Did you know that a housefly buzzes in the key of F? Neither did I, but I think the musical stylings of the Cicada have stolen the show this summer.
Aside from Mother Nature’s orchestra, federal agencies have also been abuzz as they continue to review the prior administration’s agencies’ rules and regulations. This week’s Ag Law Harvest is heavily focused on federal agency announcements that may lead to rule changes that affect you, your farm or business, or your family.
USDA issues administrative complaint against Ohio company. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”) issued an administrative complaint on May 4, 2021, against Barnesville Livestock LLC (“Barnesville”) and an Ohio resident for allegedly violating the Packers and Stockyards Act (“P&S Act”). An investigation conducted by the AMS revealed that the Ohio auction company failed to properly maintain its custodial account resulting in shortages of $49,059 on July 31, 2019, $123,571 on November 29, 2019, and $54,519 on December 31, 2019. Companies like Barnesville are required to keep a custodial account under the P&S Act. A custodial account is a trust account that is designed to keep shippers’ proceeds from the sale of livestock in a secure and centralized location until those proceeds can be distributed to the seller. According to the AMS, Barnesville failed to deposit funds equal to the proceeds received from livestock sales into the custodial account. Additionally, Barnesville reported a $15,711 insolvency in its Annual Report submission to AMS. Operating with custodial account shortages and while insolvent are both violations of the P&S Act. The AMS alleges that Barnesville’s violations place livestock sellers at risk of not being paid fully or completely. If Barnesville is proven to have violated the P&S Act in an oral hearing, it may be ordered to cease and desist from violating the P&S Act and assessed a civil penalty of up to $28,061 per violation.
USDA to invest $1 billion as first investment of new “Build Back Better” initiative. The USDA announced that it will be investing up to $1 billion to support and expand the emergency food network so food banks and local organizations can serve their communities. Building on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA looks to enter into cooperative agreements with state, Tribal, and local entities to more efficiently purchase food from local producers and invest in infrastructure that enables organizations to more effectively reach underserved communities. The USDA hopes to ensure that producers receive a fair share of the food dollar while also providing healthy food for food insecure Americans. This investment is the first part of the USDA’s Build Back Better initiative which is focused on building a better food system. Build Back Better initiative efforts will focus on improving access to nutritious foods, address racial injustice and inequity, climate change, and provide ongoing support for producers and workers.
Colorado passes law changing agricultural employment within the state. On June 8, 2021, Colorado’s legislature passed Senate Bill 87, also known as the Farmworker Bill of Rights, which will change how agricultural employees are to be treated under Colorado law. The bill removes the state’s exemption for agricultural labor from state and local minimum wage laws, requiring agricultural employers to pay the state’s $12.32/hour minimum wage to all employees. Under the new law, agricultural employees are allowed to organize and join labor unions and must also be paid overtime wages for any time worked over 12 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. The bill also mandates certain working conditions including: (1) requiring Colorado’s department of labor to implement rules to prevent agricultural workers from heat-related stress, illness, and injury when the outside temperature reaches 80 degrees or higher; (2) limiting the use of a short-handled hoe for weeding and thinning in a stooped, kneeling, or squatting position; (3) requiring an agricultural employer give periodic bathroom, meal, and rest breaks; and (4) limiting requirements for hand weeding or thinning of vegetation. Reportedly, Colorado’s Governor, Jared Polis, is eager to sign the bill into law.
Wildlife agencies release plan to improve Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) have released a plan to reverse Trump administration changes to the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The agencies reviewed the ESA following President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, which directed all federal agencies to review any agency actions during the Trump administration that conflict with the Biden-Harris administration objectives. The agencies look to reverse five ESA regulations finalized by the Trump administration which include the FWS’ process for considering exclusions from critical habitat designations, redefining the term “habitat,” reinstating prior regulations for listing species and designating critical habitats, and reinstating protections under the ESA to species listed as threatened. Critics of the agencies’ plan claim that the current administration’s proposals would remove incentives for landowners to cooperate in helping wildlife.
EPA announces intent to revise the definition of “waters of the United States.” On June 9, 2021, the EPA and the Department of the Army (the “Agencies”) announced that they intend to change the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”), in order to protect the nation’s water resources. The Agencies’ also filed a motion in a Massachusetts federal court requesting that the court send the Trump administration’s Navigable Water Protection Rule (“NWPR”) back to the Agencies so they can initiate a new rulemaking process to change the definition of WOTUS. In the motion, the Agencies explained that pursuant to President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, they have reviewed the necessary data and determined that the Trump administration’s rule has led to significant environmental harm. The Agencies hope to restore the protections that were in place prior to the 2015 WOTUS rule. According to the EPA, the Agencies’ new regulatory process will be guided by: (1) protecting water resources and communities consistent with the Clean Water Act; (2) the latest science and the effects of climate change on the nation’s waters; (3) practical implementation; and (4) the experience and input of the agricultural community, landowners, states, Tribes, local governments, environmental groups, and disadvantaged communities with environmental justice concerns. The EPA is expected to release further details of the Agencies’ plans, including opportunity for public participation, in a forthcoming action. To learn more about WOTUS, visit https://www.epa.gov/wotus.
Congress has enacted legislation to address security threats to the country’s food and agricultural systems. The “Securing our Agriculture and Food Act” enrolled on June 22, 2017, authorizes the government to coordinate efforts to defend U.S. food, agriculture, and veterinary systems against terrorism and other high-consequence events to create risks to homeland security. The bill has been forwarded to President Trump for approval.
The bi-partisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Young (R-Iowa) with co-sponsors Rep. Payne (D-NJ) and Rep. Donovan (R-NY), amends the Homeland Security Act of 2002. House Bill 1238 requires the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to coordinate an agriculture and food security program with federal departments and agencies that includes:
- Managing DHS responsibilities established by President George W. Bush in his 2004 Presidential Directive 9, which created a national policy for defending food and agricultural systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.
- Overseeing and integrating DHS activities related to veterinary public health, food dense, and agricultural security.
- Leading policy initiatives relating to domestic preparedness for and response to agricultural terrorism.
- Coordinating activities on food and agriculture security and screening procedures for domestic and imported products with other departments, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Rep. Young drafted the bill following Iowa’s 2015 avian influenza outbreak, which resulted in the loss of millions of chickens and turkeys in his home state. According to Rep. Young, the event raised concerns about the federal government’s ability to quickly react to animal disease outbreaks and whether the nation would be able to respond capably to agro-terrorism threats.
“We don’t always think of a terrorist attack as a deliberate, mass food contamination, or the danger a major disease outbreak could pose,” stated Sen. McCaskill (D-MO), when the bill was introduced in the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Congress needs to think forward about the wide array of threats we face and take action before there’s a tragedy, not afterwards.”
The “Securing our Agriculture and Food Act,” H.B. 1238, is available here.