The federal government is lumbering back into action - for at least three weeks - and the Agriculture Department looks to jump-start work on implementation the 2018 farm bill, a task that was interrupted just as it was beginning in December. 

Job No. 1 for USDA is to prepare the newly overhauled dairy support program so that producers can sign up for the expanded coverage that took effect Jan. 1. The Dairy Margin Coverage program, the new name for the relatively unpopular Margin Protection Program, is primarily aimed at keeping smaller scale producers in business but will benefit farms of all size

“We will immediately begin work on implementation of the farm bill” and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue plans to “prioritize the dairy program,” USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh said over the weekend. 

President Donald Trump on Friday night signed a continuing resolution that will fund those departments and agencies to Feb. 15, allowing time for a House-Senate conference committee to negotiate a deal that would meet his demands for border wall funding. Trump restated his threat to fund the wall by declaring a national emergency if he isn’t satisfied with the result of the negotiations. 

USDA, along with several other major departments and agencies important to agriculture, including the Interior Department, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, were shut down on Dec. 22, just two days after Trump signed the new farm bill into law. 

Meanwhile this week, a team of U.S. ag negotiators led by Ted McKinney, USDA's undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, is preparing to meet their Chinese counterparts when the country’s Vice Premier Liu He and a delegation arrive in Washington for talks on Wednesday and Thursday.

The overarching goal is to end the trade war and halt the tariffs that have decimated virtually all of the U.S. ag exports to the country that include everything from almonds to soybeans, but U.S. negotiators tell Agri-Pulse they will be pushing for China to lift a wide variety of Chinese non-tariff restrictions. That includes lifting China’s ban on hormone-treated beef as well as U.S. poultry.

China has banned U.S. poultry since 2015 during outbreaks of bird flu here. U.S. negotiators will be pushing for that ban to end, but also getting China to agree to “regionalize” future bans instead of employing nationwide actions.

Besides delaying farm bill implementation, the government shutdown had also deprived farmers and traders of reports that they rely on to track agricultural markets. The closely watched World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report was cancelled in January but will be published as scheduled on Feb. 8.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s meat inspectors remained on the job throughout the shutdown as did personnel with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who were funded through the programs they administer. 

Half of the local FSA offices opened for three days starting Feb. 17, and then all of the offices opened Feb. 24 to resume handling requests for operating loans, trade assistance payments and other programs. 

Perdue said on his Twitter feed that he looked forward to welcoming back the entire USDA workforce. 

“Many stayed on the job during the shutdown and we are grateful to them. We maintained as many services as possible during the funding lapse, but we will quickly and smoothly get back to full speed.”

Most workers in the affected departments and agencies have missed two straight biweekly paychecks. 

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he expected his agency’s employees to receive their back pay by Thursday. Perdue said USDA employees would get paychecks “as quickly as possible.”

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

Monday, Jan. 28

10 a.m. - Congressional Budget Office issues budget and economic outlook. 

Tuesday, Jan. 29

10 a.m. - House Budget Committee holds hearing on CBO’s budget and economic outlook, 1334 Longworth.

2:30 p.m. - Senate Budget Committee holds hearing on the budget and economic outlook, 608 Dirksen.

Wednesday, Jan. 30

Cattle Industry Convention and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Trade Show, through Friday, New Orleans.

Thursday, Jan. 31

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report. 

Friday, Feb. 1

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