Baldwin County farmer Mark Kaiser said a new federal Environmental Protection Agency rule redefining the scope of waters protected by the Clean Water Act could harm farmers in agriculture heavy Alabama and other states nationwide.
The “Waters of the U.S.” rule is set to take effect on Friday and has been a source of controversy, with at least 29 states filing suit against the EPA to stop its implementation.
Opposition to the “Waters of the U.S.” rule was a key component of U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne’s “Ag Matters” tour, which made a stop at Kaiser’s farm in Robertsdale on Thursday morning. Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, as well as representatives from the Alabama Farmers Federation, joined Byrne on a tour of farms in the congressman’s district.
Critics of the rule — defining which streams, rivers, lakes and marshes can be regulated by the EPA and the Army Corp of Engineers — say it will place an unnecessary burden on farmers, allowing bureaucrats to penalize and harass landowners who work near ponds without permission from the EPA. President Barack Obama has come out in favor of the rule, saying it will provide clarity for business owners and industry about which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act.
The rule protects tributaries that show physical signs of running water even if they don’t flow year round. The rule could be used to penalize a farmer who blocks a stream to create a pond for livestock and allows the EPA to regulate any body of water within 1,500 feet of another body of water already covered by the rule. A copy of the rule found on the EPA website includes exceptions for what it calls “normal farming, ranching, and silviculture activities.”
Kaiser said his family has farmed in Baldwin County since the early 1900s, when his great-grandfather worked a farm in Elberta. He said his grandfather and his father were farmers, and he hopes to be able to pass the family business to his children one day.
To Kaiser, the “Waters of the U.S.” rule implies that farmers are unable or unwilling to take care of the environment on their own farms, something he said is not true.
“We are already trying to do everything we possibly can to safeguard the environment now, and if they put more regulations on us I don’t know how exactly it will help,” Kaiser said. “There is a finite amount of money we can spend doing what we are doing. We are trying to do the best we can right now.”
Kaiser said his family lives, works, and plays on the sprawling property located off State Highway 90, where the main crops are soybeans, peanuts and wheat.
“We live here, we grew up here,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a better steward of the environment than the farmer who is actually on the land every day.”
Outside of burdensome federal regulations, Kaiser said Baldwin County farmers have local concerns to deal with every day, like moving large farm equipment up and down the county’s congested roads, finding dependable and capable workers and dealing with the loss of farmable land to growing development.
The decline of family farms means fewer children grow up learning how to properly use farm equipment, leading to fewer capable workers, Kaiser said. Many of Kaiser Farm’s workers are retired workers or former farm owners who had to downsize before finding labor to make ends meet.
“There are just less farms because farming is difficult and over the years farms have had to grow to stay in business,” he said. “Many of them, if they didn’t grow they went out of business.”
Byrne said the rule could be devastating in District 1, home to more than 100,000 agriculture jobs.
“This rule will affect people all over the country, not just our farmers,” Byrne said. “But the impact it could have on agriculture is huge.”
According to McMillan, the EPA is allowing biologists to write rules intended for farmers and foresters to follow, saying small business owners and farmers already face too many federal regulations.
“One big issue with the ‘Waters of the US’ rule is that it is ‘one size fits all’ treating our waters the same as waters on the other side of the country,” McMillan said. “Our waters are different than the waters in Colorado or Maine or other places.”
Byrne’s tour will continue this afternoon at Saloom Private Timberland in Evergreen and Tim Tucker’s farm in Uriah. On Friday, the tour will begin in Fulton at Scotch Plywood, followed by stops at Rod Richardson’s farm in Leroy and Brian Keller’s farm in Grand Bay. While on the tour, Byrne will also meet with the Alabama Forestry Association in Brewton.
McMillan and representatives from the Alabama Farmers Federation will join Congressman Byrne for the “Ag Matters” tour.