Fresh off the success of passing a new farm bill, a host of agriculture-related issues have leapt to the forefront of farm-state lawmaker concerns.
Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford, whose constituency lives in a large swath of Delta farmland, says some producers received a nasty shock when preparing taxes this winter. The problem is that last December, the IRC Section 179 small business expensing reverted back to pre-economic stimulus legislation levels. From 2010 to 2013, to the tune of $500,000 annually, farmers were able to deduct the purchase of things like tractors. As of 2014, that amount has dropped to just $25,000.
Reached for comment, Barry Nelson, John Deere spokesman, said the company was well aware of the reversion and supported the higher deduction level.
Does Crawford know of a fix in the works?
“I think the fix would be under the discussions around (an overhaul of the tax code led by Michigan Rep. David Camp, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee). I think that’s our path forward with Section 179, which was detrimental to producers. It left them scrambling at the end of the year.
“We’re hopeful (Camp’s) discussion draft opens the door to get some things done and address the issue on a long-term basis. I think that’s where the focus should be: getting input to Chairman Camp’s draft. His bill is a comprehensive tax reform package that we’ve anticipated for quite some time. He has framed it in such a way that he’s open to suggestions and he’s listening to us.
“At the same time, farmers should weigh in on this. Call me. Call other (lawmakers) and hopefully we can make some progress on tax reform.”
Meanwhile in the Senate, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is who many producers are focusing on. Wyden is expected to soon propose tax-extenders -- including Section 179 – that would retroactively help farmers with equipment purchases.
What are Crawford’s impressions on the new farm and how it shaped up for the South?
“I’d have certainly liked to have seen it pass (in 2013) the first time it hit the (House) floor before it devolved into the political mess it became. But we did finish it -- that’s the good news.
“It’s a lot better than it could have been. We had some real strong representation at the conference committee. (Mississippi) Sen. Thad Cochran was instrumental. Arkansas Sen. (John) Boozman and I were both fortunate to also be on the conference committee. I think that helped us secure some level of support for Mid-South agriculture that we might not have otherwise gotten. There seems to be a geographic disconnect with respect to the way we farm in the Mid-South versus other parts of the country.
“All in all, I think under the circumstances the bill is better than expected but not as well as we’d hoped for. The livestock sector probably ended up better than they’ve ever been historically. Poultry did well, as well.”
One thing Crawford urges: be patient with the Farm Service Agency (FSA). “The glass is half full. … The FSA just got this bill and, optimistically, it may be six months before they get a handle on it. More realistically it may be harvest-time before we know how this farm bill will work. But please be patient with the FSA and understand they’re playing the hand they were dealt.”
FUELS Act/privacy concerns
Crawford’s “Farmers Undertake Environmental Land Stewardship (FUELS) Act” would alleviate farms’ regulatory burdens by allowing larger fuel tank sizes without containment structures. Currently, the EPA says farms must have containment structures for oil storage facilities of more than 1,320 gallon. The FUELS Act would up that limit to 10,000 gallons.
“We’ve had a lot of success with (the FUELS Act) in the House,” said Crawford. “In fact, it’s been unanimously passed six times in the same form, never amended. It was passed out of committee three or four time, passed on the floor twice and it was in the farm bill. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee transferred jurisdiction to us so we could move it in the farm bill.”
Most recently, the act passed again on March 11 with a voice vote.
“Unfortunately, the Senate isn’t interested in working with us,” said Crawford. “But after it passed for the sixth time maybe they’ll get the message.”
Crawford said, if enacted, the legislation would save farmers, “tens of thousands of dollars in compliance costs they could otherwise use to cash-flow their operations. The University of Arkansas did a study on the FUELS Act that showed in Arkansas alone it would save $25 million. Across the country, you’re talking about $3.5 billion in savings for farmers.
“The reality is we’ve taken the threshold of 10,000 gallons right out of the Clean Water Act. The EPA has defined a ‘small farmer’ as 10,000 gallons so we’re playing by their rules. We want to codify that and make sure we’re not putting an undue burden on farmers who have, in documented history, not had any spills of a magnitude that even a 1,320 gallon threshold calls for. We’re just trying to rein in the EPA and put a bit of operating capital back into farms.”
Another of Crawford’s concerns with the EPA is the willingness of the agency to release the private information of farmers.
“We’re trying to pass the Farmer Identity Protection Act. We have a lot of support with that, as you might imagine. Certainly it’s a privacy issue.
“There were a couple of breaches (in 2013) when the EPA, through (Freedom of Information Act) requests, was able to release private, personal information on farm operations. Primarily those were CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). There were 30 states affected -- a large number in Arkansas, certainly in Mississippi, poultry operations.
“In the main, we’re concerned about a privacy breach.
“But in the bigger picture, we must look at the potential of opening ourselves up to vulnerability with respect to national security, bio-security and threats to our food security. It’s something we can’t tolerate.”
There’s great bipartisan support for the legislation, said Crawford. “And we expect if it’s taken up in the Senate it’ll move. We’re going to keep on with this. We had some success with it in the farm bill conference but it’ll require more partners to make sure we get it done.”
Catfish inspections/The Lacey Act
During the farm bill debate, Crawford remained rigidly in support of USDA catfish inspections. This was despite pointed criticism from fellow Republicans.
“We were successful during the conference committee in protecting the provision (calling for USDA inspections). We were successful largely due to (Mississippi) Sen. Thad Cochran’s leadership. The catfish producers want the USDA inspections over the FDA.
“They produce a better quality product, a safe product, and they want consumers to know that what they’re eating is, in fact, catfish. They want the consumer to know that it’s American-produced and there’s a high degree of safety and phyto-sanitary protocols being followed.”
Now, another issue is dogging the aquaculture industry: the Lacey Act. Enacted in 1900, the Lacey Act regulates interstate game and fish shipments. Even inadvertent violations could cost individuals up to $250,000 and organizations up to $500,000.
“Imagine that a single fish, or even fish egg, legal to possess in one state, is inadvertently loaded with a 2,000-pound truckload of other fish sold to a producer in another state where that accidental fish or egg is illegal,” reads an article by Elizabeth Rumley, senior staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas. “Once that shipment crosses the state line, both the buyer and seller can be prosecuted. … Had the shipper or buyer known the illegal nature of the errant fish or the value of the wildlife was more than $350, then they could be prosecuted under the law’s felony provisions -- meaning up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.”
A bill introduced by Crawford of Arkansas, the Aquaculture Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 3105), would amend the 114-year-old law so that it would no longer apply to animals accidentally included in shipments of aquatic species that are commercially produced for human consumption or recreational and ornamental purposes.
“The Lacey Act is a problem for transporting fish over state lines,” said Crawford. “Maybe you’ll inadvertently have an egg, or two, in a shipment of fish. If discovered, the Lacey Act may rain down on you with a six-figure fine and prison time.
“We’re just saying, ‘Look, let’s be realistic in the application of the Lacey Act.’ It’s a very old piece of legislation and the intent wasn’t to punish baitfish producers or aquaculture producers that need to transport their products across state lines.”
Queried on the importance of agriculture research funding, Crawford said it is a major concern. “As someone from the Delta, we rely heavily on the research being done at MSU, LSU and the University of Arkansas. We aren’t alone -- land-grants are vital across the country in making sure our ag producers have the latest innovations and so research and development must continue on a broad scale. That’s critical.
“We must maintain pace. Not only must we feed 300 million people in this country but the world relies heavily on (U.S. farmers) as well. We can’t do that without the investment.
“We do have finite resources so that’s a challenge. But we do need to continue to find ways to facilitate that research.”