Congress Must Clarify Trucking Regulations for Agricultural Products

Congress Must Clarify Trucking Regulations for Agricultural Products

When it comes to government regulations, clear wording and definitions are a must to those who must comply with the rules.

Such is the case with the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) hours of service (HOS) and electronic logging device (ELD) regulations for the trucking industry implemented in late 2017. Inconsistencies and a lack of clarity in the regulations has led to confusion and higher costs for many small business owners and producers in the fields of agriculture and horticulture. That’s why industry leaders are asking Congress to clarify the rules, in order to provide greater flexibility and fairness for horticulture producers, distributors and shippers.

The good news is DOT officials and Congress worked to provide some common-sense exemptions for agricultural transport. Among those exemptions: drivers moving “agricultural commodities” for distances of less than 150 miles (by an “as the crow flies” measure) would be exempt from the HOS and ELD mandates.

The bad news is they excluded some important specialty agricultural goods — namely horticultural and nursery products — such as trees, flowers, and shrubs. This oversight is causing substantial confusion for shippers in a key sector of the economy that relies heavily on rapid transportation of goods.

By any reasonable definition, these products should be classified as “agricultural commodities.” And in fact, for most taxation and regulation purposes, they are. Yet strangely, horticulture and floriculture products were not included in the definition of “agricultural commodities” as exempted under the HOS and ELD mandates. 

My association represents the horticulture industry, which is negatively affected by the confusion sown by the new regulations. Our industry is vast and includes the very businesses that American communities rely on — plant breeders, greenhouse and nursery crop farmers, distributors, retailers, landscape professionals, florists, and more. We’re active in all 50 states, with annual sales estimated at $196 billion and almost 2 million full-time and part-time employees.

These small businesses depend heavily on specialty agricultural crops like flowers and ornamental plants, which require timely shipping and delivery. The reason: unlike many other agricultural commodities, these items can’t be stored for extended periods. They’re often highly perishable, and there’s a relatively narrow marketing window in which they can be displayed and sold.

But shippers are exasperated by the pronounced inconsistency in the law. Horticultural products are, in fact, agricultural commodities by any reasonable definition. When they’re placed on a truck for transportation, they should get the same regulatory treatment as any other farm products.

Congress now has an opportunity to set things right by passing the Agricultural Trucking Relief Act of 2019, a bipartisan bill introduced last week by Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.). The legislation already has the support of leading agricultural organizations, like AmericanHort, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

This bill would appropriately adjust the definition of “agricultural commodities” to include horticultural products, which would clarify how the mandates affect our industry. Given the ambiguity, it’s appropriate for Congress to address the issue, so that regulators and industry will be on the same page.

Industry leaders aren’t asking that the mandates be repealed; they simply want the existing rules to work clearly and with a sense of fairness. We want to work with Congress and regulators to fix what’s broken, with the worthy goal of ensuring the safety and well-being of truckers and the general public — as the rules were intended to do — while balancing the needs of agricultural producers and horticultural specialists.

In their initial stages, the HOS and ELD mandates generated a fair amount of criticism from those who believed the rules were “not ready for prime time” as they were implemented. However, it’s likely the most urgent problems with the regulations can be addressed through carefully targeted legislative fixes, coupled with some modest flexibility from the regulators that level the playing field for agricultural shippers. Clarifying this exemption for agricultural commodities to include horticultural products is a sensible start toward achieving the needed balance.

Tal Coley is director of government affairs for AmericanHort, a national trade organization representing the horticulture industry with more than 14,000 member and affiliated businesses.

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