As the dust settles from the Nov. 6 election, members of Washington’s agricultural industry are preparing for next year’s legislative session and what they hope to accomplish at both the state and federal levels.
Those priorities were articulated at a Nov. 26 Farm Hall meeting in Mount Vernon hosted by the Washington Policy Center (WPC). Attendees and panel members also used the meeting to express growing frustration over what they view as a disconnect between the farmers who grow the food and the public who consume those products yet are unaware of how government regulations can hamstring their businesses.
Ben Elenbaas is president of the Whatcom County Farm Bureau and vice president of the Whatcom County Cattlemen’s Association. At the meeting, he told attendees that “one of the problems we run into…is people don’t know where their food comes from. They’ve been indoctrinated that the agricultural industry is bad, and it starts in the schools.”
He added that they also have to contend with advocacy groups that push environmental policies on farms such as pesticide regulations and farm water access rules that don’t mesh with science. “Our growth management act is the biggest tool…these people use to destroy us. They don’t play by science – they play by political science. They’re coming at us with ‘Look this is either or,’ not that ‘we can have both.’ If we want to continue to live and produce and consume…we have to come to terms with this.”
An example of onerous regulations in the eyes of many agricultural industry members came earlier this year when two milk farm organizations filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Ecology over new permit standards for storing cow manure that surpassed federal requirements.
Striking a similar tone was panel member Sarah Wixson, a shareholder with Stokes Lawrence Law Firm that helps farming businesses navigate legal issues. She told attendees that there was “a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of farm work” reflected in the regulatory structure. She also noted a recent State Supreme Court ruling on overtime exemption for seasonal workers that could have troubling implications for growers.
“Power dynamic between employer and employee has changed drastically,” she said. “The power is not in the employer. The power is in the employee.”
She added that further hindering farmers are “different regulations doing different things and you have to react to one, and it screws up something else.”
Along with persistent apprehensions over trade wars between the U.S. and other countries, panel members such as Elenbaas say farming access to water remains a hindrance. Although state lawmakers passed a new law intended to resolve complaints leveled against the State Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, attendees said that farmers in Skagit County are still unable to dig the new wells they need to remain in operation.
Elenbaas said water use in Whatcom County is “at the forefront of my mind all the time. Can I use my land because it’s up against a stream? Can I have productive farmland because I can or can’t use the farm water?”
Panel member Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) argued for a two-prong approach, with the idea of making gains on regulatory issues both through the state legislature and at the federal level. However, the fallout from the Nov. 6 election resulting in the loss of numerous Republican seats in both the state House and Senate means it will require renewed collaboration on both sides of the aisle with lawmakers who represent farming communities, he added.
It also requires stronger outreach by farmers to their legislators, he said. “It’s crucial that conversation happens. My goal is for you folks to be able to spend your time working on your products, working with your customers, but not working with the government. That’s what you need to be doing.”
Yet, Ericksen sees a major challenge ahead without a divided Senate creating a “backstop” against harmful legislation, and anticipates new energy tax proposals as well as reintroduction of a bill requiring that farmers notify the state Health Department a week in advance before they spray pesticides.
Washington State Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sandison told attendees that regarding pesticides “the most important thing…is that the discussion around that is science-based and not emotion-based.”
Ericksen sees the opportunity to get changes made to federal water laws via U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
As trade talks continue, he envisions an outcome in which Washington continues to export apples to countries such as Japan, without also having state raspberry producers undercut by foreign competition through unfair practices.
In the long-term, Elenbaas says growers need to retake control of their industries’ narratives. “For too long, I think we’ve been sitting back and letting these people tell our stories. The real environmental stewards are the farmers. Us farmers and landowners are going to be the solution, we’re not the problem.”