Sales of Previously Owned U.S. Homes Picked up in July

Wall Street Journal writers Will Parker and Harriet Torry reported this week that, “Sales of previously owned U.S. homes picked up in July, a sign that lower mortgage rates may be finally starting to drive sales after a weak spring selling season.

July marked the first year-over-year uptick in 17 months and economists have been somewhat puzzled why the lowest mortgage rates in nearly 50 years, strong employment and wages edging higher have failed to spark more home buying. The July activity was one of the few signs that these forces may be starting to translate into more sales.

Existing-home sales rose 2.5% in July from the previous month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.42 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had expected sales to rise 2.3% last month.”

The Journal writers noted that, “A shortage of homes means home prices remain high. The median sales price for an existing home in July was $280,800, up 4.3% from a year earlier. In some large markets, however, the median price of lower-end homes has appreciated by more than 100% since 2012, according to NAR, further limiting the pool of eligible buyers.”

“Buyers have also worried about the effects of the U.S. trade dispute with China, and concerns of slower economic growth has been fueled in recent weeks by some indicators, such a bond yields, that now suggest the possibility of a recession,” the Journal article said.

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As Dicamba Injury Complaints Rise, States’ Communication With EPA Declines

DTN writer Emily Unglesbee reported earlier this week that, “Once again, most major soybean states are dealing with a deluge of dicamba injury allegations this summer, with two states already reporting a record level of complaints.

But, unlike last year, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs is not getting routine updates from state regulators on these injury reports. Last year, representatives from the federal agency participated in weekly conference calls with state pesticide regulators on dicamba injury complaints and investigative findings throughout the summer and fall. EPA officials also visited multiple states to tour dicamba injury and hold public forums on the topic.

“This year, this regular communication and canvassing has dried up.”

The DTN article noted that, “‘We haven’t been asked to provide any information to U.S. EPA headquarters,’ said Doug Owens, chief of the Bureau of Environmental Programs at the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which has fielded more than 450 alleged dicamba injury reports, up nearly 40% from last year and a record for the state. ‘I know last year, we reported to them every week with weekly conference calls. We’re not participating in that this year, and no information has been requested.'”

Ms. Unglesbee indicated that, “In Illinois, dicamba injury complaints soared later than usual in the season, from mid-July into August.

“Earlier this summer, the Illinois Department of Agriculture extended the state’s June 30-cutoff date for dicamba applications to July 15 to help growers control weeds in late, June-planted soybean fields. As a result, applicators were spraying dicamba later than normal, during the hottest, most humid days of the summer, Owens noted.

“‘Of the 652 pesticide misuse complaints we’ve received, 456 are alleged dicamba, and we’ve gotten three-quarters of those within the last three to four weeks,‘ Owens said. ‘I think most of the dicamba went on between July 1 and July 15 — and so that’s about two to three weeks out when people started seeing the damage and then making the decision to report it.'”

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Farm Service Agency Expands Payment Options

A news release yesterday from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) stated that, “[FSA] is expanding its payment options to now accept debit cards and Automated Clearing House (ACH) debit. These paperless payment options enable FSA customers to pay farm loan payments, measurement service fees, farm program debt repayments and administrative service fees, as well as to purchase aerial maps.

“‘Our customers have spoken, and we’ve listened,’ said Bill Northey, USDA’s Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. ‘Finding ways to improve customer service and efficiency is important for our farmers, ranchers, producers, and forest landowners who work hard for our nation every day. Now, our customers can make electronic payments instantly by stopping in our offices or calling over the phone.’

“Previously, only cash, check, money orders and wires were accepted. By using debit cards and ACH debit, transactions are securely processed from the customer’s financial institution through Pay.gov, the U.S. Treasury’s online payment hub.”

The FSA update noted that, “While traditional collection methods like cash and paper checks will continue, offering the new alternatives will improve effectiveness and convenience to customers while being more cost effective. In 2017, the average cost to manually process checks, a process that included navigating multiple systems, cost USDA more than $4.6 million. The expanded payment options will cut the time employees take processing payments by 75 percent. “

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After Neighbors Sued, Cattle Feedlot says it is Closing

Luke Nozicka reported on the front page of today’s Kansas City Star that, “Citing economic strains, a steak company that had been trying to add thousands of cattle to its feedlot near Powell Gardens, igniting a legal battle with residents, on Monday said it was closing.

“In a statement, Valley Oaks Steak Company said it would shut down immediately. The company, which launched in 2016, said it had become a ‘lightning rod for individuals and organizations opposed to animal agriculture operations.’

“‘For the future of all Missourians, urban and rural, we hope that people will rely on the science of modern agricultural techniques and methods, and not be swayed by persons and organizations who sow seeds of fear and distrust for their own personal gain and profit,’ the company said in the statement.”

The article noted that, “Valley Oaks planned to become a local ‘hoof-to-table’ supplier. But the company faced neighbor opposition when it applied for a permit to allow its feedlot to expand from 999 cattle to 6,999.

Dozens of Jackson County property owners filed a lawsuit last month that contended they could not escape the odor emanated by the company’s operations. They said they were fed up with the insects, increased traffic and other quality of life issues.

“Kenneth McClain, an attorney for the 141 property owners, said his clients were pleased with Valley Oaks’ decision and described the company as having done the right thing. He said his clients will ‘no longer feel like prisoners in their own homes.'”

The Kansas City Star article also indicated that, “McClain said his firm was assessing the pending lawsuit, saying the company’s decision to close stopped future nuisances to nearby residents but did not resolve previous damages. And, he said, it does not prevent another company from opening there.”

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Mastermind of Organic Food Fraud Sentenced to Prison

Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley reported last week that, “A judge on Friday sentenced the mastermind of the largest known organic food fraud scheme in U.S. history to 10 years in prison, saying he cheated thousands of customers into buying products they didn’t want.

“U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams said Randy Constant orchestrated a massive fraud that did ‘extreme and incalculable damage’ to consumers and shook public confidence in the nation’s organic food industry.

Williams said that, between 2010 and 2017, consumers nationwide were fooled into paying extra to buy products ranging from eggs to steak that they believed were better for the environment and their own health. Instead, they unwittingly purchased food that relied on farming practices, including the use of chemical pesticides to grow crops, that they opposed.”

The AP article noted that, “Williams said the scam harmed other organic farmers who were playing by the rules but could not compete with the low prices offered by Constant’s Iowa-based grain brokerage, and middlemen who unknowingly purchased and marketed tainted organic grain.

“Williams ordered Constant, a 60-year-old farmer and former school board president from Chillicothe, Missouri, to serve 122 months in federal prison, as his wife and other relatives sobbed.”

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Company in Argentina Scrutinized Over its Organic Grain Practices

Adam Belz reported in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune that, “For years, American farmers’ battle against fake organic-grain imports has centered on Eastern Europe. Now, an organic farm in South America is being scrutinized.

A lengthy complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and obtained by the Star Tribune, alleges fraud at an organic-grain company in Argentina that exports millions of bushels of organic corn and soybeans to the United States each year.

“The complaint said that Rivara SA deliberately used prohibited fertilizers and herbicides to produce grain that it then passed off as organic to U.S. customers, including the largest U.S. producer of organic chickens.”

“Rooting Out Fake Organic Grain,” by Adam Belz. Minneapolis Star Tribune (August 16, 2019).

The article noted that, “The 115-page complaint against Rivara is painstakingly detailed, and raises concerns in a global supply chain — organic grain — that has been rife with problems as the market for organic poultry, eggs and milk in the United States has quickly outpaced the supply of domestic corn and soybeans to feed those animals.

“Officials at the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) would not confirm receipt of the complaint or say whether an investigation is underway. Matthew Haverstick, a lawyer at Kleinbard LLC in Philadelphia, told the Star Tribune he filed the complaint last December.

“The president of Rivara SA, Fernando Rivara, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that the accusations are ‘false’ and that his company has cooperated with the USDA’s investigation.”

Today’s Star Tribune article added that, “It has taken the NOP — a 40-person organization still coming to terms with the scope of the global organic supply chain — several months or even more than a year to formally conclude an investigation.”

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USDA Using Flexibility to Assist Farmers, Ranchers in Flooded Areas

A news release today from USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) stated that, “The [RMA] today announced it will defer accrual of interest for all agricultural producers’ spring 2019 crop year insurance premiums to help the wide swath of farmers and ranchers affected by extreme weather in 2019. Specifically, USDA will defer the accrual of interest on spring 2019 crop year insurance premiums to the earlier of the applicable termination date or for two months, until November 30, for all policies with a premium billing date of August 15, 2019. For any premium that is not paid by one of those new deadlines, interest will accrue consistent with the terms of the policy.

“‘USDA recognizes that farmers and ranchers have been severely affected by the extreme weather challenges this year,’ said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. ‘I often brag about the resiliency of farmers but after a lifetime in the business, I have to say that this year is one for the record books. To help ease the burden on these folks, we are continuing to extend flexibility for producers with today’s announcement.’

“RMA Administrator Martin Barbre added, ‘This administrative flexibility is not unprecedented but is a move RMA takes seriously and only under special circumstances like we’re experiencing today. Growers typically have some crop harvested and cash flow to make their billing date, but with so many late planted crops, this year will be an anomaly.'”

Today’s update noted that, “America’s farmers and ranchers have been especially challenged throughout the 2019 crop year, struggling through severe flooding and excessive moisture conditions across the grain belt and in many other rural communities, with some areas also dealing with extreme heat and drought. Such weather conditions are expected to take a serious toll on acres planted, crop yields, and crop quality as harvest begins. One of the largest operating costs for producers is crop insurance premiums paid to their Approved Insurance Provider. Many spring crop insurance premiums are due to be paid before October 1.

“Without the interest deferral, policies with an August 15 premium billing date would have interest attach starting October 1 if premiums were not paid by September 30. Now, under the change, policies that do not have the premium paid by November 30 will have interest attach on December 1, calculated from the date of the premium billing notice.”

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U.S. Mortgage Debt Reached a Record in the Second Quarter

Harriet Torry reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “U.S. mortgage debt reached a record in the second quarter, exceeding its 2008 peak as the financial crisis unfolded.

“Mortgage balances rose by $162 billion in the second quarter to $9.406 trillion, surpassing the high of $9.294 trillion in the third quarter of 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Tuesday.

Mortgages are the largest component of household debt. Mortgage originations, which include refinancings, increased by $130 billion to $474 billion in the second quarter. The figures are nominal, meaning they aren’t adjusted for inflation.”

“U.S. Mortgage Debt Hits Record, Eclipsing 2008 Peak,” by Harriet Torry. The Wall Street Journal (August 14, 2019).

The Journal article added that, “The milestone for mortgage debt has been long in the making. Americans’ mortgage debt dropped by about 15% from the 2008 peak to the trough in the second quarter of 2013 and has climbed slowly since then.

“Total household debt has been on the rise since mid-2013. It rose by 1.4% from the first quarter to $13.86 trillion, the 20th consecutive quarter of increase.”

Ms. Torry added that, “Still, the household debt picture is much different in 2019 than it was 11 years ago, since lending standards are tighter and less debt is delinquent today.”

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Report: Farmers Prevented from Planting Crops on More than 19 Million Acres

An update yesterday from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) stated that, “Agricultural producers reported they were not able to plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres in 2019, according to a new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This marks the most prevented plant acres reported since USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) began releasing the report in 2007 and 17.49 million acres more than reported at this time last year.

“Of those prevented plant acres, more than 73 percent were in 12 Midwestern states, where heavy rainfall and flooding this year has prevented many producers from planting mostly corn, soybeans and wheat.

“‘Agricultural producers across the country are facing significant challenges and tough decisions on their farms and ranches,’ USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said. ‘We know these are challenging times for farmers, and we have worked to improve flexibility of our programs to assist producers prevented from planting.'”

The FSA update noted that, “USDA supported planting of cover crops on fields where farmers were not able to plant because of their benefits in preventing soil erosion, protecting water quality and boosting soil health. The report showed where producers planted 2.71 million acres of cover crops so far in 2019, compared with 2.14 million acres at this time in 2018 and 1.88 million at this time in 2017.

“To help make cover crops a more viable option, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) adjusted the haying and grazing date of cover crops, and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service held signups in select states that offered producers assistance in planting cover crops. Meanwhile, USDA added other flexibilities to help impacted producers, including adjusting the deadline to file acreage reports in select states.”

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Updated Statistics on U.S Honey Bee Colonies

An update earlier this month from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) stated that, “Honey bee colonies for operations with five or more colonies in the United States on January 1, 2019 totaled 2.67 million colonies, up 1 percent from January 1, 2018. During 2018, honey bee colonies on January 1, April 1, July 1, and October 1 were 2.64 million, 2.67 million, 2.96 million, and 2.87 million colonies, respectively.

Honey bee colonies lost for operations with five or more colonies from January through March 2019, was 408 thousand colonies, or 15 percent. During the quarter of October through December 2018, colonies lost totaled 445 thousand colonies, or 16 percent, the highest number lost of any quarter in 2018. The quarter in 2018 with the lowest number of colonies lost was April through June, with 355 thousand colonies lost, or 13 percent.

Honey bee colonies added for operations with five or more colonies from January through March 2019 was 248 thousand colonies. During the quarter of April through June 2018, 676 thousand colonies were added, the highest number of honey bee colonies added for any quarter of 2018. The quarter of October through December 2018 added 220 thousand colonies, the least number of honey bee colonies added for any quarter of 2018.”

The NASS update noted that, “Varroa mites were the number one stressor for operations with five or more colonies during all quarters of 2018. The quarter of April through June 2018 had the highest percentage of colonies reported to be affected by varroa mites at 56.4 percent. The percent of colonies reported to be affected by varroa mites during January through March 2019 were 45.6 percent.”

Honey bee colonies lost with Colony Collapse Disorder symptoms on operations with five or more colonies was 59.9 thousand colonies from January through March 2019. This is a 26 percent decrease from the same quarter of 2018,” the NASS update said.

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