2017: The ag year in review
January 3, 2018
2017 brought a wave of change for farming. It was a better year than farmers and ranchers have seen in a while.
EPA's much-maligned and litigated Waters of the United States rule appeared to have met its match in 2017. Already blocked by federal courts pending trial on the merits, the new administration's EPA proceeded swiftly to dismantle the old rule by issuing a request for comments on how the new rule should define Waters of the United States – that is, interstate waters that fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA.
Work on the new rule continues while EPA officials have predicted a final WOTUS definition by the end of 2018. Few in Washington expect the rule will go unchallenged in court. Even so, the new EPA is far less likely to bring arbitrary and abusive enforcement actions as it did some years back. In all, it was the best environmental news in years.
Nothing is certain but death, taxes—and people's willingness to argue over how much tax is fair. Farmers got an important bump, just the same, as Congress doubled the estate tax exemption to $11 million per person. Although few farmers end up paying the tax, far, far more used to pay accountants and lawyers to structure their finances so that they could stay clear of it. The doubling of the exemption means less business for consultants and more money in the pockets of farmers and ranchers.
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Farmers got increases in some important deductions they have traditionally relied on. Small-business expensing limits went up from $500,000 to $1 million for farmers, with phase-outs beginning at $2.5 million—up from $2 million the year before. A broadening of bonus depreciation for fruit- and nut-bearing trees, vines and plants was also welcome news.
The lower rates passed by Congress will help many farmers and ranchers make the most of lean times.
Trade news was less satisfying in 2017. For despite a pro-NAFTA statement and press conference among AFBF, Mexico's CNA and Canada's CFA, farmers and ranchers were largely in the dark when it came to renegotiation of the agreement that has provided the most exports for domestic agriculture. Trade negotiators promised they would get a better deal for the U.S., even as Mexican and Canadian officials showed little interest in re-opening most of the pact.
The year started out with more than a little sabre rattling on immigration, but settled down at least a little as President Trump and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue each assured farmers that agriculture would have the supply of workers it needed. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), meanwhile, put forth his AG Act, which would allow undocumented workers to get a new, "H-2C" visa for work on farms and ranches. The bill would permit 500,000 H-2C visas a year with allowances to adjust that number depending on agricultural labor needs. Although there are far more than 500,000 undocumented farm workers in the U.S., the bill was the best farmers had seen in a long time.
As with farming, in politics there is no finish line. There are only harvests – some good, others less so. 2017's was better than most.
–American Farm Bureau Federation