The path followed by two decades of changes in managing and regulating nutrient/manure hasn’t been straight, but there have been many positive steps, according to Dennis Frame, founding director of the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms. Today, however, navigating that path is getting more complex, with detours and delays at federal, state, county and local levels.
Frame, who retired as director of the research-focused Discovery Farms in 2013, remains active as professor emeritus with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He also helps dairy farmers and agricultural companies meet evolving environmental regulations as manager of Timber Ridge Consulting, Osseo, Wis. He discussed past and ongoing regulatory efforts impacting agriculture with about 400 farmers at the Vita Plus Dairy Summit 2014, held Dec. 10-11, in Red Wing, Minn.
Inconsistency in interpretation, implementation
Frame said bureaucratic inconsistency plagues dairy farmers trying hard to meet environmental standards.
“Consistency makes it a lot easier when you’re a farmer trying to figure out what you need,” Frame said. “Inconsistency makes it harder.”
According to Frame, federal rules – including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act (CWA) – are now starting to have a greater impact on state regulations. The proposed EPA/Corp of Engineers Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules have the potential to expand the reach of CWA, impacting every field on every farm in the country, he warned.
“The proposed rule could include smaller waters and even some dryland in the definition, and could result in requirements for permits that apply to navigable waters also applying to ditches, small ponds and even depressions in fields and pastures,” he said.
“If ‘water’ under the rule of federal control is expanded to cover areas such as ditches and wet spots in fields, then many routine farming and ranching activities – such as building a fence, applying fertilizer, pulling weeds and spraying for weed and insect control – could be defined as a ‘discharge’ to those areas newly under federal authority. Then, many routine farming and ranching activities may require permits, which could be denied or approved conditionally, and which would result in additional expense and paperwork for farmers and ranchers.”
EPA insists farmers are “exempt” from the rule, and the rule includes 56 normal farm activities that are exempt if implemented according to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service technical standards and are part of established farming practices. While additional practices could be added to the list, creating lists of practices means they are also susceptible to removal from the list, he warned, making EPA the ultimate authority on acceptable farming practices.
Even as federal proposals add to the layer of regulations, state rules often exceed federal regulations, and it’s becoming a game of “one-upmanship” among states to see who can implement the strongest regulations, Frame said. “States are required to to implement federal rules, and implementation is increasingly influenced by non-farm organizations spending thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars influencing policy,” he explained. “Their goal is to set policy. Things are driven by fear, and we’re arguing about things that are not fact.”
And now, counties are finding ways to exceed state and federal rules, and implementation is becoming even more inconsistent, not only from county to county, but within counties and watersheds.
“Counties are required to implement state rules, but implementation differs depending on people in the county offices,” Frame said. “The rules can be interpreted totally differently. My biggest challenge working in a watershed is the people in one office versus another. It’s the people – some with fears of agriculture – in the offices that are driving things, and there’s huge variation.”
Adding to the layers, counties and states cite other regulations – in seemingly unrelated geographies – as precedent.
What can farmers do
Frame stressed much of the influence on setting and implementing environmental regulations is being levied by people with non-farm backgrounds. In addition, nearly all college graduates heading into careers associated with environmental management and regulation lack farm knowledge or experience. The general public’s appreciation and understanding of agriculture is very low, he said.
“Agriculture is seen as ‘big’ business, and the non-farm public often has a distrust of big business,” he explained. “There are many groups demanding that all agricultural runoff be controlled.”
Frame urged farmers to take steps to bring reality to environmental regulations by increasing the understanding of what they are already doing to improve water quality, and highlight two decades of success stories.
”It requires training and education and communication with the new generation of future regulators,” he said.
Ultimately, environmental regulation comes down to political decisions at federal, state and local levels. He urged farmers and industry partners to work together – within local area and across state borders – not only to bring science and facts to the regulatory discussion, but also to stress the importance of agriculture on local economies and employment.
“Farmers and agriculture industry partners have a lot to lose,” he warned. “We have to be a team; we have to be together.”
For more on the Vita-Plus Dairy Summit, visit www.vitaplus.com.
To contact Dennis Frame, e-mail email@example.com.
Places to look and learn
Looking for ways to improve manure handling and nutrient management? Several large regional and national events are on tap for 2015. Check out the calendar of events at www.dairyherd.com for future event listings.
Midwest Manure Summit
Radisson Hotel & Conference Center
Green Bay, Wis.
UW-Extension invites you to join producers and professionals from across the country at the Midwest Manure Summit on February 24 & 25, 2015 at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center in Green Bay, Wis.
The two-day conference for farmers and agribusiness professionals focusing on the processing and handling of manure. Experts from across the country will discuss the latest techniques and methods for handling manure on farms of all sizes. Visit http://fyi.uwex.edu/midwestmanure.
Waste To Worth 2015
International Conference on Livestock & Poultry Environmental Quality
March 31-April 3
Bringing together the nation’s best science with innovative outreach on animal agriculture and the environment, the theme of the conference is “From Waste to Worth – Advancing Sustainability in Animal Agriculture”. It features four days of technical sessions, tours, networking and social events. Visit www.wastetoworth.org.
North American Manure Expo
More details to come. Visit www.manureexpo.org
2015 Dairy Environmental Systems & Climate Adaptation Conference & Tours
The Statler Hotel
This three-day regional conference and trade show will feature a unique opportunity to learn about emerging dairy housing and manure management systems, in conjunction with regional climate trends and adaptation strategies for the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
The conference will feature multiple tour options showcasing on-farm integrated waste handling/treatment systems and on-farm climate adaptation strategies. Visit www.manuremanagement.cornell.edu.