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Farm Bill; Ag Economy; Rural America; Regs; Immigration; Biofuels; WRDA; and, Food Labels

Farm Bill

Damian Paletta and Josh Zumbrun reported earlier this week at the Washington Wire Blog (Wall Street Journal) that, “The number of Americans receiving food stamps is now falling at a faster clip, with more than 1.2 million people moving out of the program between October and February, according to federal data.

“As of February, the most recent data available, 46.2 million Americans received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. That’s the lowest level since August 2011 and down from the March 2013 peak of 47.7 million people. The $5.8 billion in benefits paid out in February was the lowest level since at least 2010 [related graph].”

The update added that, “SNAP isn’t the only government-assistance program where persistent growth appears to have slowed. The number of people collecting benefits under a supplemental nutritional program for Women, Infants, and Children [WIC] fell to 8.1 million in February, the lowest level in several years.”

More specifically on the WIC program, Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Mark Udall (D., Colo.) penned a letter to the editor yesterday to The Washington Post, which stated in part that, “Regarding Catherine Rampell’s May 9 Washington Forum column, ‘Big Potato demands taters for tots’:

“The Agriculture Department’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is one of the most successful tools our country has for strengthening the nutrition and health of pregnant women and young children. Unfortunately, the program excludes only one fresh vegetable — the white potato — despite its many nutritional benefits. We simply are asking the department to follow the latest nutritional guidelines.”

Meanwhile, Ohio State University agricultural economist Carl Zulauf indicated yesterday at the farmdoc daily blog (“2014 Farm Bill Conservation (Title II) Programs”) that, “This post contains a summary of the Conservation title (Title II) of the 2014 farm bill. The post begins with a set of summary observations, followed by an overview of spending on Title II Conservation programs and a description of key Title II provisions.”

 

Agricultural Economy

Reuters writer Karl Plume reported yesterday that, “In the northern U.S. Plains, where there are no commercially navigable rivers, the U.S. rail system long has served as the lone, dependable way for farms to move grain hundreds of miles to reach ports and sell around the world.

“Not any more. Farmers in North and South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota are holding the largest grain stocks in years after months of worsening delays that crippled the backbone of the U.S. farm transportation system. Rail operators blame the snarled service on the coldest winter in decades and changing freight flows.

“Yet the delays are growing in some areas even as spring sets in, fueling renewed ire at oil companies that are increasingly competing for space on the same rails.”

The Reuters article noted that, “The trouble is now rippling through the agricultural economy, disrupting grain processing at mills and leaving cereal and food companies short of supplies;” and added that, “At Southwest Grain, a 3,500-member farm cooperative granary based in Taylor, North Dakota, general manager Delane Thom worries there will be no hopper cars at his three loading terminals as the winter wheat harvest starts to come in.

Railroad BNSF has yet to deliver about 500 cars that he was promised in February and March, Thom said.”

Note that yesterday’s Wall Street Journal contained two interesting articles highlighting issues associated with rail transportation problems and the ag economy- see this related FarmPolicy.com overview.

With respect to food prices, Josh Mitchell reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “The producer-price index for final demand, which measures charges for everything from gasoline to accounting services, rose a seasonally adjusted 0.6% in April from a month earlier, the Labor Department said Wednesday.”

Mr. Mitchell pointed out that, “A measure of prices for finished goods climbed 0.6% from a month ago and 2.5% from a year ago. The year-over-year increase was the sharpest since March 2012…Higher food prices drove the increase. An 8.4% jump in meat pricesthe biggest in a decade—accounted for more than one-third of the rise in overall goods prices, the Labor Department said.”

And a recent overview of April weather indicators from the National Climate Data Center (NOAA) pointed out that, “Below-average four-month precipitation totals were widespread across the Southwest and the Central and Southern Plains. Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas each had January-April precipitation totals that ranked among their 10 driest on record. Oklahoma had its second driest January-April on record, with less than half of average precipitation; 1936 was the driest. The dry conditions across Oklahoma decimated much of the winter wheat crop in the state, with estimates of the lowest harvested yield since 1957. In west Texas, precipitation deficits that date back to 2010 have been unprecedented in the observational record, with nearly every major reservoir in the region at less than 40 percent of capacity.”

The AP reported yesterday that, “Rainfall in Kansas and other growing areas is helping send the price of wheat sharply lower.

“The actively traded July contract for wheat lost 19 cents, or 2.7 percent, to settle at $6.90 a bushel Wednesday.

Wheat is still up 14 percent this year as traders worry about dry weather jeopardizing the crop.”

Also yesterday, Bloomberg writer Alan Bjerga reported that, “[Steve] McDaniel, a master beekeeper in Manchester, Maryland, has been safeguarding his honeybee colonies from mites, viruses and other maladies for 35 years. Now he and some other beekeepers blame a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that have gained widespread use in the past decade and have been linked to a mysterious die-off of bees called Colony Collapse Disorder.

“They want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to follow the lead of the European Union in December and ban its use.

“Chemical makers Bayer AG, Syngenta AG and Dow Chemical Co. say neonicotinoids aren’t to blame for the bee deaths and have stepped up their own lobbying to counter calls for a ban as well as legislation now in Congress. Eliminating the products will do little for bees and force farmers and gardeners to go back to products that are more harmful, they say.”

In trade related news, Chuin-Wei Yap reported yesterday at the China Real Time blog (Wall Street Journal) that, “If there’s any wonder why China is taking it slow with genetically modified food, two separate developments this week will tell you why.

“In the first, commentators on China’s popular Weibo microblog unleashed a fusillade of complaints after the non-profit Greenpeace said Tuesday that illegal GMO rice seeds were being sold at local markets in the eastern city of Wuhan. The incident came shortly after a high-ranking retired military official – not the first in China – penned a scathing critique of GMO soybean imports, blaming them for a wide range of illnesses and calling the country’s reliance on such food ‘a shocking situation.’”

Reuters news reported yesterday that, “China’s largest soy buyer Shandong Sunrise Group said it will not default on soybean contracts despite facing big losses, in order to protect its relationship with suppliers, state media reported on Wednesday.”

Also, a news release yesterday from the National Farmers Union (NFU) indicated that, “Today [NFU], along with the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting he withdraw the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposal to relax restrictions on imports of animal products from Brazil. Recent revelations about the state of livestock health and food safety standards in Brazil raise additional concerns about loosening restrictions on imports.”

 

Rural America

An update yesterday at the Economic Research Service (USDA) Chart Gallery noted that, “Population change is varied across rural and small-town America. Since 2010, over 1,200 rural (nonmetropolitan) counties have lost population, with declines totaling nearly 400,000 people. At the same time, the population of just over 700 rural counties grew, together adding just over 300,000 residents. New regional patterns of growth and decline emerged in recent years [related graph].”

For additional information on rural population, see this FarmPolicy.com overview from March.

 

Regulations

Des Moines Register reporter Christopher Doering tweeted yesterday that, “‪@EPA extends comment period for new safety measures to protect ‪#farm workers from ‪#pesticide exposure to Aug. 18 ‪http://1.usa.gov/1orGjiq

A separate EPA announcement from yesterday stated that, “In response to requests, the EPA is extending for an additional 30 days the public comment period on the proposed regulatory decision to register Enlist Duo containing glyphosate and the choline salt of 2,4-D for use in controlling weeds in corn and soybeans genetically engineered (GE) to tolerate 2,4-D. Public comments on the Agency’s proposed regulatory decision must be submitted no later than June 30, 2014. Comments may be submitted to the EPA docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2014-0195 at www.regulations.gov.”

 

Immigration

Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim reported yesterday at Politico that, “After months of being on the receiving end of criticism that they’re not doing enough on immigration, Senate Democrats are aggressively pushing the focus back to House Republicans…The rhetorical pressure was on full display Wednesday with twin speeches on the Senate floor, as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took turns blasting House Republicans for not moving on immigration reform so far this year and warning them that time is running out.”

An update yesterday at a Peoria Journal Star (Il.) blog indicated that, “When the subject of immigration reform is raised, visions of border guards and barb wire fences come to mind — not Illinois agriculture.

But the state would gain if the U.S. House would pass the bill, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a conference call Wednesday that included Illinois Farm Bureau president Richard Guebert and Chenoa dairy farmer Mark Erdman.”

The update noted that, “A White House report that the elimination of immigrant labor in Illinois would cause between $46 million and $83 million in short-term farm losses. Vilsack likened the situation with the immigration to the Farm Bill, passed in the Senate a year before finally being passed in the House. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year.

“‘The time is now for the House to get this done,’ said Vilsack, pointing to numerous benefits from the passage of an immigration bill: reducing the national deficit, boosting rural economies, helping small business while insuring the nation’s food security and availability.”

 

Biofuels (Tax Extenders)

Christopher Doering reported earlier this week at The Des Moines Register Online that, “The top executive with seed and chemical maker DuPont said Tuesday that Congress and the Obama administration must preserve a law requiring ethanol to be blended into the gasoline supply.

Ellen Kullman, DuPont’s chief executive, said in remarks Tuesday at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in Philadelphia that the Renewable Fuel Standard reduces the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, creates jobs in rural America and produces environmental benefits. The Renewable Fuel Standard is a 2007 law that mandates a growing amount of ethanol to be blended into the country’s gasoline supply each year through 2022.”

Timothy Cama reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “Almost eight in 10 biodiesel producers in the United States have cut back production this year due to uncertainty over federal policies that encourage making the fuels, the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) said.

“The report released Wednesday was based on a survey the NBB conducted. In addition to the finding that 78 percent of producers reduced output, 57 percent of companies have idle or shut down plants and 66 percent have reduced their workforces or are considering it.

Almost all of the surveyed companies attribute the industry’s decline to two recent policy developments: the expiration at the end of last year of the tax credit to produce biodiesel and a proposal last year by the Environmental Protection Agency not to increase the biodiesel mandate in the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

The Hill update added that, “At a Wednesday press conference announcing the results on Capitol Hill, six Democratic senators called for renewal of the tax credit and an increase in the biodiesel mandate.

“‘If you look at what this industry depends on from the United States Congress, it’s certainty. It’s some measure of consistency in public policy,’ said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). ‘And I have to tell you, on that score, we’ve failed miserably.’

“Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) also spoke at the event.”

Yesterday’s update explained that, “The biodiesel tax credit provides $1 per gallon of diesel produced from biomass, such as vegetable oil or animal fat. It expired at the end of last year, but the tax break package the Senate will vote on this week would renew it for two more years.”

A news release yesterday from the American Soybean Association (ASA) noted that, “[ASA] President Ray Gaesser, a farmer from Corning, Iowa, praised Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), for speaking up in support for biodiesel. In a press conference earlier today, the senators highlighted the need for reinstatement of the biodiesel tax credit and for EPA to increase the proposed 2014 Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) volumes for biodiesel. The senators, and others representing biodiesel and feedstock producers, outlined the negative impact that the lapse of the credit has had on the burgeoning industry and the additional uncertainty resulting from the EPA’s 2014 RFS proposal.”

 

WRDA- Water Resources Development Act

A news release yesterday from Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) indicated that, “Senators [Cochran] and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., today said that a House-Senate agreement on a new water resources bill would benefit Mississippi’s flood-control projects and modernize many of the state’s ports and waterways. The deal is likely to be voted on by the House and Senate as early as next week.”

 

Food Labels

Katherine Harmon Courage reported yesterday at Time Online that, “Proof of ‘humanely raised’ or ‘sustainably produced’ claims on meat and poultry lacks transparency, says forthcoming report.

“A new report finds that the government was unable to provide proof that many meat and poultry producers are living up to many of their feel-good labeling claims.”

Keith Good