Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is on the road again today to promote USDA’s $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box program. Today, he’s in his home state of Georgia for an event delivering food at a non-profit in Atlanta. 

USDA has come under criticism for awarding contracts to some companies that were inexperienced in distributing food. The United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association issued a joint statement to the industry after a meeting with the Agricultural Marketing Service to air concerns about the program. 

Leaders of the two groups said AMS officials outlined plans for “extensive analysis and audits to verify what is actually taking place under current contracts, which gives us confidence in USDA’s oversight of the program.”

PPP fixes on Senate’s to-do list

The Senate is back in action this week, and one of the first issues to be dealt with in the coming days is expected to be the Paycheck Protection Program. 

A House-passed bill would extend the time that businesses and farms have to spend their forgivable PPP loans on payroll and reduce from 75% to 60% the amount of the loan that has to be spent on wages. Even the lower 60% minimum is a concern for senators, as it is for farmers. The American Farm Bureau Federation in a letter to Congress said that payroll expense requirement should be removed. 

“Limiting the forgivable portion of non-payroll expenses to 25 percent prevents many farmers and ranchers from participating in this program,” the AFBF letter says. 

For more on that issue and the rest of this week’s D.C. agenda, read our Washington Week Ahead.

Trump stirs uncertainty over US ag exports to Hong Kong

The U.S. exports billions of dollars of beef, pork, tree nuts, fruit beer, pet food and other products tariff-free to Hong Kong every year, but President Donald Trump’s latest announcement on Friday has created uncertainty over the fate of that trade.

“We will have to see exactly what the administration does to see if it will have trade impacts,” AFBF Senior Director Dave Salmonsen told Agri-Pulse.

“I am directing my administration to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment,” Trump said. He also promised that the U.S. will “take action to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China.”

The U.S. exported about $3 billion worth of agricultural commodities to Hong Kong last year, down from $4 billion in 2018 and $4.2 billion in 2017.

Brazil buys more US wheat under new quota

Closer ties between the U.S. and Brazil continue to pay off for American wheat farmers. The South American ag giant imported 30,000 metric tons of U.S. wheat this month during the period of May 15-21, according to the latest trade data released by USDA.

The two countries continue to negotiate a trade pact. On Jan. 1, Brazil opened a 750,000 metric-ton tariff rate quota for wheat outside its Mercosur trading partners and that is benefitting mostly U.S. and Canadian exporters.

By the way: China is also buying U.S. wheat to fulfill its promises under the “phase one” trade pact. U.S. exports to China for the same week-long period totaled 166,400 metric tons.

Restaurant industry recovery over a year away

A national non-profit culinary arts organization says it could take restaurants 14-18 months to return to normal operations.

Katherine Miller, vice president of impact for the James Beard Foundation, tells Agri-Pulse Congress will have to provide continued support for the food industry. “When unemployment runs out, when farmers need more aid, when restaurants need more support, our members of Congress are going to hear from us,” she said.

Keep in mind: The Independent Restaurant Coalition is asking Congress to establish a $120 billion independent restaurant stabilization fund.

OSHA in court over worker protections

The Justice Department is defending OSHA’s efforts to protect workers from COVID-19. In a court filing that responded to a legal petition from the AFL-CIO, DOJ says OSHA shouldn’t be forced to take the “extreme” step of setting a mandatory, enforceable infectious disease standard for the virus. 

“OSHA — together with countless federal, state, and local authorities — is addressing COVID-19 in a rigorous and comprehensive manner,” the government brief says. “The standards [the AFL-CIO] seeks are largely already mandatory and enforceable either through existing OSHA requirements or the veritable gamut of non-OSHA public safety requirements enacted by federal, state, and local officials in response to the pandemic.”

In its filing, the government said it had formally rejected the AFL-CIO’s March 6 petition to the agency seeking an Emergency Temporary Standard. 

In a May 18 petition to the court, AFL-CIO said the agency’s refusal to adopt an emergency standard “that would impose mandatory, legally enforceable, COVID-19-specific duties on employers stands in marked contrast to the approach taken by other arms of the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Support from business: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, including the Restaurant Law Group, have filed amicus briefs in support of the government.

Small grains among crops least affected by payment limit

As USDA begins dispensing $16 billion in Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments to farmers, Farm Bureau economists have calculated how various commodities will be affected by the $250,000-per-person payment limit. Among row crops, wheat growers are among the least affected; cotton growers would be among the most likely to hit the cap. 

The AFBF analysis, which was focused on non-specialty crops such as grains, cotton and oilseeds, found it would take the equivalent of more than 25,000 acres of hard spring wheat to reach the payment limit, while a soybean grower would reach the cap at 11,104 acres. Some 4,447 acres of corn or 3,198 acres of cotton would hit the cap. 

Keep in mind: The CFAP payments will be limited to the portion of the 2019 crop that remained unpriced on Jan. 15 or no more than one-half of a farmer’s 2019 production.

He said it. “A few years back if we would have said the Farm Service Agency could put a program on the ground and have the money distributed in a couple of weeks, people would have thought you were crazy.” – Chuck Conner, a former deputy agriculture secretary and now president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, to Agri-Pulse on USDA’s rollout of CFAP.

Questions? Tips? Contact Philip Brasher (