As is the case in the months leading up to the debate over a new farm bill, members of the House and Senate Ag Committees are dropping legislation to signal their policy priorities.

In the House: Reps. Tracey Mann, R-Kan., and Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., and 26 other members are introducing a bill to keep farm and small business assets from counting against applications under the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

That form is commonly used by college students to defray educational costs, but changes looming on July 1, 2024, would require families to report the net worth of a family farm or small business, in turn increasing the assets counted when determining the amount of aid an eligible student might receive.

“When young people from these families are applying for higher education financial aid, the assets tied up in the family farm or the small business should not count against them,” Mann said.

In the Senate: Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., are reintroducing the Livestock Disaster Assistance Improvement Act aimed at making certain USDA programs easier to use after weather-related disasters.

In addition to some timeline and program changes for USDA livestock programs, the legislation also would call on USDA to create a working group to improve the federal drought monitor to make it more accurate.

House Ag hears from industry groups on costs, challenges

The House Agriculture Committee is putting a focus on regulatory concerns and production costs today in its first official hearing of the new Congress.

The witnesses will include the presidents of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and the National Chicken Council as well are representatives of the fertilizer industry, ag retailers and the Agriculture Transportation Coalition.

The ag retailer representative will be Michael Twining of Willard Agri-Service in Maryland. “Hearing directly from an ag retailer like Mike will underscore the need for Congress and the Biden administration to remove regulatory barriers in an effort to boost our farm economies,” said Daren Coppock, president and CEO of the Agricultural Retailers Association.

By the way: A new member of House Ag, Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin, announced Monday that she’s running for Debbie Stabenow’s Senate seat. The Senate Ag Committee chairwoman isn’t running for re-election next year.
In a video on her Twitter feed, Slotkin noted her family background in meatpacking and agriculture.

Lawmakers want answers on foreign investment disclosure enforcement

A group of 28 lawmakers called the Agriculture Department’s decision to not assess penalties for Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure violations between 2015 and 2018 due to staffing limitations “unacceptable” in a 
letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday.

The lawmakers, whose ranks include Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., cited an internal 
USDA memo obtained by Agri-Pulse through a Freedom of Information Act Request earlier this year that pointed to “limited staff” and “a new program manager” as the reasons penalties were not assessed in the three-year period. 

The lawmakers requested that USDA unredact other portions of the memo, including one labeled “challenges,” and provide them with all correspondences since 2015 to the agency's general counsel regarding the lack of penalties.

Protect the West bill introduced ahead of Senate forestry hearing

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., hopes to put out more fires before they start with the introduction of the 
Protect the West Act, which his staff says will be his top priority going into the farm bill.

Expect him to discuss his plan more during the 
Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on conservation and forestry planned for Wednesday. The U.S. government currently spends 30 times more to recover from severe wildfires after they burn than to prevent wildfires in the first place.

In a 
one-page summary of the bill, Bennet says, “We must break from the status quo and make a major, proactive investment in the restoration of our forests, grasslands and watersheds that matches the scale of the challenge.” This includes $20 billion directly available to empower local leaders to fund restoration, drought resilience and fire mitigation projects and $40 billion to partner with states and tribes to tackle the backlog of projects. The bill estimates it would create or sustain over 2 million jobs.

Bennet believes if approved, it will also save landowners and local governments money by taking advantage of a more cost-effective approach to wildfire prevention and natural hazard mitigation on the front end.

Groups not hopeful about FDA’s finalized food program changes

Criticism of Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf is likely to get louder today as the agency announces more details on how it will restructure its human foods program. 
FDA first outlined its proposed changes at the end of January.

Groups representing consumers, food industry leaders and state and local regulators don’t have high expectations. The coalition has been calling on Califf to strengthen leadership at the agency by appointing a deputy commissioner for foods with direct line authority over all key units of the foods program, but have not received any indication FDA is moving closer to their request. FDA has come under intense criticism for its response to the infant formula crisis and other recent food safety issues.

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Labor, HHS going after child labor violations

On the heels of a $1.5 million fine assessed against a company that used more than 100 children to clean meatpacking plants, the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services said Monday they’re strengthening efforts to combat child labor.

The agencies are launching new efforts “to thoroughly vet sponsors of migrant children, investigate child labor violations, and hold the companies accountable,” they said.

Since 2018, the Labor Department said it’s seen illegal employment of under-age labor increase 69%. Currently, the department is conducting more than 600 child labor investigations.

The department also called on Congress to increase funding for its Wage and Hour Division and Office of the Solicitor, and increase the maximum penalty for each child labor violation from its current limit of about $15,000.  

House members call for updates to FSA data collection process

Twenty-three House members, including House Ag Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday to review and update Farm Service Agency program data collection efforts.

In a letter, the lawmakers urged the department to ensure all forms “match actual farm program requirements” and can be submitted online. They also ask for the FSA to “invest in FSA in-person staff training” and to coordinate with the Risk Management Agency for reporting of electronic data.

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