November 17, 2020

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Wineries expect a high-quality vintage, despite fires and smoke taint
new report by the Wine Institute finds most California vintners are excited about the 2020 vintage.
With 4,200 wineries in the state, less than 20 reported significant fire damage, though crop losses due to smoke taint are still being assessed. A dry winter followed by above-average summer temperatures led to smaller berries with concentrated flavors, which is “typically a good recipe for quality,” according to one Napa Valley vintner.

Cal/OSHA fines for COVID-19 violations on the rise
Cal/OSHA inspections over the last three months have led to more than $1 million in proposed penalties for violating COVID-19 safety standards, according to the Saqui Law Group.
The health and safety agency cited employers for not providing enough shade to allow social distancing during breaks. Other violations included lapses in recording and reporting of infections and failing to correct unsafe work practices.
On that note: Attorney General Xavier Becerra is urging a Cal/OSHA standards board to adopt new regulations for employers. He said the proposal would provide a “clear road map for responsible employers to implement effective safety measures.” Ag and business groups fear the policy is being rushed and needs more public debate. The board will take up the proposal on Thursday.
H-2A recruiter sentenced to prison
Jorge Vasquez, the owner of H-2A Placement Services in Rancho Cucamonga, has been sentenced to a year in federal prison for a scheme to defraud workers, according to Saqui.
The court also ordered Vasquez to pay more than $135,000 in restitution. Vasquez conspired with a farm labor contractor in Ventura County to illegally charge Mexican nationals up to $3,000 for obtaining H-2A visas. He made a number of false promises to the workers as well. Federal agencies took notice when Vasquez made false claims on the visa applications.
On that note: Feds arrested a man in Tulare County for defrauding investors in a $9 million scheme for building anaerobic digesters, reports GV Wire. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $200,000 fine.
Fate of climate payment plans in hands of researchers
A dizzying array of ongoing research projects—with sponsors ranging from the Energy Department to multinational food industry giants—may determine whether carbon credit markets can become a reliable, meaningful source of income for farmers.
The researchers are working feverishly to produce data on how much carbon-saving farm practices can reduce emissions and whether farmers can make a profit carrying them out.
Read our full report on this issue in the latest installment of our five-part sustainability series.
Biden trade pledge: Include labor, environmentalists
President-elect Joe Biden says he has assured world leaders that labor unions and environmentalists will be “at the table” when he's negotiating any new trade deals.
Answering questions from reporters Tuesday, Biden also said he has let other countries know he won’t pursue a “punitive” trade policy but that he’s going to “invest in American workers to make them more competitive.”
He made the comments when asked about his view of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade pact that includes China and 14 other Asian and Pacific nations. He said it was premature to discuss the RCEP.
He said he would provide more detail on his trade policy as soon as he takes office.
Keep in mind: The president’s fast-track trade negotiating authority expires next July.

Heidi Heitkamp 

Progressives try to head off Heitkamp at USDA
More than 150 groups are urging Biden not to nominate former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp as Secretary of Agriculture. They say she is “the wrong choice for the USDA because she has aligned herself with corporate agribusiness at the expense of family farmers, supports fossil fuel interests, and holds views that are out of step with the Democratic Party and the majority of Americans.”
The groups that signed a letter opposing Heitkamp include Farmworker Justice, Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, Family Farm Action, and the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
The letter also says Heitkamp “cosponsored legislation to ease air quality regulations on factory farms and actively sought to weaken longstanding conservation measures on subsidized agricultural lands.”
Progressives have been pushing Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge as their favorite for USDA.
AFBF: H-2A wage plan provides certainty
The Labor Department’s new rule tying farmworker wage rates to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Cost Index “will stabilize wage rates, while providing H-2A workers certainty their pay will continue to increase,” the American Farm Bureau Federation says in an analysis published Monday.
The rule goes into effect in 2023 and has been criticized by farmworker advocates for freezing the AEWR rate for two years and for abandoning use of USDA’s Farm Labor Survey to set wages for the H-2A program. Litigation is continuing over USDA’s decision to drop the use of the FLS.
The wages in USDA’s Farm Labor Survey increased annually by 4.5% from 2015-2019, while the ECI rose by an average of 2.5% a year.
The analysis notes FLS-based state H-2A wage rates have varied widely each year, and – in some cases – have declined. In 2018, for example, state H-2A wage rate adjustments ranged from increases as high as 9% to declines of as much as 4%. In 2019, rates jumped as much as 23% in Colorado, Utah and Nevada while falling 1% in Iowa and Missouri.
GAO: Continuing flaws in USDA payment oversight
USDA’s Farm Service Agency struggles to ensure farmers comply with rules for collecting commodity program payments, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
FSA officials say state offices have improved their completion of compliance reviews because of a tracking system, but the data in that system has some errors, according to a new GAO report.
For example, 76 of 251 reviews conducted from 2010 through 2015 were marked as waived because of prior reviews that had supposedly been carried out in the previous three years. But the FSA data didn’t show those prior reviews had actually been done.
She said it:
“Agriculture is much more than tractors and overalls.” — Journalist Amy Wu, in opening the panel discussion “Women Innovators in California Agtech” for the National Steinbeck Center.

Steve Davies, Bill Tomson and Ben Nuelle contributed to this report.

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