By Trista Crossley
The Washington Policy Center wrapped up 2017’s Farm Hall Series in Spokane last month, bringing together elected officials and agricultural industry leaders to answer questions from farmers and ranchers and to look at some of the issues facing agriculture in the coming year.
Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG), joined Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville); Sen. Shelly Short (R-Addy); Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission; Aaron Golladay, 1st vice president of legislative affairs for the Washington Farm Bureau; and Jim Fitzgerald, executive director of the Far West Agribusiness Association. The panel was moderated by Chris Cargill, director of the Washington Policy Center’s (WPC) Eastern Washington office. The panel was also broadcast live on WPC’s Facebook page.
“These farm halls allow the public a chance to meet their local agricultural representatives and talk about some of the issues they are concerned about or dealing with,” Hennings said after the meeting. “Hearing these comments helps the WAWG board understand what struggles farmers are facing and help direct WAWG’s advocacy efforts in Olympia and Washington, D.C.”
Water availability was one issue that kept surfacing in the farm hall discussion, especially the State Supreme Court’s Hirst decision in 2016 that effectively halted rural development by restricting the use of permit-exempt wells. During the state’s 2017 Legislative Session, the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans, refused to pass a capital budget unless a permanent legislative fix for the Hirst decision was also passed. Democrats in the House weren’t willing to do so, leaving both the Hirst decision and the capital budget in limbo.
“Two things to remember about the capital budget: one is the solution to Hirst almost certainly requires a water investment. Water investments always come through the capital budget because they are long-term issues. The other thing you should remember is if the capital budget had passed in June or July, do you really think we would be having a conversation about Hirst in a meaningful manner? I think not,” Schoesler said at the panel in response to a question about the likelihood of resolving these issues.
Short agreed adding that while the decision not to pass a capital budget until Hirst was fixed was tough, it was the right thing to do.
Other issues that panelists said were facing agriculture in the coming year included:
- Regulations that restrict the growth of agriculture;
- Committee makeup now that Democrats control the state Senate;
- Labor supply;
- 2018 Farm Bill; and
- Hours of service exemptions for truck drivers.
The panel was asked how to help the public, especially urban residents, see agriculture in a more favorable light. Golladay touted social media, saying that farmers “have to tell their story every day to everybody.” Hennings brought up the Wheat Week program, which takes a wheat-centered curriculum into grade schools across the state, as one avenue. She also emphasized the importance of educating legislators on the significance of agriculture in economics.
An audience member asked about RFID tags for cattle and recent efforts by the state to look into premise identification, which could require privately owned grazing lands be registered and that information made public. Short encouraged the cattle industry to get involved and to contact their elected officials about the issue.
The effects of a possible state carbon tax were also discussed. The fertilizer industry and many food processing plants in Washington would be hit hard and could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage when compared to other states that don’t regulate carbon.
“This is a global issue, not just a Washington state issue, so it’s not for us to solve with a carbon tax. It’s something that has to be done diplomatically across the world,” Voigt said. “We just don’t want to be put out of business because of additional taxes we have to pay that our competition isn’t going to have to.”