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Rick Ebert, president of Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, speaks at a press conference during the group's annual meeting at the Hershey Lodge on Nov. 15, 2022.

HERSHEY, Pa. — Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s top lobbying priorities for the new year include improving dairy regulations, expanding the pool of farm workers, and ensuring science-based regulation of chemicals.

Rick Ebert, the Farm Bureau president, discussed the issues with reporters Tuesday during Farm Bureau’s annual meeting at the Hershey Lodge.

A Westmoreland County dairy farmer, Ebert participated last month in a national meeting on Federal Milk Marketing Order reform hosted by the American Farm Bureau Federation in Kansas City.

More than 200 people representing farms, co-ops and processors worked toward consensus on how to modernize a system that was last overhauled 20 years ago.

The conference made progress on issues such as negative producer price differentials and depooling, but Farm Bureau plans to convene follow-up meetings on regional concerns.

“I think we really need to take a look at each federal order and not do a broad brush,” Ebert said.

In support of Pennsylvania’s leading ag sector — dairy — Farm Bureau will continue pushing for the reintroduction of whole milk in schools. The group has an enthusiastic ally in U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, who serves north-central Pennsylvania and is the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee.

Farm Bureau will also continue pursuing the removal of the term “milk” from the names of plant-based beverages. The organization doesn’t want to disparage almond or soy growers, but hopes to protect the profitability of the dairy industry, Ebert said.

The Food and Drug Administration is weighing a decision on labeling.

Meanwhile, Ebert hopes the lame-duck session of Congress will approve a long-awaited reform to the agricultural guest worker program.

The current system is designed for seasonal operations like produce farms, making it a poor fit for year-round operations like dairy that are increasingly turning to foreign laborers.

“We’re not getting the number of workers in (that we need) because H-2A is so cumbersome,” Ebert said. “You actually almost have to hire somebody to handle that type of program.”

Farm Bureau opposes a plan to include high wage rates and strengthen workers’ ability to sue farms.

But with a bill having passed the House this session, Ebert said he hopes there’s still time this year for the Senate to vote on it and the House to concur with any changes.

On the environmental side, Farm Bureau is monitoring the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to label PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, as hazardous materials.

This designation would allow the EPA to hold parties responsible for cleaning up locations contaminated by these long-lasting synthetic substances, which are linked to numerous health concerns.

The rule could bring new mandates for farms. PFAS have been transported to some farms through water sources, and through biosolids and paper mill byproducts.

Farmers have long used these fertilizers with EPA encouragement, but only now are producers and the general public learning of the risks that might be associated with these items.

“Farmers would never intentionally spread PFAS,” Ebert said. “Food safety is our top priority.”

While trying to avoid problems with PFAS, Farm Bureau is working to preserve access to pesticides like atrazine that have come under renewed regulatory scrutiny.

Ebert said the review process needs to be rooted in science rather than politics.

Farmers don’t want to use products that could endanger consumers, but atrazine has been on the market for decades and has been shown to be safe, he said.

Losing access to key pesticides could decrease yields and increase farmers’ costs.

“Our list of crop protection materials really isn’t growing,” Ebert said.

All of these Farm Bureau efforts will take place in the shadow of negotiations for the next Farm Bill, which is due by September 2023.

In October, the American Farm Bureau Federation announced 60 recommendations for the legislation.

The next job is getting those ideas into the hands of Pennsylvania’s new congressional delegation, which will include eight people who have not gone through the Farm Bill process before.

“We need our members really to step up to talk about and educate these new members of Congress on the importance of what the Farm Bill does,” Ebert said.

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