Shake a farmer's hand, set aside the government's hammer (The Hill Newspaper)

March 8, 2012

The Hill Newspaper
Shake a farmer's hand, set aside the government's hammer
By Rep. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (R-Pa.)

National Agriculture Day is important for all of us, even for those who believe milk comes from convenience stores. Dr. Bruce McPheron, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University, often says, “Though we often take it for granted, most Americans shake hands with a farmer at least three times a day.” No matter how far removed from the farm, all Americans rely on access to an affordable and safe food supply. We often forget or fail to recognize that every day America’s farmers are working to fulfill one of our most basic and life-sustaining needs.   

Pennsylvania’s abundant natural resources have made agriculture the Commonwealth’s single largest industry. As in other parts of the country, our farmers know that caring for, improving and protecting the environment in which they live and work is fundamental to their livelihoods and the security of our country.

However, too often the federal government hits farmers with a punitive hammer rather than extending the hand of friendship. This has never been more apparent than the current hammering that farmers across the Mid-Atlantic have been receiving from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA is in the process of implementing Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulations on how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment can be discharged from the average farm within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

While the health of the Chesapeake Bay is of primary concern, compliance with these mandates is troublesome because the agriculture community has already been voluntarily and conscientiously working toward the same goal. Farmers have partnered with local communities and state governments to make incredible strides to protect the land they derive their livelihoods from, while simultaneously restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Shared innovations among farmers have allowed reductions in soil erosion, improvements in water quality, increases in farm lands and protections for wildlife habitats.

According to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, farmers use residue and tillage management practices, structural practices - or both - on over 96 percent of cropped acres in the region. As a result, the agricultural footprint in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is dramatically smaller than it was decades ago.

Unfortunately, the true benefits of the EPA’s TMDL requirements are unknown. The EPA has yet to release a cost-benefit analysis, despite moving into phase two of a four-step process. Although we don’t have economic analysis from EPA, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection this will cost at least $8.7 billion for compliance in the Commonwealth alone, which represents just one of six states and the District of Columbia within the Watershed.  

Furthermore, the EPA has admitted that the models used for the new requirements are vastly different than models utilized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the original assessment. Anywhere but the federal government, this would be considered bogus science.

We all want to do our part to continue improving the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, but I remain highly skeptical of the EPA’s plans moving forward. Voluntary and collaborative conservation efforts have gone a long way in improving the health of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed while also keeping farms profitable. This is a far better approach than top down government, especially during this economic downturn. Last time I checked, we all like to eat and our farmers are fulfilling that very need. So, let’s shake a farmer’s hand and put the TMDL hammer away.
Rep. Thompson (R-Pa.) represents the 5th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. He is the current Chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy & Forestry.

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