Puerto Rico Strikes Alliances with USDA to Foster Agricultural Sector

SAN JUAN — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Puerto Rico government signed Tuesday two collaboration agreements to provide more incentives to small & midsize businesses (SMEs) in the agriculture sector, as well as internship and employment opportunities for local college students.

Through the Trade & Export Co. and House of Representatives’ Fuerza PyME, a support program to Puerto Rico SMEs, the first agreement seeks to increase the participation of local companies in USDA programs, including those that facilitate access to financing. The local program would provide consulting for agricultural SMEs so they can take advantage of applicable federal programs.

The second accord between the USDA and the commonwealth government aims to develop joint programs that lead to increased employment and internship opportunities for young students within the federal agency, through the Economic Development & Commerce Department’s Youth Development Program. Initially, a total of 22 college students will benefit from this agreement.

House Speaker Jaime Perelló and USDA's Dr. Joe Leonard take part in the Capitol's farm fair.

House Speaker Jaime Perelló and USDA’s Dr. Joe Leonard take part in the Capitol’s farm fair.

“These agreements with the Puerto Rico government represent our continued commitment with the people of Puerto Rico, not only from the USDA, but more importantly, also from the [Barack Obama] White House,” said Elvis Córdova, assistant undersecretary of the USDA’s Markets & Regulation Programs.

For his part, House Speaker Jaime Perelló said it is time to recognize and support the efforts of a new generation of Puerto Ricans that has returned to rescue the island’s agriculture niche.

Perelló also announced the first edition of Expo Fuerza PyME for farmers and local entrepreneurs in the agricultural industry. The event will take place March 3, at the Ponce Convention Center. A joint effort between the House and the Trade & Export Co., the Expo Fuerza PyME initiative seeks to provide tools and solutions to business owners or potential entrepreneurs interested in establishing or expanding an SME. There have been 12 regional expos to date, with the participation of more than 10,000 people.

Joint Investment by PR, US Agriculture Departments Results in Crop Pest Control Project

SAN JUAN – With a $40,000 investment – $20,000 from the Innovation and Agricultural Development Fund (IFAD by its Spanish acronym) and the remaining $20,000 from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Specialty Crops grant program – the Casa Sombra greenhouse project was begun Saturday in Juana Díaz’s Agricultural Experiment Station.

“Casa Sombra is the first pilot project of its kind to be established at the research level in Puerto Rico. In order to validate technology for local farmers, the Department of Agriculture established a testing phase in collaboration with the Experimental Station of the University of Puerto Rico in Juana Díaz,” Agriculture Secretary Myrna Comas Pagán explained.

“This project seeks to provide another farming alternative to minimize the loss in production caused by difficult to control pests so that agronomic practices that provide food security for the island are once again established,” said agronomist Manuel Crespo Ruiz, Assistant Secretary of Innovation and Agricultural Commerce.

The investment aims to study the interaction between diamondback moth Plutella xylostella in cabbage and pepper weevil Anthonomus eugenii, thrips, and whiteflies in watermelon. Initially, tests will be performed on these crops in two stages of production, one protected by the Casa Sombra structure and the other a fresh air stage for a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Given its low investment cost when compared with the technology involved in a controlled environment; the relatively inexpensive installation and pest control advantages, it is a project within the partially controlled environment category.

Cabbage production has fluctuated in recent years from 586,900 pounds to 910,800 pounds annually. Cabbage imports totaled 7.1 million pounds, for an approximate total consumption of 8.1 million pounds. The fresh cabbage market is pegged at 92% with an approximate value of $1.4 million at the farm level.

“At the Innovation Fund for Agricultural Development, our vision is to provide technology to farmers, which is possible when matching funds of different programs with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” IFAD Executive Director Saritza Aulet Padilla added in a statement.

Farmers Clash with Riot Police, Drive Tractors through Athens in Pensions Protest

Farmers clash with riot police during a protest outside Agriculture ministry in Athens, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Farmers clash with riot police during a protest outside Agriculture ministry in Athens, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS, Greece – More than a dozen tractors rolled through Athens on Friday, honking horns and flashing lights outside parliament as thousands of Greek farmers thronged the capital’s main Syntagma Square to protest tax hikes and pension reforms.

The two-day protest kicked off Friday morning with clashes between riot police and Cretan farmers wielding shepherd’s staffs that left 10 policemen slightly injured and smashed windows at the agriculture ministry.

Music blared from loudspeakers and protesters braving rain lit a bonfire near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the foot of parliament, while about 20 tractors parked nearby. Tents were set up in the adjacent central Syntagma Square in preparation for an all-night sit-in.

Farming associations have been blockading highways across the country with tractors for more than two weeks, forcing traffic into lengthy diversions to protest a planned overhaul of the country’s troubled pension system. So far, they have refused talks with the government, insisting the pension reform plan must be repealed.

Bailout lenders are demanding that Greece scrap tax breaks for farmers and impose pension reforms that will lead to higher monthly contributions from the self-employed and salaried employees.

“They fooled us,” Manolis Paterakis, head of one of Crete’s farmer blockades, said of the left-led government. “They were telling us that they support us, that they are fighting for the survival of the farmers, … that young people need to return to their villages and work their land.

“The same people (now) come and confirm the exact opposite,” he said. “Whoever farms today, the only thing they will achieve is to have debts to the tax office.”

The most severe clashes came in the morning outside the agriculture ministry, where about 800 farmers from Crete were demanding access to the building. Riot police used tear gas to repel groups hurling rocks and tomatoes and setting dumpsters alight.

Numerous windows of the ministry building were smashed, and rubble from broken paving stones littered the road outside. Police said the farmers threatened to spray them with a pesticide used for olive trees if the police used tear gas. At least four farmers were detained.

Farmers drive their tractors during a protest in front of the Greek parliament in Athens, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Farmers drive their tractors during a protest in front of the Greek parliament in Athens, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One outnumbered riot police unit was forced to flee up a street, with farmers wielding staffs and pieces of wood in pursuit.

Separate clashes broke out on highways leading into the Greek capital. To the east of Athens, farmers used tractors to circumvent a police roadblock, drive over a highway barrier and block the main highway to Athens’ international airport for about half an hour, leaving travelers with planes to catch walking along the road, wheeling their suitcases behind them.

West of the city, riot police fired tear gas to disperse farmers demanding to be allowed into the city with agricultural vehicles despite a government ban. Running clashes ensued along the highway, with some protesters smashing the windscreen of a patrol car.

“These scenes were aimed at blackening the struggle of the farmers,” said Agriculture Minister Vangelis Apostolou. “For us, there is one path – that of dialogue to solve the problems of farmers.”

The protests against the pension changes have united a disparate group of professions, including lawyers, artists, accountants, engineers, doctors, dentists, seamen and casino workers.

Throughout Friday, farmers in buses, pickup trucks and cars from north and south were heading to the capital for the main evening rally and all-night sit-in, which is to be followed by another rally Saturday.

FDA Gives OK for Company’s Genetically Engineered Potato

BOISE, Idaho – A potato genetically engineered to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine is as safe as any other potato on the market, the Food and Drug Administration says.

In a letter Tuesday to Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co., the FDA said the potato isn’t substantially different in composition or safety from other products already on the market, and it doesn’t raise any issues that would require the agency to do more stringent premarket vetting.

“We’re pleased and hope that consumers recognize the benefits once it’s introduced into the marketplace next year,” Doug Cole, the company’s director of marketing and communications, said Wednesday.

Before the potato is marketed to consumers, it must be cleared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cole said. That’s expected to happen in December.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the potato in August.

The Russet Burbank Generation 2 is the second generation of Simplot’s “Innate” brand potatoes. It includes the first version’s reduced bruising, but less of a chemical produced at high temperatures that some studies have shown can cause cancer.

The second-generation potato also includes an additional trait that the company says will allow potatoes to be stored at colder temperatures longer to reduce food waste.

Haven Baker, vice president of plant sciences at Simplot, said late blight – the cause of the Irish potato famine – remains the No. 1 pathogen for potatoes around the world.

“This will bring 24-hour protection to farmers’ fields and, in addition, has the potential to reduce pesticide spray by 25 to 45 percent,” Baker said.

The late blight resistance comes from an Argentinian variety of potato that naturally produced a defense.

“There are 4,000 species of potatoes,” Baker said. “There is an immense library to help us improve this great food. By introducing these potato genes we can bring sustainability and consumer benefits.”

The company has already been selling its first generation of Innate potatoes to consumers, selling out its 2014 crop and currently selling the 2015 crop of about 2,000 acres.

Cole said those potatoes were mostly grown in Idaho and Wisconsin, and are being sold in supermarkets across the nation.

But one of the company’s oldest business partners – McDonald’s – has rejected using any of Simplot’s genetically engineered potatoes.

Cole said the company plans to introduce the potatoes to other restaurants and hotel convention centers as precut and pre-peeled potatoes, where he said the resistance to bruising makes them a good product.

By The Associated Press

Monsanto Eliminates 1,000 More Jobs to Cut Costs

WASHINGTON – Monsanto said Wednesday it will eliminate another 1,000 jobs as it expands a cost-cutting plan designed to deal with falling sales of biotech-corn seeds and other financial headwinds.

The additional layoffs will bring the agriculture giant’s total planned cuts to 3,600 jobs over the next two years, or about 16 percent of its global workforce. In October the company first announced the restructuring plan, intended to streamline its sales, R&D and other operations.

The St. Louis-based company says the restructuring will cost between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion to implement, up from previous estimates of $850 million to $900 million. By the end of fiscal 2018, the company expects the changes to generate annual savings of $500 million.

Its shares fell more than 2 percent in afternoon trading Wednesday.

Monsanto has struggled in recent quarters to deal with slumping corn prices in the U.S., which have reduced demand for its best-selling product: genetically-enhanced corn seeds. Farmers are shifting more acres to other crops after surpluses of corn, wheat and others have squashed commodity prices.

The job cuts came as Monsanto reported a net loss of $253 million, or 56 cents per share, for its first fiscal quarter. It cited foreign currency pressures and falling seed sales. When adjusted for one-time items, the loss was 11 cents per share.

That was better than forecasts for a loss of 24 cents per share, according to the average estimate of nine analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research.

The agriculture products company posted a 23 percent decline in revenue to $2.22 billion in the period, short of Street forecasts. Three analysts surveyed by Zacks expected $2.55 billion.

In the most recent quarter corn seed sales fell nearly 20 percent to $745 million. Those results were partially offset by higher soybean sales, which grew 10 percent to $438 million.

Monsanto’s biotech seeds have genetically engineered traits, such as protection against insects and disease, which help farmers increase their crop yield, despite their higher prices. The company, which also sells herbicide, has dominated the bioengineered-seed business for more than a decade and controls an estimated 18 percent of the $44 billion global seed market, according to Edward Jones analyst Matt Arnold.

Monsanto has recently developed products specifically for emerging markets like Argentina, Brazil and parts of Asia.

The company cautioned that its fiscal 2016 results would likely be in the lower range of its full-year guidance, $5.10 to $5.60, due to financial pressures, including the devaluation of Argentina’s peso.

“The headwinds from currency and commodity prices that we outlined at the start of this fiscal year have not yet abated and in fact currency has become a much stronger headwind with the recent events in Argentina,” CEO Hugh Grant told analysts Wednesday.

For the year, Monsanto expects negative currency trends will lower its earnings by 60 to 70 cents per share, more than its previous estimate of 35 to 40 cents per share.

Monsanto shares fell $2.41, or 2.5 percent, to $94.33 in afternoon trading. Company shares have fallen about 19 percent over the past year.

By The Associated Press

Chinese Medicinal Herbs Provide Niche Market for US Farmers

DELMAR, N.Y. — Expanding interest in traditional Chinese medicine in the United States is fostering a potentially lucrative new niche market for farmers who plant the varieties of herbs, flowers and trees sought by practitioners.

While almost all practitioners still rely on imports from China, dwindling wild stands there, as well as quality and safety concerns, could drive up demand for herbs grown in the U.S. Several states have set up “growing groups” to help farmers establish trial stands of the most popular plants.

“As a farmer, I love the idea of growing something no one else is growing, something that’s good for people,” said Rebekah Rice of Delmar, near Albany, who is among 30 members of a New York growing group. “This project is seriously fascinating.”

Jean Giblette, a researcher who has established New York’s group, said it could also be a moneymaker. She estimates the market for domestically grown medicinal plants to be $200 million to $300 million a year.

Traditional Chinese medicine is gaining mainstream acceptance in the U.S. There are 30,000 licensed practitioners across the country — 46 states issue licenses, often requiring a master’s degree and continuing education credits. In 2014, the Cleveland Clinic opened one of the first hospital-based Chinese herbal therapy clinics in the country.

Jamie Starkey, a licensed practitioner of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, said quality, authenticity and purity are important concerns with herbal products.

“If growers in the U.S. can produce a highest-quality product that is identical to species from China, without contamination from heavy metals or pesticides, I think it’s a great opportunity for farmers,” Starkey said.

More than 300 plants are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. Giblette and Peg Schafer, an herb grower in Petaluma, California, compiled a list of marketable species for U.S. farmers. They include Angelica dahurica, a flowering perennial whose root is used to relieve pain and inflammation; Aster tataricus, a relative of garden asters said to have anti-bacterial properties; Mentha haplocalyx, a mint used for stomach ailments; and Salvia miltiorrhiza, a type of sage whose roots are used for treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

The National Institutes of Health says traditional Chinese medical techniques — which included practices such as acupuncture and Tai Chi — are primarily used as a complement to mainstream medicine. The agency cautions that some medicinal herbs can have serious side effects, and there isn’t enough rigorous scientific evidence to know whether traditional Chinese medicine works for the conditions it treats. Clinical trials are difficult because treatments involve combinations of plants customized for each patient.

Giblette, who started High Falls Foundation in New York’s Hudson Valley in 2008 to foster research and conservation of medicinal plants, said growing under conditions similar to a plant’s natural habitat is one of the keys to producing high quality medicinal plants. The foundation will provide the plants so it can ensure the authenticity of species and market products only to licensed herbal practitioners.

Market research shows high demand and low supply, said Rob Glenn, chairman of the nonprofit Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in Pilot, Virginia.

“The current herbs from China are not of the quality they once were and U.S. practitioners indicate they are willing to pay a premium price for herbs grown with organic principles, locally, with high efficacy,” he said.

Using an economic development grant from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, the Blue Ridge Center is enlisting local farmers to grow medicinal herbs that the center will process and sell to licensed practitioners. This year, the center planted 38 species on 35 farms.

The center sent samples from the first harvest to 26 practitioners who agreed to evaluate the quality and efficacy.

“We were super impressed by the samples we received,” said Ken Morehead, a practitioner at Oriental Health Solutions in Durham, North Carolina. “We really want to have access to clean organic herbs. I think the farmers can do well and we can have an industry that supports the local economy, is good for the environment and improves people’s health.”

From an economic standpoint, Glenn said the goal is to introduce a crop that could supplement a farmer’s income by as much as $15,000 a year — effectively doubling the income of farmers in the economically distressed area.

To reach that goal, a farmer would have to devote an acre to the project for eight years, Glenn said. Because some of the plants are trees or perennials that take years to grow to marketable size, it will take time to achieve maximum return on investment, he said.

The center’s initial research indicates a return-on-investment ranging from $1.69 per plant for Celosia, an annual flowering plant used for various eye maladies and bleeding, to $20 for Angelica.

“As we continue our experimentation, we will endeavor to have our farmers plant more of the high-value and high-demand plants,” Glenn said.

By The Associated Press