By Julie Tomascik
It’s a new year, a new Congress and a new administration. Each of those brings challenges and opportunities for Texas farmers and ranchers.
“We’re still facing the uncertainty and unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Regan Beck, Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) Government Affairs director, said. “But the coronavirus is just the latest in a line of issues like trade disputes and weather that have plagued farmers and ranchers.”
And what changes will the Biden administration bring for agriculture?
That will depend, in part, on who is nominated or appointed to fill key roles in the various federal agencies, the U.S. Trade Representative and U.S. House and Senate Agriculture Committees.
“The need to work in a bipartisan fashion is always important, but even more so now,” Beck said. “We are ready to work with Democrats and Republicans in both chambers and the new administration to ensure legislation doesn’t have unintended negative consequences for agriculture.”
For Farm Bureau, the priorities include expanding trade and market access to compete in a fair global marketplace.
“Trade is vital to agriculture,” Beck said. “We appreciated the effort by the previous administration to try to correct some of the unfairness in trade with China.
But at the same time, it’s been difficult for farmers, because trade accounts for a large percentage of the profit margin.”
Under the Trump administration, several global trade agreements were renegotiated, which led to improved trade access for agriculture.
“Keeping our farmers and ranchers in business is a national security issue so that we produce our food here in the U.S., and someone else doesn’t control our food supply,” he said. “Working with the new administration on the importance of agriculture and why we need to make sure it remains viable is a priority.”
More emphasis on climate policy is expected.
Biden’s executive order on Jan. 27 calls for the establishment of a new Climate Conservation Corps Initiative to put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protecting biodiversity, improving access to recreation and addressing the changing climate.
“One thing we will be looking at is trying to make sure those climate policies are not detrimental to agriculture and also creating them so they can be beneficial to farmers and ranchers,” Beck said. “So instead of just getting more regulations in terms of climate policies, farmers and ranchers can receive incentives for climate-smart practices.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is a member and co-chair of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance that was formed in February 2020. The alliance represents farmers, ranchers, forest owners, the food sector, state governments and environmental advocates.
The group developed more than 40 recommendations that cover six key areas: soil health, livestock and dairy, forests and wood products, energy, research and food loss and waste.
Those recommendations include providing voluntary, incentive-based tools and additional technical assistance to sequester carbon, as well as increasing federal investments in agriculture, forestry and food-related research.
“We need to have a seat at the table in climate discussions, so we can share how agriculture is part of the solution and not the problem,” Beck said. “With AFBF involved in these ongoing discussions and the additional leverage from the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, American agriculture will have strong representation.”
Farmers and ranchers have reduced per-unit greenhouse gas emissions and continue to care for natural resources while growing crops and raising livestock.
“Our focus will be on building on the great strides we’ve already made in climate-smart farming,” Beck said. “Those efforts will require collaboration with Biden’s team and the new Congress to expand research opportunities and navigate the changing landscape.”
But agriculture faces a labor crisis.
Farmers and ranchers need a reliable, legal workforce, and updated legislation that addresses both farmer and worker concerns would provide certainty and job security in rural Texas. Certain sectors of Texas agriculture, like dairies, need year-round laborers. The current H-2A program doesn’t have any provisions for year-round jobs.
“Texas agriculture needs an updated agricultural labor program,” Beck said. “The current H-2A program is flawed, and it has a lot of bureaucratic red tape.”
Rural connectivity has expanded some in recent years, but much of rural Texas and rural America still face a lack of broadband access and cell service. Data from the Federal Communications Commission show that 26.4 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband, compared to only 1 percent of urban Americans.
“To put it simply, it’s time to bring rural Texas up to speed and complete the grid. Rural communities, farms and families are at a disadvantage without broadband access,” Beck said. “Farmers and ranchers embrace technology that allows their businesses to be more efficient, economical and environmentally-friendly. Access to broadband is key to the technology benefit.”
Several regulatory burdens were lifted during the Trump administration, including the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.
In 2020, the Trump administration announced the new Navigable Waters Protection Rule under the Clean Water Act. The rule was championed by agriculture for the balance it offered between federal, state and local authority of water management.
“Texas farmers and ranchers are committed to clean water,” Beck said. “Repealing and replacing the flawed 2015 WOTUS rule was a big win for agriculture, and we will monitor this issue, as well as others, to prevent any rollbacks to overreaching regulations.”
Although challenges may be ahead, farmers, ranchers and Farm Bureau face the future with optimism.
“President Biden’s term marks another new chapter in our history,” Beck said. “We must continue to build on the advancements we’ve made toward regulatory reform and focus on future opportunities. Farm Bureau stands ready to work with our elected leaders to ensure Texas farmers and ranchers can continue to provide a viable long-term, domestic source of food, fiber and fuel.”