Rocky Mountain Ag Notebook: Bill aims to block EPA water rule; Hemp seeds seized at border; Greener grass for biofuels

Senators’ Bill Aims to Block EPA Waters of the US Rule

A group of 30 Republican U.S. Senators on Thursday introduced legislation to stop the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers from finalizing the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule, currently under public comment, according to reports.

The Senators’ “Protecting Water and Property Rights Act of 2014” aims to stop the U.S. EPA and Army Corps of Engineers from finalizing the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule — a rule they say would ignore limits established by Congress regarding regulation of bodies of water in the United States if finalized.

The prosed rule, officially announced on March 25, dictates what waters fall under the definition of waters of the U.S., providing EPA and Corps jurisdiction to enforce regulations outlined in the Clean Water Act.

“The Obama EPA is trying every scheme they can think of to take control of all water in the United States,” said Protecting Water and Property Rights Act of 2014 author Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo, said in a press statement. “This time, their unprecedented federal water grab is in the form of a rule that will hurt family farms, ranches, and small businesses by imposing outrageous permitting fees and compliance costs.”

Barrasso suggested that if the rule goes forward, it will restrict local land and water use decisions. Many farm groups agree, suggesting that the rule could extend to intermittent streams and ditches, requiring additional permitting for farming and ranching activities.

— Staff reports

Hemp seeds seized at US-Canada border

Hundreds of pounds of industrial hemp seeds bound from Canada to Colorado have been seized by federal authorities in North Dakota, marking the latest bump along the road to legalization of marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin, according to the Associated Press.

At the center of the dispute is hemp activist Tom McClain. Armed with a copy of last year’s federal Farm Bill, which allowed states to permit hemp cultivation for research and development, he set off for MacGregor, Manitoba, and bought 350 pounds of seeds used to grow a strain known as X-59 or Hemp Nut.

Hemp is legal in Canada, and North Dakota is one of 15 states with laws that allow limited hemp production.

However, under the Farm Bill, importing hemp seeds requires permission from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

McClain’s seeds were confiscated Saturday at the border crossing in Hansboro, North Dakota, after he says he declared the seven bags in his trunk. McClain, however, has not been charged with a crime.

“They treated me very professionally,” McClain said after he returned to Colorado — without the seeds. “They were just a little confused as to what to do. According to them, I couldn’t bring them in.”

— The Denver Post

Vilsack Visiting Europe

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will travel to Europe to meet with agricultural and trade officials and stakeholders to discuss the expansion of agricultural trade, the importance of agriculture’s role in the U.S.-European Union (EU) Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), and the benefits the trade agreement will have to both the American and European economies. The Secretary’s trip will include meetings and site visits in Brussels, Luxembourg City, Paris and Dublin.

“The EU is the world’s largest importer of food and agricultural products,” said Vilsack. “But despite the continued growth of this market, U.S. market share is shrinking because U.S. producers and exporters continue to face numerous trade barriers. The negotiation of the T-TIP offers a major opportunity to address these barriers and expand market access for U.S. farmers and ranchers.”

Since 2009, nearly one-third of U.S. economic growth has been due to exports. America has seen record agricultural exports over the past five years. They are projected to reach another record of $149.5 billion in fiscal year 2014.

— U.S. Department of Agriculture

Ranch purchase boosts Casper College ag, rodeo

Tom Parker couldn’t stop smiling.

The longtime Casper College rodeo coach opened the door and entered an 80-by-200-foot dirt-filled arena. Banks of fluorescent lights attached to wooden support beams ran the length of the arena.

The lights remained off, though, as natural light poured in from numerous windows, unbroken and remarkably clean.

Earlier, Parker stood in the middle of what used to be a lambing shed and envisioned how it was going to be transformed into a pen where “calves and steers could be protected from the weather.”

Parker pointed to another outlying building and described how it could be used to house bulls and other livestock. He made mention of the water pumps, which seemingly rose out of the ground every 20 yards, and the abundant electrical outlets in all the enclosed buildings.

Through it all, Parker smiled, and for good reason.

Parker and Casper College athletic director Bill Landen were giving an impromptu tour of the college’s latest purchase, a 167.5-acre ranch located about seven miles west of town.

Dubbed the Ranch Campus, the land and the red-and-white buildings are expected to enhance Casper College’s award-winning agriculture program by providing students with more hands-on learning experiences.

— Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune

Gasoline Market Turbocharged

Gasoline prices hit an eleven-month high this week, gaining over seven cents per gallon. The primary driver behind the rally has been the deepening conflict in Iraq, which caused the international price of crude oil to rally again this week, topping out over $115 per barrel. Domestic crude oil prices have been partially sheltered from the conflict, trading Friday near $106, but many US refineries purchase oil based on global prices, meaning that international conflicts can fuel a jump in prices at the pump.

On midday Friday, gasoline futures were trading for $3.09 per gallon, a price that represents wholesale value, without taxes or other charges included.

— Walt and Alex Breitinger, commodity futures brokers with Paragon Investments in Silver Lake, Kan.

Hong Kong market reopens for U.S. beef

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the United States and Hong Kong have agreed on new terms and conditions that pave the way for expanded exports of U.S. beef and beef products to Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is already the fourth largest market for U.S. beef and beef product exports, with sales there reaching a historic high of $823 million in 2013,” Vilsack noted.

Under the new terms, Hong Kong will permit the import of the full range of U.S. beef and beef products, consistent with access prior to December 2003.

The new terms became effective June 17.

Previously, only deboned beef from all cattle and certain bone-in beef from cattle less than 30 months of age could be shipped from the United States to Hong Kong.

Earlier this year, Mexico, Uruguay, Ecuador and Sri Lanka also lifted their longstanding restrictions to provide full access for U.S. beef and beef products.

In December 2003, Hong Kong banned U.S. beef and beef products following the detection of a bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)-positive animal in the United States.

There has never been a recorded case of BSE transmission to a human through American beef.

— U.S. Department of Agriculture

Cattle Go for Wild Ride

Cattle prices gyrated wildly this week, hitting exchange-designated daily limits twice as traders prepared for the USDA’s monthly Cattle on Feed report, which is released on Friday after the market closes. The report was expected to show a moderately shrinking national herd during the month of May, but any significant deviations could cause more fireworks when the market reopens on Monday morning.

Most cattle contracts finished lower on the week, with August feeder cattle trading Friday for $2.06 per pound, while August live (fed) cattle were worth $1.46.

— Walt and Alex Breitinger, commodity futures brokers with Paragon Investments in Silver Lake, Kan.

Scientist gets World Food Prize for Wheat Advances

A crop scientist credited with developing hundreds of varieties of disease-resistant wheat adaptable to many climates and difficult growing conditions was named Wednesday as the 2014 recipient of the World Food Prize.

According to the Associated Press, Sanjaya Rajaram, 71, wins the $250,000 prize founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug that honors vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world.

He is credited with developing 480 wheat varieties that have been released in 51 countries on six continents.

— Staff reports

Wyo. OSHA never inspected sugar plant before death

The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has no record of ever inspecting Western Sugar Cooperative’s beet-processing plant in Lovell before a woman died there in an industrial accident this year.

The department, charged with ensuring workplace safety, only inspected the facility after the Jan. 4 death of Anfesa Galaktionoff, 28, who fell through a floor opening and into sugar beet-processing equipment.

The agency last month announced 12 citations and proposed $71,000 in fines against Western Sugar, with Workforce Services Director Joan Evans saying at the time: “This tragic loss of life could have been prevented.

“The employer failed to properly implement OSHA safety standards that require adequate guarding around floor openings,” she said.

In response to an Associated Press request for inspection reports of the facility for the last five years, Mick Finn, an agency lawyer, said the state has no records of such visits conducted before Galaktionoff’s death.

Officials said the department undertakes inspections in response to all fatalities, catastrophes and complaints.

— The Associated Press

Grass is Greener for the Future of Biofuels

Scientists in the U.S. claim they have developed a simple, one-step process that turns plant tissue into biofuel. A genetically-engineered bacterium can convert switchgrass into ethanol directly, without any expensive pre-treatment with enzymes to break down the cellulose fibers into something suitable for fermentation.

Biofuel is already big business in the U.S., with 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol delivered for vehicle fuel in 2012. It represents a carbon-neutral form of fuel, which is good, but not so good is that much of it has been converted from maize, a food crop requiring vast tracts of agricultural land that may one day be better used to produce food.

However, researchers at the University of Georgia at Athens report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their new microbe, called Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, can not only convert biomass cellulose to sugars, but also turn the sugars to ethanol for fuel.

And it works on switchgrass, a North American native plant that flourishes on marginal and waste lands.

The researchers selected their candidate bacterium – found all over the world, usually in uncomfortable places such as hot springs – and introduced into it genes from other bacteria that produce ethanol.

They then had something that could turn fibrous grass into motor fuel, rather in the way that more traditional microbes turn barley into beer or grapes into wine.

— Climate News Network

Boulder neighborhood state’s first to be declared ‘bee-safe’

The Melody-Catalpa neighborhood of Boulder is proudly wearing the mantle of the first “bee-safe” locality in Colorado.

It may not be a title for which there was fierce competition, but those in the roughly 200 households of the north Boulder neighborhood who signed a pledge not to use neonicotinoids or similar systemic pesticides are buzzing with excitement over earning the distinction.

Three neighborhood residents earlier this year banded together to sign on about 20 volunteers to go door to door. And, faster than they’d dared hope, they convinced more than half of the area’s 389 households to sign a pledge not to use neuroactive chemicals that many believe are contributing to the colony collapse phenomenon reported in global honeybee populations.

Those doing so were awarded green flags, signifying their commitment, to plant in their front lawns. Some homes there have not yet been contacted by the volunteers, but will be.

— Boulder, Colo., Daily Camera

Is a ‘right to farm’ needed in Missouri?

Freedom of speech, religion, trial by jury and a whole host of principles are protected in the bill of rights of Missouri’s Constitution.

In August, voters will decide whether to add one more to the list: the right to “engage in agricultural production and ranching practices.”

The “right to farm” amendment springs from lingering wounds of the 2010 fight over a ballot measure enacting strict regulations on dog breeders in Missouri.

But what, exactly, will change if farming is deemed a constitutionally protected right? It’s a question without an easy answer.

Proponents say it simply gives farmers more legal standing to challenge unfair regulations. Opponents fear it could unravel environmental and animal welfare laws.

Some on both sides question whether it will have much impact at all.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the courts will have the final say.

— The Kansas City Star