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Around The Grange
View from the Hill: A New Quarterback and Lots of Rookies

By Burton Ehler, National Grange Legislative Director

  MARCH 14, 2019 --


The Shutdown

  The federal government partial shutdown has ended...for now.   The longest shutdown in history is over until February 15 to give all parties the opportunity to negotiate a compromise on border security, security for Dreamers, and other immigration issues. This was called a partial shutdown because FY19 funding for some agencies had cleared Congress but funding for others had not. Many agencies of government that producers and rural residents depend upon were shuttered for over a month and employees were furloughed. Employees considered “essential” were expected to work during the shutdown. These included meat inspectors, TSA employees, safety and security personnel and the like.   Lights were out in local Farm Service (FSA) and Risk Management Agency (RMA) offices but Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) employees remained on the job using surplus funds from last year’s budget; this scenario is raising questions on Capitol Hill. SNAP recipients not only received their January benefits but are getting their February benefits early. This was made possible by an obscure provision in the now-expired (December 21) continuing resolution that allowed SNAP and child nutrition programs to use funds within 30 days of the CR’s expiration. Market and economic reports were suspended but care for plants and animals at research facilities continued. Most economists reported the shutdown had a large negative effect in the nation’s economy. Bipartisan lawmakers with reputations as “Deal Makers” from the House and Senate began meeting January 30 to seek a deal on border security that would prevent a second shutdown this year.


A New Quarterback and Lots of Rookies

Colin Peterson (D-MN), the new chairman but seasoned veteran of the House Agriculture Committee, has a new Democratic majority that’s nearly half newcomers. That’s not all bad, but his chairman’s role will include lots of educating. The new Democrats are Axne (IA-3), Brindishi (NY-22), Carbajai (CA-24), Harder (CA-10), Cox (CA-21), Craig (MN-2), Delgado (NY-19), Hayes (CT-2), Kirkpatrick (AZ-2), Schrier (WA-8), Spanberger (VA-7) and Van Drew (NJ-2). New Republicans on the Ag Committee are Johnson (SD-All), Baird (IN-4), and Hagedorn (MN-1).


Regulatory Preview

  What are the major agriculture regulatory challenges facing producers during 2019? Here are a few top-of -mind issues from across agriculture:

Revised WOTUS rule. The “Waters of the US” proposed rule as revised is meant to replace the 2015 regulation that has been so controversial among landowners. The proposal attempts to clarify how EPA and The Corps distinguish between intermittent and ephemeral streams and allows states to claim jurisdiction over waters unclaimed by EPA and the Corps.

Plant-based “milk”. Grange policy supports the definition on the books at FDA that milk is the product of a lactating animal and wants FDA to enforce that regulation.

“Healthy” definition. The food industry has long used the term “healthy” as a free-wheeling marketing tactic without having to define what healthy means. FDA will be proposing a rule that would require healthy claims to reflect current scientific and dietary guidelines.

Produce safety. FDA is proposing to clarify when certain requirements of the Produce Safety Act do not apply. This should help the Grange’s smaller produce growers.

Cell-cultured meat. USDA and FDA have agreed to share regulatory oversight of lab grown meat. The agencies plan to issue regulatory guidance documents in coming months which the Grange will monitor closely.


Bull Market Ending for Farm Land?

One dependable indicator of a farm’s financial situation is a comparison between debt and the income available to service that debt. Farm debt in 2013 was $315 billion; today it is $409 billion. Net farm income in 2013 was $123 billion; last year net farm income was $66 billion. Interest rates are climbing making other investments more attractive than farm land. These appear to be warning signs of a possible slowdown for the farm land market. 



Opioids Remain a Rural Problem

The good news is that opioid prescribing rates are falling significantly. The bad news is that the percentage of patients prescribed an opioid is higher in rural than in urban areas according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug overdose is the leading cause of nonintentional injury-associated death in the United States. Higher rates of opioid deaths have been recorded in rural areas.   In 2017, 14 rural counties were among the 15 counties nationwide with the highest opioid prescribing rates. Patients in rural counties had an 87% higher chance of receiving an opioid prescription compared with persons in urban counties.


Rural Elderly Care Challenges

People 65 years old and older make up over 14 percent of the country’s population. That same population is responsible for 34 percent of health care-related spending, according to the National Rural Health Association. But here’s an even more sobering statistic: every day more than 10,000 Americans turn 65 years old and one in four of those seniors live in rural or small town areas. Major challenges to future care of these seniors are rural hospital closures, nursing home closures and qualified staffing shortages. Infrastructure is another challenge as rural and small town areas struggle to provide health clinics, safe and affordable housing, and high speed broadband internet to connect with telemedicine, tele-education and more.   Most elderly people in rural and small town America want to age in place at home in their community.   Some elder care groups suggest that one way to address the scarcity of services is for providers to diversify and provide medical attention, assisted living, home care, meals and transportation through one organization.


National Grange Files Comments

The National Grange joined several patient groups to urge the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at HHS to consider the success of Part D and Medicare Advantage as the agency prepares proposals to lower drug prices and reduce out-of-pocket expenses. The current program has successfully provided beneficiaries with access to prescription drugs and self-administered drugs. While the National Grange supports CMS’ goal to reduce out-of-pocket expenses, the Grange is concerned that proposed policy changes generally favor health plans rather than focusing on patient care and program transparency. The Grange also expressed opposition to proposed step therapy because it would be an impediment to prescribed therapy, particularly for patients who require timely and personalized Part B medications.



Green Card or Blue Card

Older farmers and ranchers remember the “Green Card” that allowed workers to legally enter the U.S. for short term employment. They contend it worked well and should never have been discontinued. Now, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Representative Jimmy Panetta (D-CA 2) have introduced legislation to create a similar “Blue Card” program. Their bill enjoys a large number of cosponsors. It would provide the agriculture industry with a more stable workforce and allow an eventual path to citizenship.   The National Grange will push for hearings but remains skeptical that Congress has the will allow ag workforce legislation to pass without holding it hostage to other immigration issues.


Three Big Immigration Issues Congress Can Tackle

Michael Wildes is the mayor of Englewood, N.J. and managing partner of Wildes and Weinberg P.C. specializing in immigration law. Wildes laments the fact that immigration reform has eluded all efforts at reform for a generation.   But the system is in dire need of reform he says. Here are three big immigration items he suggests Congress tackle:

Upgrade Immigration Courts. Immigration courts are small, overcrowded, and places where judges hand out trial dates two and three years in the future. He says hiring more immigration judges and restoring a level of autonomy to trial attorneys would go a long way to alleviating the excessive court backlogs.

Legalize Dreamers. These are legal recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) who were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and have lived here continuously since 2007. They are 800,000 students, college graduates, professionals and parents. They have been granted permission to work, attend school and live in the U.S., but if they leave, they cannot reenter.

Address Root Causes of Central American Refugees. Wildes says the fundamental cause of our Central American refugee crisis is the violence and instability in their home countries. He favors cooperation with law enforcement in those countries, improving economic conditions through foreign investment, free trade agreements, and volunteer initiatives.



More Rural Broadband Funding

The Senate-House conference committee on USDA appropriations has awarded $550 million in additional funds to a rural broadband loan and grant program created by Congress last year with an initial appropriation of $600 million. Projects must serve communities of less than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10/1 Mbps.


Bridging the Rural Broadband Gap

A recent editorial in the Washington Examiner by National Grange President Betsy Huber applauded the Federal Communications Commission for its leadership toward closing the rural-urban digital divide. She then suggested the FCC make two changes to enhance rural efforts. The first is better data collection accuracy in rural areas which should be far different compared to urban areas. The second is to allow providers to wirelessly deliver broadband to rural communities using unused spectrum between broadcast television stations.


Check Your State Laws

Your state might need to update its laws to better compete for the new $1.15 billion USDA funding for rural broadband projects and grants. Some states restrict rural electric cooperatives to only provide electric services to customers. In these states, such laws may have to be changed to allow electric co-ops to deliver broadband service or create public-private partnerships with rural telephone cooperatives.



The willingness of America’s veterans to sacrifice for our country has earned them everlasting gratitude. ~ Jeff Miller

  Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance. ~ Eckhart Tolle

  He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not but rejoices for those which he has.   ~ Epictetus

  We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses. ~ Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated. ~ William James

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them. ~ John F. Kennedy


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