By RYAN MCCRIMMON 01/21/2020 10:00 AM EST
— President Donald Trump received a hearty welcome from farmers at a major industry gathering over the weekend. With the November elections fast approaching, Trump is hoping a series of recent trade wins and continued regulatory rollback will keep rural voters in his corner after a rough stretch for agriculture.
— The Agriculture Department will soon launch a final round of tariff relief, despite the new trade resolution with China. But Secretary Sonny Perdue suggested farmers shouldn’t count on any more direct aid in 2020, which he predicted will be a record-breaking year for ag exports.
— USDA is taking new steps to loosen school lunch standards championed by the Obama administration. A pair of proposed rules would give schools more flexibility to offer certain foods to students and restructure the summer meals program.
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DRIVING THE DAY
TRUMP VISITS FARMERS FOR 2020 POLITICAL CHECKUP: The president is hurtling into election season with a critical piece of his base largely intact, judging by his warm reception Sunday at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention. Trump talked up his ag and trade policies at the event in Austin, Texas, despite the hardships that farmers have endured since 2018 because of the administration’s tariff battles, biofuel blending waivers and other actions.
Farmers and ranchers at the annual event sang the president’s praises, especially his moves to slash the Obama administration’s regulations on pesticides and water pollution, report POLITICO’s Renuka Rayasam and Catherine Boudreau. They also said Trump is delivering on his trade agenda, despite the financial pain from retaliatory tariffs against U.S. farm goods.
Tennessee farmer Ben Moore said Trump “assured us for the past three years that he knew what he was doing, and it’s obvious with his final signing that he did,” referring to the newly signed “phase one” agreement with China. The partial trade deal is expected to guarantee $80 billion worth of ag-related exports to China over the next two years.
Good times, bad times: The recent happy talk comes after a brutal year for farmers, not just because of the trade turmoil. 2019 included historic weather challenges that led to record planting delays, an uptick in farm bankruptcies and other rising signals of financial stress in the ag sector.
Trump has also frustrated farmers with his administration’s heavy use of blending waivers for oil refiners, which have hurt domestic biofuel demand and caused ethanol plants to shut down. But some supporters at the event were happy to look past those issues, especially those who said they’re wary of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates.
“We see absolutely nothing other than Donald Trump,” said Donald Vogler, a cotton farmer from Lamesa, Texas. “My personal income is secondary to my national pride in the United States.”
Read up: Agriculture isn’t the only industry going through a rough patch. U.S. manufacturing remains in a recession, a point that could undermine Trump’s relatively strong economic record as he seeks reelection, writes POLITICO’s Ben White.
PERDUE SEES ‘RECORD YEAR’ FOR AG EXPORTS: The USDA chief also delivered remarks at the AFBF convention, where he acknowledged the hardships of 2019 but predicted much brighter days ahead. “2020 I believe will be a record year for agricultural exports,” Perdue said. “We’re talking about doubling the number of ag imports that China has ever done before, throughout the whole agricultural sector.”
Trade aid 2.0, part III: He confirmed that USDA plans to offer a third and final batch of trade aid for 2019 losses, “no ‘maybe’ about it,” after Trump had teased the additional aid on Sunday. But Perdue indicated there might not be another bailout program for 2020, with the promise of Chinese ag purchases and other trade deals in place. “Now let’s grow stuff, let’s produce things and let’s sell stuff,” he told the gathering of farmers.
Crop report conspiracies: The secretary also noted the industry’s concern about recent production data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Some of the agency’s crop reports last year diverged from private estimates, causing big moves in commodity markets and fueling accusations that Washington was playing with prices. The frustration boiled over when a farmer made violent threats against USDA employees, causing the agency to withdraw staff from a crop tour last summer.
“We got a little conspiratorial, thinking NASS was out to get us, too. I questioned them very heavily,” Perdue said. “Ultimately I think you’ll find out their numbers … might have been more correct than the market was, ultimately.” He added that USDA is seeking suggestions to improve its data collection methods.
USDA TO LOOSEN SCHOOL LUNCH RULES, AGAIN: The department on Friday announced two proposals to unwind some of the school meal policies championed by Michelle Obama (notably, on the former first lady’s birthday). It’s the latest in a series of moves by Perdue to give schools more freedom from nutrition standards, but critics warn the changes will leave students with less healthy choices like pizza, burgers and fries.
Here’s the plan: One proposed rule would give schools more options when serving fruits and vegetables; make it “simpler” to provide meat and meat alternatives; and let schools offer lunch entrees à la carte — a move USDA said is aimed at reducing food waste, writes Pro Ag’s Liz Crampton.
The other rule would adjust the Summer Food Service Program so that schools have more flexibility over their offerings and meal times and students are allowed to take nonperishable foods off-site.
The American Heart Association said the proposed changes “are unnecessary and put children’s health at risk,” citing the potential impact on childhood obesity rates and cardiovascular health.
The à la carte changes, for example, could allow students to “purchase three slices of pizza in the a-la-carte line instead of purchasing a nutritionally balanced, reimbursable lunch that contains a slice of pizza, salad, and fruit,” AHA said.
The backstory: As first lady, Michelle Obama played a central role in passing the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which directed USDA to cut salt, sugar and fat from school meals while requiring more fruits and vegetables. But under Perdue, USDA has chipped away at those stricter rules, including a 2018 effort to relax sodium limits, cut whole grain requirements and bring back 1 percent flavored milk.
For context: The National School Lunch Program serves some 30 million students, with 2.6 million served in summer months.
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— European Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan laid out a middle-ground approach on agricultural trade as the U.S. and EU try to reach a broader agreement this year. Under the potential compromise, Brussels would drop certain regulatory barriers to U.S. farm goods while maintaining agricultural tariffs, per POLITICO Europe’s Jakob Hanke.
— EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler canceled his appearance at the AFBF convention, which was expected to include a news conference on clean water rules. The agency is aiming to finalize a rule this month that would change the scope of the Clean Water Act, an effort backed heavily by the Farm Bureau, Pro Energy’s Annie Snider reports.
— House Democrats are warning that raising tariffs on European wines from 25 percent to 100 percent could lead to 78,000 job losses in the U.S. The Trump administration is also threatening to slap 100 percent duties on French champagne. Pro Trade’s Doug Palmer and Sabrina Rodriguez have more.
— ICYMI, the Senate Judiciary Committee last week advanced Stephen Vaden’s nomination to be a judge on the U.S. Court of International Trade. Vaden has served as USDA General Counsel since November 2018.
— Ag lending decreased by 5 percent during the second half of 2019 due to trade aid for farmers, as well as lower production costs and relatively strong crop yields, according to the Federal Reserve last week. Food and Environment Reporting Network has the details.
— Prescott Martin III was promoted to chief counsel for the House Agriculture Committee. Justina Graff was named deputy clerk, and Jake Chisholm was hired as staff director for the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee, Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) announced.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: RYAN MCCRIMMON
Ryan McCrimmon is an agriculture and food policy reporter and newsletter writer for POLITICO and POLITICO Pro. He was previously a tax and budget reporter for Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call, and before that he covered the Texas state legislature in Austin for the Texas Tribune. Ryan graduated from Northwestern University, where he studied journalism and Middle Eastern politics and history. He also covered Big Ten sports for the Northwestern News Network and Big Ten Digital Network. Ryan was born and raised in Charlottesville, Va.