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Haywood farmers to lawmakers: enough with the regulations

fr statefarmHaywood County farmers caught some face time with elected leaders this week over heaping plates of bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and hash browns to talk candidly about the issues facing today’s farmers — and the unrelenting rain over the past week wasn’t one of them.

Instead, ever-stricter environmental regulations, tougher labor standards, tighter immigration policies, loss of tax write-offs, pesky animal rights groups and arduous food safety rules are what’s putting the squeeze on WNC’s small farmers.

“There’s enough restrictions out there to break you,” said Don Smart, president of the Haywood County Farm Bureau and a full-time farmer. “It is getting a little scary.”

Society should be supporting farmers, not making their profession more arduous — especially considering the average age of American farmers is 60.

“Every day, three times a day, you need the American farmer,” said Wendy Carver, the manager of Haywood County Farm Bureau. “Who is going to feed you people as these farmers age out?”

Farm Bureau hosted the breakfast to brief lawmakers on how the lofty policies trickling down from Raleigh and Washington are hurting farmers. 

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Smart said some farmers have quit rather than deal with the regulations.

“We did have nine dairies in this county and now we’re down to eight,” Smart said. “And we lost one of our best vegetable producers in the county.”

Smart said Haywood County’s dairy industry appears to be under attack from outside groups, citing one dairy farm that went out last year following allegations of animal mistreatment and neglect. Amid public relations fallout from animal cruelty allegations by PETA — the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — the dairy sold off its cows and shut down.

Smart also criticized federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules for migrant labor camps as over-reaching — like nitpicky requirements that silverware be returned to cabinet drawers when not in use or that trashcans must have their lids on at all times.

Farmers are used to setbacks. Smart’s even had tomatoes picked from his fields by thieves in the dark of night, making off with his picking buckets to boot, although thankfully it was just a couple bushels’ worth.

But some nuisances are far more serious. The elk herd expanding out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is ravaging the nearby dairy farm of Ralph and Barbara Ross, threatening their livelihood and way of life.

“We had 20 elk on our farm at one time last week,” Barbara said. 

Luckily, farmers have inborn tenacity, said Carver.

“They just keep on keeping on,” Carver said.

But without younger farmers coming along, the problems shouldered by farmers today could be everyone’s problem in the future.

“In another 30 years, they’re going to be wondering how we are going to feed everybody,” said Tommy Cabe, a Haywood farmer.

U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, vowed to do his part to fight for interests of mountain farmers in D.C. But Meadows needs backing, all the way down the food chain to the local elected leaders to help make the case.

“He’s got a difficult job trying to convince urban congressmen that farmers have problems,” Smart said. 

Smart called on the county commissioners and town aldermen to add their voices to the choir to ensure the message is heard.

Meadows said he has pushed back against regulations that are bad for farmers — from lobbying federal agencies directly to speaking at rule making hearings to imploring other congressmen to join him in the cause. Meadows was lauded several times during Monday’s breakfast for not only being accessible and receptive but actually going to bat in D.C. for issues important to the region.

Meadows in turn thanked the Farm Bureau for arming him with data and stories.

“When I am able to share real stories of ‘Well, let me tell you what happened to Ralph,’ then they start to see the connection and impact it has for real people,” Meadows said.

One of farmers’ top concerns is the proposed expansion of the Clean Water Act that would bring the tiniest of streams and ponds — every ditch and mud hole, according to Smart — under the jurisdiction of federal water quality rules.

Meadows called the rule “crazy” and said he’s been lobbying against it. 

Farmers also decried proposed crop handling rules aimed at decreasing the risk of contamination of fresh produce. It would saddle small farmers with a debilitating amount of red tape and documentation — too much to justify given the small size of their operations, the farmers said.

“I don’t know of a person in this room who’s against clean water. All of us want safe food,” Meadows said. But these rules would go too far, he said.

Another issue at the federal level is the immigration crackdown, and farmers wonder whether exemptions would be made for the migrant farm labor pool.

On the state level, a rundown of the bills important to farmers was offered up by Jake Parker, the lobbyist for Farm Bureau in the state legislature.

The Farm Bureau bobs and weaves between political parties when it comes to proposals it likes or dislikes. Some Republican-backed policies at the state level haven’t gone over so well with farmers, including:

• The loss of tax write-offs on farm supplies, like feed and fertilizer, for small farmers making under $10,000. A bill this year would lower the threshold, reinstating the tax write-offs for farmers making over $5,000.

• A proposal to lift the ban on Sunday hunting on private land with rifles and shotguns.

• A requirement that employers with more than 25 employees verify the legal immigration status of workers. A proposal is on the table that would lower it to five but specifically exempt farmers.

But other proposals championed by the state’s Republican lawmakers are backed by farmers, like a corporate espionage bill that would give employers the ability to sue workers for trespassing if they seek employment under false pretenses.

The bill would apply to anyone who presents themselves as a legitimate job candidate when they actually have an ulterior motive of acting as a double-agent once landing the job. It doesn’t apply to whistleblowers, but instead is aimed at intentional sabotage.

“The bill hinges on what is the intent of the employee when they come to work there. If you engage in an act that goes beyond the scope of permission granted to be on that property, the owner can bring a trespass charge,” Parker said.

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