The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t necessarily have farm interests lined up in its crosshairs, but it’s not exactly ignoring agriculture as a target of opportunity either.

“We’ve had it pretty good in agriculture for a long time,” said Shannon Ferrell, assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, during the recent Rural Economics Outlook Conference on the Stillwater campus. “EPA went after the low-hanging fruit first, the big polluters,” Ferrell said. “Now, they’re going after the rest.”

Are they picking on agriculture? Ferrell says not exactly, although some programs, such as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), may be priorities. “Everyone is subject to pressure,” he said. “A lot of small businesses are getting squeezed by environmental regulations” that have already hit big business.

He said when the industry asks if “they are coming after us,” we have to determine: “Who are they and who is us?” “They” could be the EPA, the federal government or interest groups, he said. And “we” may be hard to identify. “We talk about ag as one unified front, but from the outside we look different.” He said outsiders see divisions within the ag industry — livestock versus grain, for instance.

To minimize damaging effects of over-regulation, Ferrell said agriculture should try to develop a more unified voice and learn more about how the process works. “We’re good at discussing our needs with the House and Senate but we are not as cognizant of administrative law (as we should be). An incredibly large amount of regulations are enacted or proposed every year.”

He said agricultural interests should be aware of those proposals and understand the effects they could have on the industry. “We need to do a better job of monitoring the administrative process,” he said. “We need to improve advocacy, establish a dialogue and educate officials. And farmers need to develop some semblance of unity.”

He said the Clean Air Act is an issue farm interests need to follow, especially as it relates to particulate matter. EPA recently considered a more strict particulate matter standard (PM10).  Ferrell said the proposed standard could have created a significant hardship on the livestock industry, for instance.  According to one estimate by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the proposed standard would have required implementation of particulate matter controls across most of the western U.S.

Ferrell said regulating particulate matter is a lot easier with point sources. “It’s harder with non-point sources.”

Solutions to reduce particulate matter in agricultural production include a “buffet of practices,” including reduced tillage, transgenic seed, wind breaks and other practices that reduce trips across a field, as well as dampening feedlots and slowing down equipment at livestock operations.

The standard is revised every five years, Ferrell said, and the change with the higher assessment has “been taken off the table,” for now. A sticking point for this and other regulations is that economic impact does not come into play, “only health.”

He said EPA is “still gathering data on air and particulates with several evaluation sites in Oklahoma. After the study, we will know more about pollution and animal production. As we see CAFO facilities grow, we will see more potential for particulate matter.”

Water

Water issues also will be critical, Ferrell said.                                                             

“Ammonia may be the next great regulatory frontier. Currently, 80 percent of ammonium emissions come from agriculture. Those emissions can form particulates that may be deposited on water.” That could put ammonium under regulations of the Clean Water Act.

Ferrell said Oklahoma faces “a lot of tough decisions on how to allocate water resources,” during a five-year process to develop a water plan. Infrastructure upgrades will be part of the discussion, he said.

“We need more robust state funding for infrastructure. We also need to look at best water use. Is it better to use it or leave it in place?”  Ferrell said current water use policy that reduces allocation if the allocation is not all used encourages use.

He said better monitoring will be necessary to improve both water quantity and quality.

Landowner liability for hazardous waste clean-up also deserves attention, Ferrell said. He cautioned anyone buying property to be aware of any hazardous material problems before buying.

“Before buying property do an environmental audit,” he suggested.  “Conducting an environmental audit can provide a landowner with very important defenses if pollution is later discovered on the property, but the audit must be done before the purchase.  You can’t do that after you buy it.”

Ferrell, both an agricultural economist and an attorney by training, said farmers may wonder if dealing with the EPA will bring “production restraints or business as usual. Will we have constraints on what we can do on the land?” he asked.

Acquiring as much information as possible about the regulatory process is an important step, as is monitoring regulations, he said.

“Also, unplug emotion from the process. Step back and see where you stand.”