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EPA and USDA officials discuss water and pesticide status

Several top U.S. Department of Agriculture and Biden administration officials in late April told the North American Agricultural Journalists in their national meeting that they are moving ahead on perennial concerns for farmers, including Waters of the United States rules, and crop insurance improvement.

A man in a suit gestures and speaks behind a microphone in a hotel conference room.
Robert Snyder, senior agricultural adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency head, on April 25, 2022, in the Washington, D.C., area, told North American Agricultural Journalists in that the agency wants to deliver a “durable” Waters of the United States policy, and solve the policy “ping-ponging” among administrations.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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ARLINGTON, Va. — Top U.S. Department of Agriculture and government brass say the Biden administration is moving forward on a range of agriculture issues, including the Waters of the United States.

Robert Snyder, senior agricultural adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency head, on April 25, 2022, in the Washington, D.C., area, addressed the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington in their recent annual meeting in Arlington, Va.

Snyder, who advises EPA Administrator Michael Regan, said the agency’s goal is to complete the perennially controversial Waters of the United States rule before the end of the 2022 calendar year.

Three top U.S. Department of Agriculture heads -- an African American man, a woman with Asian
U.S. Department of Agriculture agency heads, from left, Terry Cosby, Natural Resources and Conservation Service chief; Marcia Bunger, Risk Management Agency administrator; and Zach Ducheneaux, Farm Service Agency administrator, met with the North American Agricultural Journalists at the group’s annual meeting in Arlington, Virginia, on April 25, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

A ‘durable’ WOTUS

Snyder said ten WOTUS Regional Roundtables will be held in May and June, involving wetlands determinations. He said ag-related organizations — including the Kansas Livestock Association based in Topeka,, June 6, 2022, and the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Foundation , based in Minneapolis, May 23, 2022 — will host some of the nationwide roundtables. The other five events will have “ag representations on them.” All of the events can be viewed via livestream on the EPA website.

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“Our goal continues to be to try and find a durable definition of Waters of the United States after really a number of years of ‘ping ponging’ back and forth due to federal court decisions and three different federal rule-makings in the last eight years,” Snyder said. “We want to try to find a solution here that stands the test of time. That’s best for the environment, best for farmers and landowners.”

The EPA is sifting through 120,000 comments that came in on the program in late 2021, and said the nation needs a durable solution that doesn’t shift back and forth with administrations. Snyder was president of Field to Market and Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture before taking his appointment from the Biden administration. He had also done policy work for the National Corn Growers Association and CropLife America. He said the EPA is working on a water policy item: a “nutrient policy framework,” which focuses on building partnerships with agriculture, state-led partnerships, as well as “market-based solutions” under the Clean Water Act.

The EPA is working to “more consistently comply with the Endangered Species Act” as they register and review pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, “not only for new ingredients, but retroactively as well.” He said this is a nonpartisan issue involving “mounting lawsuit” challenges from non-governmental organizations.

He called now a “leadership moment” for EPA to help provide farmers with “consistent access” to crop protectants, and prevent shifts due to court orders and settlements. He said it is a bigger “legal risk” for agriculture if the EPA doesn’t address the ESA.

Snyder said that, under the Biden administration, the EPA denied all pending small refinery exemptions for meeting renewable fuels use. He said more than 30 applications were denied. He also touted the administration’s emergency waiver for E15, which allows 15% ethanol to be sold from June 1, 2022, through Sept. 15, 2022. He there may be state-by-state allowances. He also underlined the administration’s initiating of a “canola pathway,” under the Renewable Fuels Standard.

Still, Snyder said environmental studies on ethanol are “all over the board” and the EPA is studying the fuel’s net effects for greenhouse gas.

“We’re looking at how we might update EPA’s modeling, somewhat to resolve that for ourselves,” Snyder said.

Snyder sees no new dicamba restrictions for the 2022 crop year, but possibly for 2023. In December, the EPA said that — despite the 2020 label, designed to address off-target damage — there were, in many states, increases in incidents. The EPA worked with states, including Iowa and Minnesota, to introduce earlier cutoff dates to reduce the incidents.

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“I do think it’s fair to say that from a broader perspective, there are still concerns about whether the current national label is sufficiently protective,” he said.

Agency brass

Robert Bonnie, undersecretary of agriculture for farm production and conservation, said organic producers have influence in the Biden administration’s “climate-smart” policies. He said the department is looking to how to help producers take advantage of consumer demand for “climate-smart” products but said there are no plans for a “climate-smart” label, which some fear could compete with the USDA’s organic labels.

Three top agency heads in the USDA gave updates on other current concerns for farmers:

A man with eyeglasses and a cattleman's cowboy hat speaks with a microphone in a hotel conference room.
Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency spoke April 25, 2022, at the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting in Alexandria, Virginian.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Zach Ducheneaux, Farm Service Agency administrator, and South Dakota native, said the agency had a good Conservation Reserve Program re-enrollment even though 2.4 million acres is re-enrolled from an expected expiration of 4 million CRP acres in the fall.

“I think the ‘R’ in CRP is critical and we overlook it a lot — ‘Reserve.’ We’ve had the reserve forage available for producers of livestock in drought-stricken areas for the past two years, and they can go out and thoughtfully hay or graze that in times of emergency, and in years where there are emergencies they can stockpile some of that forage for their livestock needs. It helps balance that out because the safety nets for livestock don’t exist in the ways livestock as they do for the crop industries," he said.

A woman speaks at a microphone in a hotel conference room.
Marcia Bunger, Risk Management Agency administrator, a South Dakota native, spoke April 25, 2022, at the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting in Alexandria, Virginia.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Marcia Bunger, Risk Management Agency administrator and another South Dakota native, said her agency is relatively small, with 400 employees, and fully staffed, but noted crop insurance companies deliver the programs through nearly 15,000 agents nationwide. She applauded the Biden administration for “equity and diversity” progress. She said the U.S. has some of the world’s best crop insurance but can do even better, specifically listing improvements for specialty crop and organic growers.

Bunger underlined climate-friendly initiatives, including that in 2021 RMA offered a $5 premium credit for farmers to plant cover crops, followed by an insured crop. This can help demonstrate the increased yield from the cover crops, as well as helping the environment.

She touted the RMA’s release of a Post Application Coverage Endorsement program for reducing risk in split applications of nitrogens, although she couldn’t immediately say what it cost to develop or what level of participation would be meaningful for judging its value. She said that even if the program only attracted “ten” participants in a pilot program in certain counties across several states in 2022, it still would have value for judging its effectiveness.

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Terry Cosby
Official portrait, Chief Terry Cosby, Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Conservation Service
USDA photo by Tom Witham

Terry Cosby, Natural Resources and Conservation Service chief, underlined that USDA has a “seat at the table” as EPA sets its WOTUS rules. Further, Cosby said there are “many farmers already are farming climate-smart already,” he said, but some need some “guidance.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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