As the 2024 legislative season begins, leaders and staff of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) are kicking up advocacy efforts at both the state and national levels.
“Over the next few months, we’ll be traveling between Olympia and Washington, D.C., to present the concerns and issues that Washington wheat growers are facing,” said Michelle Hennings, WAWG’s executive director. “Our overriding message to legislators will be that America’s farmers need less regulation and more support in order to ensure that our food system remains safe and secure.”
Protecting the lower Snake River dams against breaching is a critical issue for wheat growers and is one of WAWG’s top priorities at both the state and national levels. WAWG will continue to work with state and regional partners to inform members of Congress of the critical role the dams play in carbon-free, low-cost energy generation; irrigation; transportation; and recreation.
The 2024 Washington State Legislative Session may be a short, 60-day session, but growers will still be watching for harmful bills, as well as championing several holdovers from previous sessions. Hennings said WAWG will be working on implementing a seasonal agricultural exemption to the state’s overtime law, picking up the effort from last year, when bills in both the House and Senate failed to pass out of committee.
Another issue continued from last year is the exemption on surcharges related to the state’s cap-and-trade program for fuel used in agriculture. The program went into effect January 2023, and many fuel suppliers began tacking on a fuel surcharge in order to pay for their allowances. Ultimately, that surcharge was passed onto consumers, including farmers who were supposed to be exempt when purchasing fuel to be used in agricultural operations. The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is responsible for implementing and managing the cap-and-trade program, but when the legislation went into effect, no exemption mechanism was in place. The 2023 session ended with lots of finger pointing and no clear solutions.
Following the 2023 session, WAWG leaders participated in a workgroup held by Ecology to come up with workable solutions, but in the end, they felt the workgroup fell short.
“We’d like to see Ecology step up to the plate and find a fix that applies uniformly across the state,” Hennings said. “We are also working to make sure that farmers who were mistakenly charged the surcharge are fully reimbursed, either by the state or by the fuel suppliers. In some situations, such as buying fuel at certain roadside stations, it’s still very difficult for a farmer to have the exemption applied.”
Wheat growers will be heading to Olympia for the annual Olympia Days advocacy trip Jan. 14-16, 2024. Small groups of growers, armed with handouts on wheat industry priorities and talking points, will meet with as many legislators from both sides of the aisle as possible. WAWG will also be handing out cookies and coffee in the Capitol Building during the trip. WAWG members who want to participate in the Olympia Days event, especially those who live on the west side, should contact the WAWG office at (509) 659-0610 for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Legislators always want to hear from their own constituents, so we want to include WAWG members from as many districts as we can in our Olympia Days trip,” Hennings explained. “Legislators from urban areas probably don’t realize how many ties they have to agriculture through retired farmers and landlords who live in their district.”
At the federal level, much of WAWG’s attention will be focused on farm bill legislation. Although the 2018 Farm Bill expired at the end of September 2023, Congress passed a one-year extension, meaning they have until September 2024 to pass new legislation. While the extension was welcome news to wheat farmers, it pushes the debate into an election year. During a break-out session at November’s annual Tri-State Grain Growers Convention, Keira Franz, environmental policy advisor for the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), pointed out that running for election takes legislators away from D.C. more, plus things tend to get more political, which can create delays and turmoil in Congress.
WAWG’s priorities for the farm bill include protecting and enhancing crop insurance; instituting a meaningful reference price increase; doubling trade promotion funding; continuing voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs; and opposing conservation compliance requirements.
“We will be working closely with NAWG to monitor progress on the farm bill and to provide any data we can that bolsters support for wheat industry priorities,” Hennings said. “We’d really like to see the wheat reference price increased to bring it more in line with the corn and soybean industries, but even a small increase has a big price tag on it.”
Other national priorities for WAWG include herbicide and pesticide regulations, climate, and transportation.
WAWG leaders and staff will be traveling to Washington, D.C., at the end of this month to participate in NAWG’s winter conference. While there, they will spend a day on the Hill, meeting with members of Washington state’s federal delegation.