Farm bill negotiators are looking to wrap up talks that have become embroiled in a debate over forest management as well as longstanding issues such as eligibility rules for commodity programs. 

The Senate returns to work on Monday, and House members on Tuesday, to start the remainder of a lame duck session. The farm bill is high on GOP leaders’ to-do list along with a funding measure to replace the stopgap spending bill that expires Dec. 7. 

A Democratic member of the farm bill conference committee and former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, slammed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week for demanding that Democrats agree to include provisions in the bill to make it easier for the government to overcome legal challenges to forest thinning projects. 

“It is outrageous that House Republicans and the Trump Administration are continuing to hold up the Farm Bill negotiations over harmful and extreme forestry provisions,” Leahy said. 

Perdue, who will be in California with Zinke on Monday to meet with survivors and view damage caused by the Camp fire, said that forest thinning can protect people and structures in and near federally owned forests. “These are disasters we can do something about … but we need the authority to do that,” he told reporters on a conference call with Zinke. 

A source familiar with the negotiations said there were other issues, including the commodity eligibility rules, that still needed to be settled.  

Meanwhile, the Senate is set to start making progress this week on some long-stalled USDA nominations. The Senate has a procedural vote scheduled Monday on the nomination of Stephen Vaden to be the department’s general counsel. 

The Senate Agriculture Committee approved Vaden’s nomination more than a year ago but the floor debate was delayed when the panel’s ranking Democrat expressed concern about his role in reassignments at the department. Vaden denied that politics played a role in the moves

On Wednesday, the committee will hold a confirmation hearing on three more USDA nominees: Mindy Brashears to become USDA’s undersecretary for food safety; Scott Hutchins to be undersecretary for research, education and economics; and Naomi Earp to be the assistant secretary for civil rights.

Brashears, who directs Texas Tech University’s International Center for Food Industry Excellence, was an expert witness last year for Beef Products Inc., helping the Sioux City, Iowa, food company negotiate a multi-million dollar settlement from ABC News.

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Hutchins, an entomologist, is the global leader of integrated field sciences for Corteva Agriscience and is an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska. He was global director for crop protection research and development at Dow AgroSciences before the merger with DuPont created Corteva.

Also this week, the EPA must finalize the 2019 renewable volume obligation (RVO), or blending mandate for ethanol and is expected to issue the 2020 RVO for biodiesel. Nov. 30 is the statutory deadline for EPA to issue the final mandates for the following year. 

EPA has proposed a total RVO, including ethanol and biodiesel, for 2019 of 19.88 billion gallons, up from 19.29 billion for 2018. The proposed 2019 total includes 15 billion gallons of conventional corn-based ethanol as well as 4.88 billion in biodiesel and other products that qualify as advanced biofuels. 

A lobbyist for refiners, Scott Segal, argued that ethanol demand would grow even regardless of where EPA sets the RVO.  "There is an emerging consensus that the demand for clean sources of octane will keep ethanol demand robust regardless of the renewable volume obligation under the RFS,” Segal said. 

The biofuel industry wanted EPA to reallocate ethanol gallons that had been waived previously through exemptions for small refineries, but the EPA said it would not consider the reallocation issue through the rulemaking.

Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, Nov. 26

4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.

Tuesday, Nov. 27

Wednesday, Nov. 28

All day - Wilson Center forum, “50 Years of Water, Conflict, and Cooperation,” 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

9:30 a.m. - Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the nominations of Mindy Brashears to be USDA undersecretary for food safety, Naomi Earp to be assistant secretary for civil rights, and Scott Hutchins to be undersecretary for research, education and economics, 328-A Russell.

10 a.m.  Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on U.S. surface transportation needs, 406 Dirksen.

Thursday, Nov. 29

10:30 a.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the nomination of Alexandra Dunn to be EPA assistant administrator for toxic substances, 406 Dirksen.

3 p.m. - USDA releases Outlook for U.S. Agricultural Trade

Friday, Nov. 30

Deadline for EPA to release final 2019 renewable volume obligations. 

11 a.m. - USDA releases Highlights From the November 2018 Farm Income Forecast.

The 2018 G20 summit starts in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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