News Clips October 13, 2015



1. U.S. readies for a return of bird flu

2. Letter from Langdon: Farmers pay the cost of 'free' trade

3. WOTUS delayed nationally: Judges' order raises questions on rule

4. Thompson: Food labels give consumers the information they want to know

5. California adopts tough rules for antibiotic use in farm animals

6. Rules enforced, lives saved


1. U.S. readies for a return of bird flu

The Wall Street Journal

Kelsey Gee

Oct. 12, 2015


U.S. poultry companies and regulators are taking unprecedented steps to combat the potential return of an avian-influenza virus that roiled egg and turkey farmers earlier this year and killed more than 48 million birds.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture, bracing for a return of the virus during autumn migration season, is hiring hundreds of veterinarians and other temporary workers to help respond to the threat. USDA also is weighing its first use of bird-flu vaccines, and states are ramping up employee training and readying equipment to compost dead chickens.


Poultry giants including Perdue Farms Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc. are redoubling safeguards such as barring outside visitors to barns and farms. Animal-health companies and farm-equipment makers are ramping up production of tools to quickly euthanize flocks and decontaminate barns.


“We have every reason to believe we could see an outbreak of some sort this fall as wild birds come back through the middle of the U.S.,” said Bill Northey, Iowa’s agriculture secretary. The state was the top U.S. egg producer before half its roughly 60 million egg-laying hens were wiped out this spring in the nation’s worst outbreak of avian influenza.


The highly infectious H5N2 strain led to retail prices for eggs more than doubling and sent turkey prices to record highs earlier this year. It also has cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion in cleanup, preparation costs and indemnity payouts to farmers—much of it from emergency federal funds tapped by the USDA’s animal-and-plant health service.


Researchers said the virus likely spread through the droppings of wild ducks and geese as they migrated to the upper Midwest, but that inadequate biosecurity and cleaning practices probably contributed to outbreaks. Federal agencies say there is little human-health risk and no human infections have been identified so far.


USDA and industry officials are preparing to handle an outbreak on more than 500 farms—a worst-case scenario identified by federal forecasting models that is twice the scale of the spring outbreak. The agency and state natural-resources departments have begun using swabs to test 41,000 samples from wild fowl, seeking to quickly identify infections.


The efforts reflect a shift in how the U.S. prepares and responds to animal-health crises. This summer, farmers and some members of Congress claimed slow USDA responses to outbreaks may have heightened the amount of virus in the environment and made it more difficult for farms to resume operations.


The agency said it is better-prepared to meet its goal to exterminate birds within 24 hours of a diagnosis to prevent further spread of the virus. That process took a few days in some cases this spring.


USDA officials may allow farmers to shut down ventilation in their barns to cull poultry if other methods—such as coating live birds with a firefighting-type foam that asphyxiates them—can’t be done quickly enough to meet the 24-hour goal.


The agency learned it “needs to be able to respond more quickly” and needed more resources, said Dr. T.J. Myers, a USDA veterinary-services official.


The department has hired around 200 of a planned 350 additional veterinarians, animal-health technicians and other workers to handle administrative duties required during emergencies.


Georgia, the biggest U.S. chicken producer, has trained more than a third of its 520 agriculture-department employees to respond to a new bird-flu outbreak, said Commissioner Gary Black. “We’re treating this as if it were a tornado warning, not just a tornado watch, as if the virus is a storm on the horizon,” he said.


The USDA also is evaluating how and when to deploy a vaccine for the H5N2 strain. In August, it solicited proposals for a contract worth at least $6 million for 500 million vaccine doses to be stockpiled for autumn and used if authorized by the chief U.S. veterinarian.


Iowa-based Harrisvaccines Inc. last month received conditional USDA approval for its vaccine. Companies including Zoetis Inc. and France’s Ceva Santé Animale have expressed interest in making a vaccine.


The poultry industry is divided about such a treatment. The hard-hit egg and turkey sectors favor vaccination, while chicken processors worry it could trigger more import bans because some buyers bar shipments from countries with vaccine programs on the grounds that some screening tools can’t distinguish between vaccinated and infected birds.


Companies afflicted by bird flu over the spring have bolstered defenses.


“I probably spend over $100,000 per month on truck washing” now, said Marcus Rust, chief executive of Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms, a major egg producer.


“We cannot live with highly pathogenic avian influenza circulating in poultry in the U.S., it is too great a risk,” said the USDA’s Mr. Myers.


Tyson Foods, the biggest U.S. chicken processor by sales, is limiting visits to its growers’ farms and training some employees in how to manage sick or dead birds without further spreading the disease. The Springdale, Ark., company, whose chicken operations weren’t affected by the spring outbreak, also created new requirements for farm footwear to prevent potential tracking of the virus into poultry houses.


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2. Letter from Langdon: Farmers pay the cost of ‘free’ trade

The Daily Yonder

Richard Oswald

Oct. 12, 2015


If China assembles my Apple iPhone with its global mixture of ingredients, shouldn’t Asians at least eat Washington apples? Maybe not while China produces nine times as many apples as the U.S.


And if my chore tractor came from Italy, (Europe is where most small farm tractors are manufactured today) shouldn’t Italians buy my corn?. Probably not, while they’re the eighth largest corn grower in the world.


That brings U.S. farmers to another crossroads, having bought into the idea that to be successful and make a lot of money, we need full unfettered access to consumers around the world. But those consumers, almost without exception, would rather have food grown at home. Their farmers want it that way too.


Maybe that’s why we’ve been told the answer to consumer resistance is trade agreements like Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that lock trading partners into commitments to buy stuff no matter what. Those agreements always seem to come with a few years of doing business the old way, giving our best new buddies protection and a chance to adapt to doing business the new way. But, as is too often the case, by the time new markets are phased in, they’ve already disappeared via geopolitical corporate hustles and revalued currencies.


It’s pretty nigh onto impossible to pick up the family farm and move it one piece at a time, the way industry seems to do. We’ve already seen how easy it is to set up manufacturing plants in Asia or Mexico for everything from cars and washing machines to cotton T-shirts. And while benefits to farms are always touted, most of the trade agreements we farmers are exhorted to support are already designed to aid floating factories around the world owned by shadow companies looking for cheap labor and ingredients, a tax break, and easily adjustable money.


Farmers are no strangers to market access. Over the years we’ve seen markets come and go via embargoes, farm programs, or transformed into world trade deals more about whipping us than helping us. That’s the way it’s gone for poultry and hog farmers in America as corporations have cemented themselves into virtually every aspect of production from eggs and artificial insemination, chicks and pigs, all the way up to fresh wrapped meat in the grocer’s case.


Monopolies like those have come to be viewed by leaders (who most of us unenthusiastically refer to as politicians) as just another cost of doing business for highly efficient “agriculture.”


But here lately, one of the biggest costs to one efficient branch of U.S. “agriculture” has been a virus called PED, short for porcine epidemic diarrhea. First discovered in Europe, PED spread through Asia mysteriously finding its way to America and Canada. After years of searching for the source, USDA now attributes PED’s origins, responsible for killing 8 million baby pigs in the U.S., to contaminated shipping bags used to deliver bulk commodities to the U.S. from – take a wild guess – our trading partners in Asia.


That’s where avian flu originated, resulting in the destruction of close to 50 million U.S. chickens and turkeys this year costing close to $1 billion and driving up the price of eggs.


Now USDA has approved chicken imports from China. And beef from South America, even though parts of countries there still harbor the scourge of cattlemen everywhere, hoof and mouth disease. That one microscopic bug can wipe out an American beef herd faster than you can say “shipping container.”


But, we’re told, it will be good for “agriculture.”


Instead of facing the truth of policies favoring cheap commodities and cheaper food ingredients for corporate processors, “agriculture” as a whole talks about broad benefits to America and rural communities through profitable farms with access to global markets.


More times than not we’ve seen rural population centers, those clusters of agrarian association that once served as our support group, eroded by indifference or failure to understand the real meaning of the words “sustainability” and “community.”


These days instead of coming from Main Street, most of the things big farms buy come from tens or hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Communities have gotten smaller, farms have gotten bigger, and the roads that hook us all together have gotten longer.


So when we hear that global corporate aggregators of all things bought and sold are good for “agriculture,” we farmers tend to think that means us. The problem is that we are only one small step, the bottom rung, of a long and torturous climb to consumers everywhere. Calling us “agriculture” is a little like calling an engine the whole car. But it’s the engine that makes the whole thing go. And when we consider money collected along the way, the best any farmer can hope for is maybe 15 cents on the dollar.


That leaves a lot of benefit to “agriculture” up for grabs.


Many times it is actions by agriculture as a whole that leads to problems on the family farm when trade and other government deals hurt us through importation of disease, contaminated food, or perhaps just a market manipulating higher corporate power holding no compassion for us, our consumers, or perhaps the world in general.


That’s what happens when everyone forgets that the agriculture we hear so much about in America isn’t always family farms, but all the gigantic corporations surrounding us, doing what they do for better or sometimes worse.


When billion dollar trade deals are at stake, it’s that blurring of the line between us and them that makes it difficult for family farmers to be heard. So when agriculture and unfair free-trade deals are debated in Congress later this year or the next, keep in mind that most importantly to us, family farmers feed America.


The “Agriculture” they’ll all be talking about isn’t who we are, but it’s certainly what we do.


Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter From Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.


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3. WOTUS delayed nationally: Judges’ order raises questions on rule

DTN Progressive Farmer

Todd Neeley

Oct. 9, 2015


The waters of the United States rule will be put on hold nationally after the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday it must first resolve pending legal questions, including whether the court has jurisdiction to hear multiple lawsuits against the federal government on the rule.


In a 2-1 ruling, the three-judge panel determined the court has no other choice but to issue a stay, as the court raised questions about the scientific justification for how key parts of the rule were created.


Some 30 states have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop the rule's enforcement. A federal court in North Dakota recently issued an injunction preventing the rule's implementation in 13 states.


In the majority opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court said it believes the plaintiffs have demonstrated their legal claims could be successful.

Exactly how long the stay will last is not known. The court said in its order it may render a decision on jurisdictional questions "in a matter of weeks."


The states and other plaintiffs have argued the federal government arbitrarily set distance limitations when determining adjacent waters, tributaries and "significant nexus" in the final rule, providing no basis in science. Internal memos from the Army Corps of Engineers shows Corps personnel raised concerns about those distances being legally defensible in the weeks before the final rule was issued in August.


"Meanwhile, we conclude that petitioners have demonstrated a substantial possibility of success on the merits of their claims," the court said in its order. "... Moreover, the rulemaking process by which the distance limitations were adopted is facially suspect. Petitioners contend the proposed rule that was published, on which interested persons were invited to comment, did not include any proposed distance limitations in its use of terms like 'adjacent waters' and 'significant nexus.' Consequently, petitioners contend, the final rule cannot be considered a 'logical outgrowth' of the rule proposed, as required to satisfy the notice-and-comment requirements of the APA (Administrative Procedures Act).


The court said EPA and the Corps of Engineers failed to identify "specific scientific support substantiating the reasonableness of the bright-line standards they ultimately chose."


The court said "considering the pervasive nationwide impact of the new rule on state and federal regulation of the nation's waters, and the still open question whether, under the Clean Water Act, this litigation is properly pursued in this court or in the district courts, we conclude that petitioners have acted without undue delay and that the status quo at issue is the pre-rule regime of federal-state collaboration that has been in place for several years."


While the order to stay the rule is a victory for the states, agriculture, other interest groups, the court said "there is no compelling showing that any of the petitioners will suffer immediate irreparable harm in the form of interference with state sovereignty, or in unrecoverable expenditure of resources as they endeavor to comply with the new regime -- if a stay is not issued pending determination of this court's jurisdiction.


"But neither is there any indication that the integrity of the nation's waters will suffer imminent injury if the new scheme is not immediately implemented and enforced."


American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said in a statement Friday the plaintiffs would ultimately win in court. Despite the court's decision, Stallman called on Congress to pass legislation to change the rule.


"The American Farm Bureau Federation is pleased the Sixth Circuit recognizes that this rule has serious flaws and cannot go forward until the courts have had an opportunity to understand its effect on farmers, ranchers and landowners of all kinds," he said.


"The judges expressed deep concerns over the basic legality of this rule. We're not in the least surprised: This is the worst EPA order we have seen since the agency was established more than 40 years ago. The court clearly understood our arguments.


"We are confident that the courts will strike down this rule. Unfortunately, we also know stays don't last forever, and cases like this almost always take years to win. So we again ask the Senate to pass legislation to nullify this rule just as the House has already done. Farmers and ranchers cannot afford to wait."


Philip Ellis, National Cattlemen's Beef Association president, said the court's action was good news for farmers and ranchers.


"This is great news for cattlemen and women and all land users who have been at a loss as to how to interpret this rule," he said in a statement. "A stay by the court has the same effect as an injunction, and this action prevents the EPA and Army Corps from implementing this disastrous rule across the country. In granting the stay, the majority of the court sided with the states that the rule likely fails on both substantive and procedural grounds."


Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement Friday he believes the court ultimately will strike down the rule.


"The EPA and Army Corps admitted in February before Congress that the proposed rule was flawed and ambiguous, yet the agencies continued forward and finalized the rule in May," he said.


"Instead of fixing the overreach, EPA made it broader. In issuing the stay, the court determined that 'petitioners have demonstrated a substantial possibility of success on the merits of their claims.' This means that the court is likely to overturn the rule."


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4. Thompson: Food labels give consumers the information they want to know

Midland Daily News

Bob Thompson

Oct. 11, 2015


European consumers were aghast several years ago when they learned that the “beef” they had been serving their families was actually horse meat. Taking advantage of the lack of a consumer labeling law, the meat had been imported, mislabeled and then sold in retail.


The backlash to this unpleasant surprise was both loud and immediate, and triggered the adoption of food labels by the European Union. In the U.S., Congress recognized the growing trend of consumers wanting to know what they were eating more than a decade ago and in 2002 passed a popular labeling law known as Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL). As a result, many of the fruits, nuts, vegetables and whole cuts of meat sold at retail are now labeled with their country of origin.


But the multinational meat packers here in the U.S. and our top trade competitors just wouldn’t have it. After prevailing in federal court, the law finally fell victim to a trade dispute by Canada and Mexico at the World Trade Organization (WTO). With threats of substantial economic retaliation being doled out by the WTO, the U.S. House of Representatives repealed the law just months ago and the fate of COOL is now before the U.S. Senate.


After passage, COOL enjoyed strong support among consumers, with roughly a decade’s worth of polling demonstrating the backing by roughly 90 percent of consumers. A recent University of Arkansas study summed up the reason why consumers love COOL when it found that food labeled with its country of origin “appears to provide consumers with additional information that has both direct and indirect effects on purchase intentions.”


In simple terms, parents want to know what they’re putting in their mouths and the mouths of their children.


The simple fact is that nowadays, just about everything in our lives is labeled, including our kitchen appliances, coats, shirts and car parts, so shouldn’t our food be labeled as well? Michigan consumers have clearly demonstrated a strong desire to eat locally — something that delights farmers and boosts the rural economy. But this is only possible if food is labeled.


Luckily, some key U.S. senators, led by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, have been steadfast in their support of food labeling and forged a move that would not only prevent food labeling from being repealed in the Senate, but would also appease the complaint at the WTO. The new alternative would retain the framework of the original COOL law, while bringing it into WTO compliance by making COOL voluntary for beef and pork.


This is truly a win-win situation for everyone concerned. Canada already has a voluntary labeling program on the books, and some Canadian pork producers have stated that a voluntary U.S. program would be satisfactory. And for consumers who deeply care about where their food is sourced, they would be able to purchase labeled products.


Additionally, both Mexico and Canada already suggested the adoption of a voluntary system in the 2012 WTO Appellate Body Report, and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) also noted that repealing the mandatory requirement and replacing it with a voluntary system has the “potential to constitute compliance with U.S. WTO obligations.” That gives voluntary COOL the “thumbs up” in all directions.


Michigan Farmers Union fought for mandatory COOL for years, and we are now throwing our full endorsement behind voluntary COOL because, frankly, it’s the only game in town. The Senate bill would avoid the multinational meat packer and foreign lobbyist-driven call for a complete repeal and ensure that the framework for accurate food labeling remains on the books. It’s a far better option than complete repeal of COOL.


Michigan consumers want to know where their food comes from, and Michigan farmers, like me, are proud to put our names on what we produce. Voluntary COOL is the way to make that happen.


Weidman-based Bob Thompson is president of Michigan Farmers Union.


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5. California adopts tough rules for antibiotic use in farm animals


Lisa Baertlein

Oct. 10, 2015


California Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday signed a bill that sets the strictest government standards in the United States for the use of antibiotics in livestock production.


The move from California, known for its leadership on public health and environmental issues, comes amid growing concern that the overuse of such drugs is contributing to rising numbers of life-threatening human infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as "superbugs."


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 2 million people in this country are infected with drug resistant bacteria each year and that 23,000 die as a direct result.


"This puts California at the forefront of U.S. efforts to address the overuse of antibiotics in meat production," said Avinash Kar, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).


Roughly 70 percent of antibiotics important for human medicine are sold in the United States for use in meat and dairy production, public health experts say.


Veterinary use of antibiotics is legal. However, as the number of human infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases, consumer advocates, public health experts and investors have become more critical of the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to chickens, cattle and pigs.


California ranks third among U.S. states in terms of the value of its meat, milk, eggs and other livestock products.


Some types of antibiotics can be purchased in the United States without a prescription for animal care. Uses include disease treatment, prevention of illness in healthy animals and growth promotion.


The bill, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, will restrict the regular use of antibiotics for disease prevention and bans antibiotic use to fatten up animals.


It also aims to stop over-the-counter sale of antibiotics for livestock use. Under the new rules, antibiotics would have to be ordered by a licensed veterinarian.


Additionally, California's Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) will be required to monitor antibiotic sales and use. CDFA will gain authority to collect information on antibiotic use in livestock production and to develop best practices.

The move comes as large restaurants and retailers are beginning to follow pioneers such as Whole Foods Market and Chipotle Mexican Grill in adopting strict antibiotic policies.


Notably, McDonald's USA in March said it would stop buying chicken raised with antibiotics vital to fighting human infections within two years.


NRDC and a coalition of public health, business, farm, environmental and consumer groups supported the measure, which lacked strong public opposition.


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6. Rules enforced, lives saved

Star Tribune

Jeffrey Meitrodt

Oct. 7, 2015


Hugo Valdovines stepped inside a giant machine that farmworkers use to wash sweet corn and looked around.


“Is that bleach right there?” he asked.


Farm owner Manuel Imperial nodded. But he explained that workers can use a nearby hose if any of the powerful chemical splashes on their faces while they disinfect the machine.


Not good enough. Valdovines, an industrial consultant who works for the state of Washington, told the farmer to build an eyewash station. His inspection also turned up other problems. He told Imperial to replace an unsafe ladder and find a way to protect vegetable pickers from falling off moving trailers.


The farmer didn’t flinch. After all, he had requested the two-hour safety audit.


“A lot of farmers want to do the right thing, but they don’t know what to do,” Imperial told Valdovines in August. “I want to get better.”


Farmers in Washington have embraced the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural safety program, an initiative that contrasts sharply with the hands-off approach that prevails in much of the Midwest.


Unlike most farm belt states, where agricultural deaths are rarely investigated, Washington regulators are usually at the scene after an agricultural worker gets killed. Washington is one of three states that enforce safety rules on farms with fewer than 11 workers. Washington also provides consulting services to small farms that wouldn’t qualify for such help in other states.


The results are stunning. Despite having a larger farm workforce than any state in the Midwest, Washington has reported a total of 63 farm deaths since 2003. By comparison, Minnesota, Iowa and six other Midwestern states each have had more than 200 work-related farm fatalities during that time.


Of the 47 states that reported at least one farm death in the past decade, Washington has the nation’s lowest fatality rate. In some years, the state has gone without a single death linked to a tractor rollover, a common cause of fatalities elsewhere.


“Washington has one of the best systems in the country,” said Matt Keifer, director of the National Farm Medicine Center in Wisconsin.


Last year, Washington consultants visited 294 agricultural operations, including dozens of farms in the Yakima Valley, the state’s agricultural heart. By comparison, Minnesota has provided free consulting to 10 farms since 2010.


If all states followed the Washington model, the lives of about 1,000 farmworkers could be saved in five years, according to a study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Farming remains one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, generating an average of more than 400 work-related deaths each year.


“There is a profound difference in the numbers between Washington and the other states,” said Anne Soiza, assistant director of Washington’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which oversees workplace safety. “I believe it is because our presence makes that difference.”


Long tradition


Few business owners enjoy regulation, but the idea of making small farms subject to workplace safety rules hardly caused a ripple in Washington.


Regulators point to the state’s unusual constitution, which since 1889 has required protection of all employees who face conditions that are “dangerous to life or deleterious to health.” There are no exceptions. Similar rights do not exist in the U.S. Constitution, or state constitutions in Minnesota and other Midwestern states.


Those workplace protections led Washington down a different path in the 1970s, when the state — along with Minnesota and 20 other states — elected to create workplace safety programs instead of giving that job to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). By law, those state-run programs must be as effective as federal OSHA in protecting workers.


But while the federal government and most states exempt small farms from oversight, Washington officials said they never seriously considered that. California and Oregon are the only other states that elected to use state money to enforce safety rules on farms with fewer than 11 workers. All states are barred from using federal money to inspect small farms.


“It happened pretty quietly, and without a major fight,” said Michael Silverstein, who ran the Washington OSHA program for 10 years and recently retired from the state agency.


Representatives of Washington’s two largest farm groups said the industry has not tried to overturn the system.


“I don’t think it’s a big issue out here in the state of Washington,” said Corwyn Fischer, assistant director at the Washington Farm Bureau.


Farmers have pushed back on how the rules are enforced. Perhaps the biggest fight involved the state’s move to require roll bars on tractors built before 1976, a move aimed at combating tractor rollovers, the leading cause of farm deaths across the country. Though the rule contains some exceptions, Washington goes far beyond the federal standard, which simply requires rollover protection on newer tractors.


There have been relatively few fatalities linked to tractor rollovers in Washington since the rule took effect in 1995. A 2006 state report showed a dramatic increase in the number of older-model tractors equipped with rollover protection, even though the state has not helped farmers pay for it.


Some farming advocates say it’s not fair to compare Washington’s safety record with Minnesota and other Midwestern states because the mix of crops is so different. Washington produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including nearly 60 percent of the nation’s apples, which depend heavily on manual labor. Minnesota and Iowa dominate in corn and soybeans, a highly mechanized harvesting process.


“Picking lettuce and tomatoes is not as dangerous as operating a skid loader,” said Minnesota Rep. Paul Anderson, a fourth-generation farmer from Starbuck, Minn.


Veteran farmers in Washington see it differently. They point out that tractors and skid-steer loaders are constantly buzzing around pickers during harvest season, hauling large cartons of apples and trailers loaded down with fresh vegetables.


“It is different, but a tractor is a tractor,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. “My educated guess is that [rollover protection] on tractors has saved some lives and prevented some injuries.”


Forgiving penalties


Farmers often fear the worst when regulators show up, but many in Washington say they find the experience surprisingly tolerable.


Jack Wheatley, whose family has raised hay in central Washington for more than 50 years, got his first visit from a state regulator in 2011. The result was a $1,650 fine for two safety violations, including missing safety guards on equipment. Two years later, the regulators returned when the arm of a backhoe crushed one of his workers when he got off the machine without first turning it off.


This time the fine was $900. The backhoe was missing a safety pin that could have prevented the accident.


“The guy who handled the case was very sympathetic to our loss,” Wheatley said. “He could have fined us $50,000.”


The experience made Wheatley take safety more seriously. Besides replacing the pin on his backhoe, he added rollover protection to three of his older tractors — even though he wasn’t cited for any tractor violations.


If Wheatley’s farm had been in Minnesota, it would have been too small to warrant a visit from regulators. He sometimes has as few as four full-time workers. But in Washington, an accident inspection is required if a farm has at least one employee.


Since 2003, Washington regulators have investigated 17 fatalities on small farms. Regulators typically found at least one safety violation. Fines ranged from $100 to $24,400, well below the legal maximum.


To address federal concerns over the state’s modest fines, which ranked 44th in the nation in 2013, Washington recently agreed to impose a minimum fine of $2,500 for any violation that contributes to a fatality.


Washington regulators said they want farmers to welcome the attention. A 2011 state report showed that traumatic injuries declined 20 percent more at all Washington businesses cited for at least one violation. Consulting visits reduced injury claims by 25 percent.


“We call it ‘selling the ticket,’ ” said Jeanne Henke, compliance manager for the Yakima Valley area, where Wheatley’s farm is located. “I would be very upset if someone on my crew came in as a storm trooper and intimidated somebody. … We need to find the big hazards, the things that cut people’s arms off, that disable people, that kill people. But we are also there to educate the workers and the employers.”


Identifying risks


Twenty minutes after safety consultant Jim Woodfin started his tour of Jason Sheehan’s dairy farm, the regulator was standing next to a large milk tank, pointing his finger at a spinning drive shaft.


“You can make contact with your hands or fingers — boy, it causes amputations,” said Woodfin, noting the absence of a shield to protect workers.


A few minutes later, Woodfin caught an employee driving a tractor without a seat belt. He found a door to the milk barn blocked by a broken fan. He poked his hand into a nest of electrical wires that should have been covered.


By the end of his three-hour visit, Woodfin had documented nearly two dozen safety violations.


“We found little things, but we always do,” Woodfin told Sheehan. “You got a lot more going right than you do heading in the wrong direction.”


Sheehan, who requested the consulting visit, took issue with just one finding — that he buy four helmets for his fleet of all-terrain vehicles.


“So even on the dairy, guys got to wear a helmet?” he asked.


“Yeah, whatever the manufacturer recommends,” Woodfin said.


Sheehan said he wanted a thorough review of his dairy to make sure his 38 workers are safe. A few years before he and his wife acquired the farm in 2011, two workers died in separate accidents. A cow trampled one, and a 1,500-pound hay bale fell on the other. Regulators looked at both deaths and found two serious violations in the hay bale incident, resulting in a $300 fine.


Altogether, Sheehan figures he’ll spend about $2,000 to address the hazards Woodfin’s team uncovered.


Washington farmers said complying with rules aimed at preventing accidents is usually affordable, and much better than the heartache and financial consequences of dealing with a fatality. Henke said most violations at farms can be addressed with improvements that cost a few hundred dollars.


“I think all of the things they pointed out can help us avoid an accident,” said Sheehan, who grew up on a dairy farm in Rochester, Minn., that his relatives still operate. “It’s going to take at least a day or two of my employees’ time to go around and fix everything. A lot of the stuff they pointed out is not expensive. It just needs to get done.”


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