USDA Stands Up New Team to Better Serve Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

A news release today from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) stated that, “The [USDA] is standing up a new team of  [USDA] staff that will lead a department-wide effort focused on serving beginning farmers and ranchers.

“‘More than a quarter of producers are beginning farmers,’ said USDA Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky. ‘We need to support the next generation of agricultural producers who we will soon rely upon to grow our nation’s food and fiber.’

“To institutionalize support for beginning farmers and ranchers and to build upon prior agency work, the 2018 Farm Bill directed USDA to create a national coordinator position in the agency and state-level coordinators for four of its agencies – Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Risk Management Agency (RMA), and Rural Development (RD).”

Today’s update added that, “Sarah Campbell was selected as the national coordinator to lead USDA’s efforts. A beginning farmer herself, Campbell held previous positions with USDA and has a wealth of experience working on issues impacting beginning farmers and ranchers. She recently served as acting director of customer experience for the Farm Production and Conservation Business Center, where she led the piloting of innovative, customer-centric initiatives.

“In her new role, she will work closely with the state coordinators to develop goals and create plans to increase beginning farmer participation and access to programs while coordinating nationwide efforts on beginning farmers and ranchers.”

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Global Investment in Ag and Food Technology Fell Almost 5% in 2019

Financial Times writer Emiko Terazono reported last month that, “Global investment in agricultural and food technology fell almost 5 per cent in 2019, as funding for food delivery services declined sharply amid a wider pullback in the venture capital industry.

“Total funding dipped to $19.8bn, according to a preliminary tally by AgFunder, an online food and agritech venture capital platform, with the number of deals down 15 per cent to 1,858.

“Although established companies in the food-delivery market raised hefty amounts last year, including a $1bn financing by DoorDash and $575m by Deliveroo, overall funding in the sector plunged 56 per cent to $2.4bn, as rising competition discouraged investors from backing new entrants, said Louisa Burwood-Taylor at AgFunder.”

The FT article noted that, “By geography, investments in the US, the sector leader, fell 2 per cent to $8.7bn, while those in China, the second-largest, dived 40 per cent to $3.2bn. Financing in Europe increased 94 per cent to $3.3bn, led by the UK, while Latin American start-ups raised $1.4bn, up 32 per cent.”

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Monday, March 16 Is the Last Day to Schedule an Appointment with Your FSA Office For Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage Enrollment

A news release today from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) stated that, “Agricultural producers who have not yet completed their 2019 crop year elections for and enrollment in the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs must schedule an appointment to do so with their local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) by Monday, March 16.

“‘To date, more than 1.4 million contracts have been signed for the 2019 crop year. This represents 89 percent of expected enrollment with less than a week left for producers to get on FSA’s appointment books,’ said FSA Administrator Richard Fordyce. ‘If you’ve not completed your elections or enrollment, the clock is ticking, and your program eligibility is at stake; so please call FSA today and request an appointment.’

Producers who do not contact FSA for an appointment by close of business local time on Monday, March 16 will not be enrolled in ARC or PLC for the 2019 crop year and will be ineligible to receive a payment should one trigger for an eligible crop.”

The FSA update added that, “For more information on ARC and PLC, download our program fact sheet or our 2014-2018 farm bills comparison fact sheet. Online ARC and PLC election decision tools are available at www.fsa.usda.gov/arc-plc.

“Visit farmers.gov/service-locator to find location and contact information for the nearest FSA county office.”

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Coronavirus Impacts Chinese Honey Production, the World’s Top Producer

Reuters writers Hallie Gu and Shivani Singh reported recently that, “Beekeepers in China, the world’s top honey producer, are bracing for a bleak start to the key spring pollinating season as travel curbs aimed at containing a coronavirus outbreak keep them at home while their bees go without food for weeks.”

The article noted that, “Bees missing the flowering phase of plants due to virus-related curbs, together with a drop in bee numbers, threatens to hurt the livelihood of China’s 300,000 beekeepers as well as the output of honey and crops that rely on bees for pollination.”

“China makes about 500,000 tonnes honey annually, or about a quarter of global output, making it the world’s top producer,” the Reuters article said; adding that, “It exports more than 100,000 tonnes to places like Europe and the United States.

“But the outlook for production is grim this year.”

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President Trump Signs Bill to Protect U.S. Against African Swine Fever

Last week, Jennifer Shike reported at AgWeb Online that, “President Donald Trump signed legislation on [March 3rd] to protect the U.S. pork industry from the threat of the deadly African swine fever (ASF) virus through expanded agricultural inspections.

S. 2107, the ‘Protecting America’s Food and Agriculture Act of 2019,’ authorizes the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to hire additional agricultural specialists, agricultural technicians and canine inspection teams to improve the security of the nation’s food supply.

“‘Ensuring we have enough agricultural inspectors at our borders is critical to maintaining a healthy U.S. swine herd,’ said National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) President David Herring, a hog farmer from Lillington, N.C., in a release. ‘The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have done much to mitigate the risk to animal disease. Bolstered by this legislation, even more resources will be available to strengthen biosecurity at our borders. This is a victory for farmers, consumers and the American economy.'”

The article noted that, “As many as half of China’s entire breeding pig population died or were slaughtered because of the recent spread of ASF. In recent days, the spread of the disease has also been reported in the Philippines and Greece, and ongoing outbreaks have also been reported in Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Cambodia, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam and South Africa.”

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Co-ops Encouraged by Treasury Secretary’s Commitment to Fixing ‘Grain Glitch’

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported last week that, “Leaders of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives are optimistic IRS officials will adjust Section 199A(g) tax breaks after testimony this week from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

“Farmer cooperatives have been trying for more than two years to reestablish a tax deduction comparable to what they received before the 2017 tax law was passed. Last summer, the Treasury Department proposed rules that limited the Section 199A(g) deductions to patronage income, but the Treasury rule would eliminate cooperatives’ ability to combine ‘non-patronage income’ as part of the deduction calculation.

“The tax complication came out of what was dubbed the ‘grain glitch‘ in early 2018 after it initially appeared the 2017 tax law made it much more lucrative for farmers to sell grain to farmer cooperatives than to private grain companies. Congress fixed the provision, but Treasury has been mired since then, trying to complete a rule to go along with the tax fix.”

Mr. Clayton noted that, “Mnuchin commented during a congressional hearing on Tuesday that he is committed to working with members of the House Ways and Means Committee, as well as the Senate Finance Committee.

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of NCFC, stated that the farmer cooperatives’ group appreciates Mnuchin’s commitment to fix the grain glitch.

“‘Importantly, his statement that ‘Our job is to implement the law; our job is not to make policy’ is especially notable,’ Conner said. ‘It is clear that Congress intended Section 199A(g) to recreate the way that the Section 199 deduction worked under the old tax code. The current proposal from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) fails to meet that standard in several important areas.'”

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USDA to Open Signup March 16 for Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands

A news release yesterday from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) stated that, “Farmers and ranchers may apply to enroll grasslands in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Grasslands signup beginning March 16. The signup runs through May 15.

“‘Through this CRP Grasslands signup, farmers and ranchers can protect grasslands, rangelands and pastures, while maintaining the land as working grazing lands,” said Richard Fordyce, Administrator of [FSA]. ‘The program emphasizes support for grazing operations and plant and animal biodiversity, while protecting land under the greatest threat of conversion or development.’

“Through CRP Grasslands, participants retain the right to conduct common grazing practices, such as haying, mowing or harvesting seed from the enrolled land. Timing of some activities may be restricted by the primary nesting season of birds.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “Participants will receive an annual rental payment and may receive up to 50 percent cost-share for establishing approved conservation practices. The duration of the CRP contract is either 10 or 15 years. FSA will rank applications using a number of factors including existence of expiring CRP land, threat of conversion or development, existing grassland, and predominance of native species cover, and cost.”

“For more information or to enroll in CRP Grasslands, contact your local FSA county office or visit fsa.usda.gov/crp. To locate your local FSA office, visit farmers.gov/service-locator.”

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Despite Tough Year in Biofuels, Few Plants Changed Hands Last Year

DTN writer Todd Neeley reported last last month that, “Despite the biofuels industry operating on thin margins and dealing with federal policy uncertainty in 2019, the number of mergers and acquisitions in the industry was historically low last year, according to a new report from an investment bank focused on biofuels transactions.

“Overproduction in the ethanol industry, as well EPA’s continued issuance of small-refinery exemptions last year, led to the idling of at least 20 ethanol plants. The biodiesel industry struggled as well from the expiration of the biodiesel blenders tax credit and SREs.

“According to a report from Ocean Park, based in Los Angeles, the industry continued to hold on to assets despite all the struggles in 2019.”

The DTN article noted that, “‘No large-scale, operating biofuels plants changed hands — which is rare for the biofuels M&A market,’ Ocean Park said.

Just four operating biodiesel, ethanol and advanced biofuels plants, combined, were sold in 2019, with a combined capacity of just 133 million gallons per year.

“Ocean Park said the remainder of merger and acquisition activity involved what the bank said was ‘sub-scale, idled or non-operating plants’ as well as technology assets.”

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Most Promising Startups Using Artificial Intelligence are U.S.-Based Companies

Bloomberg writer Susan Decker reported yesterday that, “The most promising startups using artificial intelligence are U.S.-based companies working in the fields of health care, retail and transportation, according to a study that looked at budding AI companies around the world.

“Of the top 100 startups in AI, 65% were based in the U.S., though some of those had dual headquarters in China or elsewhere, according to the analysis by CB Insights, a tech research group that analyzed data on close to 5,000 startups around the world.”

The Bloomberg article added that, “More than 4,300 startups in 80 countries have raised $83 billion since 2014, including $26.6 billion just last year, according to CB Insights. While the dollar figures for investment have grown rapidly, the share of U.S.-based investments dropped in that period to 39% from 71%.”

“Top ranked firms in the CB Insights ranking included several unicorns, or startups whose private valuations reached $1 billion or more. These include the following: Butterfly Network, which is building an ultrasound device that uses AI-assisted diagnostics; Faire Wholesale Inc., which helps local retailers determine what goods are predicted to sell best in specific locations, and DataRobot, whose tools help companies develop their own AI applications,” the Bloomberg article said.

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Farmer’s Lawsuit Claims Hydroponic Operators Shouldn’t Use “Organic” Label

Bloomberg writer Robert Burnson reported yesterday that, “Food activists and farmers sued the Trump administration over its decision to let hydroponic operators use the prized ‘organic’ label.

“The Center for Food Safety and farmers from Maine to California say in the lawsuit that the decision ‘undermines the very integrity’ of the country’s organic food label — ‘that consumers trust and that organic farmers rely upon.’

Hydroponic operations grow plants that have their roots in water or air and receive nutrients from solutions created by the operators. Under federal rules, organic crops — aside from being grown without pesticides and other harmful chemicals — must foster ‘soil fertility,’ according to the lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.”

The Bloomberg article stated: “But how can you foster soil fertility without soil, the farmers asked.

The farmers want a judge to declare that the hydroponic operations don’t meet the soil fertility mandate and to order the U.S. Department of Agriculture to comply with the requirements for organic certification.”

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