Agricultural economist studies voting and farming legislation

John Bovay
John Bovay

This fall, the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics welcomed a new faculty member, Assistant Professor John Bovay. As an agricultural economist and outreach educator, he brings years of experience researching agricultural policies and the food supply chain, including labeling, imports, safety, waste and animal welfare. In his previous work with the University of California Agricultural Issues Center and the USDA Economic Research Service, he assisted farmers, businesses and policy makers. At UConn, Bovay is engaging in teaching, research, and extension, applying his economic knowledge to educate students in sustainable agribusiness management and continuing to explore new ways to help farmers and growers and legislators.

Part of Bovay’s research investigates the economic effects of farming legislation and the role of economic incentives in determining voter preferences for agricultural regulation. On November 8, Massachusetts voters will decide on Question 3, a measure that sets minimum size requirements for farm animal containment. The ballot question concerns restricting the sale of veal, pork and eggs when animals are kept in spaces that prevent them from standing up, lying down, extending their limbs or turning around.

Bovay researched a similar measure passed in 2008, Proposition 2 in California, that banned constrictive methods of farm animal containment. By connecting voter decisions to support or oppose the measure to US Census data, he revealed the electorate tended to vote based on socioeconomic factors.

Lower income voters were less likely to back the measure, while the effect of income on support for Prop 2 appeared to be negligible for incomes above $25,000. The cost increase of these products was a probable factor, corroborated by his findings that in areas where the number of children was high, relative to the number of working-age adults, citizens also tended to vote against Prop 2. Agricultural areas did not support the measure as well. Support was also high among those who voted for Barack Obama, which made sense because the Democratic Party had endorsed the measure.

StrawberrieBovay expects the measure to pass in Massachusetts, pointing to his Prop 2 findings on income and political data and given the small number of farms in the state. Question 3 has not been endorsed by the Democratic Party.

Bovay has conducted additional research in California on Proposition 37 in 2012, a ballot measure related to labeling requirements for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or produced by genetic engineering. He found that economic and social variables correlated to support or dissent, as it had for animal containment. The greatest correlation he discovered was voters supporting Barack Obama in the presidential race also backed the passage of Prop 37, as they had backed Prop 2. There were additional indicators that more education signified support as well, while higher income signaled a lack of endorsement for the measure.

A federal GMO labeling bill was passed over the summer this year that nullifies state labeling but Bovay explains the value of this research in learning more about how votes are cast when pertaining to agricultural policy.

While voters can have a voice in agricultural legislation, many regulations are invoked directly by lawmakers. Bovay explores how farms deal with costs from the introduction of new policies.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in 2011 and its expansive regulations began taking effect this past September. FSMA was designed to increase food safety through health and hygiene measures to prevent contamination with the goal of protecting the country’s food supply.

Bovay explains that these additional requirements and practices have already been adopted by most suppliers and buyers. The requirements will likely have little effect on larger farms, but smaller farms and businesses find themselves at a severe disadvantage based on additional costs associated with new protocols, especially related to water testing and handling of animal manure.

“The fear is that FSMA will increase costs for smaller farms and jeopardize their ability to remain viable,” Bovay says. “If a ten-acre farm and a thousand-acre farm have to test one water source, for example, both farms pay the same fees, but it takes more percentage-wise from the smaller farm’s bottom line. I’m investigating how farm size plays a key role in the effects of FSMA and also how farms growing a particular type of crop might incur differing costs from the legislation. FSMA might not put a farm out of business, but it will definitely make a farm less profitable.”

Bovay hopes to present his research on the economic consequences of FSMA on farms at the New York Produce Show and Conference in December. He also has a number of other projects on the horizon.

As an extension educator, Bovay is eager to implement new outreach initiatives. He intends to focus on assisting greenhouses and dairy farms, two of Connecticut’s largest agricultural industries. One of his aims is to help farmers mitigate energy costs by adopting new technologies like solar panels and anaerobic digesters, machinery that composts animal waste into biogases that can produce electricity on the farm.

Bovay is also planning an expansive approach to help all sectors of the Connecticut’s agricultural industry by determining benchmarks for crops and livestock. Calculating average costs throughout the state can help farmers evaluate their current practices and also present options for farmers looking to diversify their crops or livestock. In the future, he hopes to have an interactive program or an app that can help farms calculate expenses based on field size and other variables to produce accurate estimations of feasibility and profitability.

“My hope is that this information will be an invaluable tool that farmers can use to evaluate their productivity and practices to look into reducing costs in certain areas. It will break down different categories of cost and farmers can use these benchmarks to improve their farms. If farmers have an empty field or are looking to expand, they can use this information to find economically viable crops. Farmers will be able to use this knowledge to make informed decisions. I hope to create something where variables can be entered into an interface to give farmers specific information based on their property and resources. I’m starting this project in the coming months.”

By Jason M. Sheldon