WASHINGTON — The week in D.C. was a big one for ag policy moves. Here’s a recap of some of the occurrences from Capitol Hill.

USDA Announces second round of trade mitigation payments

Since trade talks with China broke down, the next round of Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments will be based on the trade damage to the county a farmer lives in, rather than the commodity they choose to grow.

The new round of trade-related assistance totals $16 billion with $14.5 billion going to MFP. Rather than different rates for the various commodities, USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday that farmers will now be paid based on a single county rate.

“The team has gone through and looked at the trade damage each county is feeling and we then divide that by the acreage planted within the county and will have a single payment, no matter which of the crops you plant,” Northey said.

This relief strategy is still being reviewed by OMB, but payments will be expedited.

“The payments will come out in three different times of the year; we’re looking at a first payment coming out in July or August.”

The second payment can be expected in November and the third will come in January. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said payments will likely be front-loaded, coming out shortly after the Farm Service Agency acreage reporting is wrapped up in mid-July. The first tranche of payments are the only ones guaranteed. The second and third tranches will be made if market and trade conditions are warranted.

A longer story from Friday’s paper is available on starherald.com [https://bit.ly/2wgN5An].

Senate (finally) passes disaster relief bill

Skeptics thought that it would never come, but in a surprise upset on Thursday afternoon, the Senate passed a disaster relief bill that provides for the 2019 Midwest floods, as well as the Puerto Rico and gulf coast hurricanes from 2017 and 2018.

“Our families, ag producers, communities, and military installations affected by the catastrophic flooding need assistance and that’s why I fought hard for our state throughout this process,” Sen. Deb Fischer said in a statement. “What we passed today is a critical first step to help Nebraskans rebuild and move forward in a positive direction. I hope the House will follow suit and pass this bill without delay.”

According to a summary provided by the Senate Appropriations Committee, $3.005 billion is provided for the USDA Office of the Secretary (OSEC) to cover producers’ net exposure to losses stemming from 2018 and 2019 natural disasters. Assistance is also provided to cover blueberry and peach crop losses resulting from freezes and hurricanes in 2017 and producers impacted by Tropical Storm Cindy. USDA would administer funding through the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP) under OSEC.

Ag specific programs include:

• $480 million for the Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) for non-industrial timber restoration.

• $558 million for the Emergency Conservation program (ECP) for repairs to damaged farmland.

• $435 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWPP) for rural watershed recovery.

• $150 million for Rural Development Community Facilities grants for small rural communities impacted by natural disasters in 2018 and 2019.

• $25.2 million for disaster nutrition assistance for the CNMIs impacted by typhoons.

• $600 million for supplement disaster nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico stemming from 2017 hurricanes.

• $5 million is included for an independent study on the impact of the additional benefits provided through disaster nutrition assistance.

• $18 million for a grant to American Samoa for disaster nutrition assistance.

Additionally the bill would:

• Waive the average gross income requirement for eligibility under USDA’s Market Facilitation Program

• Provide crop insurance coverage for hemp beginning in the 2020 reinsurance year.

• Provide a population requirement waiver for designated communities impacted by a natural disaster for certain Rural Development programs.

Hitherto, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was reluctant to advance any disaster bill without money earmarked for border security, given the demonstrated fear that the President would veto legislation that does not contain funds to fulfill his signature campaign promise of building a wall. However, the inclusion of the funding would have been a nonstarter with the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowing to gut any border funding from the bill.

Coalition of farm, rural groups push for agribusiness merger moratorium bills

On Wednesday a broad-based coalition of 219 farm, food, rural, faith and consumer advocacy organizations delivered a letter to Congress endorsing food and agribusiness merger moratorium bills introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jon Tester (D-MT) and Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI).

According to a join release from the groups, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2019 would initiate a moratorium on large agriculture, food and beverage manufacturing and grocery retail mergers to allow time to assess the impact corporate consolidation has on farmers, workers, consumers and communities. The bill also recommends improvements to antitrust enforcement. The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act was originally introduced by Booker last August and called for an 18-month moratorium on mergers and acquisitions; this year’s updated version calls for an indefinite halt.

“Over the past several decades, lax antitrust enforcement has greatly reduced competition in the industries that supply and buy from family farmers and ranchers, saddling them with higher input costs, fewer choices, and less innovation,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said in a press release. “After a recent wave of agribusiness mega-mergers, Senator Booker and Representative Pocan’s legislation would provide a much-needed opportunity to evaluate the damage and establish stronger safeguards to prevent this level of consolidation in the future. We heartily support this merger moratorium, and we urge Congress to do so as well by passing it swiftly.”

The Booker-Pocan bill would put a strategic pause on merger combinations of over $160 million in sales or assets and establish a commission to study the impacts of consolidation in the food and agricultural sectors on farmers, rural communities, workers and consumers. The commission would also recommend any necessary changes to federal antitrust statutes or other laws and regulations to restore a fair and competitive agricultural marketplace.

The letter, signed by groups from 46 states, urged other Members of Congress to cosponsor the legislation to stop the mergers that they say threaten independent family farmers, consumers and communities.

To read a copy of the letter, visit [https://bit.ly/2HPTAzv]. To read the text of the bills, visit [https://bit.ly/2HzCfM6].

New proposed rule introduced under Packers and Stockyards Act

A new proposed rule under the Packers and Stockyards Act was published to the Federal Register by the USDA this week, and could potentially restore some Fair Farmer Practice Rules for swine and poultry producers that were rolled back in 2017, a move which sparked a lawsuit as previously reported in the Dec. 24, 2017 Farm & Ranch [[https://bit.ly/30JeusM]

On Wednesday, the USDA announced it will invite public comment on new proposed revisions to regulations under the Packers & Stockyards Act in compliance with a 2008 congressional mandate by the Bush administration. The rule relates to Fair Farmer Practice Rules that would protect smaller producers from large packers who engage in predatory or retaliatory practices

USDA’s action is a commitment to a federal court in 2018 in response to the Lincoln-based Organization for Competitive Markets’ (OCM) litigation against Secretary Sonny Perdue and USDA for having illegally withdrawn two of the Farmer Fair Practices Rules that were filed by the Obama administration to comply with the congressional mandate. These rules were the market safeguards that OCM, allied farm organizations, and individual farmers and ranchers have been advocating for over a decade.

“This action would invite comments on proposed revisions to regulations issued under the Packers and Stockyards Act (P&S Act),” the announcement states. “The revisions would specify criteria the Secretary could consider in determining whether conduct or action by packers, swine contractors, or live poultry dealers constitutes an undue or unreasonable preference or advantage and a violation of the P&S Act.”

You can view the USDA announcement here: [https://bit.ly/2wgF6Dl]

Nebraska Corn farmer testifies on climate change and ag

Matt Rezac, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Weston said Tuesday in testimony to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee that farmers’ commitment to future generations, paired with their willingness to embrace new technology, positions them to lead on climate solutions. Rezac was invited to testify by Ag Committee member Sen. Deb Fischer as part of the Committee’s hearing entitled “Climate change and the agriculture sector.”

Rezac is a member of Frontier Cooperative where he is involved with the Ultimate Acre Grower Panel. In 2017, Rezac Farms was awarded the Conservation Agronomy Award for Outstanding Sustainability by Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN Initiative.

“When we talk about stewardship of the land, and doing what’s right for the land, there’s no one better than the American farmer,” Rezac said in his testimony. “In Nebraska and across the nation, farmers are constantly seeking ways to safeguard natural resources while also strengthening their business. As we continue to embrace innovation and technology in these conservation efforts, farmers can make a real difference in providing climate solutions.”

Rezac said that like many farmers, environmental stewardship is already core to his farm management, noting some of his 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans have been in the family for nearly 140 years. He named three core strategies to help farmers unlock even greater environmental and economic results in the coming years.

First, he said, farmers and their ag retailers must continually deploy the latest technology through “precision conservation.”

Second, enhanced collaboration between the public and private sectors will help farmers achieve more, with federal agencies like USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service working even more closely alongside local ag retailers.

“Unfortunately, my local NRCS office is overworked, and truthfully, overwhelmed,” Rezac said. “To fill some of that void, I turned to my local co-op, Frontier Cooperative. Frontier has been a leader in sustainability, and they joined the Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN program when it launched in 2016. Frontier embraced bringing agronomists out to the farm, educating farmers about being more efficient.”

Third, Rezac reinforced that economics and environmental stewardship can, and must, go hand-in-hand as farmers strive to deliver climate solutions.

Rezac has also worked alongside Frontier Cooperative to bolster his on-farm stewardship efforts using the Truterra™ Insights Engine from Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, an interactive, on-farm digital platform launched in 2018 to help farmers advance their stewardship goals and optimize their return-on-investment in real time, acre-by-acre.

As reported in the March 3 Farm & Ranch [https://bit.ly/2weOck6], WESTCO recently joined the Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN initiative.

For more information about taking part in the SUSTAIN program, contact WESTCO Agronomy Manager David Shields at dshields@westco.coop or call (308) 762-1161.

Mexico, Canada lift meat import tariffs

On Monday, the Mexican government published the official notice removing Mexico’s retaliatory duties on U.S. pork, and Canada’s Department of Finance announced that Canada will immediately eliminate the 10 percent tariff Canada imposed on prepared beef items imported from the United States.

“Restoring duty-free access to the Mexican and Canadian markets is a tremendous breakthrough for the U.S. red meat industry,” U.S. Meat Export Federation President and CEO Dan Halstrom said in a statement. “USMEF thanks President Trump and Ambassador Robert Lighthizer for reaching an agreement with Mexico and Canada on steel and aluminum tariffs and in turn Mexico and Canada’s lifting of the retaliatory duties on U.S. red meat.

Halstorm said that the development removes a significant obstacle for the NAFTA’s replacement, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and that USMEF is hopeful all three countries will ratify USMCA as soon as possible.

spike.jordan@starherald.com

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