WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he wants to make sure his successor gets off to a good start, so he’s preparing a long, private memorandum providing advice about what he considers potential challenges and opportunities at USDA.

Vilsack, who talked to Agri-Pulse’s Sara Wyant on the sidelines of the World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, says the memo is already up to 15 pages. He didn’t go into detail about what’s in it but did say it will include thoughts about how the department is structured.

Vilsack says the memo will cover current projects at USDA as well as “the things that may cause some challenges” or that the new secretary “may want to build on.”

Vilsack: Change the farm bill’s name to broaden support. Vilsack also has some advice for the House and Senate Agriculture committees as he prepares to leave office: Change the name of the farm bill. He isn’t offering any ideas, but he says Americans don’t understand how much of a stake they have in the bill.

“They don’t think there’s any reason for them to want investment in it. But if you say it’s an infrastructure bill, it’s a trade bill, it’s a job bill, it’s a natural resource conservation bill, it’s a farmer bill … then maybe folks will understand that there is something in it for every American, regardless of where they live.”

New GIPSA move toward release. The Obama administration appears poised to act on one of the last unfinished agricultural issues on its plate. USDA was expected today to send a set of rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget to tighten legal protections for livestock and poultry producers.

According to sources familiar with USDA’s plans, there will be two proposed rules on contracts and undue preference and an interim final rule on competitive injury. Once the OMB review is finished, the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) can release the rules and accept public comment on them.

Industry groups still have a chance to head off the rules in Congress when lawmakers negotiate a spending agreement for the rest of the fiscal year. But that may be a long shot, since the White House is certain to fight including language in the spending deal that would stop the rules from being implemented under the new administration.

California dominating EQIP spending. A new searchable database compiled by the Environmental Working Groups is giving a glimpse of where USDA conservation spending is going. According to an analysis that EWG compiled for Agri-Pulse, six of the top seven counties under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program are in California’s Central Valley.

EQIP has been widely used in the region for improving irrigation systems and upgrading diesel engines to lower-polluting models. Farmers in the two top EQIP counties, San Joaquin and Merced, have received more than $54 million. The two counties have received more than $41 million between them as cost-share payments for irrigation systems.

Sussex County in Delaware has received the most EQIP funding outside California – $39 million. The totals represent EQIP spending from 1997 to 2015.

The database also includes spending on the Conservation Stewardship Program from 2011 through 2014. Cavalier County in North Dakota is the No. 1 recipient in CSP, with total payments of just under $20 million, followed by counties in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Minnesota.

Pecans, cotton took hit in Georgia. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says Hurricane Matthew caused more damage to farmers than he expected. Pecan orchards were the hardest hit, he says, with some farms losing as much as one-third of their trees, many of them more than 100 years old.

Some cotton crops also have been lost, because the high winds drove the fiber to the ground or left it badly tangled.

Georgia Farm Bureau President Gerald Long joined Black in a tour of farms in three counties hit by the storm. “This will not just be a one-year hit, but a long-term effect that will take years for our growers to overcome,” Long said.

EDF leader defends ‘Big Ag’ against Pollan. David Festa, a senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, says author Michael Pollan is missing the boat with his sweeping criticism of the U.S. food system. In a blog post for EDF, Festa says farmers and food companies are making significant strides to reduce agriculture’s environmental impact.

“The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition,” Festa writes.

Festa is responding to a piece Pollan wrote for The New York Times in which he accused the Obama administration of giving into resistance from agribusiness and the food industry.

Food prize laureates honored. The 2016 World Food Prize winners were announced in the nation’s capital this June, but last night the four new laureates were surrounded by global dignitaries and applauded during a glitzy celebration at the Iowa State Capitol where they shared a check for $250,000.

The event is the centerpiece of a three-day international symposium – the Borlaug Dialogue – which regularly draws over 1,200 people from 60 countries to discuss cutting-edge issues in global food security. This year – the 30thanniversary of Dr. Norman Borlaug establishing the World Food Prize – the conference is organized around the theme, “Let Food Be Thy Medicine.”

Biofortification is the buzz.  It’s a fitting theme, given that the four new laureates were selected for their work on biofortification – the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology – as a way to address malnutrition and stunting.

He said it. “Let’s rename the thing. Don’t call it a farm bill, because that’s too narrow.” - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, when asked about a lesson he learned from development of the 2014 farm bill.


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