Court system important for Central Virginia agriculture

Published 12:17 am Friday, December 1, 2023

The American court system is “incredibly important” for agricultural advocacy, both here and across Virginia.

That was the message from Travis Cushman during a workshop titled “Courts and Ports: A Look at Legal and Economic Issues Facing American Agriculture.” Cushman, deputy general counsel for American Farm Bureau Federation, spoke Nov. 28 during the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation 2023 Annual Convention in Virginia Beach.

Although the court system is intended to focus on the law, “people are trying to change policy through the courts,” Cushman remarked. He said AFBF is doing the same.

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One example of that involves a 1972 amendment to the Clean Water Act that gave federal jurisdiction over “navigable waters” as defined as waters of the United States.

When a case called Sackett v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that challenged the EPA’s authority over waters of the U.S. rose to the Supreme Court last year, AFBF decided to get on board. It established a group of 14 national agricultural organizations and coordinated with 20 state Farm Bureau organizations to file a strategically focused set of friend-of-the-court briefs.

The state Farm Bureau brief was cited in the final court decision in favor of the plaintiffs, who said the EPA was overreaching in its control of private waterways. In May of this year, all nine justices agreed that the EPA’s definition of waters of the U.S. was invalid and needed to be amended.

Although that decision was good news for Farm Bureau advocacy, the other workshop speaker, AFBF senior economist Veronica Nigh, said she only had negative news regarding farm labor and ports.

“There are labor challenges across the economy,” Nigh remarked. As of Nov.14, there had been 366 labor actions in 616 locations across the U.S., with major labor strikes involving actors, auto workers and healthcare employees. “These strikes are across occupations and across geographical locations,” she said.

Port workers are in similar situations, Nigh explained, and since 25% of U.S. agricultural products are exported, ports are an important part of farming.

West Coast port workers — through the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — negotiated a new labor contract and got a 32% pay increase.

East Coast port workers negotiate separate labor agreements through local chapters of the International Longshoreman’s Association, so it’s a different situation from the West Coast. And although the ILA contract doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2024, “it’s something to keep an eye on,” she said.

Other farm labor challenges include increases in wages for H-2A agricultural and H-2B temporary workers, as well as new rules from the Department of Labor regarding overtime thresholds, Department of Health and Safety and DOL rules about worker protections, and an Occupational Safety and Health Administration worker walk-around rule.