Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., speaks about coming changes to farm policy and regulations during the Sept. 9 breakfast general session of the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Conference.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., speaks about coming changes to farm policy and regulations during the Sept. 9 breakfast general session of the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Conference.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As if growers didn’t have enough to worry about, lawmakers addressing the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference said the Endangered Species Act will add to their headaches if it is not reformed.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., spoke to the Sept. 9 breakfast general session audience and advised the industry to be prepared for coming changes relating to farm policy and regulations that will greatly add to the list of protected species in farm country.

Hastings said federal protection of the delta smelt helped take more than 500,000 acres of cropland out of production in drought-stricken California.

The Endangered Species Act has been in place for 40 years, but has not been reauthorized for 25 years. From the protection of the spotted owl 20 years ago, federal policy has been protecting species without clear ideas why, Hastings said. For example, federal authorities first thought it was the lack of old growth timber that threatened the spotted owl, so restrictions were placed on the harvest of old growth timber.

Further scrutiny showed the population was threatened by the barn owl and not the lack of old growth forest habitat, Hastings said.

Instead of reconsidering the restrictions on the commercial use of old growth forests, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s solution was to shoot the barn owl, Hastings said.

The Obama administration has entered into settlements with environmental groups, agreeing to consider whether to list more than 750 plant and animal species as protected in the next two years, and if so, to designate critical habitat. Hastings said that could mean trouble for growers.

“This is not something that is going away as long as this mega-settlement stands,” he said. Agriculture, oil and gas mining and other industries will be affected, he said.

Legislation passed by the House asks the Fish and Wildlife Service to let lawmakers and the public know why they are listing species as protected, which he said is something they do not now have to do. Other legislation seeks a cost and benefit analysis of each action by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Roberts, who is in a tight reelection contest, said the Endangered Species Act must be reformed. He said the Fish and Wildlife Service protection of the lesser prairie chicken has caused Kansas producers problems.

“You’ve got to make a choice. Are you for farmers, ranchers and oil and gas producers or are you for the lesser prairie chicken?” he said, calling for an end to federal “regulatory overkill.”

Unless the Endangered Species Act is reformed, Hastings said it will hurt growers across the U.S.

Hastings, who will retire at the end of his term this year, said in other remarks that lawmakers may not package the nutrition programs and farm policy in the next farm bill. He said current farm bill funding is 80% for nutrition programs and 20% for farm programs, and said that ratio is unsustainable over time.

The next farm bill will likely take a far different form, he said, and may possibly be a standalone farm bill, split from nutrition programs.

“In five years, you need to be thinking about that, so you can come up with something that is livable (for the industry),” Hastings said.

Growers in the U.S. account for just 3% of the total population, which makes for a small base to influence policy.

“That’s the reality of where American agriculture is,” he said.

Speaking to the potential of immigration reform legislation, Hastings said more lawmakers now understand the need to accommodate the needs of agriculture in any legislative package.

Roberts said no immigration action is expected until at least after the election.