Perspective: Is This the Right Fight at the Right Time?

October 5, 2011 08:43 AM

Recently a major threat to the farm economy has been given lots of exposure: overregulation. To be sure, farmers have rarely agreed with regulation curbing our actions, but suddenly we have a sense of byzantine oversight.

One trigger has doubtless been animal rights issues. Just a few bad actors, surely. Another has been environmental rules. But few farmers are concerned with carbon emissions and their climate consequences or consider our own runoff a major contributor to water pollution.

By dismissing the problems, we see any solutions as an ominous campaign against farm practices driven by bad science, misguided critics and political malice.

There might be some simpler explanations of why we suddenly seem to be under siege.

Perennial Victims. Our public image has been carefully groomed as a paradoxical mix: marvelous professional competence that cannot quite manage markets, weather or risk without public help. In the grain sector—the largest group in ag—record prices have eliminated income as our leading challenge. So, looking down our list of Things We Don’t Like, we have raised regulation to a higher threat level.

Unemployment Fears. If you work for a major farm organization, good times are a mixed blessing. To be sure, your members are happier, but they also have less need of spokespeople to "battle" for them. In fact, the less said about farming’s boom, the better.

So what conflict can you find to justify your salary and expense account? Hmm…

Misdirection. With an economy teetering on perpetual recession, it is not good to be seen as a big winner, so farmer discomfort with prosperity’s limelight has us searching for a distraction. Morphing regulatory efforts into a peril provides such a Bright Shiny Object.

Political Opportunity. If we can sell the idea of looming regulatory overreach, we might be able to sweep away some other irritations in the process. Coupled with our antigovernment sentiment, we dream of eliminating whole agencies and their paperwork from our farms.

Hence the big regulatory threat oversell. However, it is riddled with logical and economic flaws. Many regulations are a response to customer choices. For example, the subject of animal identification—long depicted as a bureaucratic assault—is being resurrected by the livestock industry to manage disease outbreaks and allay the fears of meat buyers. The same can be said of new animal handling regulations, as in Ohio.

Of course, the main target is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The bull’s-eye is the Chesapeake Bay nutrient reduction regulations, which are viewed as The Thin End of the Wedge, foreshadowing runaway rules across the nation. I agree that they may set a precedent, but I find the industry response telling. Few discuss the science of the problem, but many passionately detail the hardship for farmers. Little mention is made of the actual water in the Bay, just finger-pointing to other possible causes.

More alarming than the overwrought warnings is the demonization of EPA. We seem to have lost sight of one humongous risk: ethanol mandate waivers.

Undoubtedly, few saw a sub–13 billion bushel corn crop on the way when this campaign began, but we are sailing into a supply crisis where one stroke of the EPA administrator’s pen could halve ethanol demand.

Even if we assume the EPA will at least try to decide each issue on its merits, hearing the same voices that decried water quality overregulation being raised to demand regulatory economic protection is difficult to reconcile.

It is possible we are facing calamitous overregulation. I doubt it. But it is also likely we are contributing to the problem and can adapt with less effort than we claim. Given the considerable collateral damage that may ensue, I would ratchet back the antiregulatory crusade. n


John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to

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