Can EPA Be Farmers' Friend and Foe?

EPA's Gina McCarthy’s attempts to reassure producers that your regulator foe really is your friend creates conundrum.

Earlier week was the first time I heard Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speak in person. I came away hearing most of the right things: she said she wants to listen, she wants to work alongside of farmers and she wants everybody to just take a deep breath and read newly proposed water rules before making rash assumptions.

Any farmer likely shares my hope that if the federal EPA really could work alongside farmers, it would be the best for all outcomes. Many states are blessed with state EPAs that work hand-in-hand with local landowners and farmers to find workable, viable solutions to environmental concerns.   

After the waters of the U.S. rule was released, most of those in agriculture as well as those representing ag districts on Capitol Hill were skeptical, if not downright critical, of the rule. (Read related blog post here.)

“Part of the challenge we have is that EPA does not have a trusting relationship with the ag community,” McCarthy said, who pointed out she’s been working hard to fix those ties from meeting with farmers ranging from the state fair in Iowa to those stricken by the drought in California. (She did give a shout-out to the amazing pork chop on a stick and I couldn’t agree more, hands down, one of the best foods on earth!)

McCarthy opened up her discussion at the North American Agricultural Journalists event I attended that bridging the relations with the agricultural community is her top priority as administrator. She explained that farmers are the original conservationists and both EPA and farmers have a common interest to protect natural resources.  

The agency wants to develop a trusting relationship with the ag community, she said, one that allows industry to bring their issues and data to EPA and know they’re going to genuinely listen and consider the concerns.

“The issues we’re dealing with are too important to let history drive the outcome. Let’s let science drive the outcomes and see how we can work together to solve these issues,” McCarthy challenged.

But as Jason Hitch, a pork and cattle producer from Oklahoma shared after hearing McCarthy speak to members of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association later on in the week, he’s deeply suspicious.

“I’m always suspicious when government comes and says they want to help you,” Hitch shared.

In my conversation with Hitch, he really hit the nail on the head when he shared it’s hard for EPA to be a regulator and be a friend, just like a boss can’t be a friend. “You can’t tell them how to run their operation and cheer them on,” he said.

“She talks a good game and repeating the same message that she’s trying to help ag and provide clarity,” Hitch said. “But the proof is in the pudding.”

So for McCarthy to live up to the message she’s preaching, this comment period on the waters of the U.S. rule couldn’t be more important. During her discussion, she repeatedly said, she wants to hear from stakeholders on how it impacts them.

She ended her discussion with how she would define as success, and she said it isn’t that everybody is mad. “My interest is making sure we provide clarity in our rules,” she said. “And I want to make sure people understand where we came out where we did and to respect that decision even if they disagree with it. I want to prove to people EPA cares about the economy, the agricultural sector, industry sector, jobs and that we can move forward and still meet environmental goals.”

Here’s hoping she can and it’s not just more empty words.

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