Ag industry weathers Mother Nature, legislative issues in 2010
A feeling of deja vu pervaded the agriculture sector in 2010. While legislative issues that were being discussed in 2009 finally bore fruit, other events that began the year also closed the year.
The year came to a close in the northeastern part of the United States similar to how it began, with freezing temperatures.
An El Niño weather pattern plagued the nation in early January, bringing a record snowfall of 18 inches to the nation’s capital. Texas joined the deep freeze with Amarillo recording 1 degree Fahrenheit and San Antonio, 25 degrees Fahrenheit that month.
Weather swings continued into February, when Texas averaged about 8 degrees below the normal temperature and above-average rainfall.
The rainfall continued and in June, local flooding occurred when above-average rainfall was recorded off F.M. 2579 with 13 inches during the overnight hours of June 8-9.
The early signs of a La Niña weather pattern emerged in June. La Niña brings warmer and drier-than-normal conditions to Texas. By Nov. 23, the U.S. Drought Monitor chart denoted Wilson County as abnormally dry, along with 65.2 percent of the state.
According to AgriLife reporters, since August, the rainfall has been less than 40 percent of the long-term average, with year-to-date cumulative rainfall reported at 77 percent of the long-term average.
Due to the dry conditions, Wilson County commissioners in mid-December reinstated a county burn ban.
By Christmas, the nation’s capital once again was covered with snow, as the Lame Duck Session of the 111th Congress was finalizing bills that will affect the ag industry.
Clean Air Act issues continued in 2010, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to reduce existing ozone levels from 0.075 parts per million measured over eight hours, to a primary standard between 0.060 parts per million and 0.070 parts per million.
In June, temperatures were rising when the U.S. Senate voted down Senate Joint Resolution 26, which would have stopped the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. More than 138 organizations united to ask the Senate to vote for the resolution.
In the closing days of the the 111th Congress, the agriculture sector watched closely as two bills were considered -- estate tax reform and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act.
The estate tax, also known as “death tax,” had farmers and ranchers concerned about estate planning.
According to the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, 2010 was an estate tax-free year. If Congress had made no changes by Dec. 31, assets exceeding $1 million would be taxed at a 55-percent rate.
In mid-December, Congress approved a 35-percent levy, and increased the exemption level to $5 million per person. This provision expires in two years.
Cattlemen and small produce vendors then dodged a financial bullet when Congress passed a modified version of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. In 2009, the original bill’s provisions included the National Animal Identification System, and gardeners who sold at least $1,000 of agricultural commodities would be subject to government paperwork.
With amendments, the bill was more palatable. It seemed subject to a death sentence due to a violation, but in the final days of the year, it was resurrected when Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid substituted food safety for “cash for clunkers.” According to the Pew Health Group, it “is the first major update to the law in 70 years.”
As this unfolded, different sectors of the agriculture industry were involved in two other controversial issues -- the accounting firewall of the beef check-off program and fairness-in-marketing rules. At times, these divided the cattle industry.
An issue with the $1-per-head beef check-off program, established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, had groups questioning if the accounting firewall of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association was intact as the group discussed reorganization.
In January, the association met in San Antonio for its annual convention. One of 13 dissenting votes against the reorganization came from the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas (ICA).
In May, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stated that a clear distinction must be held between the policy organization and check-off programs, after the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and five other organizations voiced concerns.
Momentum grew for separation of the check-off from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The association suspended the reorganization plans on June 25.
In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of the Inspector General included funding for an audit of the “Beef Research and Promotion Board” activities. This followed an August report that a breach of the accounting firewall was found by an independent certified public accounting firm.
Yet another debate began when Vilsack announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration’s proposed rules for fairness in marketing. According to the USDA, the rules “would provide significant new protections against unfair, fraudulent, or retaliatory practices.”
With discussion of packer concentration and vertical integration, cattlemen questioned if their industry would follow the poultry and pork industry.
Cattlemen also raised concerns about diseases from imports.
In May, the USDA-Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced a plan to allow importation of certain animals and animal products from the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. Cattlemen across the nation were concerned about a possible introduction of foot-and-mouth disease, since Santa Catarina borders Argentina, which is known for the disease.
Although the U.S. government received 87 comments, the USDA announced on Dec. 1 that it would reclassify the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina free of foot-and-mouth disease and four other diseases.
Texas cattlemen also saw the implementation of a second phase of the Texas Cattle trichomoniasis, or “trich,” program on Jan. 1.
In August, the state announced a new trich certification program allowing ranchers to obtain trich-free herd status by participating in a voluntary agreement with the Texas Animal Health Commission.
Rabies was another concern in 2010, with the number of cases doubling in Wilson County in just one week in June. By the end of June, four confirmed cases -- including a case involving a cat and a dog -- were reported in Wilson County. Nearby Guadalupe County had confirmed 19 cases as of June 24.
Although an oral rabies vaccine for skunks is being developed, it is uncertain when and if South Texas will receive the oral vaccine to combat the skunk strain.
Despite issues and challenges, the year was a time for celebration and changes, too.
The Wilson County Junior Livestock Show expanded, opening the annual event with a horse show.
Horses also figured in the Wilson County Sesquicentennial Trail Ride, held April 24, with more than 155 riders participating.
While the county celebrated 150 years of history, the county voters decided to change a more-than-150-year-old statute regarding “open range.” Voters approved Nov. 2 to change the county to a closed-range status. Commissioners will address how to accomplish this in the coming year.