A new administration and a new Congress mean some changes are ahead for agricultural policy, and there is already evidence of that in early actions in Washington D.C.

Probably this biggest is climate change policy, according to Washington ag lobbyists that joined Michelle Rook for the Agweek Farm Show. Mary Kay Thatcher, senior manager of federal government and industry relations for Syngenta, said that would have been true with either a Republican or Democratic led Congress.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a whole of government approach like this in a very long time,” she said.

Mary Kay Thatcher, senior manager of federal government and industry relations for Syngenta.
Mary Kay Thatcher, senior manager of federal government and industry relations for Syngenta.
She said farmers and ranchers and the whole ag community need to be part of these discussions.

“No good lobbyist would ever say to somebody that if you’re not at the table you’ll be on the menu, but I have to say that in my time in Washington I’ve never felt so strongly that that was indeed the case as I do with climate change,” she said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Many experts believe agriculture can win under climate change policy, including Chandler Goule, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers. He said many of the CEOs of agricultural groups got to meet with nominees prior to their confirmation hearings, including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

“Every one of those individuals we have met with emphasized to us that they understand the importance of agriculture, they understand that we are good stewards of the land, they already know that we are sequestering carbon and that many of our conservation practices are already heading in that right direction,” he said.

He said that gives him confidence that agriculture will get credit for their environmental efforts. However, Goule's concern is crafting legislation that captures that value is a completely different situation. Plus, it must be a voluntary program with incentives, and not mandatory.

Chandler Goule, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Chandler Goule, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us not only to guide USDA and all the other agencies, but Congress in this area,” he said.

Tied into that is a new regulatory regime and the fear among agriculture has been that all the burdensome rules that were rolled back in the Trump administration would be undone. Thatcher says she would be surprised if there weren’t some regulatory changes, including to the Waters of the U.S. Rule. However, she said it won’t be a return to the Obama-era WOTUS, but the agency may go back to look at the definition of a wetland.

“I think what you have to keep in mind too is they are limited in how many of these things they can look back at on some of the issues, they are limited on time,” she says.

Yet in recent days an internal memo in EPA indicated that the regulatory decision on dicamba may have been a mistake and may be reviewed, and Thatcher believes agriculture needs to be prepared for that kind of attitude in the agency going forward.

Goule agrees that whenever you change parties there is some review that takes place in agencies like EPA, but he thinks there will be an effort to keep the registration of many of the crop protection products in place. Nominees for key positions in the Biden administration have emphasized their backgrounds in agriculture and understand the importance of consistency in farm business plans, he said, noting that they know regulations can't be changed every year or two to please a political party.

Both Thatcher and Goule are somewhat optimistic the regulatory agenda won’t be burdensome to agriculture under the leadership of Regan at the EPA. Goule said Regan understands agriculture and received praise for his regulatory work in North Carolina, specifically with the pork industry.

“Michael Regan has been indeed been incredibly open about saying I’ll meet with you," Thatcher said. "Now does that mean he’s always going to support what agriculture wants? No. I think the people in the renewable fuels industry ought to feel very positive about comments that he’s made there.”

Tax policy is another area of concern since many farmers and ranchers were pleased with the Trump era tax plan and the treatment of estate taxes. Goule said they will be fighting to maintain the current estate tax rules which put the cap at $5 million per individual and $10 million per couple and include stepped up basis. However, the estate tax rolls back at the end of 2025. Thatcher thinks there will be some tax changes.

“I don’t believe the Democrats will be able to go forward with this second reconciliation bill that will look at infrastructure and climate change and probably some health care initiatives. I just don’t think that we’re ready for another $2 or $3 trillion in increasing the debt to do that,” she said.

She said they will likely find offsets that will come from those that make more than $400,000 per year.

One familiar face in the Biden Administration is Vilsack, but both Thatcher and Goule agree he has a different outlook than during his first stint in the role of ag secretary. Goule said because of Vilsack’s work as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council he has a new appreciation for trade. Vilsack is also focused on climate change policy and developing new markets for farmers to help improve their income.

Plus, Thatcher thinks there will more of a focus on enforcement of current trade agreements, like the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, with newly confirmed US. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

“You’ve got the Mexicans saying they aren’t going to take GMO corn and it’s a top corn export market, so its precedent setting,” she said.

Plus, there are other breaches of USMCA that may take legal action to curb. Plus, Goule said Canada is nowhere close to being compliant on their dairy quota issues. China is not upholding the phase one deal either, and they need their feet held to the fire. Thatcher said not only did they not meet the $36.5 billion purchase goal, they still have many phytosanitary barriers in place on U.S. goods.

In addition to climate change, the other priority for the Biden administration is infrastructure, and Thatcher thinks the two could be combined in the same bill. She expects significant work on that in Congress this summer to pass by the fall. The key will be making sure the rural needs are addressed in the package from rail and waterway repairs to roads and broadband.