The Department of Agriculture is set to announce a benefits boost under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that will raise average assistance by more than 25%.
The news – first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by a USDA spokesperson to Agri-Pulse – is a revision of the Thrifty Food Plan, the cost basis for SNAP benefits. According to the Times report, the average weekly benefit is set to increase about $36 to $193 for a family of four.
USDA says the change, scheduled to be announced today, comes at the behest of a congressional request in the 2018 farm bill to reevaluate the formula.
Reconciliation the ‘real deal’ for farm bill, policy vet says
A long-time veteran of farm policy says the funding in the massive spending package congressional Democrats are developing is going to be critical for expanding the next farm bill. The Democratic package is expected to include $89 billion in agriculture funding.
“This is the real deal now, and I wish, honestly, that agriculture was more unified and pushing for” the funding, said Ferd Hoefner, an ag policy consultant and former policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. 
The funding is intended to be focused on fighting climate change. But Hoefner, speaking in an Agri-Pulse Washington Week in Review interview, said it’s unclear how much of the $89 billion will go to conservation programs, since some of the money is intended for other priorities, including ag research and President Joe Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps. Hoefner also notes that Democratic leaders are under pressure from some members to cut the cost of the overall reconciliation package, which is now $3.5 trillion. 
Take note: A group of nine House moderates is demanding the House take up a Senate-passed infrastructure bill without waiting until the Senate acts on the larger reconciliation package. 
By the way: Hoefner has been working on farm bills since 1977 – when he was a congressional intern. 

USDA grants will fund healthcare, vaccines and nutrition
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $500 million in grants will be made available through the American Rescue Plan to help rural healthcare facilities, tribes, and communities expand access to COVID-19 vaccines, healthcare services and nutrition assistance.
USDA will administer the funds through Rural Development's Community Facilities Program. The grants will be distributed through two funding tracks: recovery grants and impact grants.
The money can be used to increase vaccine distribution, purchase medical supplies, replace revenues lost during the pandemic, increase telehealth capabilities, build and rehabilitate temporary or permanent structures for healthcare services and food distribution facilities, and support staffing needs for vaccine administration and testing.
KC Fed: Farm income holds steady
Higher agricultural commodity prices and government payments helped keep farmers’ income stable across the central Plains during the second quarter of 2021, according to a Kansas City Federal Reserve report 
Some 80% of bankers surveyed in June reported farm income was higher than a year earlier. Loan repayment rates also increased from a year ago. And farm real estate values jumped 10% from last year, the largest increase since 2013.
The KC Fed’s region includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, the northern half of New Mexico and the western third of Missouri. 
Looking ahead: USDA will release its updated farm income forecast Sept. 2. 
EPA publishes models to develop numeric water quality criteria for nutrients
The Environmental Protection Agency has released recommended models states can use to develop numeric levels for nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in lakes and reservoirs.
But states can choose whether to use the new models. The updated recommended nutrient criteria for lakes “do not compel a state to revise current EPA-approved and adopted criteria, total daily maximum load nutrient load targets, or N or P numeric values established by other scientifically defensible methods,” EPA said in the new document, released Friday.
However, if a state uses its discretion to not adopt new or revised nutrient criteria based on the models, they will have to explain why in a triennial review of water quality standards required by the Clean Water Act.
“Nutrient pollution can stimulate the excess growth of nuisance phytoplankton, such as cyanobacteria, which can produce cyanotoxins that are toxic to animals and humans,” EPA said. “Elevated concentrations of cyanotoxins can reduce the suitability of a lake for recreation and as a source of drinking water.”

US struggles to gain Chinese market share for specialty crops

China opened its borders to several new specialty crops from the U.S. under the “phase one” trade deal that was signed last year, but a host of complications have kept trade in avocadoes, blueberries, and nectarines lower than expected, according to a new report from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

High shipping costs, tariffs, China’s COVID-19 testing and disinfection requirements and competition have weighed heavily on U.S. exports, says FAS. U.S. horticultural products are generally prized by Chinese consumers, but importers remain wary of the uneasy U.S.-China trade relationship.

“Importers are increasingly sensitive to any changes in the bilateral relationship that could increase scrutiny to perishable … products when clearing customs,” FAS said in the report out of Beijing.

India may crack open borders to soymeal imports
India depends on a steady supply of soymeal for its poultry and pork production, but unusually high prices and a tight market is expected to spur the government there to allow for 1.5 million metric tons of imports and that would likely be an opening for U.S. exports, according to USDA’s FAS office in New Delhi.
India, which typically looks unfavorably on GMO crops, will not prohibit meal from biotech soybeans, according to the FAS office, which stressed it does not yet have official confirmation. India’s soybean crop won’t be harvested until October and the country’s feed industry has been petitioning the government to allow imports of meal from GMO soybeans.
“In January … Indian domestic soybean meal prices commenced to climb without warning,” FAS said in a report. “Prices in recent months have rocketed to unprecedented highs.”
Cocaine in chili pepper scheme nets importer 13 years

A produce importer who used chili peppers to conceal cocaine has received a 13-year sentence for conspiring to import and distribute the drug, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn announced.

Two years ago, a jury had also convicted Humberto Baez of possession with intent to distribute.

In 2018, Baez informed a person he did not know was cooperating with the Drug Enforcement Administration that a shipment of chili peppers destined for Pennsylvania contained “ripe tomatoes,” code words for cocaine.

Law enforcement officers subsequently searched the container and seized the drugs. 

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