Michelle Kitchens 2017-02-07 02:53:12
Farm Bureau priorities in the legislature Arkansas Farm Bureau has been advocating on behalf of farmers and ranchers for more than 80 years, mobilizing a force of volunteer leaders to engage lawmakers. As the 91st General Assembly launches its session, Farm Bureau has multiple priorities to improve or maintain a strong business environment for agriculture. During this session, the organization will call upon the support of our almost 191,000 members to work with elected officials to accomplish these goals. Protect Agriculture Exemptions This is a constant priority for Arkansas Farm Bureau (ArFB). Sales tax exemptions for agricultural input items keep our farmers and ranchers competitive in the global economy. “Farm Bureau has been instrumental in establishing most of the exemptions on the books. Farming is a business, and our position has always been that agriculture merits the same advantages as other sectors,” said ArFB President Randy Veach. “When the utilities exemptions were passed in 2013, it not only helped the farmer but those savings went right back into the rural economy.” A revision of the state tax code has been widely discussed. Farm Bureau believes maintaining exemptions that keep the cost of doing business affordable is important. These exemptions save farmers millions of dollars annually and help keep the state economy strong. “The loss of agriculture exemptions would be devastating,” Veach said. “The farm economy and by extension the state economy lives and dies by them.” Additional Funding for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Supporters of the Division of Agriculture were successful in 2015 in securing an additional $3 million in onetime funding. That was no easy task to accomplish with reduced surpluses and large tax cuts. But it was only one-time funding. What’s really needed is an increase in base funding. Agriculture organizations are united in their support for more base funding for the Division of Agriculture. “It’s hard to overestimate the critical role that the Division of Agriculture plays in the state’s landscape. Our members use the research, participate in the education programs and have been through the LeadAR program. Adequate funding is such a growing challenge,” said ArFB Vice President of Public Affairs and Government Relations Stanley Hill. There hasn’t been an increase in more than a decade. The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture has a presence in all 75 counties, providing valuable research and education services. It often doesn’t get a share in the increases allotted to other higher education institutions, and it doesn’t charge tuition so that source of funding is unavailable to it. Additional funding is needed to retain employees in a competitive research environment and maintain services to Arkansas citizens. Retention of Present Structure of Commodity Research and Promotion Programs Since their creation, the commodity research and promotion programs are an example of the ultimate in public-private partnerships. Funded by farmers and agriculture businesses that pay the assessments, these check-offs support research that aids farm efficiency and environmental stewardship. Check-off dollars also support promotion projects and help increase consumption of participating commodities. The soybean, rice, catfish, beef, corn, grain sorghum and wheat research and promotion boards are made up of farmers and industry individuals selected by their respective organizations including Arkansas Farm Bureau. Those boards are committed to the wise use of check-off funds and the best interests of Arkansas agriculture. “The check-offs have had so much positive impact in providing research funding. The collective promotion of commodities creates a bigger voice,” said Jeff Pitchford, director of state affairs for ArFB. “It’s an empowering thing to see farmers and ranchers make decisions about research and promotion.” Seed Standardization Law The state has long precluded the local regulation of fertilizer, agriculture pesticides and chemicals, preferring that state agencies govern those regulations. This law would add seed technology to that list. County and city governments in Oregon, Washington and California have recently sought to limit the use of genetically enhanced seeds. Arkansas farmers support the use of biotechnology as a way to safely increase yields and often reduce water, pesticide and chemical use. Regulation at the state level is key to maintain consistent and scientifically sound rules. We think this is an important addition to state law to maintain a farmer’s right to farm. “There is so much misinformation about biotechnology. In other states, we’ve seen local governments limit the use of some seeds,” Pitchford said. “Those regulations aren’t based in science, and they limit farmers’ ability to make the best choices for their operations. State level regulation protects the interest of farmers from special interests.” Protection of Livestock Farming and Ranching Practices Many organizations would like to see animal agriculture abolished or raising livestock altered in significant ways. Arkansas Farm Bureau helped pass a right-to-farm law many years ago that protects farmers against nuisance complaints and limits the ability of local government to pass laws concerning animal husbandry. It’s a priority of Farm Bureau to maintain reasonable regulations for animal agriculture and environmental regulations based in science instead of emotion. “Animal agriculture is always under tremendous scrutiny. We see animal welfare groups interjecting themselves into the law-making process all over the country,” Veach said. “If those groups were successful, there might not be any animal agriculture left and what’s left might not even be what’s best for the animal. “Our objective is to protect a farmer’s or rancher’s right to farm and preserve their ability to care for their animals. Our farmers and ranchers possess so much expertise in animal husbandry, and they have professional veterinary resources when they lack skill or knowledge.” Strengthen Private Property Protection Another key component in strengthening right-to-farm laws in Arkansas, is revising the trespassing code. Arkansas Farm Bureau will support efforts to strengthen state trespassing statues where criminal intent is involved and to limit landowners’ duty of care for trespassers. We’ll also advocate for trespass penalties when access to property goes beyond the agreed to scope of activity or employment purposes. Private property protection is vital to landowners. It guards against criminal activity and organizations wanting to harm agriculture. “It’s a simple truth that no one farms without land. We’re going to support multiple pieces of legislation related to this issue,” said Zac Bradley, ArFB’s Director of Public Policy and Government Relations. “We think strengthening state trespassing laws will be able to give farmers and ranchers more protection from theft from people opposed to agriculture and give them some lawsuit protection from trespassers.” Exemption for Arkansas Forestry Commission Rehires During Emergencies Arkansas Farm Bureau is committed to the most efficient use of state funds. An exemption for rehiring retired state employees for fire emergencies will help the Forestry Commission control costs. Retired former Forestry Commission workers are presently prohibited from working, even on a contract basis or temporarily, during times of emergency. This often forces the Forestry Commission to hire and house out-of-state workers for firefighting and other emergencies. A simple correction of state law will allow the Forestry Commission to access the in-state expertise of retirees during such emergencies. “This issue is about protecting Arkansas property and people and doing it efficiently,” Bradley said. “It was an unintended consequence to the passage of the ‘double-dipping’ law for state retirees. Unfortunately, the state can’t hire the instate expertise of recent retirees for fire emergencies. This is a common sense change.” State Government Reorganization We’ll monitor and advise lawmakers regarding any reorganization of state government agencies and functions. Agriculture collaborates with many state agencies, and keeping their essential expertise and functions intact is important. Our focus will be on agencies and boards that have a direct impact on the agriculture industry. “It’s a big trend nationwide to reorganize state government. There can be a lot of positives to that like consolidating resources, removing duplications, saving tax dollars and the ability to offer better compensation when you combine positions and tasks,” Pitchford said. “Farm Bureau wants to work to achieve all those goals but make sure we keep services available for our membership. Agriculture is a technical field, and we want to retain the best services and right personnel while being efficient.” Beyond the priority list, Arkansas Farm Bureau expects to engage on a number of issues, including support for highway infrastructure funding, funding for Discovery Farms research and the tuition loan repayment program for veterinary students. We also hope to support changes to the law or funding that increases broadband internet service to rural Arkansas. Additionally, Farm Bureau will support an increase in the State Plant Board penalty matrix. We also anticipate bills related to animal welfare, feral hogs and levee districts. We’ll use the policy decided by our members to guide our positions on those bills. The priorities and positions of the Arkansas Farm Bureau are guided by our grassroots policy process. We take our marching orders from our members. Farm Bureau will never waver in its efforts to accomplish the goals of farmers and ranchers and to improve rural Arkansas. One of the goals of the founders of Farm Bureau, to advocate for the interests of agriculture in the public arena, remains constant in everything we do.
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