As the Michigan Senate wrapped up two bills designed to protect underground utilities from damage by excavators, Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) members were digging into policy to protect themselves within the proposed regulations.
Two bills, SB-1083 and SB-1084, which passed the Senate Nov. 29 and now rest in the hands of the House Energy and Technology Committee, would provide new regulatory standards to protect underground utilities.
Casually known as the “MISS DIG” bills, the legislation requires farmers to call the MISS DIG Call Center and have underground utility lines marked before tillage work can lawfully be done. Introduced in April by Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek), the bills don’t account for farmers’ concerns, according to Michigan Farm Bureau Legislative Counsel Matt Smego.
Those concerns were obvious as Farm Bureau members forged policies that will guide the organization’s activities through the coming year. Almost 500 county Farm Bureau delegates, in Grand Rapids for MFB’s 93rd State Annual Meeting, approved policy that supports “regulations to protect both the farmer and the utility from accidents which could cause injury to an individual or interruption of service to a community.”
Smego said the two Senate bills have been improved from their original form, but need additional work and can’t be supported by Farm Bureau in their present form.
“The legislation at this point requires anyone who meets the definition of ‘excavating’ to call MISS DIG to get the utility lines marked, with some exceptions,” Smego said.
As currently written, the bills would require farmers to hand-dig and expose buried utility lines across their fields.
With such concerns on their minds, Farm Bureau policymakers said they oppose “these practices (normal tillage) being defined as excavating.” They also oppose the bills’ apparent attempt to hold them “liable for damage to any buried utilities” and “landowner, tenant or custom operator(s) being required to contact MISS DIG for normal farm tillage.”
“Within the Senate bills, the law would allow a ticket to be open for three years when a farmer calls MISS DIG,” he said.”However it still requires, first, telling the MISS DIG Call Center that this is a farm. Secondly, it still requires hand digging. It also requires farmers to create a utility line map and maintain a copy of that map detailing any ‘excavation’ for three years.
Ravenna field crop and seek farmer, Ted Crowley, was a delegate from the Muskegon County Farm Bureau who voted on the state organization’s policy issues.
Crowley said a big concern to farmers is the direction of the agricultural program at Michigan State University, one of the oldest Land Grant colleges in the United States.
Other issues he said delegates discussed were deer baiting and financing road maintenance.
The Ravenna said the public is not aware of the economic importance of agriculture in Michigan and in Muskegon County. He said agriculture is the second leading industry in the state, and Muskegon County has the largest pickle producer in the U.S. Swanson Pickle Company of Ravenna, he said, supplies all the pickles for McDonald’s hamburgers.
Crowley said farmers who make up four percent of the population, feed the rest of the country.
Twenty-year-old Jaster Cunningham of Ravenna, participated in the Young Farm Discussion Meet in Grand Rapids. Cunningham is a junior studying agri-business at MSU.
Cunningham said contestants discussed several issues facing farmers: service to Farm Bureau members, Farm Bureau’s role in promoting agricultural education, immigration and family farm succession.
Other issues at the annual Farm Bureau meeting were:
Burdensome regulations regarding wetlands were also addressed by Farm Bureau delegates, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to redefine “waters of the U.S.” in the Clean Water Act—a move many farmers characterize as an EPA power grab.
During debate over state government policies that have already imposed fines on some Michigan farmers who have improved land in order to grow crops such as blueberries, delegates approved policy urging that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) “should recognize the section of the Wetlands Protection Act that finds wetlands to be valuable as an agricultural resource for the production of food and fiber, including certain crops which may only be grown on sites developed from wetlands.” Michigan is the nation’s top blueberry producer.
Policy makers urged “MDEQ to follow the intent of the law and allow crops, such as blueberries, cranberries and wild rice, to be produced in wetland areas without a permit,” and recommended that “statewide standards for wetlands determination must be established ...” and that “permits be issued promptly.” Delegates also opposed “agricultural-zoned productive land being used for man-made wetland restoration.”
Livestock farmers also had their say on wildlife issues. After fighting bovine tuberculosis for years, farmers finally have seen state cattle movement restrictions eased by the USDA after intense efforts to stop the disease from spreading from wild animals to livestock. As part of that effort, many farmers historically supported bans on baiting and feeding deer. But other farmers were financially burdened when the state temporarily banned baiting and feeding throughout the Lower Peninsula, a ban that was lifted two years ago.
However, when it was suggested that baiting and feeding opposition be lifted from policy, delegates insisted that it remain. Policy for 2013, therefore, states that “MFB opposes artificial baiting and feeding of free ranging deer. Strengthening fines and penalties for illegal feeding and baiting of wildlife, similar to those for poaching, should be considered.”
Animal agriculture issues continued as policy makers approved dramatically changed policy regarding Michigan State University. Cattle producers had been vocally opposed to MSU’s decision to disperse most of its Hereford herd earlier this year, and questioned the university’s commitment to animal agriculture and its “loss of focus on the Land Grant mission.” However, the appointment of Dr. Fred Poston as the new dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources seemed to be a solution farmers could accept.
“We applaud the recent appointment,” new policy reads in part. “We look forward to the opportunity to work with the newly appointed dean to address current and emerging needs of Michigan agriculture.”