INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Hundreds of Indiana farmers and others connected with the state agriculture industry gathered earlier this month in Indianapolis to hear the Indiana Farm Bureau (IFB) identify its legislative priorities for 2018: Protection of livestock operation, improving rural quality of life, limiting annexation and ensuring assessment uniformity.
Speakers at the assembly included Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and IFB Director of State Government Relations Justin Schneider, Director of Public Policy Katrina Hall and Associate Policy Advisor Shelby Swain. Crouch, who closed out the program, said she and Gov. Eric Holcomb support the organization’s legislative priorities.
“We need to make sure Indiana remains a global leader in innovation and commercialization for food, fuel and fiber production,” she said. “All of you contribute so much to what Indiana is and I look forward to working alongside you, to ensure that we take agriculture to the next level and that all Hoosiers that call rural Indiana their home are not left behind.”
Foremost on the legislative agenda for IFB is the need to extend rural broadband access. Schneider briefed attendees on the situation surrounding such legislation and urged them to talk with their lawmakers.
“If you’re in ag today – if you’re a small business – you need to be able to market your products online and transfer data,” he noted. “The government now wants you to submit your permits and reports electronically, and to get your continuing education electronically. Unfortunately, we have a lot of members who can’t function that way.”
Schneider said broadband access also affects the school experience for children in rural communities. Situations in which kids need to “attend” classes electronically due to inclement weather and snow days are not possible without sufficient – or any – internet access.
“You cannot build a business now without access to the internet,” Schneider said. “We need to create a sense of urgency; many legislators do not believe, in my experience, that this is a problem. We need to collaborate with others affected by this to let legislators know that broadband access is not a luxury.”
Hall said IFB’s plan to get the word out about rural internet problems involves farmers engaging legislators themselves. “It’s a matter of the amount of engagement and frustration and calls and assertiveness you use as citizen lobbyists, to see whether we get movement on broadband,” she said.
“That’s one in particular where your quality of life, and the atmosphere in which you conduct your business, will be dependent on the amount that we are really pressing on that issue.”
IFB suggests farmers or members of their families make statehouse visits to engage lawmakers on many issues. Their goal is to see at least one person from each county make a statehouse visit during the first session, Jan. 3-Feb. 6, and the second session, Feb. 12-March 6. To schedule these visits, producers need to contact their regional IFB manager.
IFB will be assisting with visits throughout both sessions. Farmers should go to www.infarmbureau.org/about/county-farm-bureau-information and click on the “districts/regional managers” map to find their regional manager. (Farmers who do not have internet-ready computers to do this may have a smart phone that will do the same.)
The second-most important issue discussed was policy protection for livestock producers. Schneider said IFB is hoping the issue will not come up in these sessions.
Last year, a bill to clarify regulations on large-scale farms and CAFOs grabbed the attention of anti-livestock groups and grew opposition to animal agriculture. That controversy ended with inconclusive recommendations by a summer research committee.
IFB said inviting legislators onto livestock operations to teach them about production is one way to mitigate negative and anti-livestock messages.
Food deserts – areas where healthy food sources are more than 10 miles from a community, which has long been an issue in many states – is also a focus of IFB’s legislative agenda this year. Counties such as Green County are highly affected, and Indiana has 29 counties with at least one food desert and six with more than one.
The closing of grocery stores like the Marsh chain is contributing to the problem. People without adequate transportation or who are in poor health have trouble getting access to nutrition in this way.
Swain said IFB plans to tackle this particular issue by asking the legislature to open a funding source, which does not use tax money, for food distribution programs. Meal delivery programs, rather than subsidizing or reopening groceries, is part of that plan. Swain said Farm-to-Fork programs and access to fresh, locally grown food may also be part of the solution.
Other legislative priorities outlined by IFB included limiting annexation by consistently limiting waivers and eliminating economic loopholes to prevent involuntary annexation of farmer property. The organization is also concerned with tax audit confidentiality, and applying assessment definitions and rules consistently to real and personal property.