Snowstorm, high winds, targets northern U.S. Plains, may stall spring planting

By Julie Ingwersen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A blizzard is expected to bring high winds and 12 inches (30 cm) of snow or more to parts of South Dakota and Nebraska on Friday and Saturday, an agricultural meteorologist said on Thursday.

The snowfall, along with cold temperatures in the wake of the storm, could delay the planting of corn and spring wheat in the Dakotas and Minnesota into May.

Nebraska and Minnesota were the No. 3 and 4 corn producers last year in the United States, the world’s top supplier of the feed grain, and South Dakota was No. 6. For spring wheat, North Dakota and Minnesota are the top two U.S. growers.

“In addition to adding on to the snow pack in the northern Plains, it’s also a persistently cold pattern going forward,” said Joel Widenor, meteorologist with the Commodity Weather Group, adding, “It’s going to make it tough to dry out the soil.”

The storm should dump 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) of snow across parts of South Dakota, Widenor said. The National Weather Service projected 12 to 18 inches across northern Nebraska and posted blizzard warnings for both states.

“At this point, it seems like it’s going to be out into May before we get our first chance at some warming,” Widenor said.

He noted that in a typical year, farmers in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Nebraska by mid-May are at least halfway finished with seeding corn and spring wheat.

RAIN CHANCES IMPROVE FOR SOUTHERN PLAINS

Forecasting models indicated that another storm late next week could bring much-needed rain to the southern U.S. Plains winter wheat belt, although meteorologists were skeptical.

“The models definitely shifted wetter today versus where they have been the last couple days. But we are still very low confidence on that,” Widenor said.

The region’s hard red winter wheat has struggled with months of drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday rated 30 percent of the overall U.S. winter wheat crop in good to excellent condition, compared with 32 percent the previous week and 53 percent a year ago.

Widenor said his firm’s current forecast called for about half of the Plains hard red winter wheat belt to receive 0.25 to 1 inch of rain from the storm arriving April 20, with the other half, including west Texas, western Oklahoma and southwest Kansas, missing out.

(Reporting by Julie Ingwersen; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Trump administration weighs high-ethanol fuel waiver to placate farmers

A gas pump selling E15, a gasoline with 15 percent of ethanol, is seen in Mason City, Iowa, United States, May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Jarrett Renshaw and Chris Prentice

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Trump administration is considering allowing the sale of a higher ethanol fuel blend in the summer, a source familiar with the issue said, a move that would placate corn growers worried about the future of U.S. biofuels policy.

President Donald Trump recently met with the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss ways to make the Renewable Fuel Standard less expensive to the oil industry without undercutting demand for ethanol.

The RFS requires refiners to add increasing volumes of biofuels like corn-based ethanol into the nation’s fuel supply each year. That is a boon to farmers but a headache for refining companies, which must either blend the fuels themselves or purchase credits from those who do.

Over the past several months, Trump has unsuccessfully tried to broker a deal between “Big Oil” and “Big Corn” over the issue, and has faced mounting pressure from lawmakers in the Midwest, who are concerned that he will weaken domestic demand for ethanol at a time farmers are potentially facing a trade war with China that could hurt export demand for corn and soybeans.

Sources had told Reuters this week that Trump was temporarily suspending his consideration of a refining industry-backed proposal to cap prices for blending credits, an idea that the biofuels industry has opposed as damaging to farmers.

But in the meantime, the administration is considering moving forward with plans to allow for the ethanol industry’s long sought waiver to sell gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol in the summer, instead of the usual 10 percent blend, the source familiar with the issue told Reuters on Wednesday.

The higher ethanol blend, called E15, is currently banned by the Environmental Protection Agency because of concerns it contributes to smog on hot days, a worry that biofuels advocates say is baseless.

“EPA has been assessing the legal validity of granting an E15 waiver since last summer,” said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman in an emailed statement, noting the agency is awaiting an outcome from discussions with the White House, the USDA and Congress before making any final decisions or preparing regulatory actions.

White House spokeswoman Kelly Love did not comment on the E15 waiver but said that during Trump’s meeting Monday he “instructed his cabinet to continue to explore options that protect American farmers and America’s refinery workers.”

Biofuels proponents have heaped pressure on the White House after reports that the EPA was granting dozens of small refineries exemptions from the RFS to help them avoid the costs of compliance, something the ethanol industry says will weaken demand for their product.

On Monday, Trump acknowledged farmers may bear the brunt of the economic harm if China retaliates against Washington’s threat of tariffs, adding that “we’ll make it up to them.” Many U.S. farmers are battling debt after years of excess global supplies and depressed prices.

“We need some good news out here,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

“The best news (Trump) could give us right now is year-round sales of E15,” he said.

(Reporting by Chris Prentice and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Indonesia shrinks danger zone around grumbling Bali volcano

Mount Agung volcano erupts as seen from Kubu, Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, December 1, 2017.

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia shrank the exclusion zone around a grumbling volcano on the resort island of Bali on Thursday after fears of an imminent eruption, allowing farmers to return to their homes.

The 3,000-meter Mount Agung remains on alert for a major eruption, but officials said the danger zone around the crater would be reduced to a six-km (four-mile) radius from 10 km.

“Mount Agung remains in an eruption phase and could affect settlements. All parties are urged to remain cautious,” Agung Pribadi, press relations officer at the natural resources ministry, said in a statement.

The volcano has been spewing lava and ash since late November, when authorities raised the alert status to the highest.

Bali airport was closed for three days, leaving thousands of tourists stranded and prompting others to cancel their year-end holiday plans.

(Reporting by Wilda Asmarini; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Fake meat from soy bean oil, free markets ease North Koreans’ hunger

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles as children eat during his visit to the Pyongyang Orphanage on International Children's Day in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang

By James Pearson and Seung-Woo Yeom

SEOUL (Reuters) – Take the dregs left from making soy bean oil, which usually go to feed the pigs. Press and roll them into a sandy-colored paste. Stuff with rice, and top with chilli sauce. The dish’s name, injogogi, means “man-made meat.”

In North Korea for years it was a recipe for survival. Today it is a popular street food, traded alongside other goods and services on informal markets, known as jangmadang. Defectors say there are hundreds of these markets. The creation and informal trade of injogogi and other foods offers a window into a barter economy that has kept North Korea afloat despite years of isolation, abuse and sanctions.

“Back in the day, people had injogogi to fill themselves up as a substitute for meat,” said Cho Ui-sung, a North Korean who defected to the South in 2014. “Now people eat it for its taste.”

North Korea was set up with backing from the Soviet Union as a socialist state. The Soviet collapse in 1991 crippled the North Korean economy and brought down its centralized food distribution system. As many as three million people died. Those who survived were forced to forage, barter and invent meals from whatever they found. Since people started to use their own initiative, studies indicate, person-to-person dealings have become the way millions of North Koreans procure basic necessities such as food and clothing.

But the prevalence of informal markets also makes it hard to understand the exact state of the North Korean economy. And this makes it hard to measure how badly sanctions, which do not apply to North Korean food imports, are hurting ordinary people.

Pyongyang has said the curbs threaten the survival of its children. Defectors say a poor corn harvest this year has made it hard for people in rural areas to feed themselves. The agencies who want to help find all this hard to measure.

Pyongyang says 70 percent of North Koreans still use the state’s central distribution system as their main source of food, the same number of people that the U.N. estimates are “food insecure.” The system consistently provides lower food rations than the government’s daily target, according to U.N. food agency the World Food Programme (WFP). The U.N. uses this information to call on member states to provide food aid for North Korea – $76 million for “nutrition support” alone at its last request – of which it has received $42 million.

But surveys and anecdotal evidence from defectors suggest private markets are the main source of supply for most North Koreans.

“It becomes sort of ridiculous to analyze food distribution in North Korea by focusing on an archaic system that’s lost so much of its significance over the past couple of decades,” said Benjamin Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who researches the North Korean economy.

The WFP and the U.N.’s other main food aid agency, the Food and Agricultural Organization, said the U.N. relies on all available information and inputs, including official statistics. The agencies have a permanent office in Pyongyang and make regular visits to Public Distribution Centers, farms and occasionally markets in North Korea.

“We recognize that the data and their sources are limited but it’s the best we have available at present,” said the U.N. agencies in a joint statement, referring to the official North Korean government data.

The agencies said they have seen no sign that more food than needed is delivered to North Koreans. “The main issue … is a monotonous diet – mainly rice/maize, kimchi and bean paste – lacking in essential fats and protein,” the statement said.

The North Korean diplomatic mission in Geneva did not respond to questions about how international sanctions might be harming food availability and whether U.N. aid agencies had access to markets in North Korea to assess the products on offer.

Women wearing traditional clothes enjoy ice-cream in central Pyongyang, North Korea April 16, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Women wearing traditional clothes enjoy ice-cream in central Pyongyang, North Korea April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

SAND EEL SAUCE

Last year, North Korea’s economy grew by 3.9 percent – its fastest in 17 years and faster than many developed economies, according to South Korea’s central bank. It was helped largely by mining, market reforms, and dealings with China, its neighbor and now the world’s largest economy. Reporters saw signs of chronic hunger in North Korea as recently as 2013, but people who have defected say the food supply has improved in recent years.

Eight defectors told Reuters they ate much the same thing as people in the South. Asked about the contents of their food cupboards, most said they were stocked with privately grown vegetables, locally made snacks and rice, or if they were poor, corn, which is a cheaper staple.

Younger and wealthier defectors say they had plenty of meat, although it was often seasonal because electric power is too erratic to power fridges. Pork is common, but defectors also talked of eating dog meat, rabbit, and badger.

Even so, on average North Koreans are less well nourished than their Southern neighbors. The WFP says around one in four children have grown less tall than their South Korean counterparts. A study from 2009 said pre-school children in the North were up to 13 cm (5 inches) shorter and up to 7 kg (15 pounds) lighter than those brought up in the South.

The North’s Public Distribution System (PDS) stipulates that 70 percent of people receive ration coupons to spend at state distribution shops. The other 30 percent are farmers who are not eligible for rations because they grow their own vegetables in private plots. According to the WFP, the PDS had been reinstated by 2006.

Defectors say Kim Jong Un, who came to power in 2011, also quietly loosened the rules on private trade.

Some markets, known as “grasshopper markets” for the speed with which traders set up and take down the stalls, are still illegal. But there are also officially sanctioned markets, where traders are free to buy and sell provided they pay stall fees to the state.

Dog meat or "Dan go gi" in North Korean expression, is placed on a table at a famous restaurant

FILE PHOTO: Dog meat or “Dan go gi” in North Korean expression, is placed on a table at a famous restaurant in Pyongyang November 13, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won/File Photo

Inventions like injogogi are among foods traded on these stalls. It is low in calories but rich in protein and fiber, to help muscle growth and keep hunger at bay, said Lee Ae-ran, a chef from the North Korean town of Hyesan who took a doctorate in nutrition in Seoul. “Because it contains so much protein, it’s also very chewy,” Lee said.

The sauce can be delicious, said Cho. “People who lived by the sea put shredded anchovies in the sauce; people living in the countryside used spicy peppers. I lived close by shore so I used shredded sand eels.”

The jangmadang are remotely monitored by a website called Daily NK, a Seoul-based operation staffed by North Korean defector journalists. It said in a report released this August that there are 387 officially sanctioned markets in the country, encompassing more than half a million stalls. Over 5 million people are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on the markets, “solidifying their place in North Korean society as an integral and irreversible means of survival,” the report said.

In 2015, a survey of 1,017 defectors by Seoul University professor Byung-yeon Kim found that official channels such as the PDS accounted for just 23.5 percent of people’s food intake. Around 61 percent of respondents said private markets were their most important source of food, and the remaining 15.5 percent came from self-cultivated crops.

So the official system may mean little to many North Koreans.

“WFP has consistently been asking (the North Korean government) to carry out a more detailed study on market activity and the role of markets in achieving household food security,” a spokeswoman said.

 

PIZZA IN PYONGYANG

As in other countries, North Korea’s wealthy have choice. Residents of the capital can order up a pizza in one of Pyongyang’s hundreds of restaurants, say regular visitors. Many of the eateries are operated by state-owned enterprises. Some used to cater only to tourists. Increasingly they now also collect dollars and euros from locals.

At a place people know as the “Italian on Kwangbok Street,” for example, moneyed locals and western tourists alike can pick vongole pasta for $3.50, or pepperoni pizzas for $10, the menu says. This compares with $0.30 for a kilo of corn or $0.50 for a portion of injogogi in the markets.

Reuters was unable to determine how the restaurant sources its ingredients such as pepperoni, although North Korea imports processed meats and cheeses from European countries and Southeast Asia – such imports are legal. Calls to the phone numbers on the menu failed and an operator for the Pyongyang switchboard said the numbers could not be connected to international lines.

As the economy in North Korea has changed, so have the tastes of a moneyed middle class keen to try new foods. Kim Jong Un has called for more domestically produced goods, according to state media, and there are more locally made sweets, snacks and candies. The country does not publish detailed import data but China’s exports of sugar to North Korea in January to September this year ballooned to 44,725 tonnes, Chinese data shows. That is about half of all China’s global sugar exports and compares with 1,236 tonnes in 2016 and 2,843 in 2015.

North Korea does not produce sugar. According to the International Sugar Organization, the North’s sugar consumption is fairly steady at around 89,000-90,000 tonnes a year – a very modest amount per head. Each South Korean consumes about nine times more than that.

At the other end of the social scale, Chinese data shows corn exports to North Korea also jumped in the first nine months of this year, to nearly 50,000 tonnes, compared with just over 3,000 tonnes in the whole of 2016.

Daily NK reporters say they call secret sources in North Korea several times a week to get the market price of rice, corn, pork, fuels and the won currency – which is traded at around 8,100 to the dollar, as opposed to the official rate of around 100 to the dollar.

So far, their reports suggest, petrol and diesel prices have doubled since the most recent round of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The market price of rice and corn has increased less sharply. Reuters was not able to independently confirm their reports.

And there are other ways North Koreans can supplement their diets.

“My dad often received bribes,” said one 28-year-old defector who asked to be identified only by her surname, Kang, because when she moved out in late 2010 she left her father behind.

He was a high-ranking public official. The bribes he received included goat meat, dog meat and deer meat, she said.

(For a graphic on ‘Rising costs, falling aid’ click http://tmsnrt.rs/2h95QBL)

 

 

(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in Seoul, Nigel Hunt in London and Vincent Lee in Beijing; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

 

Monsanto, BASF weed killers strain U.S. states with crop damage complaints

Monsanto's research farm is pictured near Carman, Manitoba, Canada on August 3, 2017.

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. farmers have overwhelmed state governments with thousands of complaints about crop damage linked to new versions of weed killers, threatening future sales by manufacturers Monsanto Co and BASF.

Monsanto is banking on weed killers using a chemical known as dicamba – and seeds engineered to resist it – to dominate soybean production in the United States, the world’s second-largest exporter.

The United States has faced a weed-killer crisis this year caused by the new formulations of dicamba-based herbicides, which farmers and weed experts say have harmed crops because they evaporate and drift away from where they are applied.

Monsanto and BASF say the herbicides are safe when properly applied. They need to convince regulators after the flood of complaints to state agriculture departments.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year approved use of the weed killers on dicamba-resistant crops during the summer growing season. Previously, farmers used dicamba to kill weeds before they planted seeds, and not while the crops were growing.

However, the EPA approved such use only until Nov. 9, 2018, because “extraordinary precautions” are needed to prevent dicamba products from tainting vulnerable crops, a spokesman told Reuters in a statement last week. The agency wanted to be able to step in if there were problems, he said.

Next year, the EPA will determine whether to extend its approval by reviewing damage complaints and consulting with state and industry experts. States are separately considering new restrictions on usage for 2018.

Major soybean-growing states, including Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, each received roughly four years’ worth of complaints about possible pesticide damage to crops this year due to dicamba use, state regulators said.

Now agriculture officials face long backlogs of cases to investigate, which are driving up costs for lab tests and overtime. Several states had to reassign employees to handle the load.

“We don’t have the staff to be able to handle 400 investigations in a year plus do all the other required work,” said Paul Bailey, director of the Plant Industries division of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

In Missouri, farmers filed about 310 complaints over suspected dicamba damage, on top of the roughly 80 complaints about pesticides the state receives in a typical year, he said.

Nationwide, states launched 2,708 investigations into dicamba-related plant injury by Oct. 15, according to data compiled by the University of Missouri.

States investigate such complaints to determine whether applicators followed the rules for using chemicals. Those found to have violated regulations can be fined.

Monsanto has said that U.S. farmers spraying this past summer failed to follow detailed instructions of up to 4,550 words printed on labels.

The companies will change usage instructions in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the past summer’s problems.

“With significant adoption and a lot of interest in this new technology, we recognize that many states have received a number of reports of potential off-target application of dicamba in 2017,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said last month.

 

PHOTOGRAPHING DAMAGED SOYBEANS

State investigators try to visit fields within days after farmers report possible damage to take photos before signs of injury, such as cupped leaves on soybean plants hit by dicamba, disappear. They question farmers and the people who applied the herbicide, and often gather samples from plants to test.

In Arkansas, farmers filed about 985 complaints associated with dicamba, the most of any state. Investigators are probing about 1,200 total complaints involving pesticide use, which includes weed killers, said Terry Walker, director of the Arkansas State Plant Board.

Arkansas delayed inspections of animal feed and allowed overtime to handle the dicamba cases, which is not normal practice, Walker said. He was unable to provide a cost estimate for dealing with the complaints.

Among the farmers who reported damage was Reed Storey, who said he wanted to ensure state officials knew dicamba caused damage even when users follow the instructions.

“I’m calling strictly to let y’all know that we have an issue with this product,” Storey, who spoke last month, said he told Arkansas regulators.

Illinois received about 421 total pesticide complaints, the most since at least 1989, said Warren Goetsch, acting chief of the Bureau of Environmental Programs at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. That includes at least 245 complaints associated with dicamba, which could take until next year to finish investigating, he said.

“It’s frustrating I think for us that we’re as behind as we are,” Goetsch said.

 

MONSANTO’S BIG BET

Monsanto is betting on dicamba-tolerant soybeans to replace those that withstand glyphosate, an herbicide used for decades but which is becoming less effective as weeds develop resistance. The company aims for its dicamba-resistant seeds to account for half the U.S. soybeans planted by 2019.

Monsanto, which is in the process of being acquired by Bayer AG  for $63.5 billion, said it plans to open a call center to help customers use dicamba next year and is talking with states about the product.

Monsanto’s net sales increased $1.1 billion, or 8 percent, in fiscal year 2017 due partly to increased sales of its dicamba-resistant soybean seeds.

The company and BASF already face several lawsuits from farmers alleging damage to plants from dicamba used by neighbors.

 

ANALYZING PLANT SAMPLES

The EPA provides grants to states that help fund investigations into pesticide damage and this year offered 35 states extra assistance analyzing plant samples for dicamba, according to the agency.

Minnesota and Illinois turned to the EPA for help, with the latter saying the federal agency has better equipment to detect low levels of dicamba.

In Iowa, the state’s laboratory bureau received 515 samples to test this year, up 35 percent, as dicamba use helped drive up the total number of pesticide complaints to 270 from a typical range of 70 to 120, according to the state. Each test costs up to $9.

“We are really anxious to flip the page and look ahead to 2018 and try to figure out the things that can be done to improve the situation,” said Mike Naig, deputy secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

 

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Matthew Lewis)

 

U.S. farm lobby turns up heat on Trump team as NAFTA talks near

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer speaks during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, U.S. on May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With talks to renegotiate the NAFTA trade pact just weeks away, U.S. farm groups and lawmakers from rural states are intensifying lobbying of President Donald Trump’s administration with one central message: leave farming out of it.

Trump blames the North American Free Trade Agreement – the “worst trade deal ever” in his words – for millions of lost manufacturing jobs and promises to tilt it in America’s favor.

But for U.S. farmers the 23-year old pact secures access to stable, lucrative markets in Mexico and Canada that now account for over a quarter of U.S. farm exports. (Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/2tNMtlc)

Now they fear this access could become a bargaining chip in efforts to get a better deal for U.S. manufacturers.

“Perhaps some other sectors of our economy are given better terms and in exchange for that agriculture tariffs would be reintroduced,” said Joe Schuele, a spokesman for the U.S. Meat Export Federation in Denver, Colorado.

Another concern is that the mere uncertainty of open-ended trade talks could drive Mexico to alternative suppliers of grains, dairy products, beef and pork.

Mexico became even more crucial after Trump’s pullout from a vast Pacific Rim trade pact negotiated under Barack Obama dashed farmers’ hopes of free access to more markets.

Next week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is due to outline the administration’s goals for the NAFTA talks to Congress and the farm lobby has turned up the heat in the past weeks to ensure that its interests will make Lighthizer’s list.

Operating under the umbrella of the U.S. Food and Agriculture Dialogue for Trade, more than 130 commodity groups and agribusiness giants since Trump’s inauguration have been bombarding the new administration with phone calls and letters, public comments to USTR and face-to-face meetings with top officials who have Trump’s ear.

“Our first ask is to do no harm,” said Cassandra Kuball, the head of the umbrella group.

Lobbyists said that Lighthizer, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have been receptive, but the wild card is how Trump ultimately will come down on the talks. They also wonder what concessions Mexico will seek from Washington in the talks due to start in mid-August.

Among the groups involved are the American Soybean Association, Corn Refiners Association and National Grain and Feed Association and firms such as Land O’Lakes, Inc., Tyson Foods<TSN.N>, Inc., Louis Dreyfus Company North America, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and others.

For example, U.S. cotton producers, marketers and shippers in mid-June warned the Trump administration that any weakening of NAFTA “would threaten the health of the U.S. industry and the jobs of the 125,000 Americans employed by it.”

QUADRUPLING EXPORTS

Annual U.S. farm exports to Mexico have grown from about $4 billion in 1994, when NAFTA began, to an estimated $18.5 billion this year. With Canada included, that number is forecast to reach $40 billion, quadrupling under NAFTA.

Republican lawmakers from rural states that have backed Trump in the 2016 election have sought to leverage their political clout to press farmers’ case at a time when they struggle with low crop prices.

Pat Roberts, Republican senator from Kansas, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he used an unexpected invitation for a private White House meeting with Trump to plug in agriculture’s cause in NAFTA and beyond.

“He (Trump) wanted to know what was happening in farmland,” Roberts said. “I told him we went through a very rough patch and if we did not have a strong, robust, predictable trade policy, it’s going to make life much more difficult in farm country,” Roberts said of the 45-minute meeting in late June.

In May, 18 Republican senators, mainly from pro-Trump farming states, wrote the administration about the “tremendous growth” in U.S. trade with Mexico and Canada as a result of NAFTA.

“Efforts to abandon the agreement or impose unnecessary restrictions on trade with our North American partners will have devastating economic consequences,” they warned.

Trump’s pledges to crack down on immigration and calls for a wall along the border with Mexico also vex farm state lawmakers.

“What I really need is a good, solid immigration system,” South Dakota Republican Senator Mike Rounds said. Given his state’s low unemployment rate of just around 2.8 percent, farmers and ranchers need better access to legal foreign labor, he said.

STORM OVER SUNNY SLOPE

Agriculture Secretary Perdue got a taste of farmers’ angst when met cattle ranchers in Nebraska on May 20. The event was held shortly after Washington agreed with China to resume beef exports, but some 60 ranchers who gathered at U.S. Senator Deb Fischer’s Sunny Slope Ranch quickly turned to NAFTA.

“If the president wants to renegotiate that agreement with our neighbors and partners in Mexico and Canada please leave the ag portion of that discussion out,” said Pete McClymont, executive vice president of Nebraska Cattlemen, summarizing the discussion.

While lobbying in Washington, some Republican lawmakers have also met with Mexico’s ambassador and U.S. farming representatives traveled south to assure their partners unsettled by Trump’s “America First” mantra.

“The common comment is: ‘why are you here? The problem is not with us. The problem is in Washington. Why are you talking to us?'” said Tom Sleight, president and CEO of the U.S. Grains Council. “The new normal is that feed buyers, millers, grain buyers are actively looking at alternative sources,” he said.

It will take months to find out how effective the lobbying was. Meantime, some are willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

Daryl Haack, a corn and soybean farmer from Primghar in northwest Iowa, like others fears retaliation from either Canada or Mexico, but is optimistic it will not come to that.

“I think President Trump is a negotiator,” he said. “I think he runs bluffs. A lot of negotiators will do that.”

(Reporting By Richard Cowan, Additional reporting by Mark Weinraub, Karl Plume and Theopolis Waters in Chicago; Editing by Caren Bohan and Tomasz Janowski)

Trump reassures farmers immigration crackdown not aimed at their workers

Migrant farmworkers with H-2A visas walk to take a break after harvesting romaine lettuce in King City, California, U.S

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said he would seek to keep his tough immigration enforcement policies from harming the U.S. farm industry and its largely immigrant workforce, according to farmers and officials who met with him.

At a roundtable on farm labor at the White House last month, Trump said he did not want to create labor problems for farmers and would look into improving a program that brings in temporary agricultural workers on legal visas.

“He assured us we would have plenty of access to workers,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, one of 14 participants at the April 25 meeting with Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

During the roundtable conversation about agriculture, farmers and representatives of the sector brought up labor and immigration, the details of which have not been previously reported. Some farmers told Trump they often cannot find Americans willing to do the difficult farm jobs, according to interviews with nine of the 14 participants.

They said they were worried about stricter immigration enforcement and described frustrations with the H-2A visa program, the one legal way to bring in temporary seasonal agricultural workers.

The White House declined to comment on the specifics of the discussion, but described the meeting as “very productive.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not respond to a request for comment on the April meeting.

About half of U.S. crop workers are in the country illegally and more than two-thirds are foreign born, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agriculture Workers’ Survey.

During the roundtable, Luke Brubaker, a dairy farmer from Pennsylvania, described how immigration agents had recently picked up half a dozen chicken catchers working for a poultry transportation company in his county.

The employer tried to replace them with local hires, but within three hours all but one had quit, Brubaker told the gathering at the White House.

Trump said he wanted to help and asked Secretary Perdue to look into the issues and come back with recommendations, according to the accounts.

While other issues such as trade, infrastructure and technology were also discussed, participants were more positive after the meeting about the conversation on foreign labor “than about anything else we talked about,”  said Bill Northey, a farmer and Iowa’s secretary of agriculture.

RED TAPE

Tom Demaline, president of Willoway Nurseries in Ohio, said he told the president about his struggles with the H-2A guestworker program, which he has used for 18 years.

He told Trump the program works in concept, but not in practice. “I brought up the bureaucracy and red tape,” he said. “If the guys show up a week or two late, it puts crops in jeopardy. You are on pins and needles all year to make sure you get the workers and do everything right.”

While use of the program has steadily increased over the past decade, it still accounts for only about 10 percent of the estimated 1.3 million farmworkers in the country, according to government data. In 2016, the government granted 134,000 H-2A visas

Employers who import workers with H-2A visas must provide free transportation to and from the United States as well as housing and food for workers once they arrive. Wage minimums are set by the government and are often higher than farmers are used to paying.

Steve Scaroni, whose company Fresh Harvest brings in thousands of foreign H-2A workers for growers in California’s Central valley, says, however, that he could find work for even more people if he had more places to house them.

Trump recently signed another executive order titled “Buy American, Hire American,” calling for changes to a program granting temporary visas for the tech industry, but not to visas used by farmers and other seasonal businesses, including Trump’s own resorts.

FARMER CONCERNS

Trump also signed two executive orders, just days after taking office, focused on border security that called for arresting more people in the United States illegally and speeding up deportations.

Roundtable participants said that many farmers have worried about the effect of the stepped up enforcement on their workforce, but Trump told them his administration was focused on deporting criminals, not farmworkers.

“He has a much better understanding about this than some of the rhetoric we have seen,” said meeting attendee Steve Troxler, North Carolina’s agriculture commissioner and a farmer himself.

The farmers at the meeting said they stressed to the president the need for both short-term and permanent workers. They said there should be a program to help long-time farmworkers without criminal records, but who are in the country illegally, to become legal residents.

Last Tuesday, Democrats in the House and Senate said they would introduce a bill to give farmworkers who have worked illegally in the country for two consecutive years a “blue card” to protect them from deportation.

Brubaker, the Pennsylvania farmer, said he liked what he had heard about the bill and hoped it would get the president’s support to make it a bipartisan effort.

“The administration has got something started here,” he said of the meeting with farm leaders. “It’s about time something happens.”

(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in Washington; Additional reporting by Julia Love in Salinas, California; Editing by Sue Horton and Mary Milliken)

Exclusive: Vomitoxin makes nasty appearance for U.S. farm sector

FILE PHOTO -- Cobs of corn are held at a corn field in in La Paloma city, Canindeyu, about 348km (216 miles) northeast of Asuncion August 7, 2012. Corn export is second only to soybean export in Paraguay. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno/File Photo

By P.J. Huffstutter and Michael Hirtzer

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A fungus that causes “vomitoxin” has been found in some U.S. corn harvested last year, forcing poultry and pork farmers to test their grain, and giving headaches to grain growers already wrestling with massive supplies and low prices.

The plant toxin sickens livestock and can also make humans and pets fall ill.

The appearance of vomitoxin and other toxins produced by fungi is affecting ethanol markets and prompting grain processors to seek alternative sources of feed supplies.

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture first isolated the toxin in 1973 after an unusually wet winter in the Midwest. The compound was given what researchers described as the “trivial name” vomitoxin because pigs were refusing to eat the infected corn or vomiting after consuming it. The U.S. Corn Belt had earlier outbreaks of infection from the toxin in 1966 and 1928.

A vessel carrying a shipment of corn from Paraguay is due next month at a North Carolina port used by Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL], the world’s largest pork producer.

The spread of vomitoxin is concentrated in Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, and parts of Iowa and Michigan, and its full impact is not yet known, according to state officials and data gathered by food testing firm Neogen Corp.

In Indiana, 40 of 92 counties had at least one load of corn harvested last fall that has tested positive for vomitoxin, according to the Office of Indiana State Chemist’s county survey. In 2015 and 2014, no more than four counties saw grain affected by the fungus.

And in a “considerable” share of corn crops tested in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana since last fall’s harvest, the vomitoxin levels have tested high enough to be considered too toxic for humans, pets, hogs, chickens and dairy cattle, according to public and private data compiled by Neogen. The company did not state what percent of each state’s corn crop was tested.

Smithfield would not confirm it had ordered the corn from Paraguay, but two independent grain trading sources said Smithfield was the likely buyer. A company source said corn Smithfield has brought in from Indiana and Ohio, to feed pigs in North Carolina, has been “horrible quality” due to the presence of mycotoxins.

TOXIN LEVELS

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows vomitoxin levels of up to 1 part per million (ppm) in human and pet foods and recommends levels under 5 ppm in grain for hogs, 10 ppm for chickens and dairy cattle. Beef cattle can withstand toxin levels up to 30 ppm.

Alltech Inc, a Kentucky-based feed supplement company, said 73 percent of feed samples it has tested this year have vomitoxin. The company analyzed samples sent by farmers whose animals have fallen ill.

“We know there is lots of bad corn out there, because corn byproducts keep getting worse,” said Max Hawkins, a nutritionist with Alltech.

Neogen, which sells grain testing supplies, reported a 29 percent jump in global sales for toxin tests – with strong demand for vomitoxin tests – in their fiscal third quarter, ending Feb. 28.

“We’re polling our customers and continually talking to them about the levels they’re seeing. Those levels are not going down,” said Pat Frasco, director of sales for Neogen’s milling, grain and pet food business.

The problem, stemming from heavy rain before and during the 2016 harvest, prompted farmers to store wet grain, said farmers, ethanol makers and grain inspectors.

The issue was compounded by farmers and grain elevators storing corn on the ground and other improvised spaces, sometimes covering the grain piles with plastic tarps. Grain buyers say they will have a clearer picture of the problem later this spring, as more farm-stored grain is moved to market.

Iowa State University grain quality expert Charles Hurburgh said the sheer size of the harvest in 2016 – the largest in U.S. history – complicates the job of managing toxins in grain, especially in the core Midwest.

“Mycotoxins are very hard to handle in high volume,” he said. “You can’t test every truckload, or if you do, you are only going to unload 20 trucks in a day.” By comparison, corn processors in Iowa unload 400 or more trucks a day.

BIOFUEL IMPACTS

Ethanol makers already are feeling the impact. Turning corn into ethanol creates a byproduct called distillers dried grains (DDGs), which is sold as animal feed. With fuel prices low, the DDGs can boost profitability.

But the refining process triples the concentration of mycotoxins, making the feed byproduct less attractive. DDG prices in Indiana fell to $92.50 per ton in February, the lowest since 2009, and now are selling for $97.50 per ton, according to USDA.

Many ethanol plants are testing nearly every load of corn they receive for the presence of vomitoxin, said Indiana grain inspector Doug Titus, whose company has labs at The Andersons Inc, a grain handler, and energy company Valero Energy sites.

The Andersons in a February call with analysts said vomitoxin has hurt results at three of its refineries in the eastern U.S. “That will be with us for some time,” Andersons’ chief executive Pat Bowe said.

Missouri grain farmer Doug Roth, who put grain into storage after last year’s wet harvest, has seen a few loads of corn rejected by clients who make pet food after the grain tested positive for low levels of fumonisin, a type of mycotoxin.

Roth said he paid to reroute the grain to livestock producers in Arkansas, who planned to blend it with unaffected grain in order to mitigate the effect of the toxins.

“As long as this doesn’t become a widespread problem, we’re all fine,” said Roth, who said toxins have shown up in less than 1 percent of the grain loads he has sold.

U.S. farmers with clean corn are reaping a price bump. A Cardinal Ethanol plant in Union City, Indiana, is offering grain sellers a 10-cent per bushel premium for corn with less than one-part-per-million (ppm) or less of vomitoxin in it, according to the company’s website.

(Additional reporting by Karl Plume and Julie Ingwersen in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Last stand: Nebraska farmers could derail Keystone XL pipeline

Art and Helen Tanderup are against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would cut through the farm where they live near Neligh, Nebraska, U.S. April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom

By Valerie Volcovici

Neligh, NEBRASKA (Reuters) – When President Donald Trump handed TransCanada Pipeline Co. a permit for its Keystone XL pipeline last month, he said the company could now build the long-delayed and divisive project “with efficiency and with speed.”

But Trump and the firm will have to get through Nebraska farmer Art Tanderup first, along with about 90 other landowners in the path of the pipeline.

They are mostly farmers and ranchers, making a last stand against the pipeline – the fate of which now rests with an obscure state regulatory board, the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

The group is fine-tuning an economic argument it hopes will resonate better in this politically conservative state than the environmental concerns that dominated the successful push to block Keystone under former President Barack Obama.

Backed by conservation groups, the Nebraska opponents plan to cast the project as a threat to prime farming and grazing lands – vital to Nebraska’s economy – and a foreign company’s attempt to seize American private property.

They contend the pipeline will provide mainly temporary jobs that will vanish once construction ends, and limited tax revenues that will decline over time.

They face a considerable challenge. Supporters of the pipeline as economic development include Republican Governor, Pete Ricketts, most of the state’s senators, its labor unions and chamber of commerce.

“It’s depressing to start again after Obama rejected the pipeline two years ago, but we need keep our coalition energized and strong,” said Tanderup, who grows rye, corn and soybeans on his 160-acre property.

Now Tanderup and others are gearing up for another round of battle – on a decidedly more local stage, but with potentially international impact on energy firms and consumers.

The latest Keystone XL showdown underscores the increasingly well-organized and diverse resistance to pipelines nationwide, which now stretches well beyond the environmental movement.

Last year, North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux, a Native American tribe, galvanized national opposition to the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access Pipeline. Another ETP pipeline in Louisiana has drawn protests from flood protection advocates and commercial fishermen.

The Keystone XL pipeline would cut through Tanderup’s family farm, near the two-story farmhouse built in the 1920s by his wife Helen’s grandfather.

The Tanderups have plastered the walls with aerial photos of three “#NoKXL” crop art installations they staged from 2014 to 2016. Faded signs around the farm still advertise the concert Willie Nelson and Neil Young played here in 2014 to raise money for the protests.

The stakes for the energy industry are high as the Keystone XL combatants focus on Nebraska, especially for Canadian producers that have struggled for decades to move more of that nation’s landlocked oil reserves to market. Keystone offers a path to get heavy crude from the Canada oil sands to refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast equipped to handle it.

TransCanada has route approval in all of the U.S. states the line will cross except Nebraska, where the company says it has been unable to negotiate easements with landowners on about 9 percent of the 300-mile crossing.

So the dispute now falls to Nebraska’s five-member utility commission, an elected board with independent authority over TransCanada’s proposed route.

The commission has scheduled a public hearing in May, along with a week of testimony by pipeline supporters and opponents in August. Members face a deadline set by state law to take a vote by November.

“TENS OF THOUSANDS” OF JOBS

TransCanada has said on its website that the pipeline would create “tens of thousands” of jobs and tens of millions in tax dollars for the three states it would cross – Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

TransCanada declined to comment in response to Reuters inquiries seeking a more precise number and description of the jobs, including the proportion of them that are temporary – for construction – versus permanent.

Trump has been more specific, saying the project would create 28,000 U.S. jobs. But a 2014 State Department study predicted just 3,900 construction jobs and 35 permanent jobs.

Asked about the discrepancy, White House spokeswoman Kelly Love did not explain where Trump came up with his 28,000 figure, but pointed out that the State Department study also estimates that the pipeline would indirectly create thousands of additional jobs.

The study indicates those jobs would be temporary, including some 16,100 at firms with contracts for goods and services during construction, and another 26,000, depending on how workers from the original jobs spend their wages.

TransCanada estimates that state taxes on the pipeline and pumping stations would total $55.6 million across the three states during the first year.

The firm will pay property taxes on the pumping stations along the route, but not the land. It would pay a different – and lower – “personal property” tax on the pipeline itself, said Brian Jorde, a partner in the Omaha-based law firm Domina Law Group, which represents the opposition.

The personal property taxes, he said, would decline over a seven-year period and eventually disappear.

TRUMP: ‘I’ll CALL NEBRASKA’

The Nebraska utilities commission faces tremendous political pressure from well beyond the state it regulates.

“The commissioners know it is game time, and everybody is looking,” said Jane Kleeb, Nebraska’s Democratic party chair and head of the conservation group Bold Alliance, which is coordinating resistance from the landowners, Native American tribes and environmental groups.

The alliance plans to target the commissioners and their electoral districts with town halls, letter-writing campaigns, and billboards.

During the televised ceremony where Trump awarded the federal permit for the pipeline, he promised to weigh in on the Nebraska debate.

“Nebraska? I’ll call Nebraska,” he said after TransCanada Chief Executive Russell Girling said the company faced opposition there.

Love, the White House spokeswoman, said she did not know if Trump had called Nebraska officials.

The commission members – one Democrat and four Republicans – have ties to a wide range of conflicting interests in the debate, making it difficult to predict their decision.

According to state filings, one of the commissioners, Democrat Crystal Rhoades, is a member of the Sierra Club – an environmental group opposing the pipeline.

Another, Republican Rod Johnson, has a long history of campaign donations from oil and gas firms.

The others are Republicans with ties to the farming and ranching sectors – including one member that raises cattle in an area near where the pipeline would cross.

All five members declined requests for comment.

PREPPING THE WITNESSES

TransCanada has been trying since 2008 to build the 1,100-mile line – from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect to a network feeding the Midwest and Gulf Coast refining regions. The firm had its federal permit application rejected in 2015 by the Obama administration.

Opponents want the pipeline, if not rejected outright, to be re-routed well away from Nebraska’s Sandhills region, named for its sandy soil, which overlies one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the United States.

The Ogallala aquifer supplies large-scale crop irrigation and cattle-watering operations.

“It all comes down to water,” said Terry Steskal, whose family farm lies in the pipeline’s path.

Steskal dug his boot into the ground on his property, kicking up sand to demonstrate his biggest concern about the pipeline. If the pipeline leaks, oil can easily seep through the region’s porous soil into the water, which lies near the surface.

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said the company has a good environmental record with its existing Keystone pipeline network in Nebraska, which runs east of the proposed Keystone XL.

The company, however, has reported at least two big pipeline spills in other states since 2011, including some 400 barrels of oil spilled in South Dakota last year.

The Domina Law Group is helping the opposition by preparing the landowners, including the Tanderups and Steskals, for the August hearings, much as they would prepare witnesses for trial.

If the route is approved, Jorde said the firm plans to file legal challenges, potentially challenging TransCanada’s right to use eminent domain law to seize property.

Eminent domain allows for the government to expropriate private land in the public interest. But Jorde said he thinks TransCanada would struggle to meet that threshold in Nebraska.

“Some temporary jobs and some taxes is not enough to win the public interest argument,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ethan Lou in Calgary; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)

Trump vows to back U.S. dairy farmers in Canada trade spat

FILE PHOTO: An old tractor sporting a Canadian national flag is seen parked in the rural township of Oro-Medonte, Ontario July 26, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

By Rod Nickel

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump promised on Tuesday to defend American dairy farmers who have been hurt by Canada’s protectionist trade practices, during a visit to the cheese-making state of Wisconsin.

Canada’s dairy sector is protected by high tariffs on imported products and controls on domestic production as a means of supporting prices that farmers receive. It is frequently criticized by other dairy-producing countries.

“We’re also going to stand up for our dairy farmers,” Trump said in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Because in Canada some very unfair things have happened to our dairy farmers and others.”

Trump did not detail his concerns, but promised his administration would call the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and demand an explanation.

“It’s another typical one-sided deal against the United States and it’s not going to be happening for long,” Trump said.

Trump also reiterated his threat to eliminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico if it cannot be changed.

U.S. dairy industry groups want Trump to urge Trudeau to halt a pricing policy that has disrupted some U.S. dairy exports and prioritize dairy market access in NAFTA renegotiation talks.

“A WTO complaint would be a last resort because it would take five or six years to come to any resolution,” said Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Canada’s dairy farmers agreed last year to sell milk ingredients used for cheese-making to Canadian processors, which include Saputo Inc and Parmalat Canada Inc [PLTPRC.UL] at prices competitive with international rates. The pricing agreement was a response to growing U.S. exports of milk proteins that were not subject to Canada’s high tariffs.

Canada’s envoy to Washington on Tuesday sent a letter to the governors of New York and Wisconsin – both major dairy states – saying U.S. producers’ problems stemmed from overproduction rather than Canadian policy.

In the letter, released by Ottawa, ambassador David MacNaughton said Canada’s dairy industry was less protectionist than its U.S. counterpart.

Industry groups in New Zealand, Australia, the European Union, Mexico and the United States complained the new prices for Canadian milk ingredients under-cut exports to Canada.

“President Trump’s reaction is not surprising. He is defending his domestic dairy industry,” said Jacques Lefebvre, CEO of Dairy Processors Association of Canada. “Further communications with the Canadian government will broaden his perspective.”

The Dairy Farmers of Canada said it was confident Ottawa would “continue to protect and defend” the dairy industry.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; additional reporting by Steve Holland in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Karl Plume in Chicago,; Ayesha Rascoe in Washington; and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)