Martha Scott Poindexter will be returning to the Senate Agriculture Committee as staff director for GOP Sen. John Boozman, according to sources close to the Arkansas senator. 

Poindexter previously led the committee staff from 2005 to 2010 under Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss. She moved on to the Senate Intelligence Committee for four years and most recently was vice president for government and industry affairs for Bunge. 

The outcome of the Senate races in Georgia will determine whether Boozman is chairman or ranking member.  

Sen. Bill Cassidy and colleagues announcing their bipartisan aid package last week.

Senators look to nail down COVID aid deal

Optimism abounds on Capitol Hill that lawmakers will reach a deal in the coming days on a big new coronavirus relief package, probably around $900 billion. A group of 10 senators, five from each party, has been leading the talks. One of the senators, Bill Cassidy, R-La., said there are lingering disagreements over business liability protections and a moratorium on evictions. 

The bipartisan proposal includes $26 billion for agriculture and nutrition spending and $10 billion for broadband expansion. 

If a deal can be finalized, the package would be wrapped together with a massive fiscal 2021 spending bill. 

For more read our Washington Week Ahead.

Ag groups push for vaccine priority

With the FDA nearing approval this week of the first COVID-19 vaccine, farm and food industry groups are pushing to make sure industry workers are next in line for immunization after health care workers and residents of long-term health facilities. 

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged making those two groups the top priority in the first phase and plan to make recommendations for further vaccine allocations after a vaccine gets approval from FDA.

“With COVID cases on the rise in many states, vaccinations will play a key role in protecting essential workers, such as those in the food sector,” the National Pork Producers Council said in a letter to the CDC advisory committee. “It is imperative that on-farm and in-plant workers, who are integral to keeping Americans fed, have early access to COVID-19 vaccines.” 

Operation Warp Speed's Moncef Slaoui

Take note: An FDA review committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to consider recommending approval of the Pfizer vaccine. The first immunizations should start within 36 hours of the agency’s approval, said Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the government-led effort to develop vaccines for COVID-19.

Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, he said it would probably be April or May before vaccines are available widely enough for life to get back to normal.

Conaway: Re-focus the next farm bill

Mike Conaway, who chaired the House Agriculture Committee during the writing of the 2018 farm bill, says that legislation devoted too much money to what he calls “boutique” forms of agriculture. 

Conaway, who’s retiring from Congress, blames Senate Democrats for insisting on putting money into “rooftop gardens and all kinds of feel-good nonsense that doesn’t really affect the broad production agriculture world.”

Conaway didn’t name names, but the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, ensured the bill included new provisions for urban agriculture. Urban ag includes the new vertical farming operations that are producing leafy greens and other specialty crops indoors, closer to major metropolitan markets. 

Conaway, speaking in an Agri-Pulse Open Mic interview, said urban farming and local markets don’t “move the needle when it comes to protecting rural America and production agriculture.” 

By the way: Conaway doesn’t believe USDA has the legal authority to start paying farmers for ag carbon credits. He says the Biden administration should ask Congress for approval before trying to start a carbon bank. 

“I don’t think it’s something the administration should do out of hand without the House and Senate,” Conaway said.

CFAP-2, dairy program deadlines loom

Friday is the deadline for producers to sign up for the second round of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and 2021 coverage under the Dairy Margin Coverage program. 

Signup for DMC has been slow with milk prices relatively strong, but Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce isn’t ruling out extending the deadline for that program. 

“We’ll take a look at that … and see where the numbers are. If we see potentially a need that might be something we might consider,” Fordyce told reporters Friday.

Forecast cut for Brazil’s summer corn crop

 It’s winter in the U.S., but summer in Brazil, where the corn crop – especially in the southern region of the country – is suffering. AgRural, a Brazilian ag consulting firm, is again cutting its forecast for the country’s summer corn crop, this time to 19.4 million metric tons. That’s down from last month’s estimate of 20.7 million tons.

“The reason is the irregular rainfall in the southern states, with emphasis on Rio Grande do Sul, where the good rains that started last week arrived too late for areas planted in late August and early September,” AgRural said in an analysis released Friday.

Brazil has two corn crops each year. Farmers will plant the next one – the winter crop – after they harvest soybeans early next year.

US pork watching Canada-UK talks closely

The U.S. pork sector strongly supports efforts by the U.S. and UK to strike a trade agreement, but only if the British agree to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers on U.S. pork. Those talks appear to be in a lull right now and virtually no details on their progress have been released, so the National Pork Producers Council is paying close attention to parallel talks between the British and Canadians that recently concluded.

The “details of the agreement remain scarce” while the Canadians and British attempt to nail down a finalized version before the Canadian parliament adjourns for Christmas break on Dec. 11, says NPPC. The deal would basically allow provisions of the Canada-EU trade pact to apply to the UK after it exits the EU on Dec. 31. The EU gave Canada duty-free quotas for pork under the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

He said it. “My prayers will be answered if it does.” – Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., when asked on ABC’s This Week whether a bipartisan coronavirus relief package could be passed this week. 

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