US Congress’ budget patch averts national farm loan crisis

In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016, Matt Ubell adds grain to feed as she prepares to feed cattle on his farm near Wheaton, Kan. Ubell is one of many farmers taking out government agriculture loans to make ends meet in a turbulent farm economy. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016, Matt Ubell adds grain to feed as he prepares to feed cattle on his farm near Wheaton, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

WICHITA, Kan. – U.S. farmers drained all available government agricultural loan money this past fiscal year to get through one of the worst agricultural downturns in recent years, but no one who qualifies for a farm loan will be denied in the next four months due to an unusual provision passed this month by Congress.

The budget patch gives the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency authority to meet the spike in loan demand by using future funding, according to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who chairs an agricultural appropriations panel. There is no limit to how much the USDA can lend through April 28 – a victory for farm groups who pressed Washington for the fix to avert a looming loan crisis.

Already, corn and wheat prices have pushed farmers to the limit, and beef prices are hurting ranchers. They turned to lenders, leading the FSA to fall short $137 million short of needed direct and guaranteed loan funds in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

When the money ran out, approved loans were funded in the current fiscal year, piling on to the demand for loans and raising the specter that FSA would again run out of money before spring – when most farmers need it the most.

“If you are trying to grow a crop and feed a family and pay the bills, it is a problem,” Moran said. “This is one of the most difficult times in agriculture in a long time.”

Operating loans for 2016 are coming due at a time of widespread downturn. Farmers in Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama have gotten a double whammy of drought and flooding. Midwest states are reeling from a glut in global grain markets that has slashed crop prices, and cotton growers in Georgia and Texas also are suffering due to low prices. Consumer demand for milk is down. Cattle prices are falling.

Not as many people are able to pay off their 2016 operating loans, and the next 60 to 90 days will be telling, said Steve Apodaca, vice president for the Washington, D.C.-based The American Bankers Association’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Banking.

Most borrowers will be able to sustain themselves another year, and bankers will be able to help restructure their loans and add federal guarantees to commercial loans, Apodaca said. He is not expecting a repeat of the farm crisis of the 1980s, when land values tanked and interest rates were high.

Matt Ubell and his two siblings took out an FSA loan this month to buy their parents’ cattle and crops farm in Wheaton, Kansas, but he says the agricultural economy “has us scared to death.” Their balance sheet was just above the break-even point to qualify for the loan.

“We are kind of starting out fresh. We bought the farm, we bought the equipment.” Ubell said. “… We are pretty highly leveraged right now.”

The 34-year-old farmer and his wife put in long hours to make ends meet for their four children. His wife is a cook and a nursing assistant. He works at a lumberyard and delivers liquid feed supplements for cattle.

One measure of the farm economy is equity – the amount of debt compared to assets like land and machinery. The USDA’s Economic Research Service predicted last month U.S. farm equity would decline 3.1 percent in 2016 to $2.47 trillion – the second straight year of declines. Farm debt is expected to rise 5.2 percent to $375.4 billion in 2016.

With such low commodity prices, Russell Boening said he is doing everything he can not to borrow more money than he absolutely needs to operate his 7,500-acre family farm in south Texas because “that gets you further and further behind.” That includes delaying equipment purchases.

The 57-year-old has farmed for 35 years, has hundreds of dairy and beef cattle and grows hay, corn, cotton, wheat and watermelons to diversify his income. Also the president of the Texas Farm Bureau, Boening knows he’s in a better spot than younger farmers like Ubell.

“We have been here long enough,” he said. “We have a good relationship with the lender, so we have equity built up and we are in a better spot than someone who has struck out on their own within the last 10 years.”

This year’s bountiful yields and low interest rates on loans helped many growers. But many commercial lenders are now demanding farmers whose operations are under stress to get government guarantees that any money lent for next year’s crops will be repaid.

“When a farmer goes under, it affects that rural community,” Apodaca said. “He is no longer buying seed, he is no longer buying equipment. His family is no longer going to the local Main Street and buying goods and services.”




‘Best If Used By’ Labels Will Reduce Food Waste, USDA Says

USDA_logoPORTLAND, Maine – The U.S. Department of Agriculture says food sellers who use product dating labels should switch to the phrase “Best If Used By” to help reduce confusion and food waste.

Consumers are less likely to find such labels confusing than other widely used ones such as “Sell By” and “Use By,” the agency said this week. Here are some of the ramifications of the USDA’s move:

USDA TAKES ON FOOD WASTE

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued the new guideline Wednesday as part of an effort to cut back on food that gets thrown out when it could be eaten or donated. The agency estimates 30 percent of food is lost or wasted, either at the retail or consumer level.

“This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash,” said Al Almanza, USDA deputy under secretary for food safety.

The guideline is aimed at food manufacturers and retailers. It follows a January directive from the USDA that the agency said would make it easier for companies to donate food that might otherwise go to waste.

MANY LABELS FOR FOOD

One reason food expiration labels are so confusing for consumers is that there aren’t many strict federal standards for them. Food product dating isn’t required by federal regulations except for infant formula.

Different labels are aimed at consumers and retailers, according to Bob Brackett, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Brackett wrote on the Institute of Food Technologists website that “Sell By” is designed to inform retailers of the date by which a product should be sold, but it does not mean a product is unsafe to consume after the date.

“Use By” is directed at consumers and means the quality of the product is likely to go down faster after the date, Brackett wrote. It does not mean an expired product will necessarily make a person sick, he wrote. “Best By” is also directed at consumers and suggests a date by which a product should be consumed for best possible quality, he wrote.

The USDA said this week that the use of many different phrases about food quality dates leads to disposal of food that is actually nutritious and safe to eat. The agency said its research shows that “Best If Used By” is easily understood by consumers.

WHAT COULD HAPPEN NEXT?

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who has put a focus on reducing food waste, said she is encouraged by the USDA’s move. She said a critical next move is to formalize changes with labeling legalization – a highly political issue. Changes are unlikely to happen swiftly, especially with a new Congress beginning in January.

Pingree introduced the Food Date Labeling Act earlier this year. The proposal would establish a uniform national system for date labeling and educate consumers about the meaning of labels. Pingree intends to reintroduce the legislation in the new Congress next year, a spokesman said.




USDA Awards $45M in Grants to help Agricultural Producers, Rural Businesses Develop Products

SAN JUAN – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday that USDA is providing more than $45 million to help farmers, ranchers, small businesses and entrepreneurs develop new product lines. The USDA is investing in 326 projects through the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program.

VAPG grants can be used to develop new product lines from raw agricultural products or promote additional uses for established products. Veterans, socially disadvantaged groups, beginning farmers and ranchers, operators of small and medium sized family farms and ranches, and farmer and rancher cooperatives are given priority.

José Otero-García, USDA Rural Development state director for Puerto Rico, indicated that eight agricultural producers in Puerto Rico received $1.6 million for value-added activities related to processing and/or marketing, generating new products, or creating and expanding marketing opportunities.

USDA_logoThe agricultural producers are De Hoyos Farm LLC, Empacadora y Procesadora del Sur Inc., Setas de Puerto Rico, Ganaderos Borges Inc., Hacienda San Diego LLC, Puerto Rico Coffee Company, Rico Banana Inc., and Kefruits LLC.

“Value-Added Producer Grants are one of USDA’s most sought-after funding sources for veteran and beginning farmers, and rural businesses,” Vilsack said in a Friday release. “These grants provide a much needed source of financing to help producers develop new product lines and increase their income, and keep that income in their community. Economic development initiatives like this one are working – the unemployment rate in rural America is at an eight year low and incomes rose 3.4 % last year. Small business entrepreneurship, which Value-Added Producer Grants support, is a major reason why rural America is making a comeback.”

The USDA has awarded 1,442 VAPG awards since 2009, totaling $183.2 million.

For additional information, contact Danna Quiles, Business & Cooperative program director at Puerto Rico State Office, at (787) 766-5355, 766-5363, 766-5379 or 766-5412 or visit www.rd.usda.gov/pr.




USDA’s $300M Investment to Improve Energy Efficiency includes $434K for Puerto Rico Businesses

SAN JUAN – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday that the USDA is investing more than $300 million to help hundreds of small businesses to save money on their energy costs by adopting renewable sources or implementing more efficient options.

“Cutting our energy waste is one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to help families save money on their energy bills while reducing harmful carbon pollution,” Vilsack said in the news release. “Through efficiency upgrades and private sector partnerships, America has been able to cuts its carbon emissions, create jobs and save families hundreds of dollars at the pump and on their utility bills every year. The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) alone has helped roughly 15,000 rural small businesses, farmers and ranchers improve their bottom lines by install renewable energy systems and energy efficiency solutions.”

USDA_logoJosé Otero-García, USDA Rural Development state director for Puerto Rico, indicated that seven businesses in Puerto Rico received $434,000 to purchase and install solar renewable energy systems. These are Barreto Dairy Inc., Gur-Meat Inc., HQJ Plumbing Supplies Inc., Mauna Caribe Inc., Mena Javier Barreto, Río Nuevo Farm Inc., and Tomas Rodríguez-Navarro.

According to the USDA, it has provided more than $380 million in grants and almost $688 million in loan guarantees to agricultural producers and rural small business owners since the start of the Obama administration.

For additional information, contact Danna Quiles, Business & Cooperative Program director at the Puerto Rico State Office at (787) 766-5355, 766-5363, 766-5379 or 766-5412 or visit www.rd.usda.gov/pr.




USDA Announces Grants to Create Jobs and Grow Economic Opportunity

SAN JUAN – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA is awarding $7.6 million in grants to support projects that will grow rural opportunity through job training and economic development. The grants will support communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico, with several projects spanning communities in multiple states.

“These awards will help bolster local and regional food systems, tap into the tourism potential that proximity to America’s beautiful natural resources provides, and help individuals learn new job skills. All these effort are part of USDA’s strategy for a strong rural economy and will help to sustain the recovery that we have begun to see in our smallest towns,” Vilsack said in a release Thursday.

USDA_logoThe funding is being awarded through the Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grants (SDGG) and Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) Programs.

José Otero-García, USDA Rural Development state director for Puerto Rico, indicated that RCAP Solutions Inc. is receiving a $244,831 RCDI grant to help 14 recipient communities in Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico to implement Geographic Information Systems mapping. In Puerto Rico, Barros ward in the municipality of Orocovis and Capitanejo ward of in the municipality of Juana Díaz respectively will receive this assistance.

The “Cooperativa de Agricultores del Suroeste” is receiving a $130,775 SDGG grant to provide technical assistance to a group of socially disadvantaged individual farmers and farmer cooperatives within the municipalities of Lajas and Las Marías.

The SDGG program provides technical assistance to cooperatives and other organizations that help socially disadvantaged groups in rural areas. Examples of technical assistance include leadership training, conducting feasibility studies, and developing business and strategic plans.

For additional information about the SDGG program, contact Danna Quiles, Business & Cooperative Program director at the Puerto Rico State Office at (787) 766-5355, 766-5363, 766-5379 or 766-5412. For the RCDI program, contact Nereida Rodríguez at (787) 766-5144 or visit www.rd.usda.gov/pr .




USDA to reopen offices closed after email threats

WASHINGTON - JULY 21: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks during a news conference at the Agriculture Department July 21, 2010 in Washington, DC. Vilsack personally apologized to Shirley Sherrod, an Agriculture Department employee who was forced to resign because of a controversial video showing her giving remarks at a NAACP function that were deemed at the time racially discriminatory. He then offered her a "unique" position to work on civil rights issues at the USDA. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department will reopen some offices Wednesday that were closed after an unspecified email threat.

USDA spokesman Matthew Herrick said offices in Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina and Kearneysville, West Virginia, will open Wednesday with additional security enhancements. USDA offices in Hamden, Connecticut, and Leetown, West Virginia, will remain closed while waiting for security improvements or notifications to union officials.

Herrick said earlier Tuesday that the department had received “several anonymous messages” late Monday that raised concerns about the safety of USDA personnel and facilities. Offices in six locations in five states were closed Tuesday morning “until further notice.”

Herrick said the threat was one email message sent to multiple employees at all the locations.

“Without getting into detail of the email message, USDA continues to work closely with federal and local law enforcement, including the FBI, to determine whether the threat is credible,” Herrick said.

Herrick said USDA is continuing to work with law enforcement but officials determined the offices could be re-opened with additional security.

The closed facilities include offices for eight USDA agencies, including the Forest Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Among the sites affected was USDA’s sprawling agricultural research center and library in Beltsville, Maryland, where employees were informed of the threat Tuesday morning and sent home. In Fort Collins, Colorado, four buildings at the Natural Resources Research Center – a campus where over 1,000 people work – were closed.

In an email to employees, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA is closing the offices “due to the serious nature of these threats.” He did not characterize the threats, but asked employees to be aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious activity. He said employees could telework or take authorized leave.

White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said the Department of Homeland Security is working with USDA “to ensure the safety of their offices and the personnel that work there.”

The temporary closures may have affected some tourists. In Colorado, the Forest Service’s Canyon Lakes Ranger District tweeted that its information center was closed.




USDA Announces $3.1M in Funding for Training in Agricultural Sciences

SAN JUAN – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced Monday the availability of $3.1 million to “train the next generation of agricultural leaders.” This funding is available through the Food and Agricultural Sciences National Needs Graduate and Postgraduate Fellowship Grants Program (NNF).

“In the next few years, we expect to see a significant number of job openings for graduates with degrees in agricultural sciences,” said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. “The fellowship program allows us to support the next generation of scientists and innovators, who will play an integral part in the future of our food and agricultural systems.”

USDA_logoThe NNF program is designated for graduate degree (masters and doctoral) programs and postgraduate training “of the next generation of policy makers, researchers, and educators in the food and agricultural sciences. The purpose of this program is to develop intellectual capital to ensure the preeminence of U.S. food and agricultural systems,” the USDA’s published announcement reads.

The funding is to invest in experiential learning, including international experiences. Applicants should propose training projects to support graduate fellowships in one of the eight targeted expertise shortage areas: animal production; plant production; forest resources; agricultural educators and communicators; agricultural management and economics; food science, human nutrition and human sciences; sciences for agricultural biosecurity; veterinary sciences; food and agriculture data analytics and tools; and integrative biosciences for sustainable food and agricultural systems.

Applications are due Sept. 22. See the request for applications for more information.




USDA Seek Applications for Funding Development of Biofuels, Biobased Products

SAN JUAN – U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday that the USDA is accepting applications for funding to support the development of advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals and biobased products.

José Otero-García, USDA Rural Development state director for Puerto Rico, explained that the funding is being provided through the Bio-refinery, Renewable Chemical and Bio-based Product Manufacturing Assistance Program. The program provides loan guarantees of up to $250 million to develop, construct and retrofit commercial scale bio-refineries and to develop renewable chemicals and bio-based product manufacturing facilities.

USDA_logoThe USDA is announcing two application cycles. Applications for the first funding cycle are due Oct. 3 and applications for the second cycle are due April 3, 2017. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov/pr.

Eligible borrowers include individuals; units of state or local government, including corporations, farm cooperatives, farmer cooperative organizations; associations of agricultural producers, national laboratories, institution of higher education; rural electric cooperatives, public power entities; or a consortium of any of these borrower types. Entities that receive program financing must provide at least 20% of the funding for eligible project costs.

“This funding will spur economic development, create new jobs and provide new markets for farm commodities in rural America,” Vilsack said. “This time is right for this type of investment in technologies and businesses of the future.”

USDA has provided $702.5million in loan commitments to seven businesses in the Bio refinery, Renewable Chemical and Bio based Product Manufacturing Assistance Program since the start of the Obama administration. Companies receiving these commitments are projected to produce 150.1 million gallons of advanced biofuels.

For additional information, contact Danna Quiles, Business & Cooperative Program director at the Puerto Rico State Office at (787) 766-5355, 766-5363, 766-5379 or 766-5412 or visit www.rd.usda.gov/pr.

 




Rural Businesses in Puerto Rico to Receive $245,500 from USDA

SAN JUAN – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday funding for 821 projects across the nation that will help rural small businesses and agricultural producers reduce energy usage and costs in their operations. The funding is available through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) to make energy efficiency improvements and install renewable energy systems.

The USDA is providing $43.2 million in loan guarantees and $11.6 million in grants through REAP for projects in every state and Puerto Rico.

USDA_logoJosé Otero-García, USDA Rural Development state director for Puerto Rico, said that 11 projects were selected to receive a grant to either make energy efficiency improvements to lighting systems or to purchase and install a solar renewable energy system.

“Since 2009, the Rural Energy for America Program has helped roughly 15,000 small businesses and farm save enough energy to power about 730,000 homes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than five million metric tons annually,” Vilsack said in the published announcement. “These investments in clean energy are good for the environment, are good for each business’s bottom line and they support the broader rural economy by encouraging the production of renewable energy sources.”

From 2009 to date the USDA has provided more than $373 million in grants and almost $481 million in loan guarantees to agricultural producers and rural small business owners.

For additional information, visit: www.rd.usda.gov/pr.

REAP loans and grants for Puerto Rico
State Recipient Grant Loan Project Description
PR Adler Group Inc.* $19,993 $0 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Alfredo Jose Toledo* $16,320 $0 To purchase and install a solar renewable energy system.
PR Computer Integration of Quality Assurance* $17,150 $0 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Giovanni Ferrante* $16,250 $0 To purchase and install a solar renewable energy system.
PR Hidroponicos Del Pais Inc.* $20,000 $0 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Imprenta Quality Offset* $10,850 $0 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Ivan E. Martinez Cordero* $0 $87,500 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Laboratorio Clinico Delgado Amador PSC* $16,997 $0 To purchase and install a solar renewable energy system.
PR Laboratorio Clinico Ling Inc.* $19,880 $0 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Laboratorio Clinico Ling Inc.* $6,596 $0 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Laboratorio Clinico Sangermeno Principal* $11,175 $0 To make energy efficiency improvements to the lighting system.
PR Alex Cruz Velez* $3,789 $0 To purchase and install a solar renewable energy system.
TOTAL $159,000 $87,500
* projects in StrikeForce areas
& projects in areas of persistent poverty
^ projects in Promise Zones
# projects with Farm Bill Section 6025/Regional Development Priority points

 




Lulac Recognizes Service to Latino Community

SAN JUAN –  At its 87th Annual National Convention, the League of United Latin American Citizens (Lulac) recognized its partners for their role in furthering the volunteer-based organization’s mission to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, health and civil rights of the Latino community.

Walmart was bestowed with the 2016 Lulac National Corporation of the Year award. The retailer has provided support with health resources for thousands through the Latinos Living Healthy initiative, as well as support to thousands of new immigrants through the Hispanic Immigrant Integration Project.

“We are committed to having a diverse workforce, which includes the 200,000 Latino associates who work for our company and to help strengthen the communities where we live and work. We are proud to work alongside Lulac and look forward to continue to make a difference in the lives of Latino families,” said Walmart Senior Vice President Lance de la Rosa, who leads Operations Transformation for Sam’s Club.

LulacThe Lulac Corporate Champion of the Year Award was awarded to Luis Rosero, director of the Hispanic Business Strategy Group for Toyota North America. Over the past year, he was instrumental in bringing health resources to thousands of residents in Brownsville, Texas, as part of Lulac’s Latinos Living Healthy: Feria de Salud.

“My personal and professional goal is to continue to support our community as best as I can. As a parent, I want to contribute my share to help the next generation have better opportunities for success,” Rosero said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture received an award for diversifying its workforce and improving the health and nutrition of the Latino community, Lulac said. Its efforts have included forming partnerships to promote healthy nutrition in the community and “raising awareness about important rural development programs for communities located in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Through its partnership with Lulac’s Federal Training Institute, the USDA is investing in diversity and sharing critical information for achieving successful government careers at the youth symposium,” according to Lulac’s news release.

“From San Juan to San Diego, we’ve worked hard to expand economic opportunity by boosting tourism to create jobs and expanding homeownership in the Colonias communities along the U.S./Mexico border. We’ve invested in Hispanic-Serving Institutions to make sure our nation’s most talented scholars have a chance to thrive, and we look forward to the contributions they will make to the future of our nation’s food security. This award demonstrates just how far we’ve come since 2009, and I am thankful for the support of our partners at Lulac,” Agriculture  Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the release.

Lulac has more than 1,000 councils around the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Its programs, services and advocacy address the important issues for Latinos.