CASSELTON, N.D. — “We’re from the EPA and we’re here to help,” said Greg Sopkin, a regional head for the agency, on the annual “E-Tour,” hosted by the North Dakota Grain Growers Association in the state.

The NDGGA represents wheat and barley producers in the state and for 27 years has hosted an environmental tour, or “E-Tour,” for visiting Environmental Protection Agency officials. This year the tour was delayed from June until September and it drew the highest-level EPA officials anyone could remember.

Sopkin, based in Denver, heads EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Carrie Meadows, a national “agricultural adviser” to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in Washington, D.C., also was on the tour.

The multi-day tour made numerous stops on farms of specific crop emphases. One stop on Sept. 15 was at Howe Seed Farm near Casselton, N.D.

Several Top Environmental Protection Agency political appointees and staffers ;earn about modern spray equipment scale at Howe Seed Farm on Sept. 15, 2020, as part of the annual E-Tour, hosted by the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. Photo taken Sept. 15, 2020, at Casselton, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Several Top Environmental Protection Agency political appointees and staffers ;earn about modern spray equipment scale at Howe Seed Farm on Sept. 15, 2020, as part of the annual E-Tour, hosted by the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. Photo taken Sept. 15, 2020, at Casselton, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Farmer Michael Howe, a member of the NDGGA board and a Republican state representative who farms with his father, Jim, and neighbors, said he was “very honored and happy” to have Sopkin in attendance. The Howes offered a tour of the farmstead, including a look at their water tanks, sprayer, tractor and combine, showing the “size and scope,” and answering questions about techniques, and how pesticide labels affect them.

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“Hopefully, they can use that information to help them” in label regulations, Howe said.

Sopkin, who had been in North Dakota a few times, oversees EPA activities in the “Mountains and Plains,” office, based in Denver. He says four of its six states have agriculture as the No. 1 or No. 2 industry.

17-1 on WOTUS

“It’s part of our job to get out there,” Sopkin said in an interview. “We cannot understand, fully, the importance of our regulations if we don’t see in person how these farms are operating, how they’re applying the fertilizer, the pesticides, everything they need to have a successful operation,” he added.

Besides regulation, the agency has grant programs to help farmers with nonpoint source pollution, as well as for things like loans for community water infrastructure projects.

One of the hottest topics for farmers in the 2016 presidential election was cutting what they deemed as EPA regulatory “overreach.” Considered one of the most onerous was the Waters of the United States rules. The Obama administration passed “WOTUS,” often referred to with the acronym, WO-tus, in 2015. The rule expanded federal jurisdiction of non-navigable waters, problematic for “prairie pothole” wetlands on farms and in fields.

The Trump administration fulfilled a promise to rescind the rule and later instituted a new rule. Sopkin says the new rule is more precise in defining what is a WOTUS water and reduces legal costs.

“If it is subject to federal jurisdiction, lots of adverse consequences could follow if they don’t have the proper permitting,” he said.

The Trump rule has been tested in two courts. One court stopped 17 states’ attempt to put a stay on the rule. A Colorado court has put a stay on the new rule, for that state only, Sopkin said, so he said the score is “17-1.”.

Carrie Meadows, a congressional staff veteran, since March 2020 has been “agricultural adviser” to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo taken Sept. 15, 2020, at Casselton, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Carrie Meadows, a congressional staff veteran, since March 2020 has been “agricultural adviser” to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo taken Sept. 15, 2020, at Casselton, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Meadows, with the EPA since March, had worked 16 years in ag policy in congressional offices since working for Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., when he was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and then five years for Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.

“President Trump has been very clear that working with rural America is a real priority of this administration,” Meadows said, adding that her boss, Wheeler, realizes that “a lot of trust had been broken with farmers and and ranchers in rural America, and that was his priority, that we were working to restore the trust.”

Meadows said rescinding WOTUS was big for farmers because it means they “don’t to have have a team of lawyers on their farm every time they wanted to make a decision,” she said.

Separately, the EPA on Sept. 14, 2020, denied 68 petitions for waivers from older small refinery exemptions to keep the integrity of the Renewable Fuels Standard. Sopkin said he thinks farmers who raise corn for ethanol plants will be pleased about that, and noted that the administration will “continue to do that."

Dicamba decision

Still another pending EPA issue for farmers is the controversial labeling of dicamba herbicide formulations, made to apply on soybeans and other crops that are genetically designed to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to control tough weeds. The trouble was the chemical volatilizes and can drift for miles, harming crops and plants that can’t tolerate it.

Courts earlier this year pulled the plug on EPA labels for dicamba at the peak of the spraying season, leaving farmers scrambling and state and federal regulators in a quandary.

Meadows said the Trump administration’s EPA will likely make a decision by fall whether new formulations of dicamba herbicide will be allowed in the 2021 cropping season. The range of possibilities goes from disallowing the label to varying the rule based on crops, such as cotton or soybeans.

“Everything’s on the table as we’re evaluating it,” she said.

Meadows said the EPA has been trying to verify whether the courts were asking the agency to re-register the products.

“We are trying to get a decision out as quickly as we can while making sure we are carefully looking at the science,” she said. “We want whatever decision is made to be very strongly defensible, so folks can have certainty with our decision.”

She noted the visit to in North Dakota helped add to understanding about how farmers use the product and their needs. She declined to characterize 2020 as either a good or bad year for dicamba complaints, saying that would vary by location.

Whatever the issue, Meadows urged farmers to comment about pending regulations.

“We need to hear more from rural America,” she said.

This year’s tour started with an “Ag 101” visit with North Dakota Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring, followed by an ag roundtable — in person and virtually for ag groups around the state. There were four ag stops in the Red River Valley area, followed by an issues forum at the Big Iron farm show in West Fargo at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds.

After that, the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota came to the Northern Crops Institute on the North Dakota State University campus, followed by NDSU research and extension.

Tom Bernhardt, NDGGA president from Linton, N.D., described the tour as a bridge of communication between the EPA and North Dakota farmers and “agricultural stakeholders."

“The E-Tour provides EPA representatives an opportunity to experience firsthand the equipment and practices we use, which helps them make educated decisions when it comes to drafting policy that affects us,” he said. “Our tour has become one of the most sought-after tours of its kind among EPA officials and we’re glad to continue it this year, considering the circumstances.”