This article was written by Monica Kline and originally appeared in the Fall 2008 edition of Alpacas Magazine.
A momentous goal was reached for the alpaca industry during this year’s National Conference. While many of us were celebrating in Sandy, Utah, our farm businesses were being improved and positively impacted miles and miles away. And we didn’t realize that we had something much greater to celebrate than any show ring ribbon or championship banner. In Washington, D.C. on Thursday May 22, Congress enacted into law the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 – better known as the Federal Farm Bill. And with its passage … alpacas were declared livestock!
It has been a long term objective for our industry to be recognized as legitimate members of the agricultural community in the United States. To have Congress and the United States Department of Agricultural (USDA) proclaim alpaca livestock is a major milestone toward that end.
Being part of the Farm Bill would not have been possible without strong Congressional support and leadership. In late November 2006, a letter of request was sent by the joint AOBA and ARI Government and Industry Relations Committee (GIRCOM) to Congressman Tim Holden – Pennsylvania, the Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development and Research. The letter explained to Holden that alpaca farmers from across the country consistently faced confusion when dealing with various branches of the USDA. It appealed to him to help us in our quest to have our animals declared the fleece bearing livestock that we knew we were.
In just ten days, a reply was received from Congressman Holden that said, “I have made it a priority to assist you, and the members of the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA), in any way possible within the jurisdiction of my elected office.” Holden’s letter went on to say that he had already contacted USDA to initiate a report and provide information to him on exactly how alpacas were classified by USDA and all of its entities. And with that … the process had begun.
On January 17, 2007 Congressman Tim Holden was appointed Vice Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and Chairman of the subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research. To the alpaca industry, these appointments meant that our number one supporter in Congress had just been named a leader. That leadership role would prove key in the end game of our process.
Late January of 2007 saw the arrival of a response to Holden from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. It was this correspondence that highlighted the ambiguous classifications of alpacas within USDA. Some would have been frustrated with the response, but the boards of AOBA, ARI and the GIRCOM asked that Holden and his staff continue to work to help us achieve the livestock designation. And he willingly agreed to fight for us to the end.
Holden assigned his Senior Legislative Assistant, Liz Hermsen to the project. Hermsen became our point of contact, our go-to woman, if you will. She is exactly the type of person you want on your team – smart, helpful and unflappable. Hermsen is the personification of the adage that great leaders surround themselves with quality people.
Over the next few months, Liz worked closely with us to more fully understand all the issues we were facing without the livestock designation. We had zoning problems because some local governments called us exotic. We faced sales tax charges because many states failed to see us as fleece bearing livestock. Our breeders reported difficulties getting loans for new farms because many financial institutions didn’t know what to make of alpaca farming.
The next step was a request made to the Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress, to search all federal statutes and regulations for the term alpaca and for the definition of livestock. In early April 2007, an eight page report was received. The report showed results from nearly every bureau in the Department of Agriculture, plus results from the Department of the Interior, the Federal Trade Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. The author of the report indicated that while there was no specific denial of alpacas being considered livestock, he suggested that one would have to “assume” that alpacas are included in the term.
Again, Holden’s office shared that report with the AOBA and ARI Boards and the GIRCOM. All agreed that we needed to press on for our industry. And it was at this point that a pivotal decision was made – it would “take an act of Congress” to get this done. That meant we’d have to be included in the Federal Farm Bill. We would have to survive among hundreds, if not thousands of interests, some noble, some not so noble but with a strong lobby in Washington.
It was widely predicted in the summer of 2007 that the Farm Bill would pass, in some form in the House Chamber and possibly another form in the Senate. So, Holden assisted us in working with his fellow Pennsylvanian, U.S. Senator Bob Casey. Unlike Holden, Senator Casey was a freshman Senator but he was a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and that was important. He also knew how important alpaca farming was to his Commonwealth and states across the nation. To our industry’s benefit, Senator Casey and his staff enthusiastically shepherded our livestock designation in the Senate version of the Farm Bill.
Months passed and agricultural subcommittees met in both chambers to discuss all the intricacies of what would end up being a 600 plus page statute. Things like migrant worker status and farm subsidies were vigorously debated. And during this same time, Congress was battling over bills like the failed Children’s Health Insurance Program and supplemental funding for the war in Iraq. Finally, each chamber passed its version of the Farm Bill. In February and April respectively, the Senate and House named a conference committee to produce a final document.
To our great benefit, Congressman Holden was named to that committee. And with that, Liz Hermsen informed us that she’d need contact information for alpaca industry experts in the event a question arose during the debate. No one knew if or when we might be called. Conference committees are know to work long hours sometimes late into the night. But the AOBA and ARI leaders were at the ready – we knew what was at stake and how important this designation would be to the long term health of our industry and the impact it would have on over three thousand small and large farm businesses.
A final version of the Farm Bill was produced by the conferees in early May and the Bush Administration threatened a veto of the bill. The Administration claimed that there were too many subsidies and other problems that would make it impossible to sign. In Congress, agricultural leaders worked tirelessly to sure up votes to override a veto, something that had been done only a handful of times during the current administration.
As expected, on May 21, 2008, President Bush sent the following veto message to the House of Representatives:
“I am returning herewith without my approval H.R. 2419, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008."
On Thursday, May 22, a press release was sent out by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte of Virginia:
“Following veto override votes of 316-108 in the House and 82-13 in the Senate, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 has been enacted into law, with the exception of the bill’s trade title.”
At 5:41 PM Eastern Daylight Time on May 22, Liz Hermsen sent a detailed email to the alpaca industry outlining how we were included in the Farm Bill. She ended her correspondence with the simple, yet significant message, “It’s law!”