Secret Documents, Questionable Actions Paint Ugly Picture of EPA

steve corn head shotGeorge Strait made a living putting out country hit singles. “Ace in the Hole” immediately comes to mind. You might remember the song for its message about having a little something up your sleeve to ensure things ultimately go your way. “You’ve got to have an ace in the hole,” sang Strait. “A little secret that nobody knows.”

While I don’t know if officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are George Strait fans, I do know they understand the idea of having a little something up their sleeve and know a thing or two about secrets. This became apparent a few weeks ago when documents came to light pointing out the joint Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and EPA “Waters of the U.S.” regulatory proposal was, in fact, virtually all EPA and very little Corps. Worse, the documents paint a picture of the EPA ignoring concerns the Corps had raised regarding the regulatory proposal to vastly expand EPA’s control over private property.

The documents came to light when Sen. Jim Inhofe, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the Corps to provide information concerning the development of the “Waters” rule. The Corps provided the documents, but asked they be kept hidden from public view. Evidently they show that Corps staff had questions about the validity of EPA’s economic analysis and the rule’s unworkability due to lack of clarity concerning what “waters” were to be regulated. If those concerns sound familiar it’s because they are the same concerns echoed by virtually every opponent of the rule, Farm Bureau included.

And it doesn’t end there.

As I write this, a Dear Colleague letter is making its way through Congressional offices. The letter seeks to have EPA’s Office of Inspector General investigate all matters relevant to EPA’s efforts in generating support for the “Waters” rule. The effort stems from a recent New York Times article exposing EPA’s abuse of the public comment process by engaging in an unprecedented advocacy campaign intended to generate public support for the proposal. According to the Times, EPA engaged in a grassroots solicitation for public comments by partnering in social media campaigns with groups like the Sierra Club to intentionally drown out opposition and to help justify EPA’s actions.

EPA has consistently made claims it received over one million comments on the rule with 90 percent of them being supportive. However, according the Corps (EPA’s jilted partner) only 20,000 plus of those were considered unique, and of those, only 10 percent were considered substantive. The vast majority of comments appear to be mass mailings generated by EPA’s own lobbying efforts. Not only are EPA’s actions on this front potentially illegal, but reflect an abuse of the most democratic component of the federal rulemaking process designed to give a voice to those impacted.

The picture painted by EPA’s actions, while ugly, is clear. The EPA was determined to push this proposal through no matter what; keeping secrets and working to manipulate the public.

At Nebraska Farm Bureau we continue to work with our Congressional delegation and other partners to push back against this blatant overreach of power and disregard for Nebraska’s farm and ranch families. There is much at stake not only in how we respond to the rule, but in the way EPA has conducted its business in this matter. I do know one thing. If EPA believes we’ll go away quietly I’d point them to another George Strait song; one that involves selling ocean front property…in Arizona.

Until Next Month,

Steve Nelson

President, Nebraska Farm Bureau

A Fair is a Veritable Smorgasbord

Paramount Pictures

Charlotte’s Web — Paramount Pictures

“A fair is a veritable smorgasbord.” At least according to the rat, Templeton, from Charlotte’s web. If you’re not familiar, it’s the scene where the rodent sings about all the wonderful food he finds after the lights of the fair go down.

In this case, I’m not talking about food but rather all the wonderful agricultural products you can find at county fairs and the Nebraska State Fair, which wraps up this weekend. From the Milking Parlor to the Avenue of Breeds to the Antique Tractor Display, the Ag exhibits are endless, and for FFA and 4-H exhibitors, the end of a year of hard work on their projects.

"Tiny" - Nebraska's Largest Steer

“Tiny” – Nebraska’s Largest Steer

This year we heard reports of space running out in the sheep and goat barn because of so many producers wanting to show their product. And the hog and cattle barns are just as full. It’s exciting to see so many kids taking their projects to the next level. Now, I call on them to go even further.

For many people, the Nebraska State Fair or the local county fair is their first, and maybe only, interaction with agriculture. Hundreds of grade school students in matching T-shirts are paraded through the state fair every year.

Savannah Peterson GothenburgThey are excited to see and interact with the animals. But what are they really seeing? A large pet? Do they know why a farmer raises cattle or sheep? It is our job as livestock producers, farmers and Ag experts to go that extra step and explain why a heifer or steer exists. Why we shear sheep. How we bring only one or two hogs to the fair, while the rest stay home. And, ultimately, the fact that Nebraska farmers and ranchers are raising the world’s food supply.

 

 

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Changing Renewable Fuels Standard Bad for Nebraska

steve corn head shotJust a few short weeks ago the EPA announced its proposed targets for the nation’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The RFS determines how much ethanol will be blended in to the nation’s gasoline supplies. The EPA’s proposed targets fell well short of direction given to the agency by Congress. Congress was very clear in its direction that the United States can and should produce significantly more ethanol for our country’s cars and trucks.

The EPA’s action has broad implications, particularly here at home in Nebraska. Nebraska ranks second in the U.S. in ethanol production. What started as a single ethanol plant in 1985 has blossomed into a true industry for our state with 24 ethanol plants scatted across Nebraska today. There’s no question the boom in ethanol production has helped boost corn prices and farm income. But the benefits of that growth don’t stop there.

A study conducted by the University of Nebraska released this past April shows that Nebraska’s ethanol industry is worth roughly $5 billion to the state’s economy, providing direct full-time employment for some 3,000 Nebraskans. To quote the study, “the effects on Nebraska’s economy and rural areas have been both sustained and substantial.”

The value of Nebraska’s ethanol industry isn’t limited to ethanol production. The dried distillers grains generated through the ethanol production process have become an import feed stock for Nebraska’s livestock sector, boosting Nebraska’s ability to feed cattle and, no doubt, contributing to Nebraska’s ascent to being the number one cattle feeding state in the nation.

But there is more. In addition to building agriculture markets, creating jobs, and boosting the state’s economy, it’s also helped decrease our reliance on imported oil and contributed to cleaner air. For all those reasons, we need more ethanol, not less. Having the EPA meet the targets established by Congress is the place to begin; anything short of that is clearly a step in the wrong direction.

In the coming weeks and months Nebraska Farm Bureau will be zeroed in on working with both Congress and the Administration to make sure we’re taking full advantage of our renewable fuel sources.

As we move our state forward in producing the food, fuel, and fiber that we all need, we’ll continue to look for ways to grow our state and to make life better for both rural and urban Nebraskans.

Selling Ice to Eskimos: Chipotle Goes GMO-Free

Can you sell ice to an Eskimo? Chipotle, one of the nation’s fastest growing 1,000 calorie burrito sellers, thinks it can. In fact, Chipotle is banking on it. In its self-proclaimed “never ending journey” to source the “highest quality ingredients it can find,” Chipotle announced this week it was dropping GMO ingredients from its menu.

Cashing in on a consuming public that’s widely disconnected from where its food comes from has become Chipotle’s specialty in a time and place where Americans can spell GMO, but most Chipotle blog1couldn’t tell you what it stands for (other than to likely insinuate that it’s somehow bad for you – hence the need for Chipotle to explain both on their website).

Chipotle might know how to make a burrito, but it is even better at marketing itself as standing on some type of higher moral ground that everyone else seems to fall short of (remember the whole idea that Chipotle only uses meat that come from animals raised in certain ways).

The irony of Chipotle is that the company is basically built on the concept of shunning technology while marketing to a population that’s so in-tune to it that you’d be hard pressed to find a Kindergartner who couldn’t run your iphone (chances are you’re reading this on a tech device your great-grandpa, in his time, would think came from another planet).

While chasing tech savy consumers’ dollars, Chipotle, oddly enough, has demonized farmers and farming practices over the years that are very much a product of technological improvement over time, whether it involves how farm animals are housed or the seeds farmers put in the ground.

Even more ironic on Chipotle’s GMO stance, is the reality that, from a big picture perspective, there really is no such thing as GMO-free food products. Nature has been making GMOs since, well…the beginning of time. While science has developed the practice of introducing new traits into organisms in a scientific setting, similar cross hybridization has been happening in nature forever. The study of such genetic manipulation has been occurring as early as the 19th Century at the hands of an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel who was the first to study how genetic traits were passed between different species of peas.

Henry Miller at Forbes hit the proverbial nail on the head in his piece “Chipotle, the Strangest Restaurant Menu Ever” questioning Chipotle’s “no genetic modification” promise. Miller correctly pointed out that virtually every food comes from an organism that has been genetically modified in some way at some time, scientific setting or otherwise.

In a capitalistic society, there’s nothing wrong with Chipotle catering to its perceived customer base. However, by eliminating GMO ingredients from their menu under the guise of “food with integrity”, Chipotle sends a message that using GMOs somehow demonstrates a lack of integrity, even though USDA has said GMOs are safe to grow, EPA has said they are safe for the environment, and the Food and Drug Administration has said they are safe to eat.

At the end of the day, Chipotle isn’t obligated to talk about Mother Nature’s role in tinkering with the genetics of our food, nor tell the whole story of GMOs. Having an understanding of that falls squarely on us as consumers. Whether or not you choose to buy into the idea that Chipotle can actually sell something that’s truly GMO-free, is up to you.

But you should probably ask yourself…do I want some ice with that?

Food Guidelines Should Focus on Nutrition

steve corn head shotEvery five years the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) goes through a process to review the dietary guidelines for Americans. Those of us who are a little bit older will recall the guidelines being reflected in the iconic ‘Food Pyramid’ taught in school to earlier generations. Younger generations know these guidelines today through USDA’s “My Plate” initiative.

USDA is currently in the process of (once again) of reviewing nutritional standards, but this time around there’s a major twist, one that’s of growing concern to farmers and ranchers and to anyone who is focused on nutrition and freedom of food choice.

Previous iterations of the guidelines have focused solely on nutrition, (i.e. identifying how many servings a day of fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, dairy, etc. are necessary for a balanced diet). This time around there’s a movement to try and tie other factors into the nutritional mix, including how food is produced.

For example, should a vegetable that requires more water to grow and requires greater transportation to get it to market be downgraded in USDA’s guidelines because of potential environmental impact, even if it has the same nutritional value? That’s the type of scenario USDA is considering for inclusion in nutritional standards this time around.

America was founded on the principle of an individual’s right to choose in the marketplace. If enough people want hamburgers that come from cows that were specifically raised in Nebraska, someone will fill that market. That’s what America was founded on and why it’s still the greatest country in the world.

When it comes to nutrition, science can tell us the exact make up of our food so we know just how many calories, carbohydrates, fats, etc., are in what we eat. Knowing that information and making recommendations on how much someone should have from a basic consumption standpoint makes sense for guidelines that are supposed to help people make informed dietary choices. However, putting different foods at odds based on where they are grown, how they are grown, and what goes into the process of getting them to market is something entirely different. Those should come from personal choice, not government recommendation.

There are many forces at work that are interested in limiting your food choices. Those interests have wrapped themselves in the idea that such reforms are somehow needed to save the planet or protect food animals in some way. Those ideas are clearly on display in California where residents are finding out the hard way the implications of misguided policy actions. Egg prices have nearly tripled from a year ago due to a movement pushed by animal rights activists to place restrictions on how chickens must be housed on farms. The changes were made under the guise that chickens need to be treated differently, when in reality, the groups that pushed for these modifications believe that we shouldn’t be eating eggs at all.

Allowing USDA to move what should be science-based dietary recommendations in a direction that advances extreme activists agendas for groups like PETA and the Humane Society of the United States are not good, particularly for those of us who like to eat and have a say in what we put in our mouths. At Farm Bureau we believe there’s clearly a role for government to help people make informed dietary decisions, but that shouldn’t include telling you how and where your food should come from. Some things should still be your choice and Farm Bureau will continue to work to keep government overreach off your plate.

Imbalance in Property Taxes Nothing to Be Proud Of

Steve Nelson1I recently had the opportunity to travel across Nebraska to visit with Farm Bureau members to talk about our efforts to secure property tax relief during the 2015 Legislative session. It was the first of what I hope will be several trips to connect with members on taxes and other key issues.

This particular trip started in Hastings and went west to Sidney. Along the way, I stopped to do several radio, television and newspaper interviews to explain why property taxes are such a point of concern for farm and ranch families and to outline what we believe are possible solutions to relieve a growing property tax problem.

It was a great experience, but a very real reminder that we have a lot of work to do in communicating the need for property tax relief, whether that be to members of the media or to our elected officials who will ultimately vote on key tax relief initiatives.

In making our case, I often point out that while property taxes are too high in general, they are particularly challenging for farmers and ranchers because of the nature of our business. Land is basic to farming or ranching. No occupation requires as much land as agriculture does. I talk about the fact that taxes on agriculture land have increased 162 percent since 2004, while residential and commercial land taxes during the same time have experienced considerably smaller increases.

I also point out that while farmers and ranchers represent less than three percent of our state’s population, we are now paying nearly one-third of the total property taxes collected statewide. A fact that clearly illustrates our statewide property tax burden is completely out of balance.

I’ve actually had some people (not farmers or ranchers) indicate to me that they don’t see a problem with so few people paying such a large portion of the property tax. I don’t understand that line of thinking and I’m not sure why any Nebraskans should be proud of a tax system that places the responsibility for the majority of funding for local government and schools on the backs of a small group of people. I guess the idea of equity in the state’s tax system wasn’t something these individuals cared about.

Having said that, it points out that we in agriculture have much work to do in explaining why property taxes are of such great concern. Nebraska Farm Bureau will continue to lead the way to find solutions that provide equity in our property tax system and tax relief to farm and ranch families.

Until next month,

Steve Nelson, President, Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation

 

 

What Pork Shortage, Chipotle?

Well, Chipotle is at it again. They announced they are experiencing a pork shortage because one of their suppliers violated their housing agreement for pigs. The company demands its suppliers raise pigs in “humane conditions with access to the outdoors, rather than in cramped pens.” With that producer’s violation, Chipotle is now refusing to buy their pork, which means no carnitas for customers at more than 1700 locations across the country, including restaurants in Nebraska. But guess what?! THERE IS NO PORK SHORTAGE!

Thousands upon thousands of perfectly healthy and happy pigs are being raised right here in Nebraska in barns like this.

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Plenty of room here!

Now of course Chipotle wants you to believe pigs are better off outside, but that simply doesn’t mean a better pork product. That’s why farms utilize nutrition, health care, genetics and just plain proper management. Winter is cruel to any animal, especially pigs. Frostbitten ears and noses, pneumonia, frozen water source, the list goes on and on. The indoor facilities not only provide more than enough space, but they use the latest technology to control temperature, humility and air quality. And the pigs are automatically feed and receive plenty of water. While we brave the 20 below winter, the pigs are sitting pretty at 70 degree every day.

You ask why would Chipotle insist free-range is better? It’s all about marketing. The public is so far removed from agriculture they still picture the farmer of the 40’s.

And Chipotle cashes in.farmer tech

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But guess what?! Farming has come a long way and to keep up with demand, farmers have to adapt, use new technologies and embrace a better way of doing things.

In the end it comes down to choice. Chipotle is choosing not to serve “conventionally raised” pork and you and I can choose to get our burrito somewhere else.

 

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