When I envision the symbolic American cowboy of the Wild West, I picture a rugged man sitting atop his horse, overlooking the rough and rolling hills he loves, where he carves out a living for his family with the cattle he tends to. He’s fiercely independent, passionate about his way of life, and has a code of ethics that’s as firm as his handshake.
While the modern rancher has the same core job and values as he did 200 years ago, today’s cattlemen face new challenges that threaten to put them out of business—changes imposed by societal demands, increased regulatory pressure from the government, and a sensational media that’s hell bent on painting an ugly picture of today’s food producers.
As a South Dakota beef producer, I know firsthand how these external pressures are changing the landscape of ranching outfits like my family’s. The agricultural industry is paying close attention to the policies and ideologies of the vying candidates and how a new administration in Washington, D.C., could impact our businesses and way of life, for better or for worse.
So what are ranchers hoping for in the 2016 election this November? Out on the range, my peers in the cattle business visited with me about their top priorities for change with new leadership moving into the White House.
Stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Land Grab
Most farmers and ranchers would agree that the EPA’s increased regulatory environment has deeply hurt farming and ranching families. From the agency’s attempt to regulate dust, to its use of the Clean Water Act to restrict property rights of land owners, to its Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, and more, the EPA’s expansive federal power has been abused in what appears to be a powerful land grab that puts a target directly on farmers and ranchers.
“We need an administration that will rip to shreds corrupt agencies like the EPA,” says Montana farmer and rancher, Patrick Hackley. “We need leadership who will demand a culture of customer service, where these agencies help instead of hinder.”
For example, under the WOTUS rule, all “navigable waters,” including irrigation systems, stock ponds, drainage ditches, dry creek beds, manmade ditches, and even mud puddles, are under the jurisdiction of the EPA. For farmers and ranchers to be in compliance with the rule, they must now purchase costly permits and navigate their way through complicated government red tape.
What’s worse, in the last year, the EPA has been heavily involved in litigation against farmers. In Wyoming, a rancher is involved in a lawsuit with the EPA after he was slapped with nearly $20 million in fines over his stock pond. In California, a farmer was sued by the EPA for plowing through his privately owned field. And in New York, a 77-year-old farmer is currently facing a whopping $37,500/day fine for moving a rock near the dike he had built.
Most recently, the EPA has been criticized for inappropriately using funds to lobby for stricter regulations on farmers and accusing livestock owners of polluting waterways. The EPA campaign included billboards that were displayed in Washington and read, “Unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk.” The billboard directed viewers to a website, whatsupstream.com, and showed an image of dairy cattle standing in water.
The livestock industry has since protested the smear campaign, and the billboards were taken down after the Government Accountability Office determined the EPA violated the law in lobbying for the WOTUS rule. However, I fear the damage has already been done and consumer perceptions about how livestock producers manage the land’s natural resources have been skewed in a negative direction.
“The EPA is not performing the duties it was intended to do,” says Hackley. “The EPA is leading an all-out assault on natural resources that make the very paper, pens, computers, and other office items they use every day. Those assets don’t magically appear; they are made by the coal, oil, and gas industries. The agency is operated on biased theories and wild ideas, not simple economics and science. If we don’t get them out of the way, it will lead to the very demise of the Western United States.”
Rein in the Bureau of Land Management(BLM)
The open range of Oregon took center stage in the press earlier this year when ranchers Dwight Hammond (age 73) and his son Steven (age 46) were charged with treason and arson after lighting back fires, with permission from the BLM, on federal land where their cattle were grazing. The back fires were set in an attempt to slow the spread of a wildfire, which ultimately destroyed nearly 140 acres of pasture. The judge ruled to a sentence of five years in prison, plus $400,000 in fines. The Hammonds are currently seeking a presidential pardon, but they continue to sit in jail while the agricultural industry cries foul.
The injustice of this case has highlighted the BLM’s abuse of power. The Hammonds have held grazing permits in the area for 45 years, and their neighboring privately owned land would be quite the prize for the federal government. The BLM offered to drop all 22 charges against the Hammonds if they would simply sign over two-thirds of their ranch to the federal government, proving that the BLM is using legal action to forcefully remove these ranchers from this land.
While this is just a single case of a power struggle one ranch family is facing with the BLM, it highlights a bigger issue for many ranchers in the West. In fact, an entire breakout session at the 2016 Cattle Industry Convention, held in San Diego, Calif., earlier this year, focused on how ranchers who have grazing permits on public lands can foster stronger relationships with local federal government employees to avoid confrontation, litigation, fines, and other bureaucratic road blocks.
There is an inherent mistrust of ranchers’ abilities to manage public land, despite the fact that cattle grazing reduces the spread of wildfires, aerates the soil, and creates a healthier environment for wildlife to thrive. Government overreach is making it harder and harder for ranchers to manage this land.
“We need to harvest timber, graze land, and perform prescribed maintenance backed by science and common sense,” says Hackley. “The BLM and other agencies think ranchers are trying to destroy the land, which is not the case, and they make the process so cumbersome and complicated that it’s very frustrating to ranchers.”
“Overreach of the federal regulation is an enormous concern,” adds James Decker, an agricultural lawyer who is still involved in his family’s cow-calf operation. “It’s not just the well-publicized WOTUS rules, it’s the previously-attempted EPA dust regulations, the Department of Labor (DOL) regulations that would cripple children working on farms, new DOL rules placing restrictions on retirement accounts, etc. Every aspect of the federal bureaucracy continues to find ways to create a nanny state, restricting decision-making of the individual and limiting choice in the name of ‘protecting’ people. It’s a kudzu vine that threatens to overtake everything in America, and congressional action is desperately needed.”
Support of Energy Harnessed in the U.S.
Whether it’s coal, natural gas, wind, solar, or ethanol, the energy industry is currently facing plenty of challenges that producers are hoping will change with the 2016 elections.
At the end of March, nearly 500 coal miners were laid off in Wyoming as a result of steadily increasing demands imposed on coal companies under the Clean Air Act. That, combined with a decrease in the demand for coal due to competition from low natural gas prices, led to layoffs, forcing many families living in these rural communities to relocate and find work elsewhere.
“There needs to be a balance in the energy industry,” says Hackley. “Solar and wind require the oil and gas industry to produce the equipment that performs the solar and wind energy process. Killing the coal, oil, and gas industries will only make the investment of solar and wind more expensive.”
Meanwhile, ethanol production continues to be a top priority for many of the nation’s corn farmers, who are facing a supply-and-demand issue with high yields, low prices, and a lack of infrastructure to support the ethanol industry, which could provide a market outlet for the surplus of grain.
“Ethanol should be a top priority,” says Jason Frerichs, a farmer from Wilmot, S.D., and District 1 State Senator representing the Democratic party in the South Dakota Legislature. “I think we need to support ethanol as the fuel of choice because it’s oxygenated fuel. We need to make sure ethanol has its stake in the marketplace because of its ability to provide cleaner air and offer an alternative for people when they are fueling up. We need to have the infrastructure and look for ways to market export ethanol to places like Brazil, China, and Europe.”
Protecting the Safety Nets Provided in the Farm Bill
The Farm Bill offers many programs for agriculturalists; however, ranchers have mixed emotions about the effectiveness of what is offered.
“Whether we like it or not, ranchers rely on government programs offered in the Farm Bill,” says Frerichs. “The Livestock Indemnity Program, for example, protects ranchers in situations like blizzards or calving loss. And Livestock Risk Protection has a little bit of a subsidy, just like Crop Protection does. Subsidies are still important, and farmers and ranchers should be focused mainly on trying to hold on to the support offered through agricultural risk coverage and crop insurance.”
“Agriculture producers need to look ahead to a world with a less supportive Farm Bill,” adds Decker. “We’ve continued to creep in that direction, and it’s not going to get any easier in the future. While we need to continue advocating for the best safety net we can get, we would be foolish to not consider contingency plans ‘just in case.’ As business owners, we can’t look up one day and suddenly be without a support system, and never have considered a Plan B.”
Meanwhile, some ranchers believe they would be better off without government help or intervention of any kind.
“I support the elimination of government subsidies of any kind, including agriculture, that disrupt the competitive business market,” argues Charles Lambert, a retired cattleman and U.S. Air Force colonel from Colorado. “We need leadership who has the spine to stand up to irrational spending in the government.”
Kill the Death Tax
When there is a death in the family, farmers and ranchers not only have to mourn the loss of a loved one, but they also have to fear the loss of their entire operation, thanks to a steep death tax that can quickly tear apart even the most successful operators.
“We need an administration that will eliminate the death tax, to protect farmers, ranchers, and other hard-working folks, and the legacy they want to pass onto their heirs, most often so they can continue operations,” says Lambert.
The current estate tax exemption is $5.43 million/person or $10.86 million/married couple, which seems like a lot until you consider the value of the land, livestock, equipment, and other assets needed to run a farm or ranch. If producers are unable to pay the tax, it usually results in the family racking up major debt or having to break apart the operation and sell it piece by piece.
“Here in South Dakota, we are land rich and cash poor, leaving roughly one-third of South Dakota farms vulnerable to the death tax, based on cropland values provided by the USDA,” explains Senator John Thune (R-SD) in an opinion article he wrote in April 2015 for the Rapid City Journal. “The death tax imposes a tax rate as high as 40 percent on family farms, ranches, and small businesses, which hurts economic growth by discouraging savings and development.”
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the estate tax is expected to generate $246 billion from 2016–2025.
Bridge the Gap Between Consumers and Producers
Another concern food producers have is the growing disconnect between rural and urban America.
Today’s consumer is four generations removed from the family farm, and much of the information they receive about how their food gets to the dinner table comes from celebrities, YouTube videos, and misconceptions presented in the media.
This disconnect leads to confusion, fear, and misinformed voters who ultimately decide to pass or fail legislation that can dramatically change the way producers are able to raise food in the United States. Whether that’s banning gestation crates, eliminating the use of antibiotics, or labeling genetically modified foods, following rigid new regulations ends up being costly, labor-intensive, and destructive to the American farmer and rancher.
“I don’t see 2016 electing a president that is a slam-dunk champion for agriculture,” says Decker. “In agriculture, our biggest issue is the continually growing divide between rural and urban America. Rural Americans must find a way to connect and avoid becoming the forgotten people who are treated as an archaic novelty by suburban legislators. I do hope the election brings a willingness in Congress to actually pass legislation and serve the people.”
Says Hackley, “We need leadership in Washington, D.C., who understands the American farmer and rancher and wants them to succeed.”
Maintain our Right to Farm and Ranch
While there are numerous other issues agriculturalists are concerned about (health care, immigration, export markets, and the economy, to name a few), at the end of the day, I think all of us in the food production business care deeply about protecting our way of life while also providing healthy, affordable food for the world. To do this, we must fight to preserve our rights to maintain the land, nurture our livestock, and build a life in the country that we love without government interference or intrusion that could force us out of business.
The image of the cowboy might look a little different today than in the days of the Wild West, but his priorities remain the same. The cowboy remains a patriot who stands by God, country, and family, and it’s with great thought that the cowboy will place his vote in 2016 to determine which course of leadership will best serve the agricultural industry that he loves.