The Agriculture Department is stressing safety as it moves toward completing the transition of office staff back into their physical workplaces, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh said in an Agri-Pulse Newsmakers interview.

Bronaugh said the department was "most of the way" toward ensuring "re-entry" would be completed for all employees by mid-August.

"We're emphasizing safety, because we know that our workforce is very important. We're also continuing with more flexibility and innovation in our work schedules."

Employees began to receive 45 days' notice in March to return to their offices.

"As more employees return back to the physical workplace, we'll monitor the transition rates ... but we're going to continue to keep people safe while focusing on high productivity and offering up to eight days per pay period for telework options for those who qualify," she said.

On the subject of trade, Bronaugh said it will take a couple of weeks to tally the results of meetings between U.S. ag companies and potential buyers in the United Kingdom during a recent trade mission.

She said there were more than 235 business meetings with more than 40 UK buyers during a June 22-24 trade mission to the UK, on which she was accompanied by more than three dozen companies and U.S. trade groups.

"We're going to determine what the projected sales results are within the next couple of weeks from those interactions," she said.

British officials again during Bronaugh’s trip urged the U.S. to consider finishing the work begun during the Trump administration on a  trade agreement, but the Biden administration has yet to publicly agree to do so.

“We hope there might be an appetite to reengage negotiations and progress the UK-U.S. trade deal perhaps later on, and we’re very keen to lay the ground for that,” Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice said during a recent visit to the U.S.

U.S. rice farmers are already seeing exports to the UK increase.

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“It was a great opportunity and also great timing for USA Rice to be part of this trade mission to the UK,” said Eszter Somogyi, USA Rice director for Europe, Middle East and Africa. “The UK is the largest market for U.S. rice in Europe, and U.S. rice sales show a positive trend so far this year, with a 144% increase in the first four months in 2022 compared to the same period last year.”

Bronaugh said the department was also encouraged to see the UK join the Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition. Launched at the United Nations Food Systems Summit in 2021, the coalition "aims to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems through productivity growth that optimizes agricultural sustainability across social, economic, and environmental dimensions," according to USDA.

Coalition members include the U.S., European Union, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Eustice's department said in announcing its membership. "It is also supported by a raft of academic institutions and trade bodies representing industries including grain, dairy and livestock from all over the world."

Bronaugh¸ who co-chairs USDA’s new Equity Commission, also said the group is on pace to share its recommendations for how the department can improve racial equity. She said the group currently has 40 ideas that could become recommendations in the future.

Newsmakers panelist Gary Matteson, a member of the commission's agriculture subcommittee, said he has been "startled by the degree of equity and life experiences that my fellow subcommittee members have (experienced). That was fairly surprising.

“It's a group of people who are all fairly concerned about accomplishment and integrity in the discussions that we have, so I feel like we're going to be able to offer some recommendations to USDA.”

Other Newsmakers panelists include Jeremy Peters from the National Association of Conservation Districts and Mark Stewart with the Agriculture Future of America.

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Bill Tomson contributed to this story.