EPA to regulate ... dust

Remember when Democrats painted themselves as the farmer’s best friend?  Here in Minnesota, the Democrats call themselves the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party as a reminder, and even through last year Democrats stumped heavily in the Midwest with their populist agenda.  I wonder whether farmers will still consider Democrats their friends when Barack Obama regulates farm dust — and penalizes them when the wind blows:

Nothing says summer in Iowa like a cloud of dust behind a combine.

But what may be a fact of life for farmers is a cause for concern to federal regulators, who are refusing to exempt growers from new environmental regulations.

It’s left some farmers feeling bemused and more than a little frustrated.

“It’s such a non-commonsense idea that you can keep dust within a property line when the wind blows,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who still farms in northeast Iowa.

Under rules imposed in 2006, rural areas would be kept to the same standards as urban areas for what the Environmental Protection Agency calls “coarse particulate matter” in the air.

Why regulate farm dust?  As the American Farm Bureau Federation rightly points out, no one has ever proved that farm dust represents a health threat to any community.  The EPA had held off from enforcing the regulation in rural areas absent such a finding.  Now they want to impose the rule absent studies showing no harm, in effect telling the ag sector to prove a negative.

Now, farmers will be held accountable when their dust moves outside of their property lines and towards towns and villages.  That will impose extra cost on them depending on which way the wind blows, an excellent metaphor for Congress but a deadly imposition on a farm sector already struggling with an economic turndown and falling land prices.  The compliance costs to keep dust tamped down will be enormous, and will force out the smaller farmers who can least afford the mitigation costs.  It pushes the productive family farm even further into the anachronism category.

Not only that, but it will encourage more use of fresh water on farms, eating into another natural resource.  The best and cheapest way for farmers to keep dust in check is to overwater their fields and dirt roads.  The threat of EPA fines will almost certainly create a significant and needless use of water, which will create shortages in some areas.  Where water rationing already exists, it will press smaller farmers out of business in that way as well.

The key to regulation, and especially environmental regulation, is balance.  We need a strong agricultural sector to produce food as inexpensively as possible with maximum efficiency to keep us fed and healthy.  Dust may provide some health risks, but nothing as acute as poverty and starvation, which existed in much more significant scale in the US before the Green Revolution of the 20th century.  The EPA will eventually send us back to those days and our children back to hunger if some grown-ups don’t take charge.