Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue provided the first target dates for implementing the 2018 farm bill, saying the first payments to dairy producers could be delivered in July, and he told lawmakers Wednesday that the White House is working on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal with the help of a USDA adviser.
Perdue told the House Agriculture Committee that USDA adviser Kristi Boswell, formerly with the American Farm Bureau Federation, has been lent to the White House to assist with the agricultural provisions in the immigration proposal.
He didn’t provide any other details of the immigration plan, but he also said that USDA continues to work on a “TurboTax-like” web portal that will allow farmers to apply for the H-2A foreign labor visa program through USDA. Information the farmers provide will be forwarded to the departments of Labor, Homeland Security and State, which handle the program.
Demand for H-2A workers has been soaring in recent years as farms struggle to find workers.
As for the farm bill, Perdue said that signup for the Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs is expected to start Sept. 1. It will be the first time farmers have been able to switch between the programs since they were created by the 2014 farm bill. Most farmers currently participating in ARC are expected to switch to PLC.
Beginning in 2021, farmers will be allowed to switch between ARC and PLC on an annual basis.
The Farm Service Agency expects to start the signup for the Dairy Margin Coverage program, an overhauled version of the old Margin Protection Program, on June 17, with payments starting as soon as July 8, Perdue said.
A general signup for the Conservation Reserve Program won’t begin until December. About 22.5 million acres are currently enrolled in the program, which was capped at 24 million acres under the 2014 farm bill. The 2018 farm bill increases the CRP limit to 27 million acres by 2023 and restricts county payment rates to keep them under local land rental rates. Enrollment for the continuous signup contracts is expected to start in the summer.
Some farm bill provisions won’t take effect until the 2020 planting season, including an optional yield update for the Price Loss Coverage program and provisions to facilitate the production of industrial hemp, Perdue said.
Trade was also a major concern for committee members, and Democrats sharply criticized Perdue’s proposal to make it harder for states to get waivers from work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents who want to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Pressed by Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, on progress of the U.S.-China trade talks, Perdue said that if there is a deal it will be announced at a planned meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping later in March.
“Based on my observations in the Oval Office I think there is a sincere desire on both sides to resolve the trade disputes," he said.
Perdue said Congress could have a chance as soon as April to consider the implementing legislation for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, the renegotiated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Perdue said he is urging Trump to end the Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs on Mexico and Canada that have resulted in retaliatory tariffs against U.S. pork and other agricultural exports.
“The removal of the tariffs is in the interest of all and we’re advocating to the administration to do that,” Perdue said.
Democrats criticized Perdue for issuing the SNAP proposal after Democrats blocked attempts by House Republicans to use the farm bill to tighten work requirements in the program. Able-bodied adults without dependents can be on SNAP and out of work for only three months in every three months unless USDA issues a waiver for their state or area. Otherwise, they are required to work or have been in an approved training program for 20 hours a week.
“It is important to me to try to understand what is your disdain for for poor people,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass, said, “I’m trying to understand how throwing them off of food benefits helps them getting a job.”
Republicans including ranking member Mike Conaway, R-Texas, defended the proposal.
Perdue told Rep. Scott DesJerlais, R-Tenn., that the government must 'help people to become independent rather than in permanent dependency.”
Perdue urged Congress to pass a disaster aid bill to help farmers recover from last year’s hurricanes and wildfires. The House passed a measure that would authorize $3 billion in agricultural aid but the bill stalled in the Senate due to GOP concerns about aid going to Puerto Rico.
Disaster aid “must be done, it must be done soon, or there will be some real harm,” Perdue said.
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