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Business and Economy Environment and Natural Resources News Tax and Budget

Farming for Votes

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam outlined his strategies for improving the Tennessee agriculture business environment on Wednesday before hundreds of farmers and ranchers gathered at a state Farm Bureau event in Franklin.

Haslam said his overarching effort to check government spending — his commitment to which he said is observable by examining his two-term tenure as mayor of Knoxville — will benefit Tennessee farmers, just as it will benefit the state’s economy as a whole.

However, Haslam said his belt-tightening plans do not include eliminating state-level  agriculture grants, which in this budget year account for about $16 million.

“We will keep the agriculture enhancement grant program going,” said Haslam. “I don’t say that just to cater to this group. I really do think that’s an integral part of our economy and something we have to keep going. It’s been important.”

The pledge drew hardy applause from the Tennessee Farm Bureau audience.

Haslam also said he plans to appoint a rural business-development specialist to work in the Tennessee Department of Economic Development, and indicated he’ll press the Legislature for continued subsidization of the biofuels industry, another popular note in his speech before the largest state Farm Bureau organization in the country.

“Looking at it realistically, the state has made a big investment in the switchgrass project. I think it’s about $70 million,” said Haslam. “What we have to do, what the ethanol refiners and everybody else have to do is make certain that we make that cost-competitive.”

“It’s important in the long run that we use every source of clean energy and alternative energy that’s homegrown, rather than totally relying on oil from overseas, from people who don’t like us very much,” he added. “All that makes great sense to me. The challenge now, at the end of the day, is we have to make that market competitive, and I think we can do that. I am definitely in favor of it.”

Haslam said a “director-level person focused on rural economic development and agriculture business” will help ease harsh economic conditions in struggling rural Tennessee. “That’s where we have the highest unemployment, and that is where we need the most focus,” he said.

He also said the state will “have an agriculture program that is focused on what is best for Tennessee farmers, not for national interest groups.”

“We have to make sure that our regulations are written by people who understand the consequences,” said Haslam. “When people have been in government all of their life they don’t understand the consequences if they have never had to pay a bill, and they have never had to… (wait) on that permit they are holding up, or whatever it is. It is an advantage to hire people who have been in business and have seen those consequences and impacts, and can help spread that message out through government.”

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Press Releases

Bredesen Wants More Federal Farm Aid

Press Release from the Office of Gov. Phil Bredesen, June 4, 2010:

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today requested a Secretarial designation of natural disaster for agriculture for eight additional counties in middle and west Tennessee as a result of the historic rainfall and devastating floods that began April 30. The eight counties include: Cheatham, Dyer, Hardin, Haywood, Madison, Montgomery, Tipton and Williamson.

“Some federal farm aid is already available through the Farm Service Agency, but a Secretarial disaster designation will help make more assistance available to farmers who suffered significant losses as a result of the storms and flooding,” said Bredesen. “We want to do everything we can to help our farmers and rural communities recover from this devastating event.”

Bredesen made the request in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. A Secretarial disaster designation would make farmers in these and adjoining counties eligible to apply for supplemental farm payments through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. For those counties already covered under a Presidential declaration, farmers are also eligible to apply for low-interest emergency loans. Assistance for livestock losses and emergency conservation assistance to help rehabilitate damaged farmland is also available to eligible farmers.

Last month, Governor Bredesen made a similar request for 13 counties that included Benton, Chester, Dickson, Fayette, Hardeman, Hickman, Humphreys, Lauderdale, Lewis, Maury, McNairy, Perry and Stewart. Today’s request makes 21 counties now pending USDA approval.

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Tennessee farmers reported moderate to severe damages to 39 percent of the state’s corn crop and 21 percent of winter wheat following the flooding. Damages to fruit and vegetable crops and nurserystock were also reported as well as significant damage to farm infrastructure including access roads, levees, fences, conservation practices, buildings and equipment.

“Federal assistance will be important for helping farmers who are continuing recovery efforts in flood affected areas,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens. “Farmers are still dealing with a considerable amount of infrastructure damage and we’re seeing more acreage being shifted to soybeans as a result of lost corn acreage.”

The latest USDA-NASS crop survey shows that farmers made significant progress the week ending May 30 with cutting hay and planting crops, although some areas previously flooded were still too wet to plant. Crops not damaged by flooding were rated in mostly good to excellent condition. For the latest crop forecast and a weekly report on crop conditions across the state, visit www.nass.usda.gov/tn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes this report available each Monday at 3 p.m., April through November.

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Business and Economy Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice News

Ag Committee Batters Animal Abuse Bill

A measure to expand the state’s animal cruelty law to cover livestock may not have a political leg to stand on after lawmakers beat it up in a legislative committee Tuesday.

Livestock are in fact protected by animal cruelty laws, but the aggravated animal cruelty provision only punishes individuals who hurt non-livestock animals, like dogs and cats.

Animal cruelty includes overworking, not caring for, or abandoning animals. Aggravated animal cruelty would include intentionally killing or causing serious physical injury to livestock.

Under the bill, causing such harm to livestock animals would be a Class E felony, punishable by one to six years behind bars, and a fine of up to $3,000. Currently, animal cruelty to livestock is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Rep. Janis Baird Sontany, D-Nashville, who is sponsoring HB3386, told members of the House Agriculture Committee that she believes a link exists between harming animals and committing violence against humans.

“If you think back at all of the cases we’ve had about the school shootings…each of those young men were known to have abused animals,” said Sontany. They “set cats on fire, kill dogs by shooting them. There are studies over and over again that do talk about that,” she said.

Sontany acknowledged there are some provisions to protect livestock in the law presently. But she added that the laws on the books are not being well enough enforced.

Because such crimes status under current law are not felonies, many prosecutors choose not to pursue the cases, Sontany said.

“The DA says ‘it’s a misdemeanor – I won’t prosecute,’” she said, adding that prosecutors often cite their heavy caseloads as a reason they don’t fully investigate and bring charges. “I’m trying to give them tools in their belt to encourage them to prosecute.”

The bill’s opponents, however, aired a number of complaints against the measure. Several lawmakers, including Morriston Democrat Rep. John Litz, questioned whether increasing penalties would indeed translate to more prosecutions and convictions.

“If the DAs are not doing and enforcing the laws that we have now, what makes you think that increasing it more is going to make them do any different?” he asked. “Do we have room in these jails and these prisons to be able to put people who are out here that commit heinous crimes against animals?”

Litz also warned that farmers may be falsely accused of violations by people unfamiliar with agriculture practices. He related one situation in which a “witness” filed a complaint against a farmer after observing a cow that appeared too skinny. The person who made the report just didn’t know the difference between a beef cow and a milk cow, said Litz.

“(The individual) didn’t know that a dairy cow was not supposed to be big and fat and plump — that they’re supposed to be lean – their purpose is to produce milk,” he said.

The Tennessee Farm Bureau is lobbying heavily against the bill largely for that reason. Leaders in that organization worry people who don’t understand common livestock-management practices might file unnecessary complaints against farmers, in turn possibly costing them time and money to defend against.

The group’s opposition has drawn fire from supporters of the legislation, but committee members such as Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, tried to deflect that criticism, saying The Farm Bureau is representing the farmers of Tennessee. “Farm Bureau is doing what their group wants them to do. They are representing what Farm Bureau is all about,” he said, adding that both his local bureau chapters are against the bill.

Sontany said the Farm Bureau is part of the problem in her quest to protect animals.

“I did go to Farm Bureau when I drafted this bill to ask if they would work with me and to come up with something we could all be comfortable with and they refused,” she said. “They’re the 800 pound gorilla that walks around (the legislature). They’ve got the clout – not me (as) one legislator. I would welcome their help, but all I get is ‘No.’ They’re not going to negotiate in any way.”

A vote on the bill is expected in next week’s Agriculture Committee hearing after the panel hears from district attorneys about prosecuting cases of animal abuse of livestock.

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Press Releases

More Federal Relief for TN Farmers

State of Tennessee press release, Jan 22, 2010:

Bredesen Announces Federal Farm Assistance for Five Counties

21 Counties Now Qualify as Primary Natural Disaster Designation

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved his request for federal farm assistance for five additional Tennessee counties due to excessive rain and flooding that occurred in September and October.

“The 2009 growing season was certainly unpredictable and challenging for many of our state’s farmers. This disaster designation will be important for helping those who experienced significant crop losses during last year’s unusually wet harvest,” said Bredesen. “I’m pleased that USDA has responded so promptly to my request.”

Bredesen made the request in a Dec. 11 letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The five counties designated as primary natural disaster areas include: Claiborne, Cocke, Rutherford, Sevier and Union.

The designation makes farmers in these counties eligible to apply for assistance, including emergency loans and supplemental farm payments, through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. Also qualifying as secondary, adjoining disaster counties are: Anderson, Bedford, Blount, Campbell, Cannon, Coffee, Davidson, Grainger, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Jefferson, Knox, Marshall and Williamson.

With today’s announcement, a total of 21 Tennessee counties have qualified for a primary natural disaster designation due to excessive rain during the 2009 harvest. Last month, USDA named 16 other counties as primary natural disasters including: Bradley, Chester, Cumberland, Hamilton, Hardeman, Lauderdale, Macon, McMinn, McNairy, Meigs, Polk, Rhea, Shelby, Smith, Trousdale and Wilson.

Farmers in affected counties reported crop losses ranging from 20 to 50 percent for major crops including corn, soybeans, cotton and tobacco. Some counties reported receiving record rainfall of as much as 10 to 12 inches during what are normally the driest months of the year.

USDA projected significantly higher yields in 2009 for most major Tennessee crops as compared to the previous two drought years; however, heavy rains hurt both crop yields and quality because of rotting, mold and other disease problems. Farmers also reported losses for hay, pumpkins and other specialty crops.

Statewide, the 2009 harvest was three to four weeks behind the five-year average due to the unusually wet weather according to the Tennessee Field Office of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. For the latest information on the 2009 crop harvest, visit www.nass.usda.gov/tn.

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Press Releases

Federal Farm Assistance Announced for 16 TN Counties

State of Tennessee Press release, Dec. 11, 2009:

Five More Counties Requested for Primary Disaster Designation

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved his request for federal farm assistance for 16 Tennessee counties due to excessive rain and flooding that occurred in September and October.

“Farming is challenging enough without the added uncertainty of weather. This disaster designation will be important for helping farmers who have experienced significant crop losses this year due to heavy rains,” said Bredesen. “I’m pleased that USDA has responded so promptly to my request.”

Bredesen made the request in a Nov. 23 letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The 16 counties designated as primary natural disaster areas include: Bradley, Chester, Cumberland, Hamilton, Hardeman, Lauderdale, Macon, McMinn, McNairy, Meigs, Polk, Rhea, Shelby, Smith, Trousdale and Wilson.

The designation makes farmers in these counties eligible to apply for assistance, including emergency loans and supplemental farm payments, through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. Also qualifying as secondary, adjoining disaster counties are: Bledsoe, Cannon, Clay, Crockett, Davidson, DeKalb, Dyer, Fayette, Fentress, Hardin, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Loudon, Madison, Marion, Monroe, Morgan, Putnam, Roane, Rutherford, Sequatchie, Sumner, Tipton, Van Buren and White.

Bredesen today also requested a primary disaster designation for five more East and Middle Tennessee counties. Those counties include: Claiborne, Cocke, Rutherford, Sevier and Union.

Farmers in affected counties have reported crop losses ranging from 20 to 50 percent for major crops including corn, soybeans, cotton and tobacco. Some counties reported receiving record rainfall of as much as 10 to 12 inches during what are normally the driest months of the year.

Although USDA is projecting significantly higher yields for most major Tennessee crops as compared to the previous two drought years, the heavy rains have hurt both crop yields and quality because of rotting, mold and other disease problems. Farmers have also reported losses for hay, pumpkins and other specialty crops.

Statewide, harvest this year was three to four weeks behind the five-year average due to the unusually wet weather according to the Tennessee Field Office of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. For the latest information on the state’s crop harvest, visit here.