Farmers to feds: ‘Trust, but verify’

Farmers should trust the federal government — as long as they can also verify that the government is sticking to its word.

The Soviet Union was long ago deposited into the dustbin of history, but one phrase former U.S. President Ronald Reagan coined about dealing with the faltering “evil empire” remains: “Trust, but verify.”

Though this newspaper rarely reports on nuclear proliferation, which Reagan and then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev limited through negotiations during the 1980s, we occasionally hear references to “Trust, but verify” from farmers, ranchers and timber operators.

They are not talking about the Soviet leaders and their propensity for welching on their word and mischief-making.

Rather, they are talking about some U.S. government agencies.

It is sad and ironic that U.S. citizens say they cannot implicitly trust the government when it comes to enforcing federal law, promulgating regulations and entering into agreements.

Recent history illustrates the origin of that distrust.

The most notorious example is the U.S. Department of Labor’s use of the “hot goods” designation as it extracted huge fines from three blueberry growers for alleged wage-and-hour violations that, years later, it has yet to prove. Agency officials claimed growers violated the law by allowing several pickers to use the same ticket, thus avoiding paying the minimum wage. They invoked the hot goods provision of the law, which meant the growers couldn’t sell their crops until they admitted to the violation. Agency emails show a paucity of evidence to prove their case, but DOL officials seem intent on pushing ahead in a shocking display of bureaucratic peevishness.

The trustworthiness of federal agencies remains in doubt elsewhere. Ranchers have been entering into agreements with their local soil and water conservation districts to protect the greater sage grouse, whose range stretches across 11 Western states. The districts are acting as a trusted intermediary between the ranchers and the federal government because some federal agencies are seen more as advocates than as even-handed regulators.

Most recently, Idaho farmers and ranchers find themselves in a quandary over revised dust rules. They have worked with the state Department of Environmental Quality to come up with compromise rules that exempt farm-related activities.

However, they are hesitant to submit those rules to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. If the EPA were to approve the rules, farmers would gain an added layer of protection against dust complaints. But farmers fear the possibility that the rules could mutate under the EPA. Some anti-farm groups seem to have an inside track with the EPA, and farmers don’t want to expose the rules to a potential re-write.

After all, it was the EPA — along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — that offered “new and clearer” regulations on the “waters of the U.S.” that, at every turn, provide the agencies with more power and farmers with less opportunity to defend themselves.

We’re not sure how best to restore the trust between these federal agencies and farmers. Maybe it will take a change in leadership, or in the culture of the agencies. Maybe it will require both.

But until the agencies earn the respect of farmers and ranchers, “trust, but verify” will continue to be a part of modern agriculture’s lexicon.



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