D.C. swamp creeping onto American farms
By JOE BRETTELL
As summer hits full swing, American families will gather around beaches, lakes and getaways across the country, fueled by fully stocked grills, loaded coolers and pantries full of food grown and produced by American farmers. Yet even as hot dogs and snow cones mark the season, the shadow of the D.C. swamp looms increasingly over the American heartland.
The Farm Bill now awaits a conference committee with a looming September deadline, yet new complications from the tax bill, the escalating trade battle that puts American farmers directly in the crosshairs, and — increasingly — trial attorneys are pulling farmers out of the fields and into the courtroom.
Thanks to these and other complications, farm incomes have plummeted more than 50 percent in the last five years, according to the Agriculture Department. This may seem like background noise to most Americans, many of whom have never seen a working farm — however it won’t take long to start feeling the difference at the grocery store, or worse, shortages of what American consumers have come to take for granted — an ample and mostly affordable supply of food.
A recent example of the trouble facing the industry is Smithfield Foods, provider of pork products for dinner tables around the world. The company faces a host of lawsuits from a Texas law firm actively pitting a local community against one of their farmers in North Carolina. These suits were filed over accepted farming methods, despite decades of oversight from local, state and federal regulators. The suits have already cost Smithfield millions of dollars, threatening thousands of jobs and increasing food costs for working families worldwide.
Consider the implications if this becomes the model for every law firm looking to attack agricultural producers that operate near rural communities. With so many households depending on affordable groceries, does it really make sense to open our biggest producers to costly litigation that would make their jobs harder and ultimately raise costs for households?
Yet it’s not just rural farmers facing trouble. The American wine industry has been buffeted in recent months by wildfires, the fear of losing their workforce to aggressive immigration policies and serving as the target of Chinese tariffs in a budding trade war. Additionally, local and state regulation is cited by many winemakers as a major impediment to expansion. Winemakers already face major competition from every country and region in the world, yet they increasingly find themselves facing two major opponents: the natural challenges of making wine and the regulatory issue of delivering it to customers.
It’s clear that each of these elements is beginning to take a toll — a recent report showed the suicide rate among farmers stands at nearly five times the national average. It’s been a long time since our economy was driven by agricultural interests and yet even as we enjoy summer vacations, it’s important to protect the farmers who put food on our tables each day.
Here are a few potential solutions:
• Insert language in the final Farm Bill to cap “nuisance” judgments against agricultural producers. As urban areas expand into rural communities, it’s important to protect our food supply against the new neighbors who may not appreciate all it takes to deliver meals each day.
Removing the incentive for trial attorneys to see our food supply as a payday will alleviate these tensions.
• Bring labor and investment certainty to these business owners by developing an immigration reform program that will provide a stable workforce without the threat of legal complications.
• Enhance public education grants and incentives to encourage agricultural careers and understanding. As our economy and workforce move increasingly into urban environments, it’s easy to forget our agrarian roots. Developing programs to encourage education and careers in agriculture will help break down some of the challenges outlined above.
In the era of climate change, farmers will already face a big enough challenge. Piling on the threat of payday lawsuits, overseas competition and costly regulation only makes the challenging near impossible. As families around the country enjoy summertime and the foods that come with it, it’s time to make real efforts in protecting the food supply we take for granted — and the men and women who provide it.
Joe Brettell is a partner at Prosody Consulting in charge of strategic communications and government relations.
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