Farmers and ranchers lose by repeal of Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices standards

The Center for Rural Affairs stands for rural communities, and we, too, believe that an essential foundation for vital rural communities consists of a healthy economy and diverse farming models. Many of the policies we support – organic agriculture, Value-Added Producer Grants, rural microloans – we chose to fight for because they make space for farmers and ranchers to access new or alternative income streams.

We are concerned that some of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent actions directly undermine this vision, by the removal of several rules.

Last week, USDA decided to roll back the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule. This rule was meant to strengthen animal welfare standards for the organic program, and had the overwhelming support of organic farmers and ranchers and other stakeholders in the organic industry. Along with 72 other organizations, we signed a letter to USDA Sec. Don Perdue stating our support for retaining the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices. Although a final rule was issued in 2017, USDA has now reversed its decision, ignored public support, and withdrawn the rule altogether.

We see an unfortunate similarity with USDA’s decision last year to delay, and finally cancel, the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, or the GIPSA rules. These rules would have brought greater fairness to contract poultry and livestock production and would have helped level the playing field for these producers nationwide.

Both the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices and the Farmer Fair Practices Rules would have made more space in agriculture for farmers and ranchers to pursue diverse livestock and poultry production practices. The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices would have strengthened the organic program, a voluntary set of standards that farmers and ranchers choose, in part, because of the economic opportunity they offer. The Farmer Fair Practices Rules would have made poultry and livestock production a more viable path of production for many farmers and ranchers.

Unfortunately, USDA does not share this vision, and chose to roll back these provisions.

While such losses can be discouraging, we refuse to give up the fight for strong, rural communities. But, we cannot do it alone. You can help us by following our website, signing up for our email list, and continuing to pay attention to the actions of your legislators and other elected officials. Policy change is always a long road, but being alongside our wonderful supporters makes the hard work worth it. Read more about Farmers and ranchers lose by repeal of Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices standards

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A once-in-a-generation opportunity for tax reform and education funding 

By Dave Welsch, farmer and president of the Milford School Board

LB 1084, Sen. Tom Briese’s combined property tax relief and school funding bill, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Let me explain this bold statement.

In the mid-1960s, two generations ago, the state of Nebraska ended statewide property tax. At about the same time, the state began collecting both sales and income taxes. These were all bold moves for generating income for the state.

In 1990, one generation ago, the legislature enacted TEEOSA, the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act. A major component of this legislation was equalization aid to help balance the financial support for all students across Nebraska.

Sen. Scott Moore, who cosponsored the TEEOSA legislation, presented opening remarks at the hearing. He began his comments by stating, "this piece of legislation has the potential to be probably the biggest piece of legislation we passed in this legislature in the last 20 years, and probably the next 20 years after that." This legislation became a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Today, 28 years later, the 49 senators of the Nebraska Legislature have the same once-in-a-generation opportunity in LB 1084.

We all know there are problems with overreliance on property taxes and with the way schools are financed. Sen. Briese’s LB 1084 addresses both of those concerns.

By raising revenues through closing tax loopholes, expanding the sales tax base and implementing a series of other income generators, LB 1084 outlines the dollars needed to make property tax relief and state funding for schools achievable. It also provides a path for a review of how we pay for K-12 public education in the state, a truly once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The citizens of Nebraska are often referred to as the second house of the legislature. That second house has come together in the past year to help draft LB 1084. The diversity of these citizens, and their willingness to work together for the common good, is nothing but amazing.

Major farm organizations like Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, and the Grange have all worked together on this bill. Six agricultural commodity groups and associations came to the table on this bill. The state teachers’ association, along with administrators and several school associations, have collaborated on this bill. These groups don’t normally work together on legislation. But, for the good of Nebraska, they have come together to create a solution to our property tax and school funding concerns.                

Is LB 1084 perfect? No. My personal belief is that education should be strongly funded by income tax. There is a strong correlation between the amount of education a person receives and their level of income during their lifetime.

A lot of people will not like this legislation and will lobby against it. Many of the exemptions proposed to be repealed in LB 1084 were enacted during the past 10 years through aggressive lobbying efforts. Yet, LB 1084 is a worthy compromise.

The legislature needs to stand firm and take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the balance of educational funding and provide property tax relief as well.

Dave Welsch of Milford, Nebraska, is a farmer and 20-year member of the Milford School Board, currently serving as president. Read more about A once-in-a-generation opportunity for tax reform and education funding 

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Iowans respond to clean energy growth

During the past two decades, Iowa’s wind energy industry has created 8,000 to 9,000 jobs, spurred billions of dollars in investment, and provided Iowa landowners with $20 to $25 million in annual land lease payments. With nearly 7,000 megawatts (MW) of installed wind capacity, the state generates more than 37 percent of its power from wind.

Similarly, the Iowa solar industry has begun to follow an impressive growth curve. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates Iowa will install approximately 225 MW of solar during the next five years.

But, how are Iowans responding to this growth in renewable energy and the corresponding transmission line upgrades that help carry local electricity to our homes?

The Center for Rural Affairs recently released a report offering insight into this question. The report draws on survey responses from Iowa county supervisors and auditors, as well as landowners. Survey responses indicate local elected leaders are generally supportive of wind and solar, especially when these technologies create local economic benefits.

When it comes to transmission lines, elected leaders prioritize fair treatment by developers, preservation of agricultural land, and provision of economic benefits. Landowners reported mostly favorable experiences negotiating transmission easements on their farms. They also offered recommendations on how developers can continue to improve the siting and construction process. Benefits of transmission lines are seen as less tangible than those from wind and solar installations. 

For more information on how Iowa leaders and landowners are responding to wind, solar, and transmission line development, visit cfra.org/publications/PoweringIowa and download the full report, “Powering Iowa: Rural Perspectives on Iowa’s Renewable Energy Transformation.”

Quick Iowa Legislature Update

Legislation that would cut or eliminate requirements for energy efficiency programs for major utilities have been introduced in the Iowa Legislature. At the time of print (of our March/April newsletter), two different bills are in action – Senate Study Bill (SSB) 3093/House Study Bill (HSB) 595 in the House and Senate Commerce Committees and SSB 3078 in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

A bill to extend the solar production tax credit for another year is also in the works. Contact your legislator to continue support for clean energy initiatives in Iowa.

Feature photo: Survey responses from county supervisors, auditors, and landowners in Iowa show general support of wind and solar, especially when economic benefits are created. More results can be found in “Powering Iowa: Rural Perspectives on Iowa’s Renewable Energy Transformation” at cfra.org. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Iowans respond to clean energy growth

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A property tax lesson from Arthur County

By Ty Walker

Property taxes have more than doubled in the past decade. The price of cattle has not. This has created significant challenges for those of us in production agriculture.

When this trend first began, I was quick to blame our local administrators and school board for the burden placed on property tax payers. I believed the only way to control the rise in property taxes was for schools to mitigate spending at the local level.

My views evolved as I learned more about our state budget and the way we fund our educational system.

While we can and do expect local officials to use our tax dollars as conservatively as possible, we must also understand the tools they are forced to work with. School spending may seem high, but it is less the fault of our local schools and more a result of our stubborn reliance on an outdated school funding formula.

This, in turn, is due to a lack of leadership in Lincoln.

That is why I support LB 1084. While this legislation does not outline all of the structural changes needed to remedy our school funding debacle, it charts a course forward. It is a common-sense solution based on balance and compromise.

This legislation provides the immediate property tax relief those of us in rural Nebraska truly need. It does so by eliminating loopholes and modernizing our tax system. The bill would also hold school spending growth to a minimum. Unlike other options under consideration, it achieves this while protecting the state budget.

LB 1084 brings in the dollars needed to achieve property tax relief, while moving toward a better solution for schools. Arriving here has taken courage and compromise. My gratitude stands ready for the Nebraska state senators who have the courage to see this bill become law.

Ty Walker ranches with his family in rural Arthur County, Nebraska. Read more about A property tax lesson from Arthur County

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Nebraska's economy has evolved – our tax code has not

While Nebraska’s economy remains reliant upon agriculture, the broader economy, following national trends, has moved away from a dependence on manufacturing and goods to knowledge and service. Nebraska’s tax code does not reflect that decades long trend.

The prior economic mix meant the state did not need to tax seldom-used service. Despite this shift, sales tax exemptions for services, such as dry cleaning and landscaping, remain in the state’s tax code. This array of exemptions has imbalanced the three legged tax stool, leaving it leaning heavily upon property taxes.

LB 1084, a proposed tax reform bill, seeks to bring greater balance to our tax system by drawing in revenues on services that residents are spending their dollars on. This reform provides Nebraska lawmakers an opportunity to modernize the state’s tax system. The added revenues will also allow for much needed property tax relief, while maintaining funding for services like education and public safety, which the state is obligated to provide.

By reinstating cuts made to the education funding formula and requiring a school funding study, the responsibility of paying for K-12 education begins to return to the state. Through the increase in revenues distributed to the property tax credit fund, Nebraskans will see the immediate property tax relief they have been calling for.

Rural Nebraskans are in need of property tax relief, but they are not asking to sidestep their responsibility to help fund the schools and services that uphold their communities. They are simply asking for balance in the way the state meets it obligations to pay for education. LB 1084 strikes the balance rural Nebraska is calling for, yet is it left to languish in the Revenue Committee without the opportunity to be debated on the floor. It is time for the Legislature to take up the debate of this legislation on the floor.

Feature photo: Landscapers work on the sidewalk and lawn of the Kearney County Courthouse in Minden, Nebraska, in July 2017. Currently, tax exemptions for services, such as landscaping, remain in the state's tax code. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Nebraska's economy has evolved – our tax code has not

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Corporate Farming Notes: Crop insurance premium subsidy caps will bring fairness back to farming

Unlimited crop insurance premium subsidies are a loophole that allow the largest farmers to reap the greatest benefits from government subsidy. That is why we support capping crop insurance premium subsidies at $50,000. We believe that crop insurance should be a safety net, not a government subsidy to finance unlimited expansion.

Our opponents argue that capping subsidies will prompt large farms to leave the crop insurance risk pool and upset the whole system. But, leaving the system would mean walking away from $50,000 in annual subsidy. That doesn’t pencil out. We believe their argument serves only to protect the status quo. 

Caps on crop insurance premium subsidies are needed to bring fairness back to farming. 
 

President's budget

In the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget, he proposes an across-the-board cut of 10 percent for most crop insurance subsidies. That’s the wrong approach. Instead, we support a hard cap of $50,000 per operator on insurance premium subsidies.

The president’s proposal cuts subsidies for large and small operators alike by 10 percent. That hurts the smallest operators, while protecting unlimited subsides for the largest operators. Hard caps on total payout per operation are a fairer way to cut costs.


Feature photo: Family farmers spend every available daylight hour reaping crops in the fall, and even use lights to harvest into the night. | Photo by Kylie Kai Read more about Corporate Farming Notes: Crop insurance premium subsidy caps will bring fairness back to farming

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Veterans connect at annual conference

A veteran’s sense of service and work ethic draws a distinct parallel to the skills and dedication required for successful farming and ranching.

The second annual Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Conference is an opportunity for veterans to connect with fellow former service members who are engaged in or interested in farming. Farmers looking to transition operations to veteran farmers, or who are willing to mentor, are also encouraged to attend.

Sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs and Legal Aid of Nebraska, the event is set for Saturday, March 24, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Central Community College-Hastings, 550 Technical Blvd., Hastings, Nebraska.

Session topics include programs available to veterans interested in farming, diversified agriculture, conservation, and agritourism.

“As rural America seeks to attract residents to communities and into the agricultural sector, military veterans have a significant contribution to make,” said Cora Fox, policy associate at the Center for Rural Affairs and officer in the Iowa Air National Guard. “This conference will connect veterans with a network that can assist them in beginning and growing their farms and ranches.”

Conference attendance is free. Preregistration is required by March 16. Residents of any state may attend. Register at cfra.org/AnsweringTheCall.

Last year’s conference inspires bill in Nebraska legislature

Among presenters for this year’s Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Conference is Mariel Barreras.

Mariel, along with her husband, Lt. Col. Anthony Barreras, currently on mission with the U.S. Army, own Barreras Family Farm outside of Omaha, where they raise chickens and goats, and host school tours.

“For many veterans, dreams of farming begin with time spent on a farm during their childhood or an opportunity presented to them during their time in service to our nation,” Barreras said.

However, access to land and financial resources needed to transition from military service to farming can be a challenge. Proposed Legislative Bill 684, the Beginning Veteran Farmer Tax Credit, seeks to expand Nebraska’s existing beginning farmer tax credit program by adding a 1 percent incentive for property and landowners who rent to qualified beginning veteran farmers.

Under current statute, a 10 percent tax credit on cash rent, or 15 percent credit on the value of a sharecrop or cow-calf share rent, is available to the property owner when they rent to a qualified beginning farmer. The proposed revision would increase the incentive to 11 percent and 16 percent if the property is rented to a qualified beginning veteran farmer.

The state can do more for beginning veteran farmers. Building upon the successful framework of the existing tax credit, the addition of a 1 percent incentive for landowners who rent to beginning veteran farmers gives back to those who have sacrificed so much for our country.

The idea for the legislation was drawn from conversation between beginning veteran farmers and Center staff during last year’s Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Conference.

Feature photo: Attendees of the 2017 Answering the Call: Veteran Farmer Conference tour Ficke Family Farms near Pleasantdale, Nebraska. The second annual conference is set for March 24 in Hastings, Nebraska. The event presents an opportunity for veterans to connect with fellow former service members who are engaged in or interested in farming. | Photo by Rhea Landholm

Inset photo: Mariel Barreras (right) talks with Sen. Carol Blood at the Nebraska Unicameral in January. Read more about Veterans connect at annual conference

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Recognizing the importance of SNAP in rural Nebraska

In our state’s rural communities, where the food that feeds the world is grown, food insecurity is endured by thousands of children, seniors, and hardworking Nebraskans. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps stave off hunger for 1 in 11 Nebraskans.

Yet, the president’s 2019 budget outlines a nearly $214 billion cut to SNAP over the next decade. A cut of this magnitude would undoubtedly impact rural Nebraskans.

Formerly known as the nation’s food stamp program, from 2010 to 2015, rural Nebraska’s SNAP participation rate rose from 6.4 percent to 7.6 percent. Even with this growth, rural SNAP participation lags behind, despite the need demonstrated by rural poverty rates.

Given the socioeconomics of rural Nebraska, the importance of SNAP is heightened. SNAP exists as a resource to help negate concerns of food security for seniors with limited incomes as they care for themselves and balance expenses. The program is also a resource for rural families with children under the age of 18, providing nutrition that is essential for childhood development.

In rural Nebraska, it is estimated that SNAP provides assistance to 4.6 percent of households with a resident over the age of 60 and 14.4 percent of households with children.

As policymakers deliberate the funding and future of SNAP in the 2018 farm bill and broader entitlement reforms, SNAP must be recognized as an investment in rural Nebraska. SNAP is, and needs to be, maintained as a critical safeguard against food insecurity and poverty for rural residents of our state. Read more about Recognizing the importance of SNAP in rural Nebraska

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Medicaid expansion ballot initiative serves as an example for other states

Blair Nelson, a student who works part-time, is one of more than 2.6 million American adults who are unable to access health insurance because they fall into a health insurance coverage gap. Blair earns too little to qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance from the health insurance marketplace while also earning too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Blair lives in Nebraska, one of 18 primarily rural states that has not closed the coverage gap by expanding Medicaid. Now, Nebraskans have an opportunity to decide the future of expanded coverage for their neighbors, and serve as an example for other states, as a statewide petition drive is underway.

Across the country, many individuals who fall in the coverage gap live in rural communities, and are already at a disadvantage in their ability to access health care coverage. The limited availability of health care providers and facilities, greater travel distances, and limited financial resources make access to care challenging.  

Failing to expand access to health insurance forces health care providers to offer uncompensated care, care provided out of necessity that patients are unable to pay for. Providers and insurers ultimately shift this cost to all patients and policyholders, contributing to higher insurance premiums. States that have expanded Medicaid have seen a 16 percent decline in uncompensated care.

In addition, states that have expanded Medicaid now have 8 to 10 percent lower insurance premiums than states that have not expanded Medicaid. Affordable access to preventative care services is proven to decrease overall medical expenses and improve the quality of health outcomes for everyone.

In Nebraska, the ballot initiative would expand Medicaid coverage to thousands of qualified rural Nebraskans in the coverage gap, including seniors, single adults, parents, and those who are disabled, as provided under the Affordable Care Act.  

Now is the time for the other 17 states to follow Nebraska’s lead, and take action on this important issue that directly impacts the lives of Blair and 2.6 million Americans.

To learn more about Nebraska’s ballot initiative, visit www.insurethegoodlife.com. Read more about Medicaid expansion ballot initiative serves as an example for other states

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Taking Medicaid expansion to the vote of all Nebraskans

During the last six years, nearly 90,000 Nebraskans have fallen into the health insurance coverage gap, as the legislature stood by and failed to extend Medicaid coverage to these seniors, parents, and hard-working residents.

Now, Nebraskans will have the opportunity to decide the future of this expanded coverage for their neighbors, as a statewide petition drive is underway.

For rural Nebraska, this expanded coverage is critically important. More than a quarter of the uninsured Nebraskans who would qualify for this expanded health care coverage resides in the state’s rural counties. These are residents who earn too little to qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance from the health insurance marketplace while also earning too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Residents of the state’s rural communities are already at a disadvantage in their ability to access health care coverage. The limited availability of health care providers and facilities, greater travel distances, and limited financial resources make access to care challenging.  

Rural Nebraska’s economy is built upon small businesses and their employees. Of businesses with 50 or fewer employees, only 18.8 percent offer insurance coverage. This leaves the majority of workers to pay premiums and other out­-of-­pocket costs, or forego coverage altogether.

Failing to expand access to health insurance forces health care providers to offer uncompensated care. Providers and insurers ultimately shift this cost to all patients and policyholders.

Beyond the costs that are passed along are the dollars left on the table, federal tax dollars already paid by Nebraskans. By 2022, it is estimated that the state will have lost nearly $3.1 billion in federal Medicaid funding during the first decade of the program.

The Insure the Good Life initiative seeks to place this issue on the November ballot. As provided under the Affordable Care Act, this law would expand Medicaid coverage to thousands of qualified rural Nebraskans in the coverage gap, including seniors, single adults, parents, and those who are disabled.

Now is the time for all Nebraskans to have a voice in deciding the future of expanded Medicaid access for their 90,000 neighbors currently without access to health care coverage. To learn more about the Insure the Good Life ballot initiative, visit www.insurethegoodlife.com. Read more about Taking Medicaid expansion to the vote of all Nebraskans

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From the desk of the executive director: Where have all the bankers gone?

The Center for Rural Affairs first examined consolidation in the banking industry in a 1978 report, “Where Have All the Bankers Gone?”. We have long understood the critical link between credit, who has access, who doesn’t, and how it shapes communities.

That’s why a recent report in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. It detailed how banking in rural communities has fared in the years since the financial crisis. 

The report found that small business lending in rural areas has dropped by half since 2004. Loans now account for less than 10 percent of total small business lending, according to the analysis. 

There was a correlation between the closure of local banks and a declining rate of new business startups two years later. 

The challenge is compounded by the closure of many rural bank branches. Larger banks often buy smaller banks, then close branches in more rural markets. There are now 625 rural counties in the country without a community bank. There are 37 counties without a single bank, and 115 counties served by just one bank. 

The report told the story of one small business owner who now drives 19 miles each afternoon to make deposits and get cash.

When we lose access to credit, we risk losing control of our future.

This is why we are leaning into our lending work at the Center. Since 2011, our lending activity has grown 130 percent. We are working to develop strategies that will help us expand the scale and reach of our small business lending.

Access to credit is fundamental for the whole community. Few among us have started a business or bought a house without a loan. Schools, child care centers, and community infrastructure all rely on credit.

There are bright spots. In many areas, community banks and credit unions still thrive. Large banks, often due to the requirements of the federal Community Reinvestment Act, make low interest investments in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs).

The Center now has a subsidiary CDFI. One large bank invested $500,000 in our lending efforts. Other banks may do the same.

You can take action, too. What credit gaps exist in your community? What local response might be possible? Individual communities are setting up revolving loan funds to invest in local businesses, housing, and new value-added agricultural enterprises. 

A network of community banks, credit unions, and nonprofit lenders can knit a new fabric of local banking. Doing so will take our active involvement. Our success will help us control our future. Read more about From the desk of the executive director: Where have all the bankers gone?

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