Congress faces a midnight deadline to keep the government funded. As of Thursday evening, it wasn’t clear whether lawmakers would be asked to pass a very short-term stopgap spending bill to provide the time they need to pass a massive bill that would include both government funding for fiscal 2021 as well as a big new COVID aid package. 

Congressional leaders struggled to finish the COVID piece Thursday as fights emerged on a series of issues. According to lawmakers, those struggles included demands by some conservatives for restrictions on food stamps and objections to the deductibility of expenses used to get forgiveness of Paycheck Protection Program loans. 

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., indicated to reporters that negotiators also had still been working out the balance between spending for agriculture and nutrition assistance. “I think we’ll work it out,” he said. A bipartisan proposal released earlier this week split $26 billion evenly between ag and nutrition programs. 

State of play: Late Thursday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that the talks were going “fine” but she gave no timetable for wrapping them up. “We'll have our announcement when we have our announcement.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that the talks were “still underway and making progress.”

Cabinet picks boost diversity, sharpen climate focus

President-Elect Joe Biden has signaled again how seriously he plans to take climate change with his choices for Interior secretary and EPA administrator.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is his pick to head the Interior Department, and Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality will – if confirmed – be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The picks also help diversify his leadership team: Haaland is Native American and Regan is African-American.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was thrilled with the pick of a fellow progressive for Interior. Haaland “would not just represent the first Native woman in charge of federal lands, but she brings a philosophy of both a commitment on climate and justice,” AOC told reporters. 

Take note: Last year, Haaland introduced the Climate Stewardship Act with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the bill would dramatically expand the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program at USDA and fund the planting of more than 15 billion trees on federal lands and around the country. 

Regan is an air expert who worked on climate change issues at the Environmental Defense Fund and also spent part of his career in the air program at EPA. 

As we reported earlier this week, he’s been involved in implementing new monitoring requirements for hog operations.  Read more about Regan as well as Haaland here

Block sees CRP acreage increase as positive

John Block, a former Reagan-era secretary of agriculture who helped develop the Conservation Reserve Program as part of the 1985 farm bill, thinks increasing the acreage cap would be a good step. House Ag Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has proposed to double the size of the program to 50 million acres. 

“Even though they may not do that much, we’ve got a new administration coming in, and I think they are going to be concerned about global warming and everything related to that. And this is one way agriculture might be in business with this thing,” Block told Agri-Pulse.

He said increasing conservation acres is one way to address that issue and could show how the agriculture community would be willing to work with the incoming administration. 

By the way: Block worked with the late Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., to overcome opposition from then-Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman to get CRP authorized in 1985. 

Good December start for grain, soy trade

The first full week of December turned out to be big for U.S. corn, sorghum and soybean exports, and importers in Mexico and China have been the biggest drivers in trade. 

USDA reported Thursday net sales of about 1.9 million metric tons of corn with the lion’s share purchased by Mexican buyers, who snapped up 714,900 tons for 2020-21 delivery. Net sales to China were robust, although a distant second place with 231,800 tons.

China was the biggest – and nearly the sole – buyer of sorghum, helping to increase net sales for the Dec. 4-10 period by 56% over the prior four-week average. 

China also dominated physical imports of U.S. sorghum for the seven-day period. The U.S. shipped 324,900 tons of sorghum to China. With another 5,100 tons shipped to China, the total for the week was 330,000 tons, a marketing year high for 2020-21.

Net sales of 2020-21 U.S. soybeans for the week reached 922,300 tons, a 62% increase from the previous week. Those sales were dominated by business with Chinese companies, which purchased 919,700 tons. Mexican importers purchased 225,300 tons. And China again went to the market to buy soybeans in the 2021-22 marketing year (66,000 tons). Mexico purchased 28,000 tons for the next marketing year.

South Korea fills 2020 quota for US rice

More than a year ago South Korea pledged to buy at least 132,000 metric tons of U.S. rice annually. And this week, that goal has been reached with just two weeks left in the year, according to the USA Rice Federation. 

The U.S. and South Korea reached a deal on the country-specific quota in November of last year and it was implemented on Jan. 1. But there were concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic might interfere.

The quota turned out to be more valuable than expected. The U.S. government originally estimated the value of the quota sales at $110 million. They turned out to be worth more than $130 million, says USA Rice.

Florida taking over wetlands regulation

In another major regulatory move by the outgoing Trump administration, the EPA is allowing Florida to take over responsibility from the Army Corps of Engineers for issuing wetland permits. 

Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said his agency knows “the state’s resources best” and has “the expertise to ensure their protection.” But the state’s Democratic ag commissioner, Nikki Fried, called the EPA decision “a dangerous mistake,” saying the state agency has neither the funding for nor staff to take over the program.

He said it. “The weeds are dead. You don’t have to hire high school kids to go out and hoe them.” – Former Ag Secretary John Block, referring to how biotechnology has changed crop production.

Questions? Tips? Contact Philip Brasher at