USDA announces $772.6 million in rural infrastructure awards

During a town hall meeting in North Carolina on Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $772.6 million in funding for projects promoting rural growth, including high-speed internet, clean water, and community facilities. The bulk of the money, $664.2 million, would go to rural water and sewer projects across the country.

Crop insurance costs to leap by 29 percent, says CBO

The federally subsidized crop insurance program will cost an additional $27.7 billion over the coming decade, said the Congressional Budget Office in projections released on Monday. The government pays roughly 62 cents of each $1 in premiums, and sales of livestock and forage policies are exploding.

USDA launches Working Lands Climate Corps

The new Working Lands Climate Corps will train young adults for careers in climate-smart agriculture and conservation, said Agriculture deputy secretary Xochitl Torres Small on Monday. She announced the initiative at the National Association of Conservation Districts convention in San Diego, with the NACD, Americorps, and The Corps Network as partners.

Analyst: Record U.S. corn and soybean crops are possible this year

U.S. farmers will plant enough land to corn and soybeans this spring to put record harvests within reach with normal weather and “trend-type” yields, said an S&P Global update. It was the second report this week to suggest that despite the USDA’s projection of a shift toward soybeans, many farmers will stick with corn. 

USDA pilot program will test remote grading of beef carcasses

The USDA is launching a pilot program that will grade cattle carcasses by using images submitted electronically by small meatpackers rather than sending an inspector to the plant, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will announce on Friday. The Remote Grading Pilot for Beef is intended to reduce costs for small packers while giving them an opportunity to increase the value of the meat they produce.

Six-week government funding bill is proposed

The Senate was scheduled to take a procedural vote on Tuesday afternoon to keep the government running until early March, a six-week extension of the stop-gap funding bill now in place. If Congress fails to act, funding for the USDA and four other federal departments would expire on Friday.

School food directors call for free meals for all students

Congress should offer free meals to all school students and increase the federal reimbursement for each meal that is served, said the School Nutrition Association on Tuesday, speaking for school food directors. "Research shows students eat their healthiest meals at school, and school nutrition programs need Congress' support to sustain that achievement," said SNA president Chris Derico.

USDA to hire climate change fellows

Facing a record number of applications for clean energy funding, the USDA said it would hire 40 Climate Change Fellows to speed up the disbursal of $2 billion through its Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). The $2 billion was part of the 2022 climate, healthcare, and tax law.

USDA names Watkins new APHIS chief

Michael Watson, the No. 2 official at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service since 2018, will be the agency’s new administrator, announced the USDA on Wednesday. He will succeed Kevin Shea, who will become a senior adviser to Xochitl Torres Small, USDA deputy secretary.

USDA announces plan to conserve old-growth forests

In a first-of-its-kind step, the Agriculture Department proposed to amend all of its 128 forest management plans to conserve and steward old-growth forests in its 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands on Tuesday. "This will provide consistent direction across the Forest Service on how to conserve and restore old-growth forest conditions across the nation," said the White House.

Foreign buyers of ag land show interest in its potential to generate renewable energy

When foreign investors acquire U.S. forest and farm land, they frequently are interested in the possibility of solar, wind, or renewable energy generation on their new property, said an Agriculture Department report. Companies with the words "wind," "solar," or "renewable" in their names hold 28 percent of the 43.4 million acres of foreign-owned or -leased agricultural land in the country.

Grasslands surge to No. 1 in Conservation Reserve enrollment

The skyrocketing popularity of the grasslands option is adding a working lands dimension to the Conservation Reserve, created four decades ago to take fragile cropland out of production. Grasslands now account for 35 percent of the land enrolled in the reserve, up from 28 percent in fiscal 2023, according to USDA data.

House votes to make whole milk part of school lunches

The House passed, on an overwhelming 330-99 roll call on Wednesday, a bill that overrides USDA regulations to allow schools to serve whole milk as part of the school lunch program. “Let’s end the war on milk,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

USDA allots $300 million for first year of export program

The government will provide up to $300 million for the first year of a new program to build food and ag export sales in nontraditional markets, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. The USDA has committed $1.2 billion over five years for the Regional Agricultural Promotion Program (RAPP) after the second year in a row of declining ag exports.

USDA announces poultry reform rule, will name ‘competition officer’

A new USDA rule will require poultry processors to give farmers more information about what to expect, including potential income and expenses, before they sign a contract to raise birds for them, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. The rule, expected to take effect in late January, was part of an administration drive for the fair treatment of farmers in the highly concentrated meat industry.

U.S. economy and inflation to slow in 2024; crop prices to dip again

Interest rates and inflation will slow in 2024, along with the U.S. economy overall, projected the Agriculture Department on Tuesday in an outline of farm sector conditions in the new year. Farm-gate prices for the three major field crops—corn, soybeans, and wheat—would fall for the second year but remain above pre-pandemic levels while market prices for cattle and hogs go up.

USDA says $3 billion available to offset 2022 disasters

Row crop and specialty crop growers are eligible for more than $3 billion from the Emergency Relief Program (ERP) to offset losses from natural disasters in 2022, said the USDA. Administrator Zach Ducheneaux of the Farm Services Agency said 2022 "was another year of weather-related challenges — for some, the third consecutive year or more in a row."

Senate supports USDA rule against discrimination in school meals

On a vote that largely followed party lines, the Senate on Thursday defeated a Republican attempt to overturn a USDA rule against discrimination in school food programs on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. “This whole exercise is nothing more than a political stunt using children, as I said before, to stoke up their culture wars,” said Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow.

USDA strengthens animal welfare standards for organic livestock

Organic farmers will have stronger and more consistent standards for treatment of their livestock under an animal welfare regulation that could take effect by the end of this year, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. The rule requires unlimited outdoor access for animals, an industry norm, and prohibits the small enclosed “porches” that some poultry farms have said are sufficient.

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