FarmPolicy

March 27, 2015

AgriTalk Transcript: Senator Marco Rubio

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla) was a guest on Thursday’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams, where the conversation focused on immigration, trade, and regulation.

This is an unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of their discussion.

Mr. Adams: Welcome back to AgriTalk here in Washington, D.C. Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with Florida Senator Marco Rubio. We had an exchange back and forth, difference of opinion on Cuba. We also talked a number of ag issues. But I started off asking Senator Rubio does he have any plans, any announcements coming about possibly running for President.

I have to start off—I mean, you’ve got a great setting here, this is going to be on the radio—we keep a pretty good secret. We wouldn’t let it get out of this room. Do you want to make any announcements while you’re here?

Sen. Rubio: Yes, I do. I do. I saved a bunch of money by switching to Geico. [Laughter.] That’s actually not true, I’m still on State Farm, but I thought it was funny, you know. [Laughter.]

Mr. Adams: Be careful Brian Williams, in how you tell your stories now, okay? We don’t want you to get in trouble. Well, we’re so glad that you are with us. And let’s just talk for a little bit and then we’ll open it up to the audience. We just heard from Chairman Conaway his thoughts on how we can address the immigration issue. I know you’re very involved in this.

We look at it in this group, I think, two different ways. Obviously we want to get some kind of resolution nationally, but there’s also the ag labor component to this we’re trying to get resolved as well. How do we approach it? Does it have to be all or nothing or can it be piece by piece?

Sen. Rubio: Well, a couple points. First of all, it’s a critical issue with regards to workforce, and that’s true all over the country. Virtually, there’s no sector—there are some mechanized sectors in agriculture, but by and large agriculture is reliant upon labor. And I’ve actually met some of these folks, both in Florida and in other parts of the country, in South Carolina very recently, in a peach operation, that are dealing with labor problems.

We need a reliable system that allows us to bring to this country, on a seasonal or year-round basis, temporary workers who want to work in agriculture, but do not want to be here permanently—and those are millions of people. And there’s a recognition of that in this country. I think there is a broad recognition of that, that we need to address that. The problem is that it has been wrapped up in the broader issue of immigration, which is much more complex.

Now I would start by saying there’s a significant amount of people in this country illegally who quite frankly never want to be citizens, do not want to be permanent residents, they just want to work for nine months out of the year, or six months, or eight months, they want to go back home for a period of time, and they want to come back again next year when their labor is needed. But they’re afraid to leave because if they do, they’re going to have to sneak back in again next year, so they stay. Because again, we don’t have a cost effective program that works for every part of agriculture, and that has to be fixed.

I personally worked on negotiating the differences out there between different ag groups across the country, those who represent farm workers, on a program as part of the comprehensive approach. But the lesson of 2013 and our efforts is that you’re not going to be able to deal with something like immigration in one massive piece of legislation. And the primary reason for it is because there is the belief in this country, increasingly, rightfully so, that any massive piece of legislation will never follow through on the enforcement pieces.

And so if you do something to deal with ten million people that are here illegally, unless you enforce the law, you’re going to have ten million more a decade from now, and people aren’t prepared to do that. So I think the key to doing anything on immigration is to prove to the American people that we’re serious about enforcing our immigration laws, but as part of that, one of the things that would really relieve the pressure is to have a system that allows people to come here legally and work when their labor is necessary, and return back to their home country, and return again in the future if their labor is needed again, as it will be. And so I do have hope that we can deal with that.

And if we were only dealing with that issue, I think we could make tremendous progress. The problem has been that many advocates for immigration reform want it all or nothing, because they’re afraid that the minute agriculture gets what it wants, it will stop lobbying on behalf of immigration reform; the day technology companies get what they want, they’ll stop lobbying, and so forth, so they want to hold everyone together as a coalition, and that’s been the impediment.

Mr. Adams: The next topic—and I assume you and I are probably going to disagree on this—I just disagreed with Chairman Conaway, so…

Sen. Rubio: Yeah, okay.

Mr. Adams: Let’s talk Cuba. The President’s pushing to open up Cuba. Agriculture groups want to do more trade with Cuba. How do you feel about it?

Sen. Rubio: Well, first of all, there are agricultural goods that are allowed to be sold in Cuba, but they’re not allowed to do it on credit, and there’s a reason why: they don’t pay. And that’s a big problem. The second point I would make is the following. My interest in Cuba—this is my only interest in Cuba. I want Cubans to be free in a democracy.

I believe, in addition to my personal connection to the issue, I believe it is bad for the national security of the United States to have an anti-American dictatorship 90 miles from our shores. I’ll support any policy towards Cuba that achieves that goal.

I do not believe that a unilateral opening to Cuba will achieve that goal, for the following reason: there is no such thing as the Cuban economy. The entire Cuban economy is owned by the Cuban government, primarily the Cuban military, through a holding company by the name of GAESA, G-A-E-S-A. They own everything. They own the hotels, they own the farms, they own everything.

To do business with Cuba requires you to do business with the military dictatorship. And doing business with them is not a two-way street. It is they will pick and choose who they allow in, what they allow in on their terms, and they will not allow anything in that could provide any sort of democratic opening on the island, which is what I primarily care about in terms of the future of the Cuban people.

And that’s my concern, that you’re going to have a leadership transition, because the actuarial tables tell you that the current leaders, who are all over 80 something years of age, will not be there forever. And I want us to have leverage to be able to say if you want a better relationship with the United States, we need to see these things: we need to see independent political parties, we need to see the ability of people to organize themselves and speak openly, and have freedom of the press, and so forth. If you give these things away without any of those openings, what leverage do you have in the future for that?

And here’s one more point I would make. Every single piece of farmland in Cuba today, every major agricultural property in Cuba today was once owned by a private owner, including American companies. They were stolen. They were confiscated. There’s $7 billion worth of American claims on the island of Cuba that we were never compensated for.

If you allow the import—this is the reverse of perhaps what the farm bureaus around the country want—if you allow the import of agricultural goods from Cuba to the United States, you are allowing them to traffic in stolen goods. They stole someone’s farm, they stole someone’s equipment, and they’re now going to make a profit off what they stole without compensating, including American companies—United Fruit Company—but also individuals.

You know, my family comes from a farming background in Cuba. They weren’t landowners, they were sharecroppers. They grew tobacco. But that property today is completely in the control of the Cuban government. There’s no profit motive. That’s why Cuban cigars are no longer any good. But the point being that that’s a factor that no one’s talking about. There are $7 billion worth of claims that are completely uncompensated.

Imagine if someone came in and stole your farm and 15 years later, they are growing crops on that farm and selling it to the country you went to for a profit, using the things you…your land, your equipment, what you invested in. That’s another part of it we haven’t discussed.

Mr. Adams: In case you do have aspirations for another job somewhere down the line, what would you say to agriculture? Many in agriculture and other parts of the country not really familiar with you or your policies or what you would push for if you got that new job. What can you tell this group about your ag positions?

Sen. Rubio: Well, first of all, as I said, I have a family connection. My grandfather was the single greatest influence on my life growing up, and it all entailed…you know, he was one of 17 children. Was a labor program, I guess, that they were undergoing, but… [Laughter.]  He was the only one that couldn’t work on the [field]. He had polio when he was six years old, so he actually went out and learned how to read and write, and struggled because he was disabled from polio.

But nevertheless, Florida is an enormous agriculture state. People associate Florida with real estate, no income tax, and Walt Disney World. All are great—and beaches. But we have an enormous ag component. And it’s one that’s endangered by a number of things.

First of all, by unfair trade practices that we see, whether it’s dumping of tomatoes from Mexico or some of the other issues. But the other issue we’ve really begun to face is both environmental regulations from the EPA—we had a [numeric] nutrient content fight a year ago where they basically tried to come in and impose standards that would make the water even cleaner than what comes out of your tap, in some instances, on agriculture.

And the other threat we face is invasive species. And in particular we’re having a problem now—we’ve got a [canker] problem in Florida that almost wiped out the citrus industry, and now we have a greening problem that actually—the canker ruined the fruit, the greening destroys the trees.

And the problem with losing agriculture is when you lose agricultural land and it becomes developable now because it becomes the highest, best use, you can never get it back. Once someone builds a multifamily housing complex on a piece of agricultural land, you can never come back ten years later and turn it back into farming. And that’s a major problem. You lose the capacity to grow food and to feed your people.

We take that for granted in the United States. We have a lot of people in this country that, when you ask them where does food come from, they’ll say the supermarket. They don’t realize that someone had to grow it. And we take for granted that we have a plethora of food and that we have it in what’s basically still affordable in comparison to the rest of the world, although prices have gone up a little bit, but not necessarily because of agriculture’s fault. And we take that for granted. Food security is even more important than energy security in terms of the future of our country. And if you lose the capacity to feed your people, not to mention export and provide products to others, you lose a major component of your economy.

So what are the threats from government in that regard? The first, of course, is these environmental regulations. The second, for example, is the interpretation of existing law from regulatory agencies like the Waters of the United States issue that we’re trying to address in the budget.

And the third role government can play is with basic research. This greening issue, as I pointed out, is something that the University of Florida, through a program called [IFAS], has been doing round the clock research to try to fix. If we don’t fix that issue, it is not unforeseeable that in less than a decade we will have no Florida citrus left. That, to me, is unimaginable for a state so identified with oranges and grapefruits.

And last is I think it’s important for us to open up free and fair trade with allies and partners around the world. It has to be on terms that are fair. So I believe in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but that means that we need to have a deal with Japan that allows us to sell beef and other products into their markets. I think it’s important for these deals. It’s good for us to have millions of people around the world that can afford to buy what we grow, millions of people in the consumer class.

But it has to be on terms that are fair to the American agriculture sector, because I can tell you many of our agricultural products have to compete against other nations that heavily subsidize their industries and have zero environmental or labor regulations over their head compared to ours. And if they can undercut our growers, wipe them out, put them out of business, they then control the global market and can charge us anything they want, and as I said, we lose the growing capacity.

Mr. Adams: See, he can talk ag. There we go. All right. [Applause.]

[End of recording.]

AgriTalk Transcript: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was a guest on today’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams where the discussion focused, in part, on the Farm Bill, trade issues, and the proposed Dietary Guidelines.  An unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of the discussion with Sec. Vilsack is available below.

Mr. Adams: Welcome back. We’re at USDA, talking now with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. We appreciate your time, Mr. Secretary. We know you have a lot going on. We just have a limited amount of time, so we want to touch on as many areas as we can. We have a deadline coming up next Tuesday for signup in the farm bill. We just talked with Deputy Secretary Harden, who said you monitor the signup. Are you happy with the way it’s going?

Sec. Vilsack: I am, Mike. We’ve got 95% of the acres reallocated and yields adjusted for 95% of the farms that we expect to participate in that part of it, and about 85% have already made elections on ARC and PLC, which is a significant increase. We’re seeing day-to-day two or three or four percent increase, so we are very pleased with where we are.

And we want to remind folks that if you don’t sign up before the end of the deadline, then the election will be made for you, you’ll be in the PLC program, but you won’t be entitled to benefits in 2015, so we really encourage people to get this work done. And all you need to do is get on the registry, get your appointment set up, and that qualifies.

Mr. Adams: So you do not anticipate, at this point, the need or even the consideration of an extension of that deadline in any way?

Sec. Vilsack: We’re going to look at this from day to day. I’ve talked to our team about maybe the opportunity for flexibility. But given the pace of what we’re seeing, it may not be necessary.

Mr. Adams: But that’s still a possibility?

Sec. Vilsack: It’s still a possibility.

Mr. Adams: Okay, so we’ll watch that as far as as we get closer to that deadline next Tuesday. When would you make that call if there was an extension?

Sec. Vilsack: Probably the end of this week.

Mr. Adams: And of this week.

Sec. Vilsack: Yeah.

Mr. Adams: Okay, all right. While we’re here, let’s also talk about trade, because that’s a very hot issue, the talk of TPA and how that impacts, of course, deals like TPP. Where do you think that stands, and getting that message out about the importance of TPA? Because there still seems to be a reluctance by some to go with that. How important is it?

Sec. Vilsack: Mike, farmers need to get engaged in this conversation. They need to make sure their members of Congress and their senators understand how important this is for them personally and for agriculture generally. Thirty percent of our ag sales trade related, roughly equivalent to our net farm income, so if we don’t have export opportunities, we’re not going to make as much money.

This TPP opportunity is a huge opportunity to expand to an increasing middle class in Asia—five hundred and twenty-five million consumers, middle class consumers today in Asia. In just 15 years it’ll be 3.2 billion. It’s a huge opportunity for us. We anticipate $123 billion impact on our overall economy from TPP. Ag is roughly 9% of exports. You can do the math. So we’re talking about hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of opportunity. This is critically important.

Last point. If we don’t do this, China will. I’d rather have us lead the effort on labor, and environment, and enforcement mechanisms, and IP protection, and agriculture than having the Chinese lead that effort.

Mr. Adams: A concern about Japan. Will they come down on their tariffs? Will they play ball with the other partners in this? What are you hearing?

Sec. Vilsack: We’ve had progress with Japan. Still work to do. Our Canadian friends less flexible and less willing to negotiate. Part of it, I think, is that we don’t have TPA in place. Those that we’re negotiating with are assuming that, under the current situation, any trade agreement would be subject to modification or amendment by Congress. That’s 535 people that could weigh in on this. We can’t have that if we want to conclude these negotiations in a timely way. We need to get Trade Promotion Authority done.

Mr. Adams: I want to talk about these proposed dietary guidelines. A lot of concern, especially in the livestock industry, that red meat is going to be phased out of the school lunch programs. You’re going to be very much involved in making these final determinations. You have said it’s about health, it’s about nutrition, not about environment. What can you tell us about how this process is going to play out?

Sec. Vilsack: Well, the first thing is we extended the comment period because we want to make sure people have an opportunity to weigh in on this. And I want to reassure people who are listening to this program and reassure the ag community that I understand what my job is. My job is not what the experts on the panel, Scientific Advisory Panel, had. They had freedom to basically opine about a lot of different things. And some of the things that they brought up are appropriate to have discussions about, perhaps not in the context of dietary guidelines, but in the context of overall where are we headed in agriculture.

My job, based on the statute, based on the law, I took an oath to follow the law, follow the Constitution. That oath basically says even if I want to talk about other things, I have to look at dietary and nutrition. That’s what we ought to be deciding these guidelines on, and that’s what I intend to make sure that I do. Obviously I can’t speak for the full process because Secretary Burwell’s got a very important role to play as well.

Mr. Adams: You’ve come out with the definition “actively engaged” as far as those that can receive farm program benefits. Senator Grassley says it’s a step in the right direction. He would like to see it go farther. Tell us about how you came up with this particular definition and who you see it applying to.

Sec. Vilsack: I think we’ve probably hit it just about right because the folks who wanted more strict restrictions are not happy, the folks who feel maybe we’ve gone a little bit too far are not happy, so I suspect we’ve hit it right. Look, Congress directed us to do this, but also limited us in terms of what we could do. It said you can’t do this relative to family farms, you don’t have to do it relative to corporations, so all that’s left are joint ventures, limited partnerships and general partnerships, roughly 1,500 operations throughout the United States. There we said the default position is one actively engaged manager.

Now if you’ve got a complex or a large operation, you might be able to make the case, if you were to adequately document that case, to have more than one, but you can’t have any more than three. And I think that’s a reflection of the flexibility that we need relative to the nature of agriculture generally, but also tightening up what was a very significant loophole where we had ten, 15, 20 different people saying because I was on a conference call and made a decision to buy this or that, or to plant this or that, I’m somehow actively engaged. We want to get it back to a system that we can defend.

Mr. Adams: We’re almost out of time. Coexistence. Can we achieve that, do you think, in agriculture?

Sec. Vilsack: I think we have to. Now I may be the only person in America that believes that, but look, GMOs are here to stay. We need them if we’re going to feed the world. Organic is a high value proposition. If we want young people to get engaged in this business and be able to do it from scratch, organic is a way to do it without having to buy 1,000 acres and have the capital costs associated with it. So to me coexistence is about making sure that all options are on the table for folks.

Mr. Adams: Very good. So we watch this week for any announcements on the deadline for the signup, but right now you feel pretty good about the way it’s going.

Sec. Vilsack: Absolutely.

Mr. Adams: Very good. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Sec. Vilsack: Thanks, Mike.

Mr. Adams: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as we wrap up our broadcast here at USDA.

[End of recording.]

Wednesday Morning Update- Policy Issues; Trade; and, the Ag Economy

Note: Thanks very much to the many readers who have expressed how much they have enjoyed the FarmPolicy newsletter over the years. The numerous Emails and tweets from readers about the newsletter ending next week have been extraordinarily gracious and very much appreciated.

Policy Issues

Philip Brasher reported yesterday at Agri-Pulse that, “Republicans and Democrats slammed the Agriculture Department over allegations of abuse at a livestock research facility in Nebraska and accused agency officials of stonewalling lawmakers’ requests for information.

“‘It sounds like it was a house of horrors that was going on there,’ said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., referring to allegations about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center contained in a New York Times article published in January.

“Rooney, one of several members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee who grilled USDA officials about the issue, said the allegations cast the cattle industry in a bad light. The idea that the research highlighted in the article was undertaken at the industry’s request was ‘bull-you-know-what,’ Rooney said.”

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Tuesday Morning Update: Policy Issues; and the Ag Economy

Policy Issues

Lydia Wheeler and Tim Devaney reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “The House Agriculture Committee will examine the costs and impacts of mandatory biotechnology labeling laws at a hearing Tuesday morning.

“Lawmakers are pushing for a federal law that would require manufacturers to label all genetically engineered foods and any food products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

“The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced in the House and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced in the Senate, would direct the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the new rule.”

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Sunday Update- Budget-Policy; Ag Economy; and, Regulations

Budget- Policy Issues

An update on Friday at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Blog stated that, “This week the House and Senate Budget Committees each passed their Fiscal Year 2016 budget resolutions on party line votes.

“Each Committee’s resolution will now go to the floor of the House and Senate for consideration. This will likely take place next week with final passage targeted for the end of the week.”

The NSAC update explained that, “Budget resolutions provide the blue print for the appropriations process that will take place in the coming months. They set binding top line spending caps for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

“Budget resolutions may also include ‘budget reconciliation’ instructions, which instruct certain Committees to meet specific deficit-reduction targets through reductions in mandatory spending. Only the House Budget Committee’s version contains reconciliation instructions to the Agriculture Committee.”

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Friday Morning Update: Ag Economy; Policy- Trade Issues; and, Regulations

Agricultural Economy

Reuters writer Christine Stebbins reported yesterday that, “Drought pressures will increase in California and western areas of the United States this spring even as the dry season begins, the government’s Climate Prediction Center said on Thursday.

“‘Periods of record warmth in the West and not enough precipitation during the rainy season cut short drought relief in California this winter and prospects for above-average temperatures this spring may make the situation worse,’ Jon Gottschalck, chief of the Operational Prediction Branch at the Climate Prediction Center, said in issuing its spring outlook.

“The center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also said rivers in western New York and eastern New England have the greatest risk of spring flooding in part because of heavy snowpack coupled with possible spring rain.”

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Thursday Morning Update: Budget- Policy Issues; Trade; and, the Ag Economy

Budget- Policy Issues

Janet Hook and Kristina Peterson reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “House and Senate Republicans have resurrected efforts to curb spending for Medicare and other safety-net programs, releasing budgets this week that bring government entitlements back to the center of political conversation.

“The Senate GOP budget released Wednesday calls for saving $5.1 trillion over 10 years, including $4.3 trillion by repealing the Affordable Care Act and curbing entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.”

The Journal article noted that, “Each chamber will vote on its own budget, before merging them and voting on a unified budget setting overall spending levels for the fiscal year. The policy proposals described in the budgets aren’t binding and stand little chance of becoming law under Mr. Obama, but they send a message about GOP priorities.”

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Drought Issues Continue in California- LA Times Front Page

A pair of articles on the front page of Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times highlighted additional variables relating to ongoing drought concerns in the Golden State.

Bettina Boxall reported that, “Parts of the San Joaquin Valley are deflating like a tire with a slow leak as growers pull more and more water from the ground. The land subsidence is cracking irrigation canals, buckling roads and permanently depleting storage space in the vast aquifer that underlies California’s heartland.

“The overpumping has escalated during the past drought-plagued decade, driving groundwater levels to historic lows in some places. But in a large swath of the valley, growers have been sucking more water from its sands and clays than nature or man puts back for going on a century.

They are eroding their buffer against future droughts and hastening the day, experts warn, when they will be forced to let more than a million acres of cropland turn to dust because they have exhausted their supplies of readily available groundwater.”

The article noted that, “Until last year, California didn’t have a statewide groundwater law, making it an outlier in the West. The legislation, intended to end unsustainable groundwater use, won’t do that any time soon. Agricultural interests opposed the regulations, which call for the creation of local groundwater agencies that have more than two decades to fully comply.

“In the meantime, it’s easier for growers to keep pumping than rein in their use. ‘Telling people they have to stop irrigating is a huge economic thing,’ said Charles Burt, chairman of the Irrigation Training and Research Center at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. ‘Guys are going to get their guns out. If you were farming, you wouldn’t take that very lightly.’

When Burt compares the annual groundwater overdraft in the valley with crop water usage, he figures that 1 million to 1.5 million acres will go out of production in coming years. ‘There are just more straws in there than there is water,’ he said. ‘It’s been going on for a long time.'”

Wednesday’s article added that, “The greatest subsidence related to groundwater extraction ever recorded in the U.S. is on the valley’s west side, where the water table plunged 400 feet in the early and mid-20th century. The accompanying soil compaction caused an area southwest of Mendota to sink more than 28 feet. In a now famous 1977 photo, Poland stood by a telephone pole affixed with signs far above his head indicating where the ground had been in 1955 and 1925.

“The subsidence largely stopped and groundwater levels rebounded in many areas after the arrival of federal and state irrigation deliveries, which provided growers with cheaper, better water.

But even when the water table recovers, subsided basins can’t hold as much water as they did previously. Soil compaction can permanently reduce the pore space between clay particles, leaving less room for groundwater.”

Ms. Boxall explained that, “It is the economics of having to go deeper and deeper for groundwater that will ultimately force growers to retire land. It’s not that the Central Valley’s thick aquifer will run dry. Scientists estimate that it holds roughly 800 million acre-feet of water that seeped deep into the valley’s sands and clays over millenniums from streams and rivers swollen with runoff from the neighboring Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges.

Farmers will instead run out of water they can afford to pump.”

In a separate article on the front page of today’s LA Times, Ms. Boxall reported that, “With California heading into another parched year, state officials Tuesday beefed up emergency drought regulations, directing urban agencies to limit the number of days residents can water their yards.

“The move is expected to have little or no effect in most major Southern California cities, which already have watering restrictions. The statewide effects are difficult to gauge, as regulators don’t know how many local agencies lack limits.”

Wall Street Journal writer Jim Carlton also reported on this development and noted that, “State officials said they felt compelled to adopt the new rules, and extend others passed last summer, including a ban on allowing sprinkler runoff into streets, because of the growing severity of one of California’s worst droughts. Reservoirs in the state sit at less than 60% capacity following a fourth consecutive dry winter, which has left the state’s mountain snowpack at a record low of less than 20% of the historical average.

“Officials said that while Californians have largely heeded Gov. Jerry Brown’s calls to conserve more—saving enough since last June to meet the needs of a city of two million for a year—it hasn’t been enough. In part, the water managers are frustrated by statewide surveys that show a declining conservation rate recently after initial strong compliance.”

Meanwhile, Adam Nagourney reported in Wednesday’s New York Times that, “The rainy season drove into California in December with wet and windy promise: soaking rain, snow, dark gray skies and a flash of hope that the drought that has scorched this region had run its course. And then came January — with record high temperatures and record low rainfall.

And now, as the end of the official rainy season approaches — this state gets 90 percent of its water from December through April, most of it in December and January — California is facing a punishing fourth year of drought. Temperatures in Southern California soared to record-high levels over the weekend, approaching 100 degrees in some places. Reservoirs are low. Landscapes are parched and blighted with fields of dead or dormant orange trees. And the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which is counted on to provide 30 percent of the state’s water supply as it melts through early summer, is at its second-lowest level on record.”

The New York Times article also included a link to this video:

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Wednesday Morning Update: Policy- Budget Issues, Ag Economy; and, Regulations

Budget- Policy Issues

Jonathan Weisman reported in today’s New York Times that, “House Republicans called it streamlining, empowering states or ‘achieving sustainability.’ They couched deep spending reductions in any number of gauzy euphemisms.

“What they would not do on Tuesday was call their budget plan, which slashes spending by $5.5 trillion over 10 years, a ‘cut.’

The 10-year blueprint for taxes and spending they formally unveiled would balance the federal budget, even promising a surplus by 2024, but only with the sort of sleights of hand that Republicans have so often derided.”

The Times article added that, “The House Budget Committee will formally draft the budget on Wednesday, as Senate Republicans unveil their counteroffer. Like the House version, the Senate’s will balance in 10 years, aides to Republicans senators said. Like the House, the Senate will include language to help lawmakers repeal or reshape the Affordable Care Act this year. How the two chambers resolve their differences could be a central drama in Washington throughout the spring.”

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Senate Appropriations Ag Subcommittee Hearing with Sec. Vilsack

The Senate Appropriations Ag Subcommittee heard testimony on Tuesday from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the FY16 USDA budget request.  During the discussion portion of hearing three key issues were discussed relating to Dietary Guidelines, Crop Insurance and Bird Flu.

Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) indicated in his opening statement yesterday that, “Agriculture remains one of the bright spots in our nation’s economy, supporting more than 16 million jobs nationwide and forming the backbone of our rural communities. American farmers and ranchers are the best at what they do when given the opportunity to compete on an even playing field.

“After a long, arduous process and a great deal of economic uncertainty, Congress enacted the Agricultural Act of 2014 one year ago. The Farm Bill authorized sweeping changes to commodity and crop insurance programs, consolidated and reinforced conservation efforts, and reauthorized vital research and rural development programs. Agriculture is Kansas’s #1 industry – directly responsible for 37% of the state’s economy. Enactment of a new Farm Bill was welcome news for producers, research institutions, and rural communities in my home state.”

Sec. Vilsack indicated that, “The Department has completed implementation of many new Farm Bill authorities. This includes major new safety net programs providing certainty to American agricultural producers going into the 2015 crop year. We have made available over $5 billion in critical assistance to producers across the country since sign-up for the disaster programs began on April 15, 2014. Significant new crop insurance protections were also made available. America’s new and beginning farmers and ranchers, veteran farmers and ranchers, and women and minority farmers and ranchers were given improved access to credit.”

Sec. Vislack pointed out that, “The Administration strongly supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other critical programs that reduce hunger and help families meet their nutritional needs. SNAP is the cornerstone of the Nation’s nutrition assistance safety net, touching the lives of millions of low-income Americans, the majority of whom are children, the elderly, or people with disabilities. SNAP kept over 5 million people, including nearly 2.2 million children, out of poverty in 2013. Recent research has shown that SNAP not only helps families put food on the table, but it has a positive long-term impact on children’s health and education outcomes. We also support the ongoing implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Over 90 percent of schools report that they are successfully meeting the new nutrition standards, serving meals with more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy, and less sodium and fat.”

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Tuesday Morning Update: Policy- Budget Issues; Regulations; Trade; and, Bird Flu

Policy, Budget Issues

Seung Min Kim and Jake Sherman reported yesterday at Politico that, “As budget season kicks off in earnest this week, defense hawks are clashing with fiscal hard-liners over military spending, Republicans are scaling back their deficit reduction targets, and Democrats are waiting in the wings to hammer GOP lawmakers with politically tough votes on education, infrastructure and health care.

“In the House, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana are stuck between the budget-cutting demands of conservatives and the desire of defense hawks to provide the military with more robust funding. In the Senate, Republicans are already getting hit by Democrats after indicating they’ll target Medicaid and food stamps.

The blueprints due out this week in each chamber will provide the first hard evidence of how aggressively the GOP intends to pursue its top stated priority of fiscal discipline. Though the budgets are partisan documents that won’t be signed into law, failing to marshal enough GOP support to pass one would be a debilitating setback for a party trying to prove it can govern after taking full control of Congress.”

The article noted that, “As some details of the Senate budget became clear last week, Democrats began their attack — pointing to savings that Republicans would like to extract from Medicaid and food stamps for the poor.

“‘Balancing the budget on the backs of working families who have borne the brunt of the recession makes no economic sense,’ said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

If the two chambers ultimately can’t come together on a budget, Republicans won’t be able to wield a powerful budget maneuver known as reconciliation, which would allow them to enact policy changes with 51 rather than 60 votes.”

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Sunday Night Update: Budget- Policy Issues; Trade, and, the Ag Economy

Budget, Policy Issues

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture resumes hearings this week and will garner additional details regarding USDA budget requests from three Agency Under Secretaries.

On Tuesday the Subcommittee will hear from Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, and on Wednesday, Under Secretary for Rural Development Lisa Mensah will testify before the Subcommittee.

Michael T. Scuse, Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Service and Brandon Willis, the Administrator for the Risk Management Agency will be at the Subcommittee on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Ag Subcommittee will hear perspective on USDA’s budget from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Tuesday.

Recall that last month Sec. Vilsack presented testimony at the House Appropriations Ag Subcommittee (February 25) , as well as the House Ag Committee (February 11) and Senate Ag Committee (February 24).

In addition to the USDA budgetary hearings, the full House Ag Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the importance of trade to U.S. agriculture, while the House Ag Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Tuesday, “To review the definition of ‘waters of the United States’ proposed rule and its impact on rural America.”

As these hearings regarding the USDA budget and ag policy issues are going on this week, the House and Senate Budget Committees will also be holding important meetings that have potential ramifications for the Farm Bill.

Recall that an update on Thursday at FarmPolicy.com explored recent budget related developments that could potentially have significant implications for the Farm Bill- the update can be viewed here: “Budget Issues Move to the Front Burner- Potential Farm Bill Implications.”

More recently, Jordain Carney reported on Friday at The Hill Online that, “Senate committees are laying the groundwork for the budget next week.

“Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said this week that the Budget Committee will mark up a budget proposal on Wednesday and Thursday. Sanders, the ranking member of the committee, said Democrats will likely offer ‘very strong amendments’ during markups next week.”

And an update on Friday at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) Blog (“The Farm Bill Reloaded”) explained that, “The House Budget Committee is expected to markup the fiscal year 2016 budget resolution on Wednesday March 18. The Senate Budget Committee is expected to follow suit the next day. Assuming the measures pass out of committee they will be debated and voted on in the full House and Senate the following week.

“While the chairmen of the two Committees have kept details of their proposed budget bills very close to the vest, it is widely expected that they will include ‘budget reconciliation’ instructions to various committees of Congress, including the Agriculture Committees. Budget reconciliation is a congressional process used primarily as a means of reducing government spending for mandatory programs.

“It is still unclear exactly what the reconciliation instructions to the Senate and House Agriculture Committees will be, but it has become increasingly clear that there will be instructions to the Agriculture Committees.”

The NSAC update added that, “The rumor in D.C. is that the Committees will be instructed to cut $20 billion, over 10 years, from the 2014 Farm Bill. This amount would be eerily similar to the House’s original 2013 proposal for $20 billion in cuts to the food stamps or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Whatever the dollar figure is, it doesn’t come with any dictates on what programs to cut. It will be up to the two Agriculture Committees to determine what parts of the farm bill to cut.”

Also on Friday, Kimberly Leonard reported at USNews Online that, “The days of mystery meat and soda-dispensing vending machines may be gone, but that doesn’t mean that the new era of school meals and snacks hasn’t come without its own challenges.

Nutrition guidelines for schools, which have gradually gone into effect since Congress passed the Michelle Obama-backed Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, can be logistically and financially difficult for already strapped district budgets.”

The article noted that, “In response, earlier this month 1,000 members of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school cafeteria workers and companies that supply food and equipment to districts, lobbied Congress for more funding and flexibility when it comes to school meals.

Critics have called out the group for attempting to roll back quality nutrition standards, but the members maintain they are asking for a more realistic approach.”

 

Trade

William Mauldin reported on Sunday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Sweeping trade deals of the past—with Canada and Mexico in 1993, for instance, or China in 2000presented big upsides and big risks for a broad swath of U.S. companies.

By contrast, the trade bloc President Barack Obama is trying to hammer out with 11 Pacific countries shows how much smaller both the benefits and perils of trade liberalization have become.

“Complicating the pact’s path, meanwhile, are a host of accompanying fights over issues like environmental regulations and drug-pricing rules.”

The Journal article stated that, “Washington already has trade agreements with more than half the countries in the TPP, among them Singapore, Australia, Peru and Chile… Administration officials and business groups are saying the TPP would lower traditional barriers at the border but also open up U.S.-dominated services industries, boost intellectual-property protection for Hollywood movies and Silicon Valley software, and set rules on the international free flow of data, foreign investment and the environment. A successful deal would also lower regular agricultural and food barriers in Japan and other countries, raising profits for American farmers, an increasingly small but influential part of the electorate.”

Christopher Doering reported in Sunday’s Des Moines Register that, “Congress is wrestling with whether to grant President Barack Obama authority to negotiate potentially lucrative trade deals that could be a boon to an Iowa economy already dependent on trade to support thousands of jobs and pump millions of dollars into the state each year.

“Exports provide a major boost to Iowa’s economy, helping a host of industries ranging from agriculture and construction equipment manufacturers to bioscience and aerospace companies.

“The state shipped a record $15.1 billion in goods and services last year — up sharply from $6.4 billion a decade ago, according to the Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration. Trade now supports more than 80,000 jobs in the state.”

The article noted that, “Without trade, [Gov. Terry Branstad] said, the state’s unemployment rate of 4.1 percent in December would likely be higher, while agriculture, manufacturing and other industries in Iowa would be far less profitable.”

Sunday’s article added that, “Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said recently that agricultural exports have been among the biggest beneficiaries of trade, representing 9.2 percent of the record $1.64 trillion in U.S. goods exported in 2014, compared to 6.6 percent in 2000. Overall, exports are equal to about 30 percent of U.S. farm sales.

“‘Without exports, American agriculture would not be a particularly profitable venture,’ he said.”

 

Agricultural Economy

A FarmPolicy.com update on Saturday looked more closely at the persistence of California’s ongoing drought; while an update on Sunday morning at FarmPolicy.com contained recent news items regarding bird flu issues in the U.S.

Keith Good

Bird Flu Issues

Samantha Masunaga reported late last week at the Los Angeles Times Online that, “A ‘limited number’ of turkeys at Butterball contract farms in Missouri and Arkansas have been diagnosed with H5N2 avian influenza, a Butterball spokeswoman said.”

Reuters writer Tom Polansek reported on Saturday that, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified the first infection of a virulent strain of avian flu in poultry in Kansas, confirming the virus has spread into a migratory bird route that runs through the center of the country.

“The discovery of the H5N2 flu strain in a backyard chicken and duck flock in a county just outside Kansas City, Kan., is certain to lead to expanded restrictions on U.S. poultry exports from top trading partners like Mexico and Canada.

“The infection, confirmed on Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the first case in an established migratory bird route, known as the central flyway, that stretches roughly north-south from Montana to Texas.”

The article noted that, “Major buyers of U.S. poultry have already restricted imports from other states that have recently been infected with the same flu strain.”

AP writer Steve Karnowski reported on Saturday that, “Animal health experts and poultry growers are scrambling to determine how a dangerous new strain of bird flu infected poultry flocks in four states — and to stop it from spreading.

“Avian influenza is common in wild migratory waterfowl but doesn’t usually harm them. But the H5N2 strain is deadly when it spreads to commercial poultry. It can wipe out a flock of tens of thousands of birds in a few days, as it did at a farm last month in Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey-producing state. The same strain soon turned up on two farms in Missouri and one in Arkansas.

The vast majority of turkeys and chickens in the U.S. spend their lives confined indoors to protect against disease. Yet, as the infections show, viruses can still reach them — tracked in by humans or rodents; carried on trucks, equipment, crates and egg flats; passed from waterfowl to shore birds that find their way into a barn.”

The AP article noted that, “Minnesota confirmed its outbreak March 4, the first H5N2 found in the Mississippi flyway, a major bird migration route. The Missouri and Arkansas cases were confirmed this week. The only known commonality among those states is the flyway. Meanwhile, samples from a Kansas backyard flock of chickens and ducks tested positive for the strain late this week; the affected flock is in a county just west of the Mississippi flyway.

Why it showed up at these locations simultaneously is a mystery, though [Dr. Carol Cardona, an avian influenza specialist at the University of Minnesota] and other experts suspect waterfowl or other wild birds. Meanwhile, officials are keeping an eye on the workers who had contact with the infected flocks, and producers are tightening their standard biosecurity measures, which include putting on sanitary clothing and showering on their way in and out of barns.”

Saturday’s AP article also pointed out that, “Some countries also use those bans to protect their markets from cheaper foreign products, according to Dr. Donna Carver, extension veterinarian at North Carolina State University. ‘There’s not always a scientific reason,’ she said.”

A news release on Friday from the National Chicken Council stated that, “In light of the recent detections of avian influenza (AI) in the United States, the U.S. poultry industry would like to assure the public that detailed response plans are in place for controlling the spread of the virus and for eliminating the virus entirely. The U.S. government and poultry industries have sophisticated systems and techniques to detect the introduction of the virus into a commercial poultry flock and have proven methods to quickly eliminate the virus. The U.S. poultry industry has a strong avian influenza testing and detection program administered by the federal National Poultry Improvement Plan, in addition to each state’s individual response plan. Poultry farmers also maintain strict biosecurity measures year-round, keep their flocks protected from wild birds and routinely test flocks for avian influenza.”

-kg

California Drought- Problems Persist

Discouraging news regarding the ongoing California drought continues to persist.

Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech, and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, penned a sobering column this week on California water issues in the Los Angeles Times.

Dr. Famiglietti indicated that, “As our ‘wet’ season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.”

Statewide, we’ve been dropping more than 12 million acre-feet of total water yearly since 2011. Roughly two-thirds of these losses are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley. Farmers have little choice but to pump more groundwater during droughts, especially when their surface water allocations have been slashed 80% to 100%. But these pumping rates are excessive and unsustainable. Wells are running dry. In some areas of the Central Valley, the land is sinking by one foot or more per year.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century,” Dr. Famiglietti said.

The LA Times column stated that, “Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.”

The column went on to outline potential policies that could be implemented to deal with the current situation.

To view a brief Weather Channel video on the California winter snow pack, just click here.

And drought is also having an impact on Washington state.

Maria L. La Ganga reported in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times that, “‘What we’re experiencing is essentially a snowpack drought,’ Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology, told reporters Friday. ‘As of this very moment, the projected snowpack is 4% of normal in the Olympic Mountains.’

“In the Central Cascades, snowpack is 8% to 45% of normal, and in the Walla Walla area, it’s 67% of normal. The long-range forecast calls for drier, warmer weather, Bellon said, and ‘conditions are expected to get worse.’

“A statewide drought has not been declared in Washington since 2005, but the perilous snow levels mean other parts of the state are being monitored in case the emergency declaration must be broadened.”

The article pointed out that, “To get ready for a long, hot summer, officials have requested $9 million in drought relief funds from the state Legislature and are prepared to make temporary changes to water rights so that crops and fish have an adequate water supply.”

And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently indicated that, “The continued availability of irrigation for crops and landscaping is also vulnerable to climate change, particularly in the Southwest where irrigation accounts for the highest volume of water used. Projected increases in temperature and potential evapotranspiration, accompanied by decreases in soil moisture, will challenge this already-dry area with increased demand for water. Demand for water will also grow with population, as people migrate to Sun Belt states for better weather.”

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Friday Morning Update: Budget; Appropriations Hearing; Animal Production Issues; and, Trade

Budget

An update on Thursday evening at FarmPolicy.com explored recent budget related developments that could potentially have significant implications for the Farm Bill- the update can be viewed here: “Budget Issues Move to the Front Burner- Potential Farm Bill Implications.”

 

Appropriations Hearing

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture heard testimony from FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg.

During the discussion portion of the hearing, a couple of Senators sought more detail and perspective about the FDA’s role as it relates to the recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report- additional details on the hearing and the Dietary Guidelines report have been posted here, at FarmPolicy.com.

 

Animal Production Issues

In other news, Lisa Baertlein and P.J. Huffstutter reported yesterday that, “KFC, the world’s largest chain of fried chicken restaurants, may face pressure from consumer and environmental groups to change how its poultry are raised after McDonald’s Corp said it would switch to chicken raised without human antibiotics.

“McDonald’s will phase out chicken raised with antibiotics that are important to human health over two years to allay concern that use of the drugs in meat production has exacerbated the rise of deadly ‘superbugs’ that resist treatment, Reuters reported last week. Within days, retailer Costco Wholesale Corp told Reuters it aims to eliminate the sale of chicken and meat raised with human antibiotics.

KFC is owned by Louisville, Kentucky-based Yum Brands Inc, which has no publicly stated policy on antibiotic use in the production of meat it buys. Chick-fil-A, another chicken restaurant chain that competes with KFC, says about 20 percent of the chicken it serves is raised without any antibiotics, and that its entire supply chain will be converted by 2019.”

Also, a news release this week from Cargill indicated that, “Dr. Stephanie Cottee joins Cargill animal welfare team with global responsibility for poultry.

“She will be based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada and report to Dr. Mike Siemens, PhD, Cargill’s head of animal welfare based in Wichita, Kan. Dr. Cottee’s appointment is effective immediately.”

And Reuters writers Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter reported yesterday that, “A case of bird flu confirmed Wednesday in the heart of America’s poultry region, is certain to mean more export restrictions, increasing U.S. supply and likely forcing the world’s biggest poultry companies to trim prices.”

The article noted that, “The USA Poultry & Egg Export Council said it expects 30 to 40 additional countries to impose new trade restrictions on U.S. poultry and eggs in the $5.7 billion export market. Additional limits could come from Mexico, the top U.S. chicken importer, which already is blocking poultry imports from Minnesota, Missouri and California due to bird flu, the trade group said.

“Previous cases of avian flu in other states triggered China and South Korea to recently impose bans, still in effect, on U.S. poultry imports. Last year, they accounted for about $428.5 million in export sales of poultry meat and products, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

“Other countries have banned exports from only states or counties with positive cases of avian flu.”

See also this update yesterday from Kansas State University Extension, “Poultry bans by overseas buyers could weigh on pork and beef, as well as poultry prices.”

 

Trade

Chris Kirkham reported yesterday at the Los Angeles Times Online that, “The short-term economic impact of the recent labor standoff at West Coast ports will be small, according to a new economic forecast, but the ports face a long-term struggle to remain competitive in the rapidly changing realm of global trade.

Many businesses in California, particularly those tied to agriculture, suffered from missed orders and produce spoiling on docks. But many other shipments were simply delayed rather than lost entirely, according to the quarterly UCLA Anderson Forecast.”

And Ann M. Veneman and Dan Glickman, who respectively served as Agriculture Secretary for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, indicated in a column this week at The Hill Online that, “As former secretaries of Agriculture, we know firsthand the importance of international trade to America’s farm and ranch families, to our nation’s rural communities, and to the U.S. economy as a whole. There’s no other sector of the U.S. economy where the link between trade and prosperity is clearer than in agriculture.”

The column noted that, “Key to our ability to negotiate and implement market-opening agreements has been enactment of trade negotiating authority. This authority, now called trade promotion authority (TPA), ensures U.S. credibility to conclude the best deal possible at the negotiating table. TPA also ensures common negotiating objectives between the president and Congress, and a continuous consultation process prior to final Congressional approval or disapproval of a trade agreement.

That’s why we, together with all living former secretaries of Agriculture, recently signed an open letter urging Congress to reinstate Trade Promotion Authority to allow the president to effectively negotiate job-supporting trade agreements as other presidents have done.

“With TPA, the United States will be able to pursue trade agreements that support high-paying U.S. jobs while helping America’s farmers and ranchers increase U.S. exports and compete in a highly aggressive globalized economy. TPA will signal to our TPP partners that Congress and the administration stand together on the high standards our negotiators are seeking.”

Keith Good

Thursday Morning Update: Crop Insurance; Policy; Regulations; Ag Economy; and, Biotech

Crop Insurance- GAO Report

On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on crop insurance titled, “In Areas with Higher Crop Production Risks, Costs Are Greater, and Premiums May Not Cover Expected Losses.”

A summary and highlights of the report have been posted here, at FarmPolicy.com.

Agri-Pulse reporter Philip Brasher, in an article from yesterday, provided a brief and thorough look at the GAO report.

Mr. Brasher reported that, “Farmers in drought-prone areas of the Plains and other high-risk regions often aren’t being charged enough for crop insurance, according to congressional auditors.”

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