A Seat at the Table

Spend some time with Eldora area cattleman Dave Petty, and he’ll tell you a thing or two about working with the EPA.

And what you hear might surprise you.

Petty, who operates a large commercial cow/calf operation along the banks of the Iowa River, has made a significant impact on the nation’s cattle industry, by working side-by-side – not against – the Environmental Protection Agency.

For 20 years, Petty has been cultivating relationships with regulatory officials and staff, in an effort to make sure that cattlemen have a seat at the table when EPA (or the Iowa DNR) make decisions that affect our farms.

After serving as the president of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association from 1999-2000, Petty has gone on to serve in national leadership roles, including chairman of NCBA’s Agriculture and Food Policy Committee and NCBA’s Region 3 Vice President.

He has also stepped up to work on behalf of cattle producers on Iowa’s Environmental Protection Commission, an appointed group of Iowans who oversee the Iowa DNR. Petty was chair of that group for three years, and often times, was the sole dissenting vote on the board.

More recently, Petty has been active on the Farm, Ranch and Rural Community Advisory Committee to the Administration of EPA, even holding the position of deputy chair. He’s also a part of the Animal Agriculture Discussion Group, which includes representatives from several sectors of the livestock industry as well as EPA officials. Petty has maintained a presence on the NCBA Environmental Working Group for over 20 years.

Petty is a member of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association Hall of Fame, won the EPA’s Regional Administrator’s Award for Environmental Excellence in 2002, and won the 2003 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture from ISU’s Leopold Center.

In addition to official advisory roles within the Iowa and national regulatory arena, Petty has opened the gates of his ranch to countless officials over the years. During his time as president of ICA, Petty hosted a tour that changed his outlook on cattlemen’s relationship with the DNR and EPA.

Lyle Asell, the acting state director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, asked Dave for a tour of his farm. Despite being cautioned against it by fellow cattle producers, Petty agreed. He planned to keep the tour short and ignore the nagging feeling in his gut that told him it was a bad idea.

Then, two days before the tour, Asell asked if he could bring a guest - Gale Hutton, the director of EPA’s Region 7 Water, Wetland and Pesticides Division.

At that time, DNR, EPA and cattle producers were not on the best terms, and Petty felt like the tour was risky. Although he was confident in his farm’s practices (three years later, he was the national winner of NCBA’s Environmental Stewardship Awards Program) he understood that the intricacies of the rules and regulations governing cattle operations could set him up for trouble.

Despite plans for a short tour, “We got up there and got out and flipped the tailgate down, and we sat there and talked for 3 ½ hours,” Petty remembers. “And that’s what convinced me that you could sit down and talk about a solution.”

After that transformational conversation, Petty became well versed in collaboration that gets results. His advice for navigating tough topics?

  • Don’t rely on “experts” who say, “I think if you do a, b, and c then I think d will be the result.” Find someone who has done it and can say, “I do a, b, and c, and e is the result.” The conversation needs to be driven by proven results, not educated guesses.

  • Bring all the stakeholders together at the beginning of the process. Even if they don’t all participate, they all need to be invited.

  • Keep a cool head. When disagreements come in to play, it’s important to stay calm and focus on solutions.

  • Be willing to give and take, but know what your non-negotiable points are.

  • Build trust with those you’re working with.

Using these strategies and others, Petty has built a reputation within the cattle industry and Environmental Protection Agency as someone who focuses on solutions, not problems; collaboration, not contention. “I didn’t agree with some of what they did,” Petty says of the EPA, “but I was always able to sit down and help them understand what they were doing wrong.”

And that reputation and the resulting relationships has created unique opportunities for Iowa cattlemen to be seated at the table with DNR, the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC), and EPA.

In the past several months, Iowa has hosted EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt twice, with Petty literally at the table each time. But his work is not done.

“I will have this (WOTUS) fixed before I quit, because I don’t want my daughter and grand-daughters to have to deal with it,” he says.