Farming advocates are pressing Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to reverse a little-noticed measure approved by Congress last month that rescinded tough new rules on the poultry industry — a move that has strained the already rocky relationship between mom-and-pop chicken farmers on the Eastern Shore and Salisbury-based Perdue.
Under lobbying from the poultry industry, Congress quietly rolled back U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that required chicken companies to give contract farmers 90 days' notice before yanking their business, mandated independent testing of scales used to weigh certain birds, and prohibited unfair or discriminatory business practices.
The provisions were tucked into a spending bill to fund the federal government through the end of September, enraging advocates for small farms who say it is only the latest move by the industry to undo federal regulations intended to strengthen the hand of independent growers.
Those advocates now are pressing their case with Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who shepherded the spending bill through the Senate. Mikulski inherited the language rescinding the new regulations when she was named chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in December.
"It has been our hope she will use her new [position] to help farmers and their communities, not to block the administration's efforts to do so," said Steven Etka, with the Campaign for Contract Agriculture Reform. "These regulations, though modest, have been widely supported by farmers, farm groups and consumers."
Mikulksi declined to answer questions about the provisions but issued a statement in which she pointed to the industry's importance to the state and said the rules should be handled as part of a pending farm bill — not in the spending legislation she oversees.
Maryland is home to about 700 contract poultry farms, according to the Agriculture Department. Their product is the state's largest agricultural commodity.
Mandating 90 days' notice before suspending contracts is popular with the farmers, who say Perdue and other companies can require expensive upgrades to their farms and then pull their main source of income without warning.
Poultry companies long have said they need flexibility to pull back contracts when demand for chicken falls. A spokesman for the industry's trade group said the federal regulations, some of which took effect this year, vastly overreached what Congress intended.
Pulling business abruptly is "common in the industry and it's every company that does it," said Carole Morison, an Eastern Shore farmer who lost her contract with Perdue in 2009.
"We have people going into debt in the millions of dollars, but there's nothing there that says they're going to be able to pay back that debt," said Morison, who owns a sustainable chicken farm in Pocomoke City and has become a national spokeswoman on the issue.
Though the funding bill won bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 26, the administration's top agriculture official criticized the relaxed poultry rules included in the measure.
"It is unacceptable that Congress has once again stepped in and decided to further reduce basic protections for poultry producers," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
Perdue officials declined to comment. They referred questions to the poultry industry's trade group, the National Chicken Council.
Council spokesman Tom Super said the USDA rules were "outside the scope" of what Congress directed in the 2008 farm bill. Requiring 90 days' notice to suspend delivery of new birds, he said, would make it impossible for companies to respond to the market.
The "provision is unnecessarily restrictive of broiler companies' abilities to suspend delivery to growers," Super said in a statement. "We're grateful that both the House and Senate showed strong support for these provisions … scaling back [the rule] to Congress' original intent."
The National Chicken Council spent $640,000 lobbying Congress and the administration last year, according to public disclosure reports. The group noted in its disclosure that some of that effort was directed at the funding bill.
Democratic leaders were under pressure last month to pass the spending legislation quickly to avert a government shutdown on March 27. Members of both parties also were eager to avoid the kind of deadline-driven political showdown that has dominated Washington for years — and that meant not reopening debates on partisan issues.
Mikulski scooped up language on funding agricultural programs to which House and Senate lawmakers already had agreed and attached that language, largely unchanged, to the government-wide funding bill. The proposal included the rollback of the poultry regulations as well as a controversial rider that limits courts' power to halt the planting of genetically engineered crops.
Opponents dubbed the latter provision the "Monsanto rider," in reference to the Missouri-based agribusiness.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who is a farmer, offered amendments to strike both provisions from the funding bill, but Democratic leaders blocked them from receiving a vote.
Advocates acknowledge the language did not originate with Mikulski, but Etka said they have traditionally relied on Democratic leaders in the Senate to stop these types of controversial policy proposals from being slipped into spending bills.
Asked about the provision on genetically modified crops last month, Mikulski told The Baltimore Sun she did not support it but accepted it as part of a larger agreement to avoid a government shutdown.
Her response this past week on the poultry provisions was more muted. In a statement, she called for a "fair and balanced rule" that meets the needs of both the farmers and the companies.
"This is an important issue that should be addressed in the farm bill," she concluded, "not an appropriations bill."
An aide said Republican Rep. Andy Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, supports maintaining the flexibility chicken companies have to set terms with farmers and intends to introduce language that would make the rollback of the regulations permanent.
The genesis of the regulations was the 2008 farm bill, legislation Congress passes periodically to fund agriculture and food assistance programs. The Agriculture Department drafted regulations based on that law to require the 90-day notice before suspending contracts and to prohibit companies from retaliating against farmers who speak publicly about their long standing concerns with industry practices.
Appropriations legislation generally affects agencies only through the end of a fiscal year. It is not clear what will happen to the poultry provisions when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The industry believes the regulations will remain rescinded permanently, Super said.
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