Every five years, the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) conducts a “Census of Agriculture” that includes a snapshot of America’s black farmers–how many, average farm size, sales, etc. Since 2007 was the last year the census was conducted, election year 2012 will give us our next best picture of how agricultural communities generally and black farmers in particular are managing through the economic downturn.
Because the 2007 agriculture census was conducted before the economy began to slide, it is probably safe to say that what we think we know today may not necessarily be true when fresh data becomes available. At the time of the census, there was plenty of room for optimism, though.
The numbers showed that the U.S. farming and ranching population was becoming much more diverse and the number of black farmers and ranchers was on the upswing. Blacks have a history of small business entrepreneurialism in this country, and farming and ranching represent a natural entry point for them. Because their enterprises are smaller, however, economic shocks put them in a more precarious position financially.
Having grown up on a tobacco farm and worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I can tell you that the concerns that keep black farmers up at night are not unique and are shared by farmers of all stripes. Aside from some specific issues of discrimination, black farmers worry about access to capital, pray for a little luck with the weather, and wish for a more predictable regulatory environment. High levels of uncertainty translate into a lack of investments and lack of jobs on the farm, just as on Wall Street.
Farmers are practical people. They understand that uncertainty in the capital markets is tied to the economy as a whole. Their concerns about the weather are typically conveyed to a higher power, not Washington bureaucrats. But when a seemingly endless stream of burdensome, costly and scientifically unfounded regulations threatens their livelihood, they expect the government to stop and consider their plight. And when the President visits rural America, as he did this month, and dismisses these concerns out of hand, it sends a clear message to them that now is not the time for new investments in the American farm.
There are regulations being developed by EPA that could quite literally be the economic equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Take, for example, the EPA’s proposed regulation of the chemical perchlorate. Perchlorate is salt that is manufactured and used primarily by the military and aerospace industry. Perchlorate also happens to occur naturally at low levels. Because it also occurs naturally, it is found in water supplies, soil, agricultural crops, and dairy cattle. It is even found in the fertilizers that farmers use to grow their crops.
Environmentalists, however, have convinced this administration to regulate perchlorate to save us from rocket fuel in our water. The complication is that perchlorate is ubiquitous at low levels in the environment precisely because of its natural occurrence, not man’s activities. These low levels are not harmful at all, which is why, until now, the EPA never deemed it necessary to regulate. Also, unlike many other chemicals, the financial costs and the science associated with this regulation are not hotly disputed.
In 2005, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences conducted an extensive peer-reviewed examination of the scientific literature associated with perchlorate. Among their conclusions was that there was no observable effect on the human body from the perchlorate levels commonly found in the environment–not that there was no adverse effect, but that there was no observable effect at all. It should go without mentioning that without an observable effect, there can be no adverse effect–the starting point of most regulatory actions.
In 2010, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General conducted a scientific review of the agency’s risk assessment process related to perchlorate. In it, the President’s own Inspector General concluded that the EPA’s proposed regulation provides no meaningful opportunity to protect human health. The inspector general went on to say that:
The potential regulation of perchlorate is a critical environmental decision that has significant social and economic consequences. The regulation of perchlorate could adversely affect $70 billion dollars worth of U.S. agricultural exports…when one considers both the agricultural and environmental clean-up costs, the potential regulation of perchlorate represents at least a $70-110+ billion dollar decision.
Can we afford forcing farmers to bear unnecessary $100 billion dollar regulations at this particular moment? Hurricane Katrina was a $94 billion economic disaster for which no man bears the burden of blame. The EPA’s perchlorate regulation, however, would be a deliberate decision to declare American agricultural products unfit for consumption. Black farmers represent only a small part of the total agricultural economy, but they are by and large far less resilient than their larger commercial counterparts. We know that for every $1 billion in agricultural goods exported, 8,000 jobs are created. The prospect of our products rotting on foreign docks is a real one. For an administration that has made such a point of emphasizing science over politics, given what the science tells us about perchlorate, it hardly seems worth the risk.