Steen: Litigation helps farmers and ranchers in the long run
Cheyenne – At the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation’s (WyFB) 98th annual meeting on Nov. 17, Ellen Steen, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) general counsel and secretary, discussed why advocacy through lobbying, grass roots engagement, public outreach and litigation is necessary for farmers and ranchers.
“All of these efforts are hand-in-glove because none of them alone would be enough to make a meaningful and long-term difference against the issues and challenges farmers and ranchers face,” Steen noted.
“What we do at AFBF is advocacy. We try to connect with our roots through the state farm bureaus and the people in those farm bureaus because people on the Hill care about their votes, which makes a huge difference,” Steen added.
Public outreach is also very important, she added. To ensure ranch success into the future Steen said, people who have never set foot on a ranch or farm have to be reached and influenced.
“People can be easily misled by information from groups who oppose what farmers and ranchers do and what they stand for. We have to constantly educate people about what farmers and ranchers do, what they stand for and the good that comes from agriculture,” she stated.
Steen mentioned litigation is one way AFBF advocates for farmers and ranchers across the country and is what she spends most of her time working on.
While most people don’t like litigation, she believes litigation is necessary.
“First of all, litigation is just a fact of life. Litigation over the policies and issues agriculturalists face will never stop because it’s how law is made,” she said. “Until the system is fundamentally changed, AFBF will always have to fight the courts, and if we aren’t present and fighting consistently, farmers and ranchers will pay the price.”
AFBF is consistently active with around 20 active cases at any point. AFBF is always watching and trying to take on cases and issues that make a difference for farmers and ranchers.
“AFBF also litigates to build creditability and strength for the organization as a whole, especially with federal agencies,” Steen commented.
Federal agencies listen to AFBF, in part, because they know they will get sued if they break the law, she said.
“Another reason for litigation is, AFBF wins. We have won some significant victories over the years. We don’t always win and won’t always win, but our victories have made a difference,” Steen stated.
For example, AFBF won a lawsuit against Clean Water Act permits for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), noted Steen.
“We fought against those permits in multiple legal battles where the Environmental Protection Agency tried to require federal permits for any large livestock or poultry farm,” she added.
Steen noted that, as burdensome as federal regulations may seem, there are a lot of regulations that haven’t happened because AFBF stopped them from happening.
AFBF litigation process
Litigation and lawyers are expensive, so AFBF tries to steward their resources to get the most bang for their buck, Steen mentioned.
“Our goal for litigation is to shape the law and make it better on a broad basis for agriculture,” she said. “AFBF doesn’t get involved in cases trying to achieve a particular result for a certain farm or ranch because we want to spend the limited funds we have wisely.”
AFBF spends litigation funds challenging regulations, agency policies and in cases where they can set the precedent other courts will refer to, she noted.
“Challenging the regulations and agencies makes it harder for citizen groups to file lawsuits against farmers and ranchers,” Steen added.
AFBF also tries to take a practical approach when deciding whether to get involved in a case or not. They look at whether their involvement will make a difference in the outcome.
“We want to spend our funds where we can make a difference and make life easier for farmers and ranchers,” Steen stated, adding whether or not there is a strong argument to be made is also considered when taking a case.
Most federal judges are more likely to be in favor of environmental groups when farmers and ranchers are involved, she mentioned, so AFBF chooses cases where they have the strongest legal argument to defeat those groups.
“We don’t spend litigation dollars just to show we care. We spend funds when we’re right and should win, if given a fair shot,” added Steen.
Steen mentioned AFBF tries to manage their litigation program effectively by using the motto, “Always be prepared.”
“AFBF is always prepared to take on litigation when necessary, thanks to the AFBF board and their leadership and stewardship of the organization,” she said.
The AFBF Board, for the last 10 years, has annually contributed funds into an account to build a war chest to fight in the courts for farmers and ranchers, she added.
“The board created a process, which allows AFBF’s litigation program to make decisions about getting involved with cases, without going to the board every time,” noted Steen.
This funding allows AFBF to be very nimble and respond quickly when needed.
“The AFBF litigation program is very unique and allows us to do what needs to be done for farmers and ranchers,” Steen stated.
Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.