At the same time, the hurricanes did show yet again that sustainable farming methods can stand up to weather catastrophes. I spoke with a farmer who got approximately fifty inches of rain during Harvey. That’s an entire average year’s worth of rain, in about two days. His farm didn’t flood, which was in part due to favorable topography. But even the tender seedlings that he had planted just two weeks before survived! This farmer has gone far beyond “normal” sustainable agriculture methods. His beds are all planted on contours tailored to his farm’s individual topography, and he uses immense amounts of compost and organic matter in them.
If we had farms like this surrounding the metropolitan regions, not only would the farms themselves have been in better shape after Harvey, but the flooding in Houston would not have been as widespread and severe. Healthy soil, which acts like a sponge to absorb and hold water, is our best defense in the face of extreme drought or floods.
For the farmers and ranchers who have suffered damages in Harvey or Irma—or those who want to know what to do when a disaster hits their area—below are some starting points.
First, document everything: once you and your animals are safe, the first step is to document your losses. Try to get photos before the water recedes, and take extensive photos and notes on all of the damage. Also write down everything you do, who you talk to at government agencies, and what those people say. If you talk with someone on the phone, ask for a follow-up email with notes about what was discussed and decided on. I suggest that you get a cheap notebook to keep all your notes in one place. Cameras before chainsaws!
Second, move quickly to apply for federal relief programs. Three federal agencies provide disaster support: FEMA, USDA and SBA. You can qualify for help from one or all three, depending on what sort of damages you sustained. Many of these programs have deadlines of only thirty to sixty days, and the time goes by incredibly fast when you’re trying to recover from a disaster. It is vital to contact the agencies and file loss reports as quickly as possible.
• Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers temporary housing and grants for certain disaster-related expenses, specifically housing and personal property. You may be told that FEMA “doesn’t help farmers”—but if your home and personal effects were damaged, you qualify.
• While farmers as self-employed individuals do not qualify for typical unemployment benefits, you can qualify for disaster unemployment benefits if you have been unable to work on your normal farm duties for one week or more from the start of the disaster. The funds come from FEMA, but are administered by the state agency for unemployment benefits.
• USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) is the main source for disaster relief related to farms. Contact your local office as soon as possible; you can find them at https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app. The office person may tell you there are no funds, because it takes time for the funds to be appropriated. Sign up anyway! By signing up, you get yourself in line for when the money is available. Just ask for the paperwork and fill it out. They have several programs, including the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) and the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), which are open to any farmer affected by the disaster; unlike crop insurance, you do not have to be signed up ahead of time. The ECP requires pre-approval for any funding, so it is particularly important to file the paperwork at the FSA office as quickly as possible.
• USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) may also help. In Texas, NRCS has announced a special Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) that helps with conservation practices that address flood and wind damage and excessive runoff to address natural resource concerns caused by the hurricane and provide future protection from exceptional storm events. Unlike most of the disaster relief programs, there will be rounds of applications and funding available for much longer than sixty days after the disaster declaration.
• Small Business Administration (SBA) offers low-interest loans to cover the cost of repairing a home and repairing or replacing household contents damaged in a disaster.
• For affected farmers in Texas, please fill out the online survey circulated by the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and Texas Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association. It will help the organizations identify your needs, guide you to resources to help with recovery, and be an advocate for you with government agencies: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Harvey-farm-damage.
OUTLOOK FOR THE 2018 FARM BILL
Every five years (give or take a couple of years), Congress passes a massive farm bill that shapes our food and agricultural system. The current farm bill will expire in September 2018, but it’s unclear whether a new one will be adopted before then.
Congressman Conaway, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has repeatedly stated that he wants to get the farm bill out of his committee this year rather than next, which would leave the time necessary to get it through the Senate and then iron out the differences before next September. Whether or not that happens depends on the House leadership. Conaway intends to wait to schedule the committee “markup” of the bill (where they effectively write the bill) until three weeks before the bill is supposed to come to the House floor—and that could be in October, November, or not until next year.
The House has a lot of things they hope to do in the next several months, including appropriations bills, tax reform and now Hurricane Irma relief. None of those will be easy. If the House deadlocks, it may be that nothing will move; or the House leadership may decide that the farm bill, traditionally a bipartisan piece of legislation, is a good way to distract attention from their inability to accomplish other things.
Whatever the timing is, we can predict some things about the substance already. I attended one of the field hearings, in which the House Committee on Agriculture listens to people at a location other than DC, in this case, an agricultural town in west Texas. The main focus was on the commodity subsidy programs. Calls for cotton to be put back into Title 1 of the farm bill, in the same category as other commodity crops like corn and soy, dominated the public comments.
The other common theme was the threatened future of family farms. Third, fourth, even eighth generation farmers stood up to say they would be the last farmer in their family because their children do not wish to continue. It was heartbreaking to listen to, and frustrating to realize yet again how our industrial agriculture system is harming so many people at so many levels. While the congressmen acknowledged the heartbreak of these farmers’ situations, they didn’t recognize how unnecessary the suffering is.
There were a few comments from those attempting to build a better system. Cal Brints of the Lubbock Farmers Market spoke about how a “double dollars” program for SNAP (also known as food stamps) brought more people into their market, benefiting both consumers and farmers. Alex Canepa from the Farmers Market Association spoke more generally about the importance of the Farmers Market Promotion Program and the benefits that diversity and direct-to-consumer sales provide for producers. I had signed up to speak but was not called.
The majority of the Farm Bill is dedicated to the subsidy and crop insurance programs that promote industrialized agriculture; the other major section deals with food assistance programs. But because the bill is so far-reaching, it is an opportunity to promote some reforms in other areas. There are two bills filed this year that we hope will be attached as amendments to the Farm Bill:
• The PRIME Act would allow the sale of meat processed in a custom slaughterhouse directly to consumers. Many livestock farmers don’t have reasonable access to a state- or USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, and others haul their animals long distances to reach one. This one change would open new opportunities and significantly reduce costs for farmers providing meat for their local communities.
• A bill that would make the Checkoff programs voluntary or at a minimum reforming their provisions. The numerous Checkoff programs, on everything from commodity crops to milk, beef and lamb, impose a tax on farmers to pay for industry-driven marketing campaigns. All too often the money provides funding for organizations that lobby against the farmers’ interests—including things like radio ads talking about the dangers of raw milk! Paying into a marketing program should be voluntary, not government-mandated. At the least, reforms would provide greater transparency and reduce the ability of industry groups to misuse the funds.
The farm bill discussions are a marathon, not a sprint. As we work for reforms in the next year, we also have to plan for the long-term fight, starting with Farm Bill 2023.
ANIMAL ID UPDATE
In the last issue of Wise Traditions, I wrote about the USDA’s renewed push toward animal ID and its plans for public meetings.
The discussion at those meetings reflected one of the fundamental problems in tackling animal identification and traceability: Big Ag and the government treat disease issues and trade issues as effectively the same. When one Farm Bureau representative at the Ft. Worth meeting said that the two were “inextricably intertwined,” the USDA people immediately nodded in agreement. Big Ag and the USDA also believe the export market benefits every livestock producer, whether they sell their animals for export or not.
In other words, to government bureaucrats and Big Ag lobby groups, when a company loses money because some country refuses to accept imports from U.S. companies—whether because of animal disease or political reasons cloaked under such claims—that loss is treated as a loss for every livestock owner in the U.S.
Think about this. First we need to recognize that there are true animal disease issues that affect the livestock industry and farmers and ranchers across the country. There are some complicated questions to consider when discussing potential animal disease threats. What percentage of animals will die from the disease? For animals who contract it and recover, are there permanent impacts? Are vaccines or treatments available? How virulent is it, that is how quickly and easily does it spread? Is there a human health risk? Can humans contract the disease? Based on the answers to these and other questions, one can estimate a range of likely costs from an outbreak. That same number could be used to consider the benefits of avoiding or controlling such an outbreak.
Under the mandatory cost-benefit analysis for any major rulemaking, the costs of any new animal ID requirement would be compared to its benefits. So first you would need to analyze the costs discussed in the previous paragraph, and then multiply them by some fraction that reflects the likelihood of such an outbreak occurring. You would also need to calculate the likelihood that the animal ID requirement would prevent or reduce the outbreak, since animal ID by itself doesn’t automatically stop outbreaks. These are complex questions without clear answers.
Unfortunately, the industry’s solution is to simplify the analysis in two ways:
1. Assume animal ID is a magic bullet that significantly prevents or stops outbreaks. This assumption was proven wrong when the U.S. pork industry suffered a devastating porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) outbreak in 2013, even though the industry had (and still has) a complete, birth-to-death traceability system in place. Yet both the industry and the USDA continue to use computer models that assume that “traceability equals disease control.”
2. Include the costs from trade repercussions. When you do this, there is no need to look at the complicated multiple factors involved in the cost of a disease outbreak—just assume that the multi-billion dollars in exports to China are lost “because of the lack of traceability,” and you can justify almost any expensive new regulation.
Thus, an animal disease that poses no significant threat to most people’s animals can be viewed as “catastrophic” for “the industry,” and the economic loss to exporters is viewed as the cost of not having a comprehensive animal ID system.
USDA held nine meetings between April and July. Most had relatively small turnouts—perhaps thirty to forty people at each, not counting the USDA and state animal health authority bureaucrats. The reports I have received from several of the meetings indicate that the feedback was strongly negative toward any expansion of mandatory animal ID requirements. In the written comments, WAPF signed on to a joint letter from forty organizations setting out detailed arguments why the agency should not create new regulations.
The next step is up to USDA. The agency has stated that it will announce its findings from the meetings and comments at an industry-sponsored conference in late September, and we will respond accordingly.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2017.