Letter from Langdon: WOTUS World

We hear a lot about how a proposed water-protection rule would affect family farmers. But the folks pushing hardest against the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) are corporations. That’s because they like the sweet deal they are currently getting: The public purse pays to clean up their private messes.

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Sometimes rules are important, but let me be first to admit it.

I hate rules.

On the other hand … take financial markets for instance. We thought we had rules to protect us, but $426 billion in bailouts is what it cost U.S. taxpayers to prevent financial Armageddon when a few big banks crossed the line.

What happens if big corporations control water quality?

If for no other reason than corporate excess, America needs rules.

That's why the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new clean Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules that will help protect water quality in America for generations to come.

Over the last couple of years, Missouri's General Assembly has liberalized foreign ownership of Missouri livestock and farmland. Shuangui Limited, a foreign corporation bankrolled by the Chinese government, has taken over Smithfield Foods with holdings in Missouri and 25 other states. 

One reason the Chinese government must diversify here is due to the fact that 40% of China's farmland is polluted and unfit for food production.

But Smithfield isn't the only vertically integrated, concentrated livestock operation in Missouri. Instead of family farms, they and three other very large corporations control 70% of U.S. pork production from conception to supermarket.

That's what vertical integration is all about.

Our neighboring state to the north, Iowa, has had experience with corporate livestock dating to the 1970s. Now, nitrate buildup is levying its painful price on Iowa's efforts to protect safe drinking water.

Agriculture is seen as the culprit.

The fact is, without rules, the cost of protecting and purifying America’s drinking water could make bank bailouts seem insignificant. So why has EPA's Clean Water Rule been vilified as excessive overregulation?

My organization, the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America, known also as National Farmers Union, has expended countless hours educating EPA and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, about agriculture. While many of my farmer friends in the Dakotas still have reservations about proposed regulation and permitting of ephemeral streams (streams that only flow part of the time) and prairie potholes, here in Missouri our concerns about ditches and storm drainage from excessive rainfall have been alleviated. EPA has stated clearly that previously unregulated practices of agriculture will remain as they always have been— unregulated.

But for that interpretation of WOTUS rules to work, two things must happen. First, you'd have to believe what EPA says. That might be a problem. It's hard for farmers to trust bureaucrats when a storm of complicated paperwork might fall out of the sky and wipe us out. Some farms are equipped to handle government tsunamis and some aren't. Especially family farms. 

It's scary to think that one wet year could suddenly unleash regulations we thought didn't exist.

Tens of thousands in government fines could bankrupt most of us.

Second, you'd have to believe farmers who say everything they do is justified because of who they are. There's not much mea culpa in farm country these days – even in Iowa where excess manure and other farmer-applied plant nutrients can be traced back to the top of the farm field hill where it came from.

Photo by Gene Alexander/USDA
A hog farm in Georgia, with a waste lagoon in behind the pins.
For instance, take the USDA cost-share program known as EQIP. Government loves acronyms. In this case the acronym EQIP stands for Environmental Quality Incentive Program. EQIP cost-share grants are used by farmers to apply fertilizer more effectively, seed cover crops that protect soil from erosion and preserve plant nutrients, and help livestock producers protect ground water through a variety of practices. Here in Missouri, integrated animal agriculture (hogs and poultry) has been pushing for a bigger chunk of total available EQIP grants for the purpose of building manure storage.

Since manure storage is second only to housing animals that generate it, one would think that corporations are equipped to deal with that. Instead, what they are doing is telling thirsty taxpayers it should be up to them, the taxpayers, to build a vital part of that private business infrastructure – for free.  Big ag not only doesn't want to be held accountable for what they do, they want more tax-dollar subsidies too.

Corporations and big industrial ag-producer organizations generally speak with one voice against any hint of government regulation. But many times self interest, not principle, is the greatest driving force in any antigovernment campaign. Corporations don't want to see a drag on sales if farmers cut back to comply with new regulations. And while big farms and livestock integrators say they're existence is justified because they're more efficient than family farms, they constantly seek legal advantages that put them ahead of the best interests of family farmers.

Sometimes when family farmers sign onto campaigns that claim to “support agriculture with one voice,” we are our own worst enemies.

That's because we shouldn't be expected to bear the environmental burdens of industry and concentrated corporate hogs and poultry. We shouldn't even be expected to worry about it other than for its impact on our own clean water supplies. If everything EPA and the Obama Administration says is true, the Clean Water Rule respects family farms as it protects Missouri's and other states’ water resources from corporate excess.   

Clean Water Rules should be indisputable – before thirsty Americans lump farming into the same bankrupt category as subprime lenders.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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