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Everything bigger in Texas, even pork problems

September 3, 2018

Trade disputes are hitting Texans hard. From construction to oil to farms, businesses across our state are grappling with the outcomes of higher tariffs and unpredictable trade negotiations. But for the agriculture industry, the pains of major policy decisions don’t stop with trade. Over the next few weeks, Congress is tasked with finalizing a new farm bill, which will have serious implications for our state’s farmers.

Set to expire Sept. 30, the farm bill presents a perfect opportunity for lawmakers to provide relief to farmers, especially hog farmers, as they cope with the costly outcomes of the changing global trade environment. Texans are fortunate to have local representation on the committee tasked with the bill’s negotiations, including Reps. Mike Conaway, R-Midland; Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock; and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville.

For the sake of pig farmers in Texas, we hope they keep several pork priorities top of mind.

Our most pressing priority is the funding of a national vaccine bank for use against foot-and-mouth disease, or FMD, which can affect cattle, dairy cows, pigs and sheep.

Currently, the U.S. is only capable of handling a very small, localized outbreak. Livestock farmers likely wouldn’t receive a vaccine for weeks for a small outbreak and months for a large outbreak. With almost 1 million pigs supporting nearly 7,000 jobs in Texas, an outbreak of FMD would have devastating consequences for our state.

More broadly, an FMD outbreak would immediately close all export markets for U.S. meat, and beef, pork, corn and soybean industries could expect to lose $200 billion and 1.5 million jobs over the next 10 years.

To ensure the U.S. is fully prepared for an FMD outbreak, the farm bill must include $150 million to fund a national vaccine bank, plus additional resources for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and state animal health agencies, to be adequately prepared for an animal-disease emergency. Funding for FMD and other foreign animal diseases is even more relevant given the current African swine fever outbreak in China. Recent reports point to the disease spreading, increasing the risk of an outbreak in the U.S.

Our second priority is to ensure the inclusion of the Protecting Interstate Commerce Act in the farm bill. This provision, which exists in the House version, prevents states from dictating the production practices of farms outside their borders. Despite this practice violating the Constitution’s commerce clause, Massachusetts prohibits the sale of pork, eggs and veal produced using certain methods, even when produced in states other than Massachusetts. California has an initiative on the ballot in November that will do the same. To comply with these laws, pig farmers and American consumers will be burdened with billions in additional costs.

In addition to the farm bill, two pieces of legislation already pending in Congress help address another pressing issue for farmers — workforce shortage. American farmers are struggling to staff critical positions that help them meet the highest standards of animal care and keep food affordable. While foreign labor could be the answer, the current system doesn’t help.

The Newhouse-Cuellar Amendment would modify the existing H-2A visa and allow farmers to use the program year-round instead of only for seasonal labor. Another bill, the Ag and Legal Workforce Act, would create a new category of visa called H-2C and would allow nonseasonal agricultural workers to remain in the United States for up to three years.

We must find ways to relieve the burden on nearly 7,000 pig farms across our state.

The next step is clear — Texas lawmakers must take action when they return to Washington, D.C. It’s time to make pig farmers and rural America a priority.

Charles “Chuck” Real, owner of Real Hog Farms in Marion, has raised hogs for 54 years. He served as swine health commissioner of Texas for 12 years, president and board member of the Texas Pork Producers Association, and on the National Pork Producers Council board and the National Swine Registry.

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