Congressional negotiators are nearing agreement on a massive year-end bill that’s expected to include billions in agricultural disaster aid as well as a compromise version of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a measure that’s aimed at accelerating the development of ag carbon markets, according to sources familiar with the talks. 

The package also could include the SUSTAINS Act, a bill championed by the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson, that would allow corporations to augment funding for farm bill conservation programs and authorize USDA to match the private contributions, sources said. 

The legislation also is expected to include special aid for rice growers, who have largely missed out on the increases in market prices seen by other grain producers. Additionally, lawmakers have been working on some child nutrition provisions, including the summer EBT program that allows low-income children to receive cash assistance for food when school is out. 

The negotiations include leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees. 

The omnibus bill, which will also fund the government for the 2023 fiscal year that began Oct. 1, is essentially the last vehicle for passing significant legislation during this Congress. The new Congress convenes Jan. 3; Democrats will lose control of the House then. 

The legislation is not expected to include significant ag labor reforms, due to GOP resistance to providing a path to legal status for domestic farmworkers. 

Sen. Michel Bennet, D-Colo., had been in negotiations for months with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho., over changes to the House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act, but the talks fell apart recently, leading Bennet to introduce a bill reflecting what they had agreed to up to that point. 

Bennet acknowledged it would take a “Christmas miracle” to get the measure passed at this point. The bill would benefit farmers by reforming wage rates for H-2A visa holders and allowing year-around employment of some H-2A workers. However, the American Farm Bureau Federation said the wage reforms didn’t go far enough, and there continues to be strong GOP opposition to the provisions for domestic workers who are in the United States illegally.

The bill is expected to include an increase in H-2B visas, but with an exclusion for workers in meat processing. H-2B workers are widely used in the hospitality industry as well as food processing. 

The Seasonal Employment Alliance reported it negotiated a deal with various unions to raise the limit on H2-B visas from 66,000 to 125,000, but meatpacking occupations were left out of the increase “for no stated reason,” Sarah Little, spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute, said in an email to Agri-Pulse.

“We support raising the caps for the H2-B program, but a ‘deal’ that excludes the meat and poultry industry is not a deal for the American consumer,” said Little. She added many meat and poultry companies voluntarily use the E-Verify program and have starting salaries near or above $20 an hour plus benefits, yet access to labor remains the industry’s greatest challenge.

“Members of Congress should be suspicious of this one-sided proposal that pits one industry against another. It certainly has no place being buried in the omnibus without public debate,” Little said.

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The disaster aid provisions in the omnibus are expected to include a new, multi-billion dollar round of funding for USDA’s Emergency Relief Program for 2022 that could be as large as the $10 billion measure Congress passed for losses in 2020 and 2021.  

Lawmakers recently received an appeal for disaster aid from groups representing a wide range of commodities, including, corn, cotton, soybeans, rice, sorghum, peanuts and wheat.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act passed the Senate easily in the summer of 2021, but ran into opposition from Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee. Thompson objected to the measure’s certification process for farm technical advisers and carbon credit verifiers

“Growing Climate Solutions is .. likely to be something that we'll be able to reach an agreement on,” a senior congressional aide said of the omnibus negotiations.  

Pairing Thompson’s SUSTAINS Act with the Growing Climate Solutions Act would expand the ways that farmers and corporations could reward the adoption of conservation practices, in concert with the Biden administration’s $3 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities initiative and the farm bill funding increases included in the Inflation Reduction Act

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