Delaware’s Grassroots Ag Champion

Every cause longs for a well-spoken, trusted advocate and they aren’t easy to find. There’s no doubt about it, Delaware agriculture has a champion in Rep. Dave Wilson. Only second to his constituents, Delaware agriculture is Rep. Wilson’s #1 priority. His commitment to securing farm land preservation state funds is critical to securing the future of Delaware farmers; not to mention its relation to preserving open space for all Delaware citizens. He pushed through House Bill 124 this past legislative session to fight for realty transfer tax dollars that were originally earmarked for ag land preservation. Needless to say, Delaware’s ag land preservation fund has only received a small fracture of these funds. Keep in mind, this bill would change our state Constitution, which requires 2/3 passing vote by each house in two consecutive general assemblies. This is a tough feat, for any cause. Rep. Wilson even told me that a prominent agricultural leader discouraged him from pursuing it because of budget constraints. But Rep. Wilson pursued it anyway. Why? Because that’s exactly what champions do! They aren’t afraid to be the underdog and in the process, they bring positive media attention and education about land preservation to those who have no clue that agriculture is Delaware’s #1 economic industry. The bill did not pass the first leg but it was close! He garnered 20 yes votes from his colleagues and he promises to try again.

More recently, his primary opponent brought attention to Rep. Wilson’s own participation in the ag preservation program (all public information on the DDA website). While I understand and appreciate the transparency, I believe most of the agricultural community know the history. You see, if Rep. Wilson wanted to get in when the “getting was good”, he would’ve taken advantage of the program in its earlier inception years when the average collective discount was well below 50%. If you really care to dig more on this issue, then let’s just mention the two former sitting legislators who DID take advantage early on: Rep. Wallace Caulk (Round 1, 1996, 27% collective discount, total over $770,000) and Rep. George Carey (1997, 33% collective discount, total over a million dollars). And guess what? Neither are public champions for the program nor currently advocate for funding such as Rep. Wilson.

Let me try explaining another way. Farmers who participate in this program, sell their development rights back to the state at a fracture of what they’re worth. It can never be sold for development or non-agricultural use.  You may only see large dollar sign totals but again, this is a fracture of what the land is appraised. For the state, it provides open space preservation for the future and ensures funding to our #1 economic industry. For farmers, it is a funding source that gives them some value for their property without selling out and can ensure their future relatives remain in farming practice. Let’s face it, they’re basically doing the state a favor by promising to never develop their land for minimal cost.

In other words, Rep. Wilson has nothing more to gain. All of his land is being preserved, which tells me he believes and trusts in the program enough to participate and wants to garner more funds for his fellow farming colleagues. Most probably know he was a farmer, horse breeder, and auctioneer first and our only active farmer in Delaware’s legislative body. Even better than an advocate is an advocate who has been on the ground, actively involved in the work, known as “grassroots”. There is NO other current Delaware legislator that can say his or her priority is Delaware agriculture. Based on this, I believe Delaware agriculture has a “grassroots” champion in Rep. Dave Wilson. We need to keep him in our legislature to preserve ag lands and our future in farming!

For more information, click here. To get involved in Rep. Wilson’s campaign, click here.

Farmers, Minimum Wage Hike, and Voting Straight “R”

In case you haven’t heard, an upstate legislator, Sen., Robert Marshall (D-Wilmington West) recently sponsored SB 39 to raise Delaware’s minimum wage over several years. When discussing this topic, many seem uneducated because they don’t own a business or they do not work a minimum wage paying job. Therefore, I think it’s important to start by laying out the current facts:

  • The current federal minimum wage rate is: $7.25, effective July 24, 2009, for non-exempt employees
  • However, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) states if an employee is subject to both the state and federal minimum wage laws, the employee is entitled to the higher minimum wage rate.
  • Delaware’s minimum wage rate is: $8.25, effective July 1, 2015.
  • Surrounding states (according to NCSL):
    • Virginia remains $7.25
    • Maryland is $8.25 but raises to $8.75 in July 2016, $9.25 in July 2017 and $10.10 in July 2018
    • Pennsylvania remains $7.25
  • As of Jan. 1, 2016 the highest rate is D.C. at $10.50. This is the first rate to cross the $10.00 threshold. If you don’t count D.C. as a state then next up is California and Massachusetts at $10.00.

In Delaware, the bill passed the Senate on Jan. 27, 2016. The bill originally proposed incrementally increasing the wage to $15.05 by over eight years (eff. June 1, 2023)! However, after a fierce debate, the bill was amended to increase to $10.25 over four years:

  • $8.75 eff. June 1, 2016
  • $9.25 eff. June 1, 2017
  • $9.75 eff. June 1, 2018
  • $10.25 eff. June 1, 2019
  • There is no change to minimum wage with tips (i.e. restaurant server)
  • There is no cost of living adjustment (COLA)
  • There is a fiscal note attached which outlines increases to casual/seasonal state workers

Business owners came out in full force to testify against the bill, which included many farmers, such as Fifer Farms in Kent and Vincent Farms in Sussex. Both testified and opposed the increase as seen on WBOC: Some Local Farmers Oppose Higher Minimum Wage

Apparently the response from legislators to the farmers was: “But Ag is exempt!”. Not once did they say “Ag is our #1 Industry”! Employees in agriculture are exempt but anyone who owns a business knows that it’s hard to find to good help these days. Agricultural employers MUST stay competitive in order to attract skilled workers. Therefore, ag is truly not exempt. The same goes for young workers (under the age of 20), who are also exempt. For example, Little Wagon Produce hires many seasonal employees who are usually high school students. How will we attract these students to work in the heat, pick produce, and get dirty for $7.25/hour when they can work in the air conditioner at McDonald’s for $10.25/hr? The same goes for foreign laborers who can work for larger landscaping companies instead of local farming operations. I believe the response to our local farmers shows just how uneducated our legislators really are today. Many have NO ties to local farming or own any type of small business.

Our local Chamber’s of Commerce have spoken out against the bill as well. Judy Diogo, President of the Central Chamber of Commerce, recently wrote an excellent opinion in the Delaware State News, noting many other increases to small businesses such as health care insurance, unemployment insurance, taxes, regulations, licensing fees, and operating costs. She noted 70% of the 1,000 businesses she represents were against a hike increase. This fact should have perked every Kent legislator’s ears; however, many voted YES including Sen. Bruce Ennis (D-Smyrna) who chairs the Senate Ag Committee! So disappointing! Especially after hearing so many farmers testify. Again, this is a negative outcome from the lack of agricultural ties in our legislature.

Last but not least, I must mention another local opinion from a young observant, Stephen Baione,  who just happened to be visiting the Senate chamber on the day of the minimum wage debate. His article was well-written and his observations speak volumes. He, too, realizes many do not own a business. But the common disrespect towards those testifying and minority party legislators makes me want to change my party status ASAP. It also makes me want to vote straight “R” in the upcoming election. If you don’t read anything else in this blog, please click on this link.

The bill is now Assigned to Economic Development/Banking/Insurance/Commerce Committee in the House. The DE General Assembly goes back into session in March 8th. I encourage you to speak out and contact your local legislator or local Chamber of Commerce today. 

First Ag Committee Meeting this Wednesday

The first Agriculture Committee meeting of the 148th General Assembly is scheduled for this Wednesday, March 25, 2015 at 1:00 pm. The meeting will take place in the House Majority Hearing Room at Legislative Hall. Anyone can attend! These meetings are always open to the public. Just bring a picture ID with you to get into Legislative Hall. The agenda simply states:

Briefing from Delaware Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee …

By the way, the website for the Delaware State Legislature has been updated! Wow, it’s about time! Take a look when you have a minute. It seems to be laid out well and even provides staff contact info for the Controller General’s Office and Division of Research. Pretty sure that’s a first.

http://legis.delaware.gov/

dga

New Year, New Session, New Ag Committee Chairs

There are 62 Legislators in the DE General Assembly. Many are former teachers. Some run small businesses. A few have backgrounds in healthcare. Five are former police officers (according to a recent DE State News article). But NONE are full-time FARMERS. As a matter of fact, out of 62, only a handful have any experience in agriculture at all.

On the House side, the closest we get is Representative’s Dave Wilson (a part-time farmer and horse breeder), Harvey Kenton (retired from Milford Fertilizer-now Growmark FS, LLC), and Jack Peterman (retired farmer). All are Republicans and in the minority caucus, which doesn’t hold much weight when it comes to committee chairmanship. Chairs of each committee come from the majority caucus, which is currently the Democrat party for both chambers in Delaware. The former chair of the Ag Committee, John Atkins-D, lost in the last election. The Vice-chair was Quinn Johnson-D, who actually grew up on a truck crop farm in Maryland but is more involved in his family daycare business in Middletown. All of the above served on last year’s Ag committee.

On the Senate side, there’s even less ag experience and its all in the minority caucus. The best I can find is Senator Brian Pettyjohn (grew up on a farm and worked for Mountaire Farms). These are a stretch but somewhat related to ag: Senator’s Ernie Lopez (works for UD Cooperative Extension/4-H) and Gerald Hocker (owns his own family grocery store). Again, all are Republicans. The former Chair was Bruce Ennis-D, who’s a former state policeman.

So why care who chairs our Ag committee? A committee chair can have significant power by setting the committee’s agenda and determining when and whether bills will be considered. Other responsibilities of a committee chair typically include calling the committee together to perform its duties. In the past, the Delaware House and Senate Ag Committees often join together to meet. Last year, both Ag committee’s in either chamber met only a handful of times. It often seems to be at the request of our Secretary of Ag, who seems to drive the agenda in Delaware. Last session’s proposed legislation focused on the declining horse industry in Delaware (another recent article for the DE State News). The committee not meeting often means there isn’t much policy being formulated, which to many farmers is a good sign because it means less regulation and government interference. But I don’t think this will be the case in future years. Just watching Maryland grapple with the proposed “Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT)” is painful. Many other state legislatures’ are considering other bills harmful to the ag industry, such as ag-gag laws and GMO labeling campaigns. This is why I was disappointed that a proposed right-to-farm bill (HB 63) went nowhere last session. We need legislators with ag experience to serve and chair this committee to protect our #1 industry by convening this group regularly, setting an agenda to protect their farming constituents, and working with the only pro-farm lobbying group-the Delaware Farm Bureau. Given the lack of experience, especially on the Democratic side, I’m guessing the new chairs will have little experience in agriculture, which is not good when it comes to protecting our #1 industry. Wouldn’t it help to have a pro-active Ag committee stacked with ag-educated legislators on our side?  It’s often too late to educate policy-makers when a bill is already on the table. Especially when our best advocates sit in the minority caucus.

All committee assignments and chairs, appointed by the House Speaker and President Pro Temp, should be announced soon as the 148th DE General Assembly reconvenes on Jan. 13, 2015. New Ag committee chairs will be named. Stay tuned.

 

 

The Significance of June 30

June 30. It seems like an insignificant date year after year. For many, it simply means……

  • half of 2014 is already over!
  • summer is officially here!
  • Little League All-Stars are under way!
  • State 4-H camp is over until next year!
  • the DE State Fair is less than 20 days away!
  • the 4th of July holiday is just around the corner!

But in DE state government, it is significant. It’s the end of our state’s legislative session (no exclamation point). This means late nights for many state employees and legislators as they try to wrap another year’s budget and policy making. This will mark the end of the 147th General Assembly. It ran from January 2013 to present. Any bills left in limbo are forever gone. All legislation must be introduced as new in the next session, which will begin in January 2015.

This year’s session was plagued by low revenues, a proposed gas and water tax, e-cigarette laws, and another potential casino bailout. There wasn’t much room for anything else; therefore agriculture took a normal backseat. Here’s a roundup of ag-related legislation from this past session (click on the link for more info):

  • HB 385 w/ HA 1– Industrial Hemp
    • This is Rep. Dave Wilson’s bill to allow DDA and/or any higher education institution in DE to create and operate the pilot programs to study the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp. According to NCSL, 15 other states currently have laws allowing for hemp production. So far it has only passed the House. Time may run out.
  • SB 245 w/ SA 1 – Dangerous Dogs & Animal Fighting
    • I don’t really consider this an agricultural bill but it comes through on my RSS feed. It pertains to the treatment of animals when seized for criminal activity, etc. It passed the Senate and just came out of the House Health & Human Development Committee.
  • SB 201 w/ SA 1 – Humane Killing, Authority of DDA
    • This is an interesting bill but needed, in my opinion. It clarifies the duties of the newly established Office of Animal Welfare within Public Health to oversee “companion animal” programs as well as shelter standards, previously managed by DDA. It also updates DDA’s role to focus on poultry and livestock species. It passed both chambers and is awaiting the Governor’s signature.
  • HB 122 w/ HA 1, HA 2, & SA 2 – Amending Registration of Farm Vehicles
    • This bill requires farmers to register their farm vehicle with DMV and display an official “FV” tag, which replaces the former white, plastic Farm Vehicle Use tag. This stemmed from rampant illegal abuse of the white plastic tag. The new tag is only available through DMV. The cost is $10 with a signed affidavit, confirming that they meet requirements for being a farmer. For more specifics see this blog post from the DE Farm Bureau. I need to print this for Farmer Dan and my Grandfather. They love going to DMV (no exclamation point).
  • HB 150 w/HA 1, HA 2 – Raw Milk Bill
    • Sponsored by Rep. Outten (my district), this bill sought to legalize raw milk for public consumption within Delaware state lines even though the FDA  does not support. It was defeated in the House last June (2013). But a May 2014 House of Representatives e-newsletter highlighted this bill again, touting a “far more tightly focused bill” and stated it would be circulated for sponsorship soon. Haven’t heard anything since. There are some audio cuts on the House of Reps website.
  • HB 63 – Freedom to Farm 
    • Sad to see this bill sit on House Ready List for more than a year. Perhaps it got complicated because it was a constitutional amendment? Or no one advocated? I sent an email to the Secretary of Ag and my legislators in support. Maybe something bigger and better is planned for next session?

A few other semi-related ag bills:

  • HS 1 for HB 60 w/ HA 1, HA 2, HA 3 – Direct Shipment of Wine to DE Consumers (for those in the grape business)
  • SCR 64 – Establishing the DE Waterways Management and Financing Advisory Committee (for DE Watermen)

Keep in mind, the session isn’t over yet. Interesting things can happen in the wee hours of June 30 (no exclamation point).

 

2014 Legislative Update

For the first time in 2014, the DE General Assembly convened in January. Later in the month the usual “State of the State” address was given by our Governor. I have to agree with State Minority Whip Rep. Deb Hudson (R). Why wasn’t our #1 industry mentioned? Take a listen below (it’s a 9 second clip).

Rep. Hudson said she was surprised that a speech that was expected to focus on economic development did not mention the state’s number one industry…

Is there a state agricultural policy agenda for the upcoming year?  As of today, Feb 18, there has been no Agricultural Committee meeting scheduled or held this year in either chamber. There are many agricultural related bills being held over from the last session including the “Right to Farm Bill” (HB 65) and at least 2 bills related to agricultural license plates and special tags. One of these, HB 122, did pass both Houses on Jan. 30, 2014. This bill would allow farmers who have a farm vehicle that is used within a 20 mile radius of their farm to register their vehicle with DMV. The “FV” tag would replace the white plastic “Farm Vehicle” tags. The FV tag fee is $10 which is comparable to what the “Farm Vehicle” tags sell for. A vehicle with an “FV” tag would be exempt from inspection.

I also have to admit, the “clean water initiative’s” our Governor mentioned several times in his address make me nervous.  Details from DNREC haven’t been released yet. The Governor also released his budget proposal a few days later, in which he proposed a $8 million funding cut to the State’s Farmland Preservation program. The cut would leave $2 million for the fund.

In recent days, Rep. John Atkins, Chair of the House Agricultural Committee, proposed a toll for west Rt. 404 instead of the .10 gas tax, which the Governor proposed in his address. It was all over the media yesterday, including tv and radio (WBOC, WMDT, and 105.9). Our family farm businesses operate on Rt. 404, which include a retail produce stand, creamery, and daily farm operations. If this becomes seriously considered (it sounds like a just an idea at this point), let’s pray that our customers don’t bypass Rt. 404 to avoid the toll. Let’s also hope that the toll booth doesn’t go in directly across from one of our retail operations. I’d also like to hear what Rep. Dave Wilson, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, or Sen. Gary Simpson have to say (Rt. 404 west is split by District 18 & 19), since this is their district! Sen. Pettyjohn released a YouTube video recently, centered on ag issues and not supporting the proposed gas tax hike or cut to farmland preservation dollars, but it offered no alternative options and it came out before Rep. Atkin’s toll proposal. See the You Tube mash-up below. The legislative session doesn’t reconvene until late March. More to come and hopefully an Ag Committee meeting date!?!?

Raw Milk Bill Dead & Farm Truck Tag Changes

This past Tuesday HB 150DE’s Raw Milk Bill was introduced on the House floor in the DE General Assembly. Besides the Dept of Ag opposing, a prominent DE dairy farmer was invited to testify why he opposes the bill. Mr. Walt Hopkins stated that he was afraid more regulation would come to the industry if raw, unpasteurized milk was legal to sell directly to consumers. He said the industry already has enough inspection and didn’t need more. Another legislator asked the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Outten, if the constituent who approached him to sponsor the bill was a farmer. The answer was no. The same legislator also asked him if the passage of this bill could potentially harm children in Delaware who drink milk. The answer was yes. And that was the end of DE’s attempt to join 30 other states and legalize raw milk sales. Not sure why he didn’t ask many of the dairy farmers in his district to support the bill (such as the Busker’s, Knutsen’s or Vogl’s). Final roll call: 26-no, 14-yes. Here’s the results from my poll:

Would you purchase and/or consume raw milk from a DE farmer if legalized?

Answer Votes Percent
Yes, I would purchase and/or consume raw milk from a DE farmer. 24 60%
No, I would not purchase or consume raw milk period. 14 35%
Unsure. I need to research more. 2 5%

, SB 62 was brought to a final vote and passed. This bill would allow farmers to register their trucks, semitrailers, and trailers with an “FT” tag at the reduced registration fee. The bill is pretty straightforward and short in language. It also clarifies that FT Tags may be used for personal use other than non-farming commercial use, understanding that all FT tagged vehicles are required to have auto insurance. The bill passed both chambers and awaits the Governor’s signature. ****PLEASE NOTE: Originally I got this bill confused with HB 122, which sets out to replace the “farm vehicle” tags.  This bill is sitting on the Senate ready list. I doubt it will make the agenda this time around but the bill will carry over into next session.

In case you’re curious, here’s a link to DE State Code on current farm vehicle registration and a DMV document on Motor Vehicle Laws affecting DE Farmers.