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.

Wait and See in January 2016

So much for no new ag legislation this session. This may have been the intent of Delaware Secretary of Ag, Ed Kee, but it didn’t happen. I would consider no new ag legislation or additional funding for ag programs a success and Rep. Dave Wilson (R) seemed to be working in this direction. However, his attempt stalled. Meanwhile, an animal activist bill popped up out of nowhere. A ton of bills were left on each chamber’s  ready list, tabled, or stalled. I suppose we’ll have to “wait and see” as the 148th session continues in January 2016. Here’s a recap of Jan-June 2015, complete with links if you want to learn more:

  • HB (House Bill) 124 is Rep. Dave Wilson’s (R) masterpiece. He’s trying to find a permanent funding solution for the Ag Land Preservation Program by writing $10 million from the Realty Transfer Tax Fund into our Constitution. The bill sailed through the House Ag Committee but it parked itself on the House Ready List. Meaning it’s ready to be heard on the House floor. It will have to pass by a 2/3 vote and it has to pass both chambers in two consecutive sessions since it’s a constitutional amendment. We’ll see what happens in January 2016. I should also mention $3 million was appropriated to the Aglands Preservation Program at the last-minute, thanks to the one time nationwide bank settlement with Bank of America and Citigroup.  
  • SB (Senate Bill) 124 breezed through the Senate Chamber on June 23 with a vote of 21-YES, 0-NO. The bill seeks to add a voting member to the Aglands Preservation Board. The only requirement is this person must be actively engaged in farming or some other form of agribusiness. He or she can live in any county. But Sen. Ennis (D), the primary sponsor of the bill, stated it was a spot for an African-American farmer. I don’t see that written in the bill. The bill has been to assigned to the House Ag Committee. We’ll see what happens in January 2016.
  • HB 189 was the attempt by the HSUS lobbyist to end dairy cattle tail docking in Delaware. Any farmer in violation would be slapped with a Class A misdemeanor. The bill was tabled. The Department of Ag promised to meet with HSUS to give more detail on how many Delaware farmers actually engage in this practice. Lets hope we don’t see anything happen in 2016! 
  • SB 69 is not exactly an ag bill but it may come as a surprise to some rural families and kids. Any person under 18 years old, operating an ATV, must wear a protective helmet on his or her head with the chin straps properly fastened. Any person under 18 years old cannot be a passenger on an ATV unless the passenger is wearing a protective helmet with the chin straps properly fastened. Not sure who will enforce it or how rural families will be educated on this new law? The DE Farm Bureau was involved and put forth an amendment.
  • HCR (House Concurrent Resolution) 30 was proposed by Rep. Jeff Spiegelman (R) from Smyrna. His intent was to establish a Port of Wilmington Exports Task Force to provide recommendations in regards to expanding the operations at the Port of Wilmington to include agricultural product exports. The bill was tabled. It seemed to possibly ruffle the feathers of the Port, as if it was an insult that they weren’t already doing enough. Rep. Spiegelman requested the bill be tabled so he could do more background work on the bill. It seems like he’s trying to find more niche markets and open up more channels for Delaware farmers. I don’t see how this can go wrong. Lets hope to hear more in January 2016. Here’s a video clip where he explains more.

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!?!?

DE Ag Newsflash

Here’s a quick newsflash from the world of DE agriculture for you:

  • Mark Rieger has accepted UD’s offer to become the next Dean of the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. I’m sure an official announcement will come soon. Until then, you can find out more about him on the “Official Dean Search” website page (I was personally impressed with his letter; however, you cannot access the video). You can also see the members of the search committee on this site (along right hand side).
  • There is a Senate Agriculture Committee meeting at Legislative Hall coming up on June 6 at 3pm. Previously mentioned bills regarding the Nutrient Management Commission (HB 286) and pesticide sales (HB 321) are on the agenda. Check this website for updates (times and meeting rooms change often!). Primary sponsors of these bills are both Republican; Rep. Dave Wilson and Rep. Harvey Kenton respectively, both from the Milford area.
  • In the poultry world, there’s a newly named President & CEO for Mountaire Farms, Inc. His name is Paul Downes and he most recently served as COO (Chief Operations Officer). See more here.
  • The longtime Vlasic pickle factory in Millsboro, DE  announced it’s closing this week. Not only will DE lose close to 300 jobs (150 full-time, 150 seasonal) but approximately 20 Eastern Shore farmers will have to decide whether to continue growing cucumbers. This plant opened in 1972, changed owners several times over the years, and apparently considered closing in 2010. However, a DE economic development grant of $90, 000 kept them open. Two years later, not the case. Michigan’s economic development office and union won the battle, which is where it will consolidate its pickle production. See the DE News Journal article here.
  • Have you visited a local farmer’s market yet? Many are opening statewide, including a new one slated for the Smyrna, DE area. I will blog more about this soon. In the meantime, see this Farmer’s Market Directory, offered by the DE Dept. of Ag. The strawberry season in DE has pretty much come to a close but broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, green and yellow squash, and blueberries are soon to come!
  • Speaking of which, have you seen the new DE Dept. of Ag website? It has a new, fresh look and it’s about time!!! Take a peek here: http://dda.delaware.gov/