A Small Fish in a Big Pond

A Small Fish in a Big Pond
NBA Blog, by Jim Matheson, Executive Director
A small fish in a big pond. OK, maybe not the best analogy for a bison – the largest land mammal in North America, but hear me out… Last week the National Bison Association (NBA) made our annual pilgrimage to Washington, DC, for our “legislative roundup,” in which our delegation of bison producers, marketers, tribal members, and staff lobby the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Congress to create a more even playing field for our small sector of American agriculture. 
Our delegation was a very diverse mix of 15 bison stakeholders from across our industry representing us, which the USDA leadership and staff on the Hill seemed to really appreciate and respond to. Everyone in the group was professional, polite, and participatory in our meetings on a topic of genuine interest to all that met with us – the American bison! We are very small fish in a rather large pond, given that we process less than 0.2% of what the beef industry processes in the US in a typical year, for example, and have just 0.5% of the volume of live animals. You’d think that bison would not be a priority for these public servants. That was not our experience in the slightest. We were welcomed at each meeting with good questions and conversation all focused on this animal that we are all committed to restoring. Equally important, we had follow up action items from just about every meeting, which allows us to stay top of mind to these decision makers while educating them about bison. 
Of course, this solid relationship with law and policy makers did not happen overnight. For the past twenty years, the NBA has doggedly forged allies and solid working relationships throughout USDA and Congress. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we’re there representing the National Mammal of the United States! My predecessor, Dave Carter, deserves a lot of credit for seeing the need to build these relationships and forging partnerships throughout his career that stand today. We’re now seeing the fruits of our efforts. We had agency administrators join us for over half of our USDA meetings, and members of congress themselves – not just their legislative aide – stop in and visit with our group in person. That’s no small feat, and I truly believe it’s our professionalism, uniquely American product and collaborative approach that gains Washington’s attention now more than ever. 

As you’ll see below, we’re not asking for much when we head back to the nation’s Capitol as we like being a relatively regulation free business. We do insist on fair and equal treatment among our fellow farmers and ranchers. Here is an overview of what we discussed at these meetings:


USDA Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) – Our first meeting was with AMS and included top leadership from the commodity procurement division, and agricultural reporting service. The discussion on commodity purchases was productive in that we had AMS-approved bison vendors in the meeting with us who were able to share their concerns with how the Section 32 commodity purchase agreement was facilitated last year and suggested changes that would allow them to participate more moving forward. AMS was appreciative of the group’s suggestions and will work with the NBA on potential changes but made no commitments. We also met with those who put together the monthly bison AMS price report to discuss some simple changes to the report that could increase participation and improve data accuracy. Our delegates from the Intertribal Buffalo Council also discussed how to get tribes more involved with purchase programs for tribal food programs, such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). The NBA has two follow up meetings with AMS to discuss these items further.  
USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) – The NBA sat down with the APHIS leadership to discuss the importance of the 2022 NAHMS bison study and herd health issues, primarily MCF and Mycoplasma bovis. APHIS stressed the importance of continuing to collect samples of M. bovis infected animals as they work to map the genome at the National Diagnostics Lab. The NBA also discussed the topic of how USDA values bison in its Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) as APHIS is taking public comment on potential changes until November. They explained that the valuation will lean more heavily on data from the AMS price reports but will also include an appeal process if the producer does not agree with the market valuation being offered. The group discussed how utilizing the AMS price report should be an incentive for bison marketers to participate more in the program as to protect their growers, should they ever seek a LIP claim.
USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS) – ARS met with select members of the delegation to discuss our herd health issues and priorities, which focused on MCF and M. bovis. Dr. Cristina Cunha, who is the lead on the bison MCF vaccine work at Washington State University in coordination with Dr. Brett Webb at the University of Wyoming, presented on their progress on the vaccine and provided the following timeline: 
Present – Dr. Webb is working on the completion of bison pens at the Univ. of WY. 
January – UWY will receive bison for the study. 
February – March – Bison will be immunized 
Hoping to have efficacy and safety results to share by next summer. 
In regards to the discussion on M. bovis, Dr. Roxann Motroni, a ARS researcher who is working on the disease in cooperation with the ARS lead in Ames, IA, is currently working on a potential vaccine and is making great progress. They encouraged the NBA to begin thinking about commercially manufacturing a MCF vaccine, which was very good to hear as ARS has secured enough funding to complete the study. ARS is also working to map the bison genome in regard to brucellosis.
USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) – We visited the Farm Service Agency as well and thanked them for including bison M. bovis losses in their LIP program. The NBA also explained that we will lobby for increased funding for the FSA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher program, which has assisted many bison producers get started through its loan program and its educational resources. FSA informed us that they are trying to make that program more user-friendly by, for example, allowing for online applications as opposed to hard copies moving forward. The NBA also lobbied congress to expand funding and programming for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher program in the next Farm Bill. 
USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) – A small group of the delegation attended a meeting with top leadership from NRCS, which included a bison producer – who was discouraged by their local NRCS office from applying for assistance, and a different producer – who received an EQIP award with minimal effort. The NRCS team was taken aback by the first producer’s bad experience and by the end of the meeting, NRCS had contacted, and heard back from, the NRCS field office in question. The delegation also explained to the NRCS team that we are applying for a Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative grant that would focus on developing bison specific grazing standards for NRCS to utilize moving forward, and eight workshops/field days over the next two summers on working bison operations to educate both NRCS and bison producers on the new standards. We also offered to share our Bison Producer’s Handbook and current bison pricing and data to NRCS agents across the nation, which we have since provided. The NRCS team also invited the NBA to participate in a field agent educational conference to present on the bison industry in Fort Worth, TX in the near future. 
USDA Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) – We met with Administrator Whitley and Associate Administrator Brooke Jameson of the Foreign Agriculture Service to provide updates on current export priorities. Ms. Jameson suggested that we look more into the Latin American region for new trade opportunities. FAS also invited the NBA to participate in the US Pavilion for a trade show in Guadalajara, Mexico, next year to better promote bison to Mexico and Latin America as a featured American protein. The NBA explained that its primary export goal is the European Union, which currently has a 20% tariff on all bison imports, along with the United Kingdom. The NBA also pressed the FAS on the development of bison-specific HS codes to expedite the negotiation process, which is coordinated with the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office. The NBA also received an update on the Japanese market, which has indicated that it would potentially like to include a bison audit as a part of its next beef audit that it undergoes in the US in the near future, which would entail visiting a bison processing facility. The NBA offered to lineup such a tour as needed as it works to open Japan to bison meat imports. 
US Trade Representative’s Office (USTR) – The NBA visited with U.S. Trade Representative’s Office and Assistant Trade Negotiator for Agriculture, Dr. Julie Callahan. Dr. Callahan explained that while agriculture has not been a trade priority, she hopes that it will soon. She also encouraged the NBA to potentially approach Congress regarding export to the EU and the UK, as bison poses no competition to this region. The USTR also requested, and have been provided, historical data on bison exports overall to allow them to develop talking points to utilize in negotiations as they arise. USTR also agreed to continue to work on bison-specific HS codes in coordination with FAS moving forward. 
US Congress – The delegation split into teams to meet with 18 congressional offices on Capitol Hill on its second day. The teams presented staffers and a few members of congress themselves with a bison business overview and our list of legislative priorities, which included supporting Sen. Thune’s (R-SD) Strengthening Local Meat Processing Act – S.370, our 2023 Farm Bill priorities, the ITBC-driven Indian Buffalo Management Act – S.3051 HR2074, and the National Bison Day Senate Resolution – which was successfully passed in the Senate this past Wednesday. We communicated that despite three years of challenges, including drought, economic challenges to producers and processors, and the COVID pandemic, the bison industry continues to grow and thrive. These issues largely inform our Farm Bill priorities, which amount to support for drought relief programs, the expansion of NRCS, processing capacity expansion support, continued support for Beginning Farmer and Rancher programs, research support particularly for MCF and M. bovis, and specific inclusion of the term bison or bovine in all related Farm Bill language to ensure eligibility. 
American Leather and Hide Council – The delegation visited the president of the Leather and Hide Council of America, Steve Sothmann, as part of their fly-in. Steve gave an overview of the current leather marketplace and a history on the recent decline of the industry, which is now showing signs of recovery. He explained that bison leather is in more demand in the last few years, and that he believes there is potential to grow that market. Steve plans to attend our 2023 Winter Conference and possibly have a booth at our tradeshow to learn more about our industry and members. 
Thanks to our delegation of bison stakeholders for making the trip a success, and to each and every NBA member who’s membership supports our legislative and regulatory efforts in Washington and beyond.