The Senate Agriculture Committee is expanding its membership with three new Democrats, who could give the committee a push to the left on some issues, including climate policy.

The new members include Cory Booker, D-N.J., a vegan who’s a sharp critic of large-scale livestock farming as well as checkoff programs. He also has pushed for big increases in conservation spending to address climate change.

The other new members: Newly elected Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico. Lujan had a near-perfect record with the League of Conservation Voters as a House member.

Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey is leaving the panel.

Keep in mind: Republicans haven’t announced their membership yet, but freshman Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., is expected to get a seat. He sat in on Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden's nominee for agriculture secretary. Marshall didn’t get to ask questions.

By the way: The committee’s incoming chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, has also taken a seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which will broaden her influence when it comes to climate policy.

Vilsack heads for quick confirmation

Stabenow says she’s looking for the “soonest opportunity” to get a Senate floor vote on Vilsack’s nomination. “I’d love for it to be this week, we’ll just have to see,” Stabenow told reporters after the committee unanimously approved Vilsack during a brief meeting Tuesday afternoon off the Senate floor.

Vilsack used his confirmation hearing Tuesday morning to address concerns about Biden’s climate policy, including plans to set up a carbon bank through USDA and Biden's push for electric vehicles.

Vilsack assured senators that using the Commodity Credit Corp. to fund a carbon bank wouldn’t affect farm program payments. He also sought to dispel concerns that the committee’s ranking Republican, John Boozman, has that carbon credits would primarily benefit investors and traders.

By the way: There were similar concerns that former President Barack Obama’s unsuccessful cap-and-trade plan would have been a huge windfall for Wall Street.

For more on the Vilsack hearing, plus a look at the concerns about the Biden administration’s trade policy with China,  be sure and read this week’s Agri-Pulse newsletter.

Survey shows farmer interest in carbon payments

Farmers are showing interest in getting paid for capturing carbon as part of their operations, according to the latest Purdue/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer.

Thirty percent of respondents to the January survey were “aware of opportunities to receive a payment for capturing carbon.” the survey found. Of those, slightly more than one in five were in active discussions about receiving carbon payments.

Why it matters: The responses translate to between 6% to 7% of farmers who “have given consideration to contractually sequestering carbon,” according to the survey, which tracks farmer sentiment monthly.

Incoming ranking Republican at Vilsack hearing. (Joy Phillippi) 

Boozman worried about budget process

Congressional Democrats are moving ahead with their threat to use the budget reconciliation process to enact Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, and Boozman fears that will mean the Ag Committee will have little input on the aid package.

“When you’re making those kinds of decisions concerning ag policy, big decisions, the idea of bypassing the Senate Agriculture Committee is a huge problem,” the Arkansas senator told reporters.

The budget process would allow Democrats to pass the aid bill with no GOP votes.

Milk producers want US in Pacific Rim pact

U.S. dairy is more dependent than ever on expanding export markets, and National Milk Producers Federation CEO Jim Mulhern is pressing the Biden administration to follow the British lead and apply to join the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific Rim trade pact that former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of in 2017.

Key Asian markets like Vietnam and the Philippines, with their expanding middle classes and rising demand for dairy, are examples of foreign countries where the U.S. can boost sales. Both countries, along with Japan and eight others, are members of the CPTPP. The UK applied to join last weekend and China has expressed interest in doing so as well.

Mulhern is also pressing the Biden administration to finish negotiations that are already ongoing for a free trade pact with the UK and Kenya.

Trump’s ‘terrorism’ label for Cuba under review

One of the last actions taken by the Trump administration was to declare Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and now the Biden administration is considering its options, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

The declaration won’t prevent U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, according to Paul Johnson, president of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, but it further stresses the relationship between the two countries that U.S. farm groups would like to see repaired.

Cuba imports about $2 billion worth of ag commodities per year, but only a small percentage comes from the U.S. Still, Cuba is the fourth largest foreign market for U.S. poultry, according to the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. 

Meat industry touts lower COVID numbers

COVID-19 cases among meat and poultry workers have fallen considerably since May, according to the North American Meat Institute, which represents meat and poultry processors.

Citing data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, NAMI said the meat and poultry sector had an average of 32.6 new reported cases per 100,000 workers per day in January 2021, two-thirds lower than the average of 98.4 new reported cases per 100,000 workers per day in May 2020. The current infection rate also is about 60% lower than the population as a whole, NAMI says.

Why it matters: The report comes the day after a House committee sent letters to major meatpackers seeking documents on how they have handled COVID at their facilities.

He said it. “Agriculture is probably the first and best way to begin getting some wins in the climate area.” – Tom Vilsack, on the importance of ag carbon policy to the Biden administration.

Questions? Tips? Contact Philip Brasher at