House heads to partisan showdown on stimulus bill

It looks like farm groups will largely stay on the sidelines as the House moves toward a vote on Democrats’ giant coronavirus relief bill, even though it would authorize $16.5 billion more in direct farm payments plus other aid to producers. 

The House Rules Committee meets today to prepare the $3 trillion HEROES Act for debate on the floor, where the vote is certain to be along party lines. The committee also will consider a separate measure that would authorize remote proxy voting so lawmakers don’t have to go to the House chamber to vote.  

The American Farm Bureau Federation hasn’t taken a position on the coronavirus bill despite liking some of the ag provisions. The National Farmers Union, which more frequently aligns with Democrats on legislative issues, hasn’t endorsed the bill either. 

But in a statement to Agri-Pulse, NFU did welcome the bill’s ag and nutrition provisions. “While the CARES Act provided much-needed short term relief for agriculture, it was just the tip of the iceberg as far as what will ultimately be required to keep farmers in business and ensure that everyone has access to food.” The CARES Act enacted in March provided $23.5 billion for farm relief. 

President Donald Trump’s take? “It’s as they say DOA,” he said.

By the way: The bill would expand the popular Paycheck Protection Program that many farms and agricultural employers have taken advantage of. 

The eight-week period for loan forgiveness would be extended to 24 weeks, and the program’s deadline would be changed from June 30 to the end of the year. The bill also eliminates the requirement that 75% of PPP loan proceeds be used for payroll to get the loan forgiven.

USDA fighting to keep tougher work rule

The House stimulus bill would bar USDA from enforcing a series of rules intended to tighten eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and to reduce benefits. But the Trump administration is back in court trying to preserve one of those rules, which would limit states’ ability to get waivers from SNAP work requirements. 

USDA is appealing a federal judge’s order that blocks the department from implementing the rule. In an appeal notice, the department said it is taking the case to the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Rep. Marcia Fudge, the Ohio Democrat who chairs of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations, called on the administration to drop the appeal. “The administration has decided that now — amid the most pervasive need in a century — is a great time to crack down on Americans who rely on food stamps to keep their families from going hungry,” Fudge said.

Keep in mind: A coronavirus relief bill passed in mid-March suspended SNAP work requirements for as long as the government’s public health emergency is in place. 

‘Plant-based’ doesn’t go far enough for milk producers

The Plant-Based Foods Association has released standards for labeling non-dairy yogurt products that recommend using terms such as “plant-based,” “dairy-free,” or “non-dairy” in a prominent position.

Makers of those and other products are fighting efforts by milk producers at both the federal and state level to prevent them from using dairy terms.

The National Milk Producers Federation dismissed the standards as insufficient. NMPF’s Clay Detlefsen said: “Putting forth a voluntary standard that simply codifies illegal behavior does nothing more than allow malefactors to pick and choose whether they feel like following the law, depending on their perceived marketing gain.”

Broadband providers seek permanent fix

As COVID-19 tests internet connectivity across rural America, broadband providers are calling on Congress to take a long-term approach to expanding service.

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, told the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday that lawmakers should encourage the use of better technology and make sure that infrastructure is deployed right the first time. 

“We certainly wouldn’t use our highway program to create a two-lane road when we know that an eight-lane highway is what is going to be needed five to ten years down the road,” Bloomfield said.

Take note: As if on cue, the video-conferenced hearing wound up illustrating the challenges of relying on the internet. Gene Kimmelman, a witness with a public interest group called Public Knowledge, was in the middle of talking to the committee when his audio cut out just as he was saying this: 

“Wow, just think of the gut punch this virus has delivered to all of us. It’s really demonstrated just how dependent we are on a high quality, fast-speed, video-capable broadband...”

By the way: Bloomfield and other witnesses said companies are having a hard time sourcing personal protective equipment for employees.

The hidden depth of Bulgaria’s appetite for US ag

It’s hardly the biggest player in U.S. ag trade, but Bulgaria actually imports significantly more U.S. beef, soybeans, fruit, vegetables, seafood, peanuts and pistachios than American data would suggest. That’s because importers in the Eastern European nation much prefer to buy what they need through Western European middlemen, often obscuring the fact that the products are actually going to Bulgaria.

A quick search on the U.S. Census Bureau’s BICO database will show that Bulgaria imported $24 million worth of U.S. ag and food commodities, but a deeper dive into Bulgaria’s National Statistical institute shows the actual number is $64.3 million, according to USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.

Census data indicates the U.S. supplied about $44,000 of beef trade to Bulgaria in 2019, but Bulgaria reports that the U.S. beef trade exceeded $240,000, says the USDA report.  Most U.S. beef is shipped to Bulgaria through the Netherlands, the UK, Spain, and Italy.

He said it. “I’m in one of those areas where we do have pretty decent internet, in fact it’s pretty damn good. The problem is, is this thing right here works only if you hold your mouth in a certain position and it drives me a little crazy.” – Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT., referring to his cell phone while video conferencing on a Senate broadband hearing Wednesday.