Panelists talk about impacts of climate change on agribusiness



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Panelists participating in a panel on climate change impacts at the Michigan Agri-Business Association (MABA) Winter Conference agreed: agriculture industry representatives are a very sophisticated audience when it comes to issues affecting their businesses.

“Part of the problem with understanding agriculture is that it’s much different now than what we were used to on Green Acres,” says attorney Steve Weyhing, who works in Warner Norcross and Judd’s Lansing office. “It’s a very sophisticated, complicated industry, and it’s growing.”

Nic Clark, the Michigan Director for Clean Water Action who presented the simple facts and history of climate change, commented, “They’re very engaged and interested to learn more, and to connect the environmental issues to everyday life.” 

And Varnum’s Eric Schneidewind, who also works out of Lansing, agrees. “The agribusiness community realizes they have to adapt, and I think as business people they’re more concerned about what is happening, as opposed to why. They see climate change’s effects on the ground, and they realize that they’ve got to understand it and adapt to it.”

The Michigan Agri-Business Association is an organization with a mission “to further the development and prosperity of businesses engaged in agriculture.” MABA offers its members events, informational updates, and a voice in policy decisions.

The 2014 Winter Conference, held at the Lansing Center, was its 81st. The topics covered were broad and comprehensive, and attorneys had a strong presence.

Varnum was well-represented, with  Aaron Phelps, Matt Eugster, Matthew Zimmerman, Bruce Goodman and several others speaking on a variety of topics, as was Foster Swift Collins and Smith. Steve Kluting, who was formerly the chair of Varnum’s Food Industry Group and is now at Natural Choice Foods, presented on the Food Safety Modernization Act.

The panel — better stated as a series of related presentations — on climate change and its impacts and potential resolutions concerneed an issue critical to the future of farming and related industries. “Changing climate trends affect everything in agriculture,” said Jim Byrum, MABA president. “In the short term, warmer temperatures mean increased yields, longer growing seasons and more land open to farming. In the long term, however, these trends could be detrimental to Michigan agriculture as we see more frequent extreme weather events and additional pest pressure. It’s a double-edged sword.”

That conundrum was the main topic of Nic Clark’s overview presentation. “My part specifically was about what is causing climate change. I presented various data in graphs that illustrated how the increase of Green House Gas emissions over the last century results in carbon pollution in the atmosphere and how that links to the impacts we’re seeing in climate change and extreme weather.

“The impacts on the growing season  might be that it will be longer, or might be that the variability in weather means a major disruption — for example, the big losses in the orchard crops in 2013. But we’d like to work with farmers on advocating to reduce the GHG?sources, such as coal power plants, since agribusiness understands that in order to make investments, stability in the weather system is critical.”

A panelist who was unable to attend, Jeff Andresen of Michigan State University, agreed. ““In recent years, we’ve seen a string of weather events that have had a direct impact on agriculture in Michigan, ranging from early freezes impacting cherries and apples to extreme flooding,” he stated. “The conversation on climate and agriculture... is important for planning for the future as we will continue to deal with changes in climate, precipitation and growing patterns.”

Clark observed, “We were the only environmental group at the conference. We’re really trying to intersect with agribusiness, with the understanding that they have to plan and adapt for their bottom lines, for their businesses, but also telling them about some of the policies to mitigate climate change impacts over the long term.”

Both Weyhing and Schneidewind moved the session in the direction of energy, and both incorporated the notions of renewable energy and energy conservation as part of a discussion on energy utilities.

Weyhing’s presentation emphasized the legal and statutory aspects of interacting with the utilities, including recent provisions for competition. His PowerPoint reviewed the history and was very specific about which aspects of public utilities are regulated and which are not. “Many people are unaware, for example, that a public utility can use eminent domain to obtain an easement,” he said later.

Weyhing’s practice at Warner Norcross focuses on helping clients with compliance and dispute resolution on state and federal regulations. He litigates as well as providing counsel, and is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

“I do a fair amount of agricultural work and have litigated several big disputes, and helped transition family farms,” Weyhing says. “I also represent the Michigan State Utility Workers so I appear at a lot of MPSC?[Michigan Public Service Commission]  proceedings.”

It is very important to Weyhing that people understand how important the agricultural sector is. “It’s always been sort of a quiet economic sector but now agriculture is at least number three and most years number two in terms of what we produce here in Michigan.”

But, he adds, “To some extent agriculture has been an afterthought – in fact, you can go all the way back to our utilities who didn’t want to provide electricity out in the rural areas, so the government passed the Rural Electrification Act, which allows for rural cooperatives.” His talk touched on the issue farmers face with wind energy producers wanting to lease farmland, and he counseled caution and consulting with an attorney.

Eric Schneidewind spoke with some authority on the MPSC, since he is a former staff member and chair (1979-1985) of the commission. He was instrumental in creation of PA81 of 1987, regarding the MPSC, as well as the Electric Restructuring Act in 2000.

Schneidewind specializes in providing complicated energy  counsel to his business clients, including power marketing, waste-to-energy and wind generation, for both government and private developers.

Along with Varnum colleague Timothy Lundgren, Schneidewind represented MABA in front of the MPSC when the organization sought to have Consumers Energy’s  Energy Optimization (or energy conservation) plan be more responsive to agribusiness. Schneidewind’s presentation covered the process of that successful intervention.

The result was a requirement that Consumers include MABA in formulating the plan, which now includes rewards for using such energy-saving technology as variable speed drives for fans.

Lundgren presented in another session on “New Energy Efficiency Programs for Agribusiness.”

Schneidewind observed that it was gratifying to present to people who accepted the reality of climate change and the need for renewable energy, “getting away from the politics and the rhetoric and moving to ‘let’s deal with it,’” as he puts it.

Schneidewind added, “It’s important that people know about the economics of renewable energy. The prices on wind have dropped more than 50 percent in four years here in Michigan. The first few contracts were over $100 a megawatt hour, but within the last 12 months there have been several that are right around $50 — less expensive than natural gas generation.

“I think it takes a while for this reality to set in.”