Top-ranking USDA officials, including Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, addressed members of the National Farmers Union Monday as the group kicked off its annual fly-in, where it will meet with lawmakers and staff at more than a dozen agencies over three days.

At USDA’s Jefferson Auditorium Monday morning, Vilsack addressed one of NFU’s top priorities – 

staffing. He said the department is hiring more people – including 1,800 at the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service in the last two years – but the process takes too long and the new employees are not paid enough. 

He and Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux also both decried negative comments about public servants. “There needs to be a nice balance between policy and programs and people,” Vilsack said.

“We’ve been under a war of attrition on federal employees since the ‘80s,” Ducheneaux said. “We've got to fight back against that.”

The members also heard from USDA Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Small and Farm Production and Conservation Undersecretary Robert Bonnie.

Groups sue EPA to force action on CAFO pollution 

EPA is not acting quickly enough to address pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, says a new lawsuit that seeks to speed up the process.

Food & Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, Midwest Environmental Advocates and 11 other groups filed their action in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in federal court following a CAFO petition EPA denied in August.

The groups want the appeals court “to reject EPA’s denial and require it to immediately reconsider key reforms proposed in the 2017 petition that have the potential to expand and strengthen water pollution permits” for CAFOs.

EPA said it would form a study group to make recommendations, which would delay action until 2025, the groups said.

Karen Ross: Congress should update AGI limitations for regions experiencing disasters

California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross believes Congress should remove limitations restricting producers with high adjusted gross incomes from being able to enroll in federal conservation programs following disasters. 

Current rules bar farmers with AGI’s exceeding $900,000 from enrolling in a number of federal conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. 

In an interview Monday with Agri-Pulse at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Ross said the rules particularly limit assistance for specialty crop growers and said Congress should look at creating waivers that exempt those dealing with disasters like hurricanes from the income limitations.

“We think for disasters, it would be important to allow that,” she said.

IFPA members heading to nation’s capital

More money for research on mechanization is high on the priority list for more than 400 International Fresh Produce Association members descending on the nation’s capital this week for the group’s annual Washington Conference, running Tuesday through Friday this week. 

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IFPA lobbyist Robert Guenther the group’s members will meet with nearly 300 different House and Senate offices Thursday to educate lawmakers about their top policy priorities. On Wednesday evening, IFPA plans to co-host a reception on Capitol Hill with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. 

Also high on the agenda this year are farm bill requests, including expanding risk management coverage for specialty crop producers, and conservation funding, Guenther tells Agri-Pulse

Both House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will provide an update to IFPA members Thursday morning.

Republican senators want more details on FDA’s reorganization plans

A handful of Republican senators want Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf to provide additional details on the proposed FDA reorganization plan including a new Human Foods Program.

In a letter, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, along with Sens. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., Mike Braun, R-Ind., and Ted Budd, R-N.C., seek more details on the execution of the proposed FDA plan, including a “clear vision and strategic goals” and “concrete metrics to measure whether the program is achieving its goals.” 

They also want to know more about how the agency plans to improve interagency coordination in food safety activities and sought a staff briefing with Jim Jones, newly named deputy commissioner of human foods, who plans to start later this month.

US raisin exports to China continue to decline

China’s overall raisin imports are falling as the country boosts domestic production, but Chinese imports from the U.S. are especially low because of tariffs, according to an analysis from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

The market share of the U.S. raisins keeps falling, mainly because of retaliatory tariffs,” the FAS office in Beijing says. “According to customs statistics, the share of U.S. raisin imports dropped to 11% in (marketing year) 2022/23 from 20% in (marketing year) 2018/19.”

China maintains a 30% tariff on U.S. raisins that was put in place to retaliate on U.S. Section 301 tariffs. China also levies a 15% tariff in retaliation to Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs from the U.S. Chinese importers can apply to the government to avoid the 30% tariff, but not the 15% tariff, putting U.S. exporters at a disadvantage to competitors in countries like Uzbekistan and Chile.

He said it: “Every day when I watch the news, I hear someone bad-mouthing bureaucrats and bad-mouthing the Department of Agriculture and talking about how inefficient we are. And I challenge anybody in the private sector to try to do it half as efficient as we do it.“ FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux.

Jacqui Fatka and Bill Tomson contributed to this report.