Congressional leaders spent Tuesday evening behind closed doors working on a sweeping year-end deal that would include a new coronavirus relief package as well as funding for the federal government for the fiscal 2021. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell emerged from the meeting about 10 p.m. and said the talks were going well: “We all believe the country needs it. And I think we're getting closer and closer.”

Earlier in the day, leaders of a bipartisan group that negotiated a $748 billion package of proposed COVID aid said they expected it to be included in the final legislation. The package includes $13 billion in ag spending.

A water projects authorization bill was also hanging on the outcome of the talks.

Study to pull together USDA’s massive farmer databases

Researchers at the University of Illinois are launching a landmark study that could have far-reaching implications for crop insurance and conservation programs. The researchers, led by economist Bruce Sherrick, will be combining data from the Risk Management Agency, Farm Service Agency and other agencies to assess the impact of conservation practices in 2019, a year that saw historic flooding across the Midwest. 

Future research could be used to shape crop insurance products and conservation programs. The pilot study will test the ability of USDA and researchers to protect the privacy of farmers’ records. Sherrick tells Agri-Pulse he’s confident that the protocols that have been put in place will keep the data private. 

We’ll have more about the study, plus news on some new insurance products for climate-friendly practices, in this week’s Agri-Pulse newsletter. We’ll also tell you how China is starting to buy next year’s U.S. soybean crop and what the water projects bill could mean for ag shippers. 

Former NFU leaders to Biden: Address climate

Former presidents of the National Farmers Union going back to 1988 have signed a joint letter calling on President-elect Joe Biden to act quickly on climate policy, including by facilitating more usage of low-carbon biofuels. 

“You have the power to open a new chapter in the battle for a healthy climate,” the former leaders write. “To do that, we urge you to embrace the opportunities offered by on-farm conservation practices, precision agriculture, and sustainable bioenergy to turbo-charge the green revolution in rural America.”

The former presidents in order of tenure are Leland Swenson (1988-2002), Dave Frederickson (2002-2006), Tom Buis (2006-2009) and Roger Johnson (2009-2020).

Optimism for next USTR

 Hopes are already high that Biden’s pick for U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, will be tough on China as well as push for increased access to foreign markets for the U.S. ag sector.

“I think she’s pretty aggressive in protecting our interests, particularly against China,” Sen. Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley told reporters Tuesday.

Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president for trade policy for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, says he has worked with Tai in the past on issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and he hopes to have that kind of access in the future.

“I hope that we’re going to have a very good relationship,” he said. “We hope that we can bring our concerns to her.”

SE Asia a potential growth market for US ethanol

There’s a lot of untapped potential for sales of U.S. ethanol around the globe and Southeast Asia is especially ripe for growth, says Kevin Ross, chairman of the National Corn Growers Association.

With air quality issues developing in the region, “ethanol will be a key for them.” Ross said Tuesday during the launch of a report by Farmers for Free Trade, which lays out agricultural priorities for Biden.

“Ethanol has a bright future and not just here in the U.S., but across the globe,” he said. “We’re ready to capitalize on that.”

Antibiotic sales up in FDA report

They’re up, but really, they’re down: The Food and Drug Administration reports sales of medically important antimicrobials approved for use in food-producing animals increased 3% between 2018 and 2019.

But since the peak year of 2015, sales and distribution are down 36%. Since 2010, they’re down 25%.

FDA emphasized that just because more drugs were bought and distributed, that doesn’t mean they were actually used.

“Fluctuations in sales volume may occur over time in response to various factors, including changing animal health needs or changes in animal populations,” the agency said. Given the large number of products containing medically important antimicrobials that transitioned from over-the-counter use to requiring veterinary oversight in 2017, “some rebound in the reported sales volume in subsequent years was not unexpected as affected stakeholders adjusted to the new requirements.”

Another possible factor not mentioned by FDA: USDA reported red meat production was also up 3% in 2019.

Grassley looks to Vilsack to rework marketing rule

Sen. Chuck Grassley hopes to work with Tom Vilsack to rewrite USDA’s undue preferences rule that was recently finalized. The new rule is itself a rewrite of a rule Vilsack issued on his way of office four years ago. 

“I’m going to assume there is maybe a little better environment to take on corporations not just in agriculture but across the board, in a democratic administration than republican administration,” Grassley told reporters.

Grassley says the rule fails to address abusive industry practices and the specific criteria in the rule insulates packers and poultry companies from proper scrutiny from the government.

By the way: In the next Congress, Grassley said he will be asking the next Senate Ag Committee chairman to hold a hearing on the cattle market. He said he plans to have a Judiciary Committee hearing on antitrust enforcement. Grassley will be chairman or ranking Republican on that panel. 

Enviros slam new ‘habitat’ designation

The Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a new definition of “habitat” in the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups claim it will weaken protections for endangered species, environmental groups charged.

In the new rule announced Tuesday, FWS says for the purpose of designating critical habitat, the term habitat includes the “abiotic and biotic setting that currently or periodically contains the resources and conditions necessary to support one or more life processes of a species.”

Jake Li of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, says the update makes it less likely that areas unoccupied by endangered species will be designated as critical habitat. FWS said the definition is broad enough to include unoccupied areas, but it also said it excludes areas that might experience changes in the future, according to Li. 

That’s “problematic because one purpose of critical habitat is to help protect areas that a species will need in the future to adapt to climate change and other shifts in its environment,” Li said.

But, but, but: Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, however, applauded the new definition. He says the new rule “will more clearly define habitat and protect species in a more focused way. It will deliver common-sense protections for endangered species and the habitat they depend on.”

They said it. "Contrary to the assumptions too often accepted as conventional wisdom among political elites, rural America is ready to lead the way.” – Former NFU presidents to President-elect Biden, urging him to take action on climate policies that could benefit farmers. 

Questions? Tips? Contact Philip Brasher at