Senate Republicans say the chances of another big coronavirus bill are all but dead after Democrats blocked movement of a pared-down GOP bill on Thursday. But a senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Jim Costa of California, tells Agri-Pulse that he’s still optimistic for a deal this month after participating in a call with the Democratic congressional leadership. 

“Usually we get things done in Congress when you have that intersection between good public policy and politics. I think that intersection is there,” Costa said during an interview for Agri-Pulse’s Washington Week in Review. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she hasn’t given up on a bill, but she continued to insist that Republicans agree to spend far more money on state and local governments than they have proposed so far. “Let’s not have a skinny bill when we have a massive problem,” Pelosi said of the Senate GOP proposal. The measure garnered 52 votes, all Republican, leaving it well short of the 60 votes needed to pass. 

The other view: Republicans say they’re worried the talks have hit a dead end, with at least one suggesting Democrats are counting on winning the presidency and control of Congress in November and then passing a bigger bill. 

Costa: Lawmakers should be open to early farm bill

Costa also said he thinks the House Ag Committee should be open to starting hearings on a new farm bill next year, although the 2018 law isn’t set to expire until 2023. 

“We've dealt with an emergency crisis here in the last six months, but that may not be sufficient to deal with the next two years,” Costa said, when asked about calls by some committee Republicans to rewrite the 2018 farm bill. “And so we need to be open to all of the above.”

By the way: Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue had indicated he’d be announcing a second round of payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program this week. But Costa thinks the announcement could be delayed until next week or the following week. 

Costa is pressuring USDA to expand the list of eligible commodities and raised concerns this week with Bill Northey, USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation. Costa mentioned Pima cotton and raisins as two commodities that have so far been omitted from CFAP. 

Take note: Today’s the deadline for farmers to apply for the first round of CFAP.

Watch our interview with Costa here

Ernst: ‘Confident’ EPA will deny waivers

Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst tells Agri-Pulse that she’s talked to White House officials about President Trump’s reported directive to EPA to deny retroactive small refinery exemptions from the Renewable Fuel Standard. She said she “felt confident” that EPA would follow through on Trump’s order.

“I’ve heard from the White House; now I’d love for them to publicly state it,” Ernst said. 

EPA has 67 pending waiver requests from 2011-2018.

Iowa senators: Steel tariffs hurt rebuilding farmers

There’s a lot of rebuilding to do after a violent storm swept through the Corn Belt last month with winds topping 100 miles per hour, and Trump’s tariffs on imported steel are making the recovery more expensive, according to Ernst and fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.

 “In the wake of this catastrophe, opportunists are offering extremely high estimates to Iowans for the steel they need to rebuild their homes, farms, businesses, and communities. A number of farmers have told us that the increased prices for steel would collectively add hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for them,” the senators say in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The tariffs are intended to curtail the amount of Chinese steel and aluminum that’s sold onto the international market.

Smithfield faces fine for COVID 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is proposing to fine Smithfield Packaged Meats Co. $13,500 for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus at its Sioux Falls, S.D., pork plant.

The plant was closed for three weeks in April and May after an outbreak at the plant.  “At least 1,294 Smithfield workers contracted coronavirus, and four employees died,” OSHA said in announcing its citation and proposed fine, which Smithfield has 15 days to contest.

“Based on a coronavirus-related inspection, OSHA cited the company for one violation of the general duty clause for failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm,” OSHA said in a news release.

The reaction: Marc Perrone, international president for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, called the fine “a slap on the wrist for Smithfield, and a slap in the face” of meatpacking workers. OSHA said the fine was the highest allowed by law.

The North American Meat Institute criticized the agency’s action, saying processors had to deal with “inconsistent and sometimes tardy government advice” in the early weeks of the pandemic. 

Chinese potato market offers new opportunity for US farmers

The U.S. has new access to the Chinese market for potatoes thanks to the “phase one” trade deal and that could lead to a lot of new trade as Chinese consumption of potato chips and other snack foods rises, according to a report from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

Chinese consumers spend about $5.7 billion on potato-based snacks yearly, but domestic potato production is falling, creating a new opening for U.S. farmers. China maintains a 25% retaliatory tariff on U.S. potatoes, but importers are free to apply for waivers.

Chinese snack companies may need extra help from U.S. industry on processing American spuds, but some of the biggest potato chip makers are household names in the U.S., including Lay’s and Pringles.

Brazil drops rice tariffs, opens door to US trade

Brazil, facing a spike in rice prices that has consumers grumbling, is temporarily dropping its 12% tariff on imports from outside the Mercosur trading bloc that includes Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

The tariff cut only lasts through the end of the year and only applies to the first 400,000 metric tons imported, but the USA Rice Federation says that U.S. farmers can take advantage of the break to make new sales.

“With rice coming out of the fields now, we are well-equipped to assist Brazil in filling this supply void,” said USA Rice President and CEO Betsy Ward. “This turn of events provides a unique opportunity for both paddy and milled rice sales.”

He said it. “I’m not used to speeches, I’m used to being on a tractor.” - North Carolina produce grower Ronnie Lee at a Farmers to Families Food Box event with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Questions? Tips? Contact Philip Brasher at