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President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have made promises about moving federal agency decision making back to the local level, putting Americans back to work and ensuring that the public lands are managed for “multiple use.” While that sounds wonderful, making those promises means more than a directive from Washington, D.C. It means that your local governments have to take the lead in dealing with the federal agencies. Local decision-making is not just for counties with federal lands, but federal decisions can impact the use of private property as well.

There are three major ways that a local government can influence federal agency decisions – the type of process used by a local government will depend on the type of decision to be made and the time constraints of the local government. One type of local participation is not “better” or “worse” than another type, again, it depends on the type of decision to be influenced and the preference of the local government.

So, again, I would pose the question, is your local government prepared for local decision making? The following should help.

Consistency review

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) mandate that federal agency actions be as consistent as possible with local land use policies or plans (LUP) and that the federal government must attempt to reconcile its federal decisions with the local LUP. Those provisions are key in implementing the President’s promises, but there is a catch. To require this “consistency review,” a local government has to have a written local LUP. Otherwise, there is nothing for the federal agencies to be consistent with.

In my view, first, a local government should start with a review of the federal actions that the local government thinks will happen within the area. For example, are there threatened or endangered species or species of concern that will impact your constituents’ private property? Is the BLM or Forest Service revising its land use plans or implementing their land use plans? Was a local area included within a National Monument meaning that a management plan will have to be prepared? Are there any special designation lands that have been proposed, like wild and scenic rivers, wilderness or conservation areas? Or are there other federal decisions that may impact the private property of your constituents and/or the public lands?

Second, the local government should determine its processes for dealing with the federal agencies. When do you want to update the federal agencies regarding the local government’s activities and when does the local government want updates from the federal agencies? How do you propose transmitting the local LUP to the federal agencies and offices? What is the local government’s view of “early consultation”? How does the local government want “coordination” to occur? These processes should be carefully articulated in the local LUP.

Third, the local LUP should discuss the “custom and culture” of the citizens, the history of the area and the environmental features important to the local government. This information can come from historical accounts, personal stories and environmental descriptions, such as state wildlife habitat maps, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil descriptions, forage surveys and other data. I do not believe that a local government has to gather new data or participate in new studies, but it is important to compile existing data from as many sources as possible to support your policies.

Fourth, your local LUP should include economic data and analysis. This should be more than just gathering employment statistics. Rather, the economic data included in the local LUP should support the local governments’ policies. For example, if agriculture is important to the local economy, the local LUP should describe the economic detriment of a federal decision that would reduce Animal Unit Month (AUMs) on public land or restrict grazing on private land. Most land grant universities have good statistical data that can assist you with this analysis. You should also include information like circulating dollars, job numbers for the various economic segments, etc.

Finally, once the data is gathered, the local LUP should include the policies that the federal agencies should use for consistency review purposes. I believe that these policies are always stronger and provide a good basis from which the local government can work, if they are based on the data described above regarding custom and culture, economic stability and environmental protection. I do not believe a simple “wish list” from the local government is a strong basis for protecting your constituents. Additionally, in making decisions in compliance with NEPA, the federal government must use the “best data and information available.” The best available information about the local effects of a federal decision on the local custom, culture, economy and environment should come from the local government itself.

Note that your local LUP has to be compliance with federal statutes and regulations with the “full force and effect of law.” However most federal statutes are very broadly written and allow for the survival of the local citizens, businesses and economies. The local government just has to assert those requirements.

Coordination

FLPMA and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) also require “coordination.” Coordination is a process not a result.

Additionally, while your local government should “coordinate” with the federal agencies to protect their constituents and influence federal decisions, there is no statute dictating the specifics of the coordination process.

Because the elements or steps of coordination are not statutorily defined, local governments should use their local LUP to define what coordination means and how it should work.

Cooperating agency status

NEPA also allows local governments to participate in agency decision-making processes as “cooperating agencies.” An applicant for cooperating agency status must both, one, be a locally elected body, such as a conservation district board of supervisors or a county commission, and, two, possess “special expertise.”

A local government’s special expertise is defined as the authority granted to a local governing body by state statute. Being a cooperating agency allows the local government to participate in the “identification team” with a federal agency. It is just another tool that a local government should consider when dealing with federal agencies.

Final thoughts

Local governments can have a major impact on federal agency decisions if they are prepared and willing to take on the challenge.

There are over 1,000 counties in the U.S. with a population less than 10,000 citizens. Each one of these rural counties should have a voice in federal decisions that impact it.

Is your county prepared?

Visit Budd-Falen Law Offices online at buddfalen.com or contact Ms. Budd-Falen at 307-632-5105.

On National Ag Day and every other day, I take my hat off to the Wyoming agriculture industry. It is, reliably, Wyoming’s third largest industry. It is a cornerstone of Wyoming’s financial stability, with more than 11,000 farms and ranches and $1.6 billion in annual farm and ranch income. It continues to provide a wealth of benefits to our state, citizens and nation – food for the table, open spaces, wildlife habitat, a pleasant western style of living and much more.

Thank you, Wyoming ag producers, for all you do. 

Agriculture is a challenging business. Whether it is drought, grain scarcity, disease, predators or commodity prices, there’s always something that tests the industry, and the industry perseveres. The centennial farm and ranch families we recognize annually show the long-term commitment of so many to Wyoming agriculture.   

Even in constrained budget times, we press ahead as best we can. Implementation of the state water strategy, issued two years ago, continues. One of the initiatives in the strategy is the 10-in-10 project to build 10 new reservoirs in 10 years. The first four of these projects, in five counties, have been funded by the Omnibus Water Bill – Construction this session. We support agriculture and make the most of a precious resource when we plan well for water storage.

The ENDOW Initiative, which I announced last November, is underway. The Legislature took up the initiative, passing a bill this session that gives it structure, deadlines, continuity and funding. In the coming months and years, the focus will be on developing and executing an economic diversification plan for Wyoming. This is an all-inclusive, all-industry effort, and I know the Wyoming ag industry will provide input and great ideas. Our kids and their kids will be beneficiaries of what we accomplish.     

The calendar tells us spring is here. In Wyoming, spring brings not only moisture but also a sense of renewal. The land greens up, plants and animals fill the fields, and like every spring, it feels like a new beginning. This year, there is more of that feeling than usual – with the prospect nationally of pro-growth economic policies, fewer federal regulations and more authority for the states. We are ready for this change in direction.

Here’s to a great 2017 for Wyoming ag! 

The goal of many agricultural families is to pass their farm or ranch to their children and/or grandchildren. The income from the farm or ranch, however, is often not high enough to support two or more families. And, because most agricultural family’s wealth is represented almost entirely by the value of their farm or ranch, the parents aren’t able to rely on income from other assets. 

One option for these families is to sell a portion of their land to fund the parent’s retirement. Many, however, don’t like this option. This is why it is important to have other investments to draw income from.

Qualified retirement plans such as IRAs, SEPs, Simple IRAs and 401(k)s offer significant tax-advantages and are smart ways to accumulate money for retirement. Annual contribution limits vary depending on the type of plan. The current annual contribution limit for IRAs is $5,500 if you are under age 50 and $6,500 if you are age 50 or older.  If you are married and only one spouse works, you can still contribute the maximum amount for each person under a Spousal IRA. To contribute this amount, you must have at least $11,000 or $13,000 of earned income, depending on your age.

The annual contributions for SEPs, Simple IRA and 401(k) are much higher. 

A 401(k) has a maximum annual contribution limit of $53,000 if you are under age 50 and $59,000 if you are age 50 or older. Contributions to these plans are based upon income. For those families with no employees, a Solo 401(k) is a great option because it offers a high contribution limit without the costs associated with a traditional 401(k) plan. Solo 401(k)s also offer a Roth component.

Selecting the right type of retirement plan is very important.  What is more important is selecting the right investments for those plans. 

In my experience, most agricultural families’ investment experience is limited to land and livestock. I commonly speak with families that have a net worth of several million dollars with little to no money in a qualified retirement plan.

Agricultural families tend to be conservative investors. Many invest in Certificates of Deposits (CDs) because of the safety they feel it provides.  While CDs don’t expose you to market risk, they expose you to inflation risk – the risk of your investments not outpacing the rate of inflation. Outpacing the rising cost of living is a goal for most investors.

By investing in bank CDs, you are essentially trying to protect yourself from default risk. Default risk is the risk that a company or individual will not be able to make the required payments on the money they owe you. Because of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance protection offered by banks, people feel they do not have to worry about their money if the bank goes broke.

The FDIC is a U.S. government corporation that operates as an independent agency. As of January 2016, FDIC provides deposit insurance guaranteeing the safety of a depositor’s accounts in member banks up to $250,000 for each deposit ownership category in each insured bank. Although the FDIC is chartered by Congress, they do not receive any federal funding. Banks pay insurance premiums to the FDIC.  If a bank goes bankrupt, they file a claim with the FDIC.

If you’re concerned about protecting your money from default risk, a potentially better option is to invest in bonds issued by the U.S. federal government. The U.S. federal government doesn’t just insure your money. Rather, it guarantees it. The guarantee printed on each bond issued by the government is a “full faith and credit obligation” of the government of the United States of America.

The U.S. government has the highest credit rating in the world and has never defaulted on an interest or principal payment. You might say, therefore, that it is the issuer of the world’s safest investments. So, if you desire a safe investment, instead of a bank CD, consider investments backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. federal government.

In our next article, we will compare investing in CDs to a mix of stock and bond mutual funds. 

Chris Nolt is the owner of Solid Rock Wealth Management, Inc. and Solid Rock Realty Advisors, LLC, sister companies dedicated to working with families around the country who are selling a farm or ranch and transitioning into retirement. 

To order a copy of Chris’s new book: Financial Strategies For Selling A Farm Or Ranch, visit Amazon.com or call Chris at 800-517-1031. For more information, visit solidrockproperty.com and solidrockwealth.com.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often called drones, are a hot topic in the agricultural industry. Drones, fitted with a wide range of camera and lens types, have the potential to revolutionize business as usual by bringing detailed, timely and unique crop data to the producer.

Some producers already use UAVs fitted with cameras to check distant watering sites, track their livestock and check for pests, crop deficiencies, field moisture levels or document crop failures. The sky is truly the limit for aerial technology.

What is a drone?

In Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) terminology, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) – generally equivalent to a drone or UAV – is an aircraft without a human pilot onboard. Either an operator on the ground controls it, or it is auto-piloted by an onboard computer system. The FAA sets specific regulations regarding the weight of aircraft and camera, plus rules governing the on-ground pilot’s maneuvers and locations. Note that the FAA requires operators flying for work-related purposes to obtain a certificate to fly a UAV.

Two basic types of UAVs are commercially available to the producer, either fixed-wing, such as a small airplane, or multi-rotor, like a quadcopter. Fixed-wing UAVs have longer flight times and bigger payload capacities but are usually more expensive. Multi-rotor types generally have shorter flight times, lighter payloads, are more maneuverable and are generally less expensive.

Aerial imagery

For many agricultural uses, the utility is not the drone itself but the aerial photographs it can provide. Aerial imagery is a powerful tool allowing producers to see patterns that aren’t visible from the ground, at the time and place of their choosing.

Cameras mounted on a drone can be fitted with special lenses that see things the human eye can’t. Using multispectral and hyper-spectral lenses, cameras can capture data in infrared, ultraviolet and very narrow visible light bands. Videos, single photos and multi-spectral images such as near infrared or thermal – or combinations of these – are all possible.

Many plants show signs of stress and growth in bands that are invisible to the naked eye, while others show signs of growth in very narrow visible light bands, so the special lenses provide information that is otherwise difficult to get. A producer can obtain evidence of water stress, chlorophyll production or photosynthesis, weed distribution, nutrient deficiencies and disease hot spots.

A camera connected to a GPS system can take “geo-tagged” images referenced to specific field locations. This allows for comparing images taken at different times as the growing season progresses.

As with any technology, cost and complexity vary greatly. Special lenses that capture non-visible light add to the price. And because of the large amounts of data collected, more complex systems require special software designed to analyze and process the raw data before they can provide usable images. Most set-ups come with the necessary software, for an additional cost.

Some might ask, “Why not just use satellite imagery?”

UAVs have several clear advantages over satellites. First, a typical satellite image resolution of 50 feet is quite coarse compared to UAV images. That means everything within a 50-foot by 50-foot area is represented by one pixel or one color. Conversely, the area represented by one pixel in a UAV image can be on the order of a few inches. UAV images can monitor individual plants if needed.

Additional advantages of UAVs include being able to fly them according to the producer’s timetable, not the satellite’s passing, and avoiding atmospheric interference such as cloud cover, which often affects satellite imagery.

Will one work for you?

To summarize, the advantages of UAVs are clear – they can fly according to your own timing and weather, record the precise level of detail you need and allow you to track a host of pertinent crop data. They provide an opportunity to make management decisions immediately and with precision that is well below the width of a seeder or sprayer. This approach, often called precision agriculture or “data-driven” agriculture, offers significant cost-saving benefits.

However, many questions must be answered as you determine whether a UAV system is right for you. How many acres do you need to photograph in a day? How often? What types of imagery would be best for your operation? What kind of resolution will your management decisions require?

Your answers will determine what type of equipment will be needed and whether purchasing or outsourcing is more cost-effective. Producers often have enough going on that many might want to outsource this task.

There are commercial options for UAV services. However, when considering outsourcing, keep in mind that some amount of agronomic expertise is still likely needed for interpreting the information collected.

For Markus Braaten, Certified Crop Adviser based in Kalispell, Mont., the crux of the matter is this – what questions do you want to answer with aerial imagery, and is UAV technology the best way to answer those questions? Consider how you would expect to use this technology and what value it would bring to you as a producer. You will need to determine whether its benefits would justify the cost.

UAVs are an emerging technology in the agricultural industry. Their use is not yet commonplace and issues of privacy have been raised regarding detailed aerial imagery.

Discussion continues on what is acceptable use and how UAVs fit into a producer’s toolbox. Like any new technology, UAVs will continue to get easier and cheaper to use and more prevalent in the industry. Their impact in the agricultural sector will very likely grow.

If you would like to discuss the pros and cons of UAVs for your business, seek out a reliable resource such as a Certified Crop Adviser in your area.

For more information on certified crop advisers, or to find one near you, go to certifiedcropadviser.org.