New federal leadership with a different persepctive
This spring I had the opportunity to attend two events that brought cabinet-level federal officials to Missouri. The first was EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt at the Thomas Hill Energy Center near Clifton Hill, Mo. The following week, I joined fellow members of the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City to meet new Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. He took time to meet with our group during his trip to visit USDA offices in Kansas City.
Both events were encouraging from the perspective that federal officials are listening to citizens and businesses that have been affected by the pervasive growth of regulations. But encouragement from speeches can fade when policy finally makes it out to the country. What happens next is what we will watch.
Administrator Pruitt was on his “Back-to-Basics” tour, which focused on energy regulations that target coal-fired electricity generation. Pruitt said that the “war on coal” was over, which management and members of electric cooperatives find encouraging. Generation from advanced clean-burning coal-powered plants is still the most affordable and reliable option for rural Midwest residents, especially here in Missouri where more than 2 million customers depend on electric cooperatives. Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., the wholesale supplier to our rural distribution co-ops, generates 63 percent of its power from modernized coal plants. As customers of this electricity, MFA knows that reliable and affordable generation is a fundamental need.
From the agricultural perspective, Pruitt talked about the executive order signed in the early days of the current administration that put a check on Waters of the United States. His comments were well received. I don’t have to retell the potential effects that WOTUS would have had on farming and agribusinesses. You probably saw the map circulated by Missouri Farm Bureau that showed how WOTUS would put new stipulations on land use affecting more than 99 percent of Missouri. It would have affected MFA members’ ability to farm and our ability to serve them.
The day after Secretary Perdue was sworn in, he held a roundtable discussion with farmers and farm interests from the around the country. Again, it is encouraging to see this kind of outreach from the top level of government. Around the same time, the administration announced an Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. Part of the executive order states that efforts will be taken to assure regulatory burdens do not unnecessarily encumber agricultural production, constrain economic growth, hamper job creation or increase the cost of food for Americans or for export markets.
Of particular note, in my view, is that the executive order mentions the use of technology as part of a long-term approach to making agriculture more sustainable. MFA has standing in that arena. We continue to invest in capabilities to deliver precision agriculture services and equipment to our members. And we continue to develop scouting programs that make protecting crops more efficient. These kind of endeavors serve two purposes. They make our members more efficient, and they help safeguard the environment by putting the right products on the field at the right rate and at the right time. Technologies like these deserve front-and-center attention as we find new ways to reach both production and environmental goals.
As participants in an advanced economy, I would say you can’t argue that regulations are unnecessary. Appropriate regulations have their place. But I applaud Administrator Pruitt when he says he is willing to make a commitment to us that the new EPA shouldn’t wield its regulatory mission as a way to project power. It is encouraging to hear him say that the EPA will do what it’s supposed to do: “Look for environmental problems and solve them.”
Stepping away from regulations for a minute, I would also point out that there are trade issues on the horizon that could greatly affect agriculture, especially with an oversupply in commodities. At the Kansas City event, Perdue addressed questions about the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He expressed that the administration believes it can renegotiate NAFTA to benefit agriculture. We also have to approach this with a wait-and-see attitude. For agriculture, especially with commodity exports, NAFTA has served MFA members very well over the years. All of us in agriculture want to see those benefits continue. At this juncture, we can’t afford to bottle up trade between our biggest agricultural export customers.
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