U.S. farmers receive $8.52 billion in aid to date, USDA says

FILE PHOTO: A farmer drives tractor along a road in Pearl City, Illinois, U.S., July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has to date paid out $8.52 billion in direct payments to American farmers as part of the 2018 aid program, designed to offset losses from trade tariffs by China and other trading partners, a spokesman for the agency said.

The Trump administration has pledged up to $12 billion in aid to help offset losses for crops hit by Chinese tariffs imposed in response to Washington’s tariffs on Chinese goods.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Several U.S. states sue Trump administration over school lunch rules

Students eat a healthy lunch at Marston Middle School in San Diego, California, March 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Several U.S. states sued the Trump administration on Wednesday, seeking to undo its recent decision to relax standards for restricting sodium content and requiring whole grains in school breakfasts and lunches.

In a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court, the states accused the U.S. Department of Agriculture of acting in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in easing rules championed by former first lady Michelle Obama to make school lunches healthier.

The lawsuit was filed by New York, California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

The Agriculture Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)

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)

Department of Agriculture Buying Submachine Guns

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is soliciting bids for submachine guns and body armor.

Initial reports showed that the USDA is seeking guns that have an “ambidextrous safety, semiautomatic or 2 round [bursts] trigger group, Tritium night sights front and rear, rails for attachment of flashlight (front under fore group) and scope (top rear), stock collapsible or folding,” and a “30 rd. capacity” magazine.

The agency’s paper said that they wanted interested vendors to submit their name and contact information “in a timely manner.”

The document was later revised to say the USDA also wants to obtain a “”tactical vest, undergarment (white), identification patches, accessories (6 pouches), body armor carry bag, and professional measurements.”

There was no explanation why the USDA is seeking to obtain military level weapons and body armor.

Price Of Beef Spiking As Herd Levels Shrink

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that the country’s cattle herd has reached its lowest level in 63 years and that ongoing drought in Texas and the Midwest is going to further threaten herd levels.

More than 80 percent of the Lone Star state has been facing abnormally dry conditions that have impacted both farmer ability to water herds but also reduced much of the grass in the state to a level where it provides no nutrition for animals.

One farmer said he’s had major hits to his farm this year.

“We need rain bad,” rancher Stayton Weldon told Bloomberg.  “We’ve got tremendous drought problems.  It cuts your herd size down because people have to sell off to provide for the cattle that are left.”

Weldon has lost 22 cows and two bulls in the last year because of the conditions.

The USDA says the $85 billion a year beef industry will produce at its lowest level in 20 years through the end of 2014.

Farmer Finds Illegal Genetically Modified Wheat In Oregon

An Oregon farmer has been found by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a form of genetically modified wheat that was never approved for use in the United States.

Biotechnology company Monsanto, which recently received special dispensation from the federal government for other products, developed the particular strain of modified wheat but it was kept from being put into use after worldwide outcry against genetically modified wheat. Continue reading