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    A few weeks ago a fellow dropped off some new bulls at our ranch. Normally we would have talked about rain or how calving season had gone, but this year the price of diesel dominated the conversation. He had just paid a thousand dollars to fill up and he talked about how fuel prices were wreaking havoc on his budget.
    The price of oil has gone up even more since then, affecting everything from fertilizer, to chemicals, to the “just in time” parts inventory, to just how we get things done on the ranch. It is a fascinating time for agriculture and a little ironic that nationally the press is touting how well agriculture is doing as though ag were somehow immune from these costs or that our markets are as heady and certain as they have ever been. Let’s wait awhile and see.
    All of us in agriculture know the vagaries of a commodity market and the difficulty of securing a reliable gross margin over time – let alone this year. The unprecedented rise in the price of oil to record highs these past few months, even when we were consuming less than in prior years, suggests something new in the usual process of supply and demand. There is no doubt this is an important development and energy certainly plays a central role in our future.
    Still, the challenge for agriculture is more complex than just one topic. It is the struggle to remain profitable, which will be our greatest test. Energy does permeate nearly everything, causing costs across the board to rise and we cannot expect our customers to willingly accept increased prices for our goods; it will be how we react to these new factors that will determine our ultimate viability. As producers we will need to anticipate these new pressures, understand how the market will respond, and with a little help, compensate.
    This isn’t a new story for agriculture. We have learned and adjusted to changing market conditions all along. That is why I firmly believe the future of agriculture in the United States rests squarely on its practitioners. It is we, not government, who must assure continued profitability. This time though it is imperative that our government help and not hinder a free, fair, and open market, and not burden responsible operations with well meaning but impractical regulation. American agriculture is the best in the world, and given a fair chance, we can compete with anyone.
    New markets continue to emerge for our products and support for our role as stewards of the land is growing. In many parts of the country the face of agriculture is changing. Consumers are recognizing the value of a secure and familiar food supply. Opportunities are developing in so-called niches: farmers and ranchers are expanding business across a spectrum from traditional markets, to kosher, grass fed, natural, branded, organic and custom markets. While none of these will by itself provide an ultimate answer, together they represent new prospects for producers.
    Part of the challenge for government now will be to promote entrepreneurialism by first recognizing the value of these new markets, and secondly assuring that they are free from manipulation by fostering true communication between the consumer and the producer. Consumers need to be certain that the products they purchase are genuine and meet our country’s health, environmental, and safety standards, and customers should benefit from true competition through an open market. This approach is something our delegation in Congress has worked to cultivate and must continue.
    How should government proceed? First, regulation must not bureaucratically torpedo good laws with rules that overstep or misrepresent it. For example, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) has passed yet again. This time it must be funded and implemented efficiently. We should keep track of imported meat, not burden our domestic producers with endless recordkeeping chores. Additionally, when our state meat inspection system meets federal standards, we must allow commerce to work and producers to sell their product across state lines.
    The concentration of the packing business is discouraging competition in the marketplace and giving over too much control to companies with too few ties to producers or consumers. The recent effort by J.B.S. to acquire National Beef and Smithfield further shows how just a few players will be able to set markets by reducing excess capacity, timing deliveries and setting prices interfering with a true marketplace. Additionally, I believe we need to work hard to ban ownership of cattle by packers for more than a reasonable amount of time. We need an open and accessible marketplace that allows for new approaches and new opportunities, one which allows producers to meet the demands of consumers, not one that is controlled and operated by a few.
    Furthermore, we must open more foreign markets for our agricultural products. These agreements must be truly fair and not favor foreign products or modes of production over ours. We must be mindful that our current national penchant for funding our spendthrift ways by borrowing from some of these same trade partners does not compromise the best interests of our national agricultural system.
    Government can also do a lot for new concerns or businesses anxious to upgrade existing equipment by allowing them to handle more flexibly and favorably how these assets are treated for tax purposes. These provisions would encourage investment aiding businesses to become more competitive. These provisions could apply to beet handling equipment and processing facilities, grain facilities, abattoirs, transportation and other equipment. And, of course we must assure that estate taxes nevermore interfere with the orderly transfer of property from one generation to the next.
    Another area that our government must attend to is our creaking transportation infrastructure. This must be a commitment for our nation going forward as there are enormous issues of reliability, security, economic viability, energy efficiency, and just plain safety that we must stop ignoring and get on with. For many places in Wyoming access to markets is of paramount importance to providing economic opportunity.
    Encouragingly agriculture is beginning to receive appropriate attention for conservation. From the nascent opportunities in carbon sequestration that could provide additional income for people in agriculture, especially if Congress is responsible in the laws it creates governing carbon emissions and storage, to recognition for good work done on the ground through EQIP, WHIP and other similar programs, to understanding the value of open space and wildlife, agriculture is beginning to see new opportunities. Certainly one of the most critical issues touches perhaps Wyoming’s most important resource, water. Here we must ensure it is protected and used responsibly. That responsibility rests firmly here in Wyoming and must remain so.
    What this nation must never forget is that private property and the opportunities and responsibilities that are derived from it must never be compromised. Issues such as eminent domain and environmental regulation must be handled sensibly and appropriately so that the economic viability of farms and ranches is safeguarded. The rest I think will be up to us.
    Mark Gordon is a Republican candidate for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Represenatives.
      It’s no secret that America’s agriculture population is getting older. But during my summer at the Roundup, I’ve been in the thick of things and have started to notice just how few of us “youngsters” are involved in agriculture advocacy in Wyoming.
    Being a UW student I’m used to looking out and seeing a sea of twenty-somethings at meetings, conferences, classes, etc. However, during my recent treks to ag gatherings, I’ve seen a much different demographic.
      It’s difficult for folks of any age to get off the operation and get involved, but many find time to do it. Organizations like Wyoming Stockgrowers, Wyoming Wool Growers, CattleWomen, Farm Bureau and many more have been successful in their efforts due to dedicated personnel and members. These folks do what it takes to ensure ag has a voice.
    Us “young-uns” absolutely need to follow the example of our ag elders and help make that ag voice louder. Many of us started young in 4-H and FFA and we need to encourage others to start there as well. We need to set examples by getting involved in college and after graduation. It doesn’t have to be a full-time commitment, just go to a meeting or serve on a committee. Help carry on a tradition of serving ag beyond production.
    Agriculturists don’t have the resources to hire public relations specialists so it is important we get the messages out ourselves. Agriculturists have a lot of obstacles to overcome. From radical environmentalists and animal rights activists to government regulations and enforcements based on everything but common sense and sound science, the task of promoting agriculture can look daunting. But by banding together, we can get the job done and by involving younger generations our messages can be sustainable. The veterans and the newcomers can learn a lot from each other. We can educate the consumer and the greater public about the good agriculture does, about the challenges we face and the solutions on the horizon.
    I was at the Hot Springs County Resource Tour on Thursday and a message I kept hearing was agriculture tends to be reactive rather than proactive. It may be hard to hear, but it is unfortunately true. We react when the government implements something rather than submitting public comments and writing to the legislature. We react when an animal rights group gets a ban on horse slaughter passed instead of launching our own campaign to educate the public about the consequences. Let’s get involved and start changing that attitude.
    Younger generations need to learn from farmers and ranchers who have been fighting the fight. Let’s learn what works and doesn’t work and let’s use our own insights to come up with new solutions. At the resource tour Guardians of the Range Executive Director Kathleen Jachowski said the time for agriculturists to speak up is at the meeting, not in the car after the meeting. We need to get the message right and get the message out and younger folks can have a huge role in doing that.
    The younger people who are already getting involved give me hope. In my travels around the state I’ve seen a few younger people at informational meetings, conferences and tours, but we need more. Keep up the good work and help me urge others our age to join in the fight. We can provide fresh ideas, technological insights, vitality and a much louder voice to agriculture advocacy and we need to start now.
Liz
    Apparently frustrated with Congress and its lack of action regarding our immigration laws, the Bush administration has decided to reform some aspects of our system administratively.
    On Feb. 13 the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a 47-page proposal to amend regulations regarding nonimmigrant workers employed in temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs. Contractual enforcement of nonimmigrant workers and employer responsibilities are also addressed. These proposed changes would supposedly “re-engineer” the process by which employers may obtain temporary labor certification from the DOL for use in petitioning the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to employ a nonimmigrant worker in H–2A (agricultural temporary worker) status.
    Workers from outside the U.S. are not only vital to Wyoming and the nation’s sheep industry, but are becoming increasingly important to all of Wyoming’s livestock industry. As importantly, they are vital to all of U.S. agriculture. As the DOL noted in its proposal, “Data from the National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS)…shows that in 2006, 19 percent of all agricultural workers were first-time U.S. farm workers.” Among the new workers, 85 percent were foreign-born and 15 percent were U.S. citizens. A new worker is defined as anyone with less than a year’s experience.
    Legally bringing in workers from outside of the United States is a laborious, tedious, time-consuming and expensive proposition. This statement has become increasingly true since 9/11. Increased and heightened security has made the process a bureaucratic and administrative maze, one that many employers are on the verge of abandoning. Faced with the increased difficulty of compliance, smothering and draining regulations and a seemingly endless parade of federal bureaucrats throwing up roadblocks, it’s hard for people in the countryside trying to run a business and do things right.
    A lack of U.S. workers interested in or seeking employment in agriculture has compounded the problem. While those in agriculture have seemed to be “crying in the wilderness” about this worker shortage, some have been listening. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) recently highlighted the unique labor needs of agriculture and the importance of foreign labor in a September 2006 floor statement: “We have one million people who usually work in agriculture. I must tell you they are dominantly undocumented. Senator Craig pointed out the reason they are undocumented is because American workers will not do the jobs.  When I started this I did not believe it, so we called all the welfare departments of the major agriculture counties in California and asked—can you provide agricultural workers? Not one worker came from the people who were on welfare who were willing to do this kind of work.”
    The program, which is most commonly used in Wyoming for bringing in foreign workers, is called the “H-2A Program.” The H–2A worker visa program provides a means for U.S. agricultural employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis. They fill a labor niche that cannot be met in the U.S. The H-2A program is vital to the western sheep industry; and, it is the H-2A program that has become a nightmare for agricultural producers looking to bring foreign workers to the U.S. legally. It is the H-2A program that the DOL is proposing to modify and “fix.”
    Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) summarized the problem this way”[T]his economic sector, more than any other, has become dependent for its existence on the labor of immigrants who are here without legal documentation. The only program currently in place to respond to a lack of legal domestic agricultural workers, the H–2A guest worker program, is profoundly broken. Outside of H–2A, farm employers have no effective, reliable assurance that their employees are legal. We all want and need a stable, predictable, legal workforce in American agriculture. Willing American workers deserve a system that puts them first in line for available jobs with fair market wages. All workers should receive decent treatment and protection of fundamental legal rights. Consumers deserve a safe, stable, domestic food supply. American citizens and taxpayers deserve secure borders and a government that works. Last year, we saw millions of dollars’ worth of produce rot in the fields for lack of workers. We are beginning to hear talk of farms moving out of the country, moving to the foreign workforce. All Americans face the danger of losing more and more of our safe, domestic food supply to imports.  Time is running out for American agriculture, farm workers, and consumers. What was a problem years ago is a crisis today and will be a catastrophe if we do not act immediately.”
    In the proposal out for comment, DOL claims its purpose in re-engineering the H–2A program and the resulting outcomes will be:
• Simplify the process by which employers obtain a labor certification.
• Increase employer accountability to further protect against violations of program and worker standards.
• Efficiencies in program administration that will significantly encourage increased program participation, resulting in an increased legal farm worker labor.
• U.S. workers will be better protected from adverse effects when they are competing with workers who are legally present in the U.S. and who are subject to all of the requirements of the H–2A program.
• Institute a new auditing process to verify that employers have, in fact, met their responsibilities under the H–2A program.
• Alter the current H–2A housing inspection procedures.
    The devil is always in the details, however, and we have identified several areas within the proposed changes where more harm than good could occur. Several agricultural groups have joined forces to analyze and prepare comments on these proposed changes.
    The WWGA is asking all agriculture supporters and particularly employers who currently, or may in the future, utilize the H-2A program, to comment. Comments can be submitted electronically, which is the quickest and least expensive method.
    For those wishing to secure a copy of the proposed changes, they can be found at http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocketDetail&d=ETA-2008-0001 (click on one of the icons in the first row under “views”).
    With comments due on a very short timeline, April 14, we have posted helpful information including sample comments on our website at www.wyowool.org. Diane Carpenter in our office and I would also be glad to answer questions from those submitting comments on this tremendously important effort.
    Bryce Reece is Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, on-line at www.wyowool.org. He can be reached at 307-265-5250 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
    When I was a little kid we had a dog that was a real nuisance. He chased livestock, tore stuff up and bit people. One day that dog mysteriously disappeared, and when I asked my dad what had become of it, he said seriously, “Well, it went to a good home in the country.” Years later I learned the dog had been laid to rest in the back 40 of our ranch and since then I’ve known that a good home in the country might mean something different to each of us.
     Here in Wyoming, it equates with rural sprawl and those dream houses outside of town. We struggle with desire for growth, fear of change, respect of private property rights, hope for order and distaste for excessive governing. Living in the country isn’t as simple as it seems.
     There’s a Native American viewpoint that suggests we should weigh our impact on a place seven generations into the future, with reverence for our surroundings. The “new” place must be entered with humility and respect for what has gone before and what is to come. Unfortunately that doesn’t hold true in many of the 40-acre ranchettes and remote subdivisions that require roads, utilities and community services.
     How the countryside looks is definitely part of the equation, but it won’t describe what kind of neighbors live on the property. The long-range impacts created by a dwelling, a business or a development project aren’t always immediately visible. Ugly, shabby shack-towns are annoying, but in the long run they may not be permanently harmful. An eyesore can eventually be removed with a D-8 Caterpillar or a box of matches, leaving the area to a fairly natural state. Other times, the owner slowly takes pride in his progress and works to improve the setting as his time and money allows.
     In contrast, an expensive asphalt-rock-log “next to Forest” business development or residence may add value to a community, and often a wealthy newcomer brings energy, stimulation and new ideas to our community (not a bad thing). If the business fails, however, or the owner tires of the West, the problem remains: an empty, hard-to-sell monument, a big blemish on the skyline. In Wyoming and Rocky Mountain states, of course, the foothills, meadows and river valleys, which are the most desirable for “ranchettes,” were previously the winter refuge for wildlife or domestic livestock. Buildings that perch on bluffs and rimrocks bring their own set of problems for wildlife corridors, erosion, utility providers, local services and road maintenance even though the view is spectacular.
     In the olden days, homes were located within the workplace, usually a farm or ranch. A home in the country was practical – placed for shelter and convenience – next to the road, snuggled out of the weather. Close enough to the barn or corral to make things easy in bad weather. Close enough to the main road so that the kids could get to school, so that people could get to the doctor or the grocery store. There were no plate-glass windows and not much regard for the panoramic view.
     Who can be blamed for wanting a home in the country - a beautiful view, room for the kids to play and maybe a place to keep a dog and a horse? Sadly, these homes in the country are often just a place to sleep, where the local road warrior rests between trips to his job in town, travel to meetings and the kids’ school activities. Or perhaps the home is a vacation spot for a retiree who commutes from his real home in another state. Either way, many traveling homeowners haven’t got much time to appreciate the setting, much less contribute to it.
     As I see it, good homes in the country belong to people who have stepped up to an understanding of an area: local culture and needs, rural traditions, histories, agricultural values, wildlife habitat and visual harmony. They learn about schools, taxes, fences, ditches and water rights. Because they understand the obligation to give back to the resource and the community, these people commit their hearts and minds to the place they’ve entered.
     Our growing rural communities aren’t measured by wealth or appearance. At the end of the conversations, I always wish there were a way to plan and zone according to what is in people’s hearts and minds instead of what is on the outside of their buildings. That’s my dream for a “good home in the country.”