News Clips June 16, 2016



1. House panel approves EPA/Interior spending bill

2. Catfish resolution makes splash in Congress

3. Wheat genome data released to scientific community

4. Only anti-GMO hippies grow organic corn, right? Wrong.

5. Labor shortages in a challenging farm economy


1. House panel approves EPA/Interior spending bill


Bill Tomson

June 15, 2016


The House Appropriations Committee today voted 31 to 18 to approve a $32.1 billion spending bill to fund the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service in fiscal year 2017. The bill includes a provision that would block the EPA from implementing its controversial Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.


Sparks flew throughout the four-hour markup of the bill as Republicans and Democrats sparred over several issues, but there was no debate on the WOTUS provision. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., had prepared an amendment that would have removed the WOTUS block from the bill, but a spokeswoman said he decided not to bring it up for a vote.


The Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee passed its FY 2017 spending bill on Tuesday, which also contains a rider to block WOTUS.


Farm groups are virtually united in their disdain for WOTUS, also known as the Clean Water Rule. While a federal judge issued a nationwide stay on the rule in October, some lawmakers fear the stay will eventually be lifted and they are scrambling to get legislation in place to block the EPA rule.


Overall, the spending bill angered some Democrats who complained about funding cuts - the bill is $64 million less than was enacted for FY 2016 and about $1 billion below President Barack Obama's request.


“These programs promote the responsible use of our natural resources, fight devastating wildfires, and improve the quality of life for families across the country,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers said. “Further, the bill reins in federal bureaucracy to stop many harmful and unnecessary regulations that destroy economic opportunity and kill jobs.”


One contentious vote during the markup centered around a measure offered by Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., to prohibit the Interior Department from declaring for a year that the sage grouse is “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.


“This amendment would undermine years of collaboration (and) conservation work with private landowners, states and other stakeholders,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.


The amendment passed with a 29 to 20 vote.


Meanwhile Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., scored a victory in the markup with passage of an amendment to allow more river water to be diverted into California's Central Valley instead of being washed out into the ocean.

Residents and farmers in his district, which include some of the biggest fruit and vegetable producing operations in the country, are desperate for water, Valadao said during the markup.


To view this story at its original source, follow this link:


2.  Catfish resolution makes splash in Congress

The Hill

Megan R. Wilson

June 15, 2016


Domestic catfish farmers are trying to stop the House from taking up a resolution that a trade group representing them says would make imported seafood unsafe.


The resolution, which passed the Senate last month, would shift responsibility for inspections back to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


A provision in the last two Farm Bills, in 2008 and 2014, turned over the inspections of imported from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the department that was already responsible for inspecting domestic catfish farms. The USDA inspection program got underway in March, and U.S. catfish producers want it to stay in place.


“The House of Representatives has an important responsibility to continue the USDA inspection program of domestic catfish and imported catfish-like products,” said Chad Causey, spokesman for the Catfish Farmers of America, which represents U.S. catfish producers. “These inspections will keep American families safe from harmful toxins readily found in imported products that went previously undetected by the Food and Drug Administration.”


The group points to experts who have said that the FDA-led program was ineffective, only able to inspect roughly 2 percent of all foreign seafood imports, due to staffing problems and other issues.


Having the USDA conduct inspections “means that for the first time, foreign-bred catfish-like products will be held to the same standards as U.S. home-grown catfish,” Causey added.


But opponents of USDA’s program argue it duplicates the FDA oversight, and at a much higher price.


The National Fisheries Institute, which represents importers and seafood restaurants, recently brought on two high-powered lobbying firms to push House lawmakers to take up the resolution sending oversight back to the FDA: Subject Matter, a Democratic lobbying and PR firm, and the Republican lobbying firm Fierce Government Relations.


In addition to its in-house team, the organization also has law and lobby firm Holland & Knight on retainer.


The Catfish Farmers of America has only one firm — Noble Strategies — lobbying on its behalf.


But public affairs firm Rokk Solutions is leading an advertising campaign emphasizing the public health element of having more robust inspections.


The digital ad spots, which will run in Washington D.C. and other key states, allude to recent reports of imported seafood has led to fish, such as formaldehyde-tainted Chinese tilapia and Vietnamese pangasius, to be sold in U.S. supermarkets.


The National Fisheries Institute, which counts importers among its members, agues that catfish in particular is a low-risk food.


It is fighting alongside outside groups — such as the Heritage Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste — and lawmakers who say that the USDA program is too expensive.


Reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports going back to 2011 that point to a high cost of implementation of about $14 million per year.


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sponsored the Senate resolution to strip the USDA’s power to inspect imported catfish, has said opposition to the measure is driven by members who do not want to compete with low prices of foreign-farmed fish.


"A majority of my colleagues on this side of the aisle who call themselves fiscal conservatives have said, ‘Well, we want to keep this duplicative program,’” McCain said last month.


"That’s fine with me if that’s your view,” he continued. "But then don’t come to the floor and call yourself a fiscal conservative if you’re willing to spend $14 million a year that is not needed and not wanted and is clearly duplicative and is earmarked for a special interest, the catfish industry in southern states.”


Lisa Weddig, the vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the National Fisheries Institute, says that the argument has never been about keeping the food supply safe.


It “is not about food safety and never has been,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “For years, there has been an ongoing attempt to block imports and thus stifle competition.The food-safety part of the equation is a charade.”


The Catfish Farmers of America calls the $14 million price tag a “myth” and an overestimate by the agency that was trying to grapple with what implementation costs may be. A revised figure, it says, is closer to $1.1 million — only slightly more than the $700,000 that the FDA program cost.


The group also points to reports from earlier this month that a ship carrying Chinese catfish to the United States decided to turn back, rather than undergo inspection by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, as proof of its efficacy. 


Since April, the USDA also stopped two additional shipments of fish from Vietnam that had been tainted with tainted chemicals, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation.


While it is unclear whether the House will take up the resolution, the Catfish Farmers of America is hoping to woo policymakers and aides during the organization’s annual fly-in and catfish fry this week.


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3.  Wheat genome data released to scientific community


Daniel Enoch

June 15, 2016


Wheat breeders around the world now have access to the whole genome assembly for bread wheat, courtesy of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium.


The IWGSC announced the production of the genome assembly in January. It now says it has completed quality control and is making the resource available through its wheat sequence repository in France.


Scientists will be able to download the assembly to accelerate crop improvement programs and wheat genomics research. IWGSC says the data set will facilitate the identification of genes associated with important agricultural traits such as yield increase, stress response, and disease resistance and, ultimately, will make possible the production of improved wheat varieties for farmers.


“The IWGSC policy has always been to make all data publicly available as soon as they have passed the quality checks,” IWGSC Executive Director Kellye Eversole said in a release. “By doing so, the scientific community can start exploiting the data now while the consortium progresses towards a gold standard reference sequence, anticipated to be released in 2017.”


Steve Joehl, director of research and technology with the National Association of Wheat Growers, called the release “a very big deal.” He noted that wheat is the last of the major world crops to have its gene sequenced.


“Now, with this information, wheat breeders are on par with corn soy, cotton and others crops,” he said. The data will allow scientists to more effectively select areas of research, “cutting breeding time virtually in half.” Joehl said the data set would be especially helpful for researchers using the new gene editing techniques.


“They'll be able to more easily fix a gene that's not doing what it's supposed to do, or silence a gene that's doing something it's not supposed to do,” Joehl said in a telephone interview.


IWGSC says that since the January announcement, its project team has been fine-tuning the data so that the genome assembly released to the scientific community is of the highest quality possible. It says the resource released today - based on Illumina sequencing data assembled with

 NRGene's DeNovoMAGICTM software - accurately represents more than 90 percent of the highly complex bread wheat genome, contains over 97 percent of known genes, and assigns the data to the 21 wheat chromosomes.


The consortium says the data release represents the IWGSC's continued effort to produce a “gold standard reference sequence” - the complete map of the entire genome that precisely positions all genes and other genomic structures along the 21 wheat chromosomes. The wheat genome is large - five times that of the human genome - and complex, with three sets of seven chromosomes.


As is customary in the scientific community, the dataset is being made available for breeding and research under the “Toronto statement,” which outlines rules for prepublication data sharing, under which the IWGSC reserves the right to publish the first analyses of the data, which includes descriptions of whole chromosome or genome-level analyses of genes, gene families, repetitive elements, and comparisons with other organisms. Detailed information on how to access the data is available on the IWGSC website.


Over the coming months, the IWGSC says its project team will continue its work towards completing a high quality, ordered sequence of the wheat genome that includes annotating and identifying the precise locations of genes, regulatory elements, and markers along the chromosomes, thereby providing invaluable tools for wheat breeders. The final result will integrate all genomic resources produced under the umbrella of the IWGSC over the last decade, including individual physical and genetic maps.


Wheat is the staple food for more than a third of the global human population and accounts for 20 percent of all calories consumed in the world.


As the global population grows, so too does its dependence on wheat. To meet future demands of a projected world population of 9.6 billion by 2050 (up from an estimated 7.3 million now), wheat productivity needs to increase by 1.6 percent each year, IWGSC says. In order to preserve biodiversity, water, and nutrient resources, the majority of this increase has to be achieved via crop and trait improvement on land currently cultivated rather than committing new land to cultivation. As for other major crops, a well annotated reference genome sequence will be an invaluable resource towards this goal by providing the detailed maps of genes and gene-networks that can be improved through breeding.


Funding for the project was provided by several institutions in Europe, Canada and the U.S., including Kansas State University through the U.S. National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program and the Kansas Wheat Commission.


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4. Only anti-GMO hippies grow organic corn, right? Wrong.


Chris Bennett

June 14, 2016


Hippies and anti-GMO zealots grow organic crops. Right? Wrong.


Timothy Gertson kicks up dirt off Texas’ Gulf Coast, southwest of Houston in Wharton County. He’s a young 31, but Gertson is an old-school farmer with no time for ideology and no wish to curb his options. Field decisions across his 2,000 acres at G5 Farms are dictated by dollars, and in 2016, he’s found a profit window in organic corn.


Making the Big Switch to Organic


As grain prices tank, necessity is the mother of organic acreage for many producers. USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey showed $3.3 billion in total value of crops sold, a big jump from 2008’s $2 billion. Corn for grain had the fourth highest 2014 sales of any organic crop ($155 million), following lettuce, apples and grapes. Gertson is tapping an organic vein that shows scant signs of wilting.


In 2014, several of Gertson’s neighboring producers planted organic rice, and he watched a hungry market gobble the harvest. But rice drinks copious amounts of water as a necessary means of weed control, and Gertson’s organic interest was trumped by moisture concerns. Flood the rice and hold the flood, when water is already stretched thin? By July 2015, anemic commodity prices pushed Gertson to action and he looked first toward organic grain sorghum. Grain sorghum is a constant in his crop roster and his preferred row crop due to low inputs. (G5 Farms typically has 200 to 1,000 acres of grain sorghum.) But a drab $7.50 per organic bushel was the best price around and not shiny enough to entice a jump.


Next stop: organic corn. Sounding out an offer of $10.50 per bushel, Gertson was all in. Coyote Creek Mill in Elgin, Texas, offered to park trailers on the turnrow and all Gertson had to do was fill them. On March 4-5, 2016, Gertson broke open bags of untreated, plain yellow corn. He planted Blue River Hybrids 70A50 across 220 acres of a 2,000-acre rented block of pastureland. The acreage is not only his initial foray into organics, it’s also the first corn of any type he’s ever grown. Prior to planting, he visited with several growers who had experience with BRH 70A50 to get a feel for yield expectation. “The potential is there for 80 bu. per acre and 100 bu. per acre with perfect conditions. Right now, I can make money at 30 bu. per acre and that’s my starting goal,” Gertson says. “That’s low, but I’m not shooting for the sky. I just want to learn this year.”


More Worried About Wild Pigs Than GMO Drift


Gertson is concerned about drift from his other crops, but his corn is well buffered on three sides by pasture, and is fronted by a 100’ canal. The other side of the water rubs against a 30’ turnrow with conventional rice paddies along its edge. Another concern already causing major problems is Texas’ wild pig plague. Fresh corn is a drug for wild pigs, a constant worry at G5 Farms. The day after Gertson planted, pigs came out of the bottoms and hit the field like surgeons, picking out seed and moving methodically down the rows. It was a bitter lesson and forced an 80-acre replant. Gertson traps, shoots at night with thermal equipment, and periodically hires a helicopter crew to hunt pigs – but they always come back in numbers.


His organic corn is dryland and won’t fight at the water trough with 1,450 acres of conventional rice. By far, rice carries the least risk on Gertson’s operation. It’s the most expensive crop to grow, but returns are far more secure. “Many rice farmers I know are already growing organic grain. Row crop farmers can’t understand organics at first, but they understand money,” Gertson explains. “I made this decision purely based on profit and it makes sense for my farm.”


The majority of Gertson’s acreage is blackland clay, a heavy and hard to work soil that sticks to boots and makes a farmer taller. It can be too soft and give way or toughen to a concrete pan, but the payoff can produce big yields. Gertson’s organic corn acreage sits on sandier blackland, a soil recipe he hopes will be ideal.


Seed and fertilizer should be top expenses, according to Gertson. Seed cost $45 per acre, and he applied 3 tons of chicken manure at $75 per acre. “If it’s a good crop, I’ll spray organically derived Bt at $7 to $8 per acre and I’ll have to spray several times. Again, this is a learning experience for me.” Ideally, Gertson would like to rotate organic corn with a cover crop or winter wheat combination. (Mowed down as mulch in the spring and no-tilled into the mat to fight off weeds.)


G5 Farms has gained full organic certification, but Gertson says the application process was lengthy and he was consistently frustrated with open-ended questions. He turned in 80 pages of paperwork to the Texas Department of Agriculture including forms, maps, and FSA records. “No question; it was a headache. I had to fill it out by hand and it sure seems like an antiquated system. You can certify through private entities, but I want to know every detail I’m signing up for. I don’t want to be on the hook for something I didn’t read.”


Organic as a Market-Driven Decision


Betsy Rakola, USDA organic policy advisor, says the health of the organic crop industry bodes well for producers. “Certifiers continue to receive more applications and we’ve heard that interest is doubling in organic farm tours. The market for organic products is strong and can be two to three, or even four times higher than conventional wholesale prices.”


The future of the overall organic industry is a million-dollar question, but organic livestock feed, Rakola emphasizes, shows particularly strong projections for continued growth. “Companies are searching for organic feed to meet their demand, so imports are very robust. Livestock feed is a big and growing market. Folks are thinking anywhere from a 12% to 15% jump over the next three years in retail sales.”


Fifty miles to the southeast of Gertson in Matagorda County, Richard Beyer, 38, has been growing organic crops for four years. On a 3,000 acre operation, he has 900 acres of organic corn, rice and soybeans. In 2012, Beyer broke organic ground with corn and chased the premium. “I had land available and I was watching the demand for organics going up. My decision was totally market driven. Stay profitable and diversify.”


Beyer aims for 40 bu. per acre yields on corn, and 20 bu. per acre yields on soybeans. Echoing Gertson’s operation, seed and fertilizer are Beyer’s biggest organic expenses. He plants Blue River Hybrids and fertilizes with mushroom compost a few weeks prior to planting. “Four years back, some farmers were skeptical about what I was doing. Since then, skepticism has turned to curiosity. They see grain is relatively easy to market because there are a bunch of buyers out there.”


As for Gertson, he plans on increasing organic production to take advantage of a market he doesn’t want to ignore. “Many of my farming friends thought I was crazy to plant organic corn, but when they heard the price, the understanding was immediate. This was a 100% business decision. Row crop farmers may not understand organics at first, but they understand money.”


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5. Labor shortages in a challenging farm economy

NFU Blog

Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (WA-1)

June 15, 2016


As USDA has widely reported and producers are all too aware, commodity prices have been significantly declining recently. Nationally, net farm income has dropped 56 percent in the last three years.


While not all agricultural products have experienced such a dramatic drop in price, there are other factors that are creating financial hardships across the country. In Washington, where specialty crop prices are relatively stable and in certain circumstances, even on the rise, access to labor is becoming a perpetual challenge. As a nation, we are reliant on temporary and seasonal workers, often through the H-2A visa program, to meet the labor needs of agriculture. H-2A helps aid the labor-intensive periods of planting, harvesting and migrating livestock.


However, our country’s broken immigration system has caused significant delays in processing and approving visas. In instances where H-2A labor has been unavailable, an unstable and unreliable labor supply has caused fruits and vegetables to rot on the trees and in the field. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost by agricultural producers due to these labor shortages. Regrettably, in recent years, the H-2A program has not been administered in a way that recognizes the seasonal and perishable nature of the agriculture industry.


The administration has worked to improve some of these problems, but more work needs to be done. I was proud to join a bipartisan group of House members to push for meaningful improvements to the H-2A program as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Without reforms, Congress shares in the blame for the labor shortages and delays that have had harmful economic effects on producers.


Meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform is an economic imperative for producers that operate in labor-intensive operations, from fruit and vegetables to dairy and livestock. Since coming to Congress, I have advocated for significant changes to our broken immigration system.


That’s why, in the 113th Congress, I was a lead sponsor of a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15). This legislation would secure our borders, protect our workers, unite families and offer hardworking immigrants an earned pathway to citizenship. Unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to vote on this important legislation, but I remain fully committed to continuing to work toward a balanced, responsible approach to fixing our immigration system.


We must ensure American employers and entrepreneurs can attract and hire the workforce demanded by a highly competitive 21st century economy. Our local employers, whether in technology, manufacturing or agriculture, need an immigration system that works for them and helps sustain and create jobs. That’s why in the 114th Congress, I’ve opposed partisan, enforcement-only immigration bills in the House Judiciary Committee that would hurt Washington’s agriculture and technology sectors, and introduced amendments that would prevent significant harm to our local economy.


Unfortunately, sensible discussions around immigration have eroded almost entirely. The shortsightedness of some has come at the expense of individuals, families and businesses across the country. In agriculture alone, there are dozens of states suffering from labor shortages and delayed arrival of H-2A workers. In an already stressed farm economy, these self-inflicted problems are inexcusable and irresponsible. We know all too well that while family farmers provide the base of the operation’s labor, many times it is simply not enough and additional workers are required. There are few individuals who are willing to do these jobs today and erecting higher barriers to entry is simply counterproductive.


It is past time to have a meaningful and constructive conversation about labor and comprehensive immigration reform. As members of Congress head into the August district work period, I would urge Farmers Union members, when meeting with their representatives, to share their stories. Humanizing the debate and demonstrating the economic stakes can only help to move this issue forward. I believe we have a historic opportunity to fix our nation’s broken immigration system in a bipartisan way so that it works for families, farmers and our economy.


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