Easing the burden on America’s farmers

As congressional lawmakers get back to work after a summer recess, high on their list of things to get done is a new farm bill. The animal agriculture industry, which usually doesn’t ask for or get much out of the five-year agricultural blueprint, this time has a couple of significant requests, ones that could help soften the blow it has taken mostly because of ongoing trade wars.

Trade disputes with Canada, China and Mexico have cost America’s livestock and poultry farmers billions of dollars in lost exports over the past five months. U.S. hog farmers, for example, have lost more than $2 billion on an annualized basis, according to Iowa State University economists.

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So rural America is looking for a little relief, and the next farm bill – the current one expires Sept. 30 – is a good place to start.

Food-animal farmers’ No. 1 farm bill ask is a vaccine bank for use against Foot-and-Mouth Disease, which can affect cattle, dairy cows, pigs and sheep. Without one, an FMD outbreak would keep export markets closed indefinitely to U.S. meat and dairy products, and tens of thousands of animals would need to be euthanized.

The beef, pork, corn and soybean sectors, alone, would lose $200 billion over 10 years, and jobs losses would top 1.5 million. There would be an economywide ripple effect.

The livestock industry wants a conference committee now working out differences between Senate and House farm bills to fund the FMD vaccine bank, as well as the national laboratory network that conducts disease diagnostics and block grants for states’ animal-disease prevention efforts, at $250 million annually for five years.

Its other big ask is for inclusion in the farm bill of the “Protecting Interstate Commerce Act.” That provision, which is in the House legislation, has become necessary because two states – so far – have approved policies that could dictate the agricultural production practices in the other states by restricting the sales of out-of-state farm products.

California’s legislature in 2010 prohibited the sale of eggs from out-of-state hens housed in so-called battery cages, which the state’s voters banned through a 2008 ballot initiative. An initiative on this year’s California ballot would extend the sales ban to pork from hogs born to out-of-state sows housed in gestation pens and to veal from out-of-state calves housed in veal crates. Similarly, Massachusetts voters in 2016 prohibited certain animal housing and banned sales of out-of-state eggs, pork and veal from animals raised in that housing.

Restrictions on interstate sales are a violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which grants Congress power to regulate trade among the states. The “Protecting Interstate Commerce Act” would reaffirm that authority and allay the fears of farmers from being regulated by the whims of voters or legislatures thousands of miles away.

One other issue – not part of the farm bill – the animal agriculture industry needs Congress to address soon is visa reform. Farmers and meat packers, who need access to a reliable workforce to continue providing the highest standards of animal care and an affordable, safe supply of meat, poultry and dairy products for American consumers, are facing a severe labor shortage. While foreign workers could help, the current visa system is ineffective.

Pending legislation could provide some relief. The Newhouse-Cuellar amendment to the House fiscal 2019 agricultural funding bill would allow farmers, packers and processors to use the existing H-2A visa program for year-round foreign workers. Currently, it’s only for seasonal laborers. The “AG and Legal Workforce Act” would replace the H-2A visa with a year-round agricultural guest worker H-2C visa and would require all U.S. employers to use the federal E-Verify program, an online system to check the eligibility of employees to work in the United States.

While the farm bill provisions and visa reform measures wouldn’t lift the economic weight from farmers, they would go a long way toward deflecting the strong headwinds now buffeting rural America.

Jim Heimerl is a hog farmer from Johnstown, Ohio, who currently is serving as president of the National Pork Producers Council. In addition to a pork operation, his Heimerl Farms LTD consists of crops and cattle, as well as a trucking division and feed mill.