The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing next Tuesday for Ag Secretary-nominee Tom Vilsack.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow still hasn’t taken over as chair of the committee since Senate leaders have yet to officially agree on an organizing resolution. But she’ll be talking to reporters today about her plans for the panel.

USDA tasked with getting input on climate action

Once he gets to USDA, Vilsack will be kept busy implementing provisions in Wednesday’s executive order on climate change. He will have to gather input from farmers, foresters and others on how best to use USDA programs and encourage voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices — both to reduce the risk of wildfire and achieve carbon reductions.

A report is due near the end of April “making recommendations for an agricultural and forestry climate strategy.”

Reaction from the field: Farm groups signaled their willingness to work on the issue, with American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall saying, “We stand ready to work with the administration on science-based, voluntary and market-driven programs.”

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said NFU “is especially encouraged by the administration’s focus on climate-smart agriculture.”

The National Pork Producers Council says it will tell USDA of its support for energy efficiency efforts including incentives to capture methane from manure management systems. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association will be making the case that “U.S. cattle producers are the model for global, sustainable beef production.”

By the way: During remarks Wednesday, President Joe Biden thanked Vilsack for developing his ag climate proposals during the presidential campaign. Biden didn’t refer to Vilsack by name but rather as “the secretary of agriculture.”

Read more about the EO here.

Ag groups to seek travel ban exemption

Farmers who rely on H-2A workers from South Africa are getting worried their crews may not get to the U.S. on time because of a travel ban that takes effect Saturday. Farm groups and allies in Congress are preparing to appeal to the Biden administration for a national interest exemption from the ban, which is intended to keep a new COVID-19 strain out of the U.S.

Reps. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Rick Crawford, R-Ark., are gathering signatures of colleagues on a letter to the departments of State and Homeland Security supporting an exemption.

Read our story here.

China corn demand to stay strong

Tuesday’s announcement that China purchased 1.36 million metric tons of corn came as a shock to traders. But a new analysis by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service says Chinese demand for imports will remain strong for months to come.

That purchase was followed up on Wednesday with another announcement of an export sale of 680,000 tons of corn for delivery to China in the 2020-21 marketing year.

USDA increased its forecast for China’s corn imports to 17.5 million tons in the latest World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report but FAS analysts in Beijing are keeping their forecast significantly higher at 22 million tons.

EU takes initial step to strengthen food name protections

The European Union is moving ahead with plans to bolster its mission to protect the use of food names – what it calls geographical indications, or GIs – for products like asiago or gruyere cheese, further angering U.S. producers that also want to market those products around the globe.

The European Commission has launched the public feedback stage of its plans to strengthen GI protections under the Farm to Fork program, according to a new report from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. The public will have until April 9 to weigh in on the process.

Meanwhile, the commission is also drafting a plan on how to better enforce GI name restrictions and improve the process of registering new applications for GI protection.

Broadband groups stress need for skilled workforce

Ten organizations representing the telecommunications industry have sent letters to Congress and the White House asking them to address the need for broadband-related job skills in a future infrastructure package.

The letters call on lawmakers and the Biden administration to work with the Department of Labor to “support employers to speed development of the broadband workforce, as well as the industry-led programs at technical schools and colleges that provide a pipeline to wireline and wireless jobs.”

The groups that signed the appeal include NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association, USTelecom – The Broadband Association, and Competitive Carriers Association.

USDA halts debt collections on farm loans

The Biden administration is suspending past-due debt collections and foreclosures on USDA farm loans as a result of the COVId-19 pandemic. USDA is also extending deadlines for borrowers to respond to local servicing actions, including loan deferral consideration.

Private leaders are also being offered flexibility on loans guaranteed by USDA.

Conaway setting up lobbying firm

Former Texas Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, who chaired the House Ag Committee from 2015-2019, is forming a lobbying firm with the panel’s former GOP staff director, Scott Graves. Conaway didn’t seek re-election last year.

Since leaving Capitol Hill, Graves has been a partner with Williams and Jensen, leading their ag and nutrition practice. The new advocacy and reputation management firm will be called the Conaway Graves Group.

Hemp rule still in place, USDA now says

USDA’s rule implementing a domestic hemp production program has not been withdrawn, as we reported Wednesday.

USDA told Agri-Pulse it had withdrawn the rule, but now a department spokesperson says it’s simply being reviewed. “It is not unusual for a new administration to take the opportunity to review new and pending regulatory actions,” the spokesperson said.

He said it. “We see farmers making American agriculture first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and gaining new sources of income in the process.” – President Biden on his vision for U.S. climate policy.

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