02/16/14 — Farmers make trip to talk issues

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Farmers make trip to talk issues

By Josh Ellerbrock
Published in News on February 16, 2014 1:50 AM

A visit to Washington, D.C., from a group of Wayne County farmers didn't make waves in the nation's capital, but at least it had North Carolina legislators talking.

A total of 14 Wayne County farmers and agribusiness professionals took a trip to Washington last week to express concerns about a number of national issues that may affect county agriculture.

As a result, at least one national legislator, U.S. Rep. George Holding, used the Wayne County visit in a speech at a hearing about an expansion of a Clean Water Act definition.

"Congressman Holding, he spoke to the House two days after we were there ... and mentioned that Wayne County farms had come," said Kevin Johnson, County Extension director.

Besides Holding, delegation members said the other legislators they visited, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, Sen. Kay Hagan and Sen. Richard Burr, were also open to their issues.

"The visit last week went well," said Rick Tharrington, county executive director at the USDA Farm Service Agency. "The Wayne County group was well-received. The issues brought up to legislators were important to legislators. It was a good example on how the legislative system is supposed to work."

"They were all interested. Being North Carolina legislators, they understand the importance of agriculture to North Carolina and probably have been approached by other groups," he said.

"I felt like the trip was very successful. You're basically just sharing some needs from the agriculture community, letting legislators know what issues you have in agriculture. I think it went well. It's difficult for them to know what the needs are," Johnson said.

During its visit, the Wayne County delegation brought up three different issues that might affect Wayne County agriculture -- the national Farm Bill, gaining funding for a Wayne Regional Agriculture Center and an expansion of EPA jurisdiction through the Clean Water Act.

When the delegation was in Washington, the Senate had just passed the Agriculture Act of 2014. President Barack Obama signed it Feb. 7.

"They actually voted on it when we were in Washington. I would like to say we had something to do with that," Tharrington said.

The concerns of Wayne County farmers were tied to cuts in subsidies to crop insurance, which helps farmers when weather and market conditions produce bad profits.

"We need programs in place that trigger for farmers so that they can rebound. Agriculture has a tendency to be feast or famine," Tharrington said.

Farmers also discussed possible support for the Wayne County regional center. That plan would create an agriculture center at the old state-owned dairy property near Cherry Hospital that would house the Cooperative Extension Service, Cherry Farm administration, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Services and Wayne County Soil and Water. Construction of the center would cost $12 million.

Legislators didn't pledge to bring any federal dollars to the project, but a few legislators did point to contacts on their own staffs that could help find potential grants for the center, Tharrington said.

"The Agriculture Center could use any kind of support -- Community Development Block Grants, rural development funds -- and we told them about how the center would position Wayne County and Goldsboro to be the education hub for agriculture," Johnson said.

The final issue discussed was an expansion of powers by the Environmental Protection Agency through the Clean Water Act. Currently, the act gives power over interstate and navigable waters. The expansion of that definition could potentially open up waterways on a farmer's property, including ditches, to be open to EPA regulations.

"Why can you be against the Clean Water Act?" Tharrington said. "Typically, farmers are for clean water and stewardship of the land. ... But the EPA through the Clean Water Act wants to determine what a stream is. They want to be able to regulate that amount of water," Tharrington said. "We would have to get permits to farm our own land. It's too restrictive, and it limits what farmers want to do with their farmland."

Currently, the new EPA regulation is under review and public comment.

"(Legislators) were glad that people within their districts had visited them. They may not always agree, but they are glad that we were there," Johnson said.