Policies for a healthy rural environment are critical not just for rural residents but also to protect the natural resources on which everyone depends: clean water and air, healthy soil, and thriving biodiversity are important for all of us, and these start in rural areas. However, rural communities all too often depend on polluting industries, from mining to industrial agriculture, that use chemical inputs or leave toxic outputs that pollute water and air.
Conserve Our Natural Resources
State legislators can champion rural environmental health through policies that prioritize clean water, clean air, and biodiversity, and regulate polluting industries. Lawmakers can also ensure that environmental regulatory and enforcement structures in the state are robust. This includes adequate funding for environmental protection agencies and agency authorization to issue penalties for bad actors and repeat violators. If policymakers think that the enforcement agency is not properly enforcing the law, they can advance legislation to get more details.
Support and Invest in the Growing Industrial Hemp Economy
There is tremendous potential in the hemp industry, with new jobs in agriculture, processing, manufacturing, marketing, and more. Research shows that hemp industry jobs are higher-paying than those in mainstream agriculture (and even higher when they’re unionized). Globally, hemp is a booming industry producing for markets such as car manufacturing. Hemp has significant environmental benefits, including as an alternative to fossil fuel-based plastics, building materials, fabric and textiles, and paper. Hemp has also been shown to successfully suppress weed growth when used as a cover crop.
The 2018 Farm Bill reclassified hemp and legalized industrial production at the federal level, but there is still a lack of clarity on the federal laws and how they interact with state laws. Confusion around federal hemp laws is one of the key barriers impacting the industrial hemp industry, hemp farmers, and state legislators attempting to support and grow the industrial hemp industry. Though the USDA offers some programs to hemp producers and is currently conducting research, rulemaking, and surveying hemp farmers, there is much more to be done to support the economic viability of this industry.
One of the most significant challenges facing industrial hemp farmers is federal regulations requiring hemp crops to contain less than 0.3 percent THC. Federal law requires destruction of a crop that tests above the 0.3 percent limit. In 2020, an estimated 6,000 acres of “hot” hemp with concentrations above the limit were destroyed, at significant financial loss to farmers.
Hemp licenses can also be very expensive for new and beginning farmers. Coupled with a fluctuating and unreliable processing market and challenging and confusing federal regulations, the hemp industry can be risky business for farmers. Socially disadvantaged farmers without significant financial backing may not have the resources to initially invest. Black and brown farmers who have been historically discriminated against in the war on drugs may experience additional social oppression in accessing grants, loans, land, and obtaining licenses.
Support Foresters, Farmers, and Ranchers Using Responsible, Climate-Friendly Land Practices
Not all agriculture is good for the planet, but regenerative agriculture and forestry practices are climate-friendly, not only sequestering carbon, but building healthy soil that retains water and increases habitat for wildlife and pollinating insects. These methods have been used by Black and Indigenous communities for generations, and they are increasingly being employed more broadly by farmers across the country.
The gold standard of regenerative farming practices is managed grazing (also called intensive rotational grazing), in which ruminants like cattle, sheep, or goats graze on a rotation of perennial grasses. The practice sequesters carbon, builds soil health and moisture absorption, and reduces fuels in fire-prone regions. Pasture-based livestock farms and ranches also offer an array of beneficial environmental services and contribute to the rural economy by providing healthy food for the local community. There is a wide range of policy options to promote healthy soils and climate-friendly farm practices in ways that will work in any political environment, and managed grazing should be incentivized and prioritized whenever possible.
On private forest lands, policymakers should consider policies to incentivize sustainable management practices that protect clean water, promote carbon sequestration, and protect habitat. Practices that should be disincentivized on private land include streamside logging, clear-cutting (particularly on slopes), and use of pesticides and herbicides. Finally, policymakers should consider the financial aspects of the timber economy and consider creating economic trusts or other structures that separate county budgets from the timber harvest, to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle of reliance on a single industry.
- Federal: Pass the Climate Stewardship Act, a bill that would provide increased funding for USDA conservation programs, renewable energy programs, ecosystem restoration, and a new Civilian Conservation Corps. The bill expands on USDA-identified conservation practices, farm and small business renewable energy, tree planting, and wetland restoration to make huge strides in using natural climate practices to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing farmer income and creating good jobs.
- Federal: Pass the Agricultural Resilience Act, a bill that helps protect water quality and confront the impacts of climate change on American farms by funding climate change research, improving climate-related crop insurance, improving the strength of conservation compliance, funding on-farm renewable energy, and other provisions.
- Federal: Pass the EQIP Improvement Act. This bill would set lower payment limitations for Environmental Quality Incentive Program recipients, shifting conservation program subsidies away from large concentrated animal feeding operations, which often receive the majority of funding. The bill would also make more funding available for small farms across the country.
- State: Protect pollinators by incentivizing pollinator habitat.
- State: Ban neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos (including in seed treatments) and other dangerous pesticides and insecticides that are particularly harmful to pollinators and young children.
- State: Protect rural residents from exposure to pesticide and herbicide drift and volatilization.
- State: Ban winter application of manure.
- State: Ban hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a practice that threatens farmland and groundwater.
- State: Incentivize healthy cycling of nutrients in fields to prevent agricultural runoff.
- State: Promote agriculture tourism, activities that provide added value to farmers and landowners in rural areas.
- State: Expand the window for federally regulated THC concentration testing.
- State: Address equity issues in hemp production and support funding for feasibility studies.
- State: Incentivize healthy soils.
- State: Prioritize managed grazing.
- Washington (HB 2478-2016) Requires all state agencies give preference to replacing pollen-rich or nectar-rich noxious weeds with native forage plants that are beneficial to honeybees and other pollinators.
- Several states, including New York (NY 2021 S 7400), have worked on pollinator protection bills, with various aspects of the bill aimed at improving the well-being of honey bees and other critical pollinators. Illinois (2021 IL HB 3357) is considering amending the state’s Bees and Apiaries Act to prohibit a commercial applicator from spraying pesticides toxic to bees on blooming crops when the pesticide application is within one mile of a registered apiary.
- Nebraska (NE 2021 LB507) considered a bill to prohibit neonicotinoid-treated seeds in ethanol production.
- Four states have restricted the use of chlorpyrifos, with Maryland (2020 MD 300) being the most recent. In 2018, Hawaii (2018 HI SB 3095) was the first state to prohibit the use of chlorpyrifos.
- Several states have banned the winter application or spreading of manure on frozen ground. Many states have done this through rulemaking; however, Michigan (2019 MI SB 247) attempted to prohibit the practice through legislation.
- States including Maryland (2017 MD HB 1325), New York (NY 2019 S 6906). and Vermont have banned hydraulic fracturing, a practice also known as fracking. New York (NY 2019 S 3392) closed the fracking waste loophole by classifying it as hazardous waste.
- Several states, like Pennsylvania (2021 PA HB 101), have revisited their agritourism laws to shield farmers from liability during agritourism activities. Agritourism helps promote local farms and ranches, while providing value-added income to farmers and ranchers.
- Maine recently enacted bills to appropriate funds for soil and groundwater PFAS testing (2021 ME LD 1600) and to set maximum PFAS contaminant levels in community water systems, and outlining ongoing water monitoring (2021 ME LD 129).
- Minnesota lawmakers are considering a bill that would appropriate funds for a PFAS reduction plan and increased testing (2021 MN SF 1410), creating a PFAS reduction task force to investigate environmental contamination (2021 MN SF 69), and prohibiting the use of PFAS substances in packaging produced and sold in the state (2021 MN SF 373).
- Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team recently promulgated new rules outlining strict PFAS limits in drinking water.
- Many states that have enacted legislation to address soil health choose to address nutrient runoff by incentivizing producers to enhance nutrient cycling on their operations. See the below section Support Farmers and Ranchers Using Responsible, Climate-Friendly Land Practices for examples of bills.
- California is in the process of updating state regulations (in line with the USDA) governing the time frame for hemp THC testing, increasing the time farmers have to test their hemp before harvest from 15 to 30 days, allowing for more flexibility and reducing. This rule change is also in line with the USDA interim final rule published in early 2021 allowing for 30 days between testing and harvest.
- There is an opportunity for state legislatures to direct funding for production feasibility studies for their hemp industry. States like Colorado that take the bold first steps to invest in growing and processing hemp could see great returns on investment and become national leaders in a rapidly growing sector.
- Nebraska (2019 NE LB 243) enacted legislation to establish a Healthy Soils Task Force, which is responsible for developing an action plan and timeline to implement soil quality benchmarks.
- Indiana (2021 IN SB 373) is one of several states that has directed state agencies to study and make recommendations for the role of the state in a voluntary carbon market.
- Colorado (2021 CO HB 1181), Texas (2021 TX SB 1118), and Maine (2021 ME LD 437) have established healthy soil programs or conservation programs that protect soil and water.
- Colorado passed legislation to launch a study on the biomass in the state and create policy recommendations for improving soil health, and another bill to leverage federal COVID-19 stimulus money to fund their soil health program (2021 CO SB 235).
- The New York (2021 NY A 5386) Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act establishes a program to assist farmers in improving the health of their soil. The bill creates a funding stream to support research and provides matching grants to fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, implement water management systems on farmland, and encourage soil health and resiliency. The program is designed to prioritize socially disadvantaged farmers.
- Minnesota’s (2021 MN HF 701) soil health bill not only centers race and equity but also sets an ambitious goal that 100 percent of tillable and grazeable acres employ cover crops, perennial crops, no-till, or managed rotational grazing by 2040.
- New Mexico (2021 NM HB 9) policymakers considered allowing taxpayers to select donating their tax refund to fund the state’s soil health program.
- Minnesota (2021 MN HF 701) lawmakers introduced a bill to establish soil-healthy farming goals and incentives. Policymakers can also consider incentives to employ responsible managed grazing practices on state-held lands.
- Several states have state National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)-like laws that trigger an environmental impact assessment (EIA) or review of any project that could potentially negatively impact state lands. State NEPA laws can be an important tool to protect state forests.