Press Releases

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and 17 colleagues in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to express concerns about how a lack of access to healthy, affordable food is hurting low-income communities and communities of color during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. To help address the disproportionate impact of the virus on these communities, the senators are urging Secretary Perdue to identify and prioritize programs at the Department of Agriculture intended to minimize food deserts — areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food — and support local and regional food development projects.

Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert where the absence of a grocery store within one mile of their home makes it more difficult to purchase fresh, healthy, and nutritious food. Additionally, in some of the more rural regions of the country, individuals may have to travel further than 10 miles to the nearest grocer. Low-income Americans and people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with few healthy food options, and studies have shown that a significant barrier to the consumption of healthy foods in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is limited access to a grocery store. Consequently, many in these communities are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. In addition, many people in these neighborhoods do not have access to food or meal delivery services and must rely on public transportation or shared rides to purchase healthy food, increasing their potential exposure to the virus,”the lawmakers wrote. 

“As part of a comprehensive response to the coronavirus pandemic, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.” 

Warner, Klobuchar and Brown were joined on the letter by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Joe Manchin (D-WV).

As a senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Klobuchar successfully pushed for key provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill that provided support for local food systems, farmers’ markets, urban agriculture, and loan financing for food-related projects in rural and urban areas. These included provisions that created an urban agriculture program at the Department of Agriculture, strengthened local food economies by securing permanent funding for farmers’ markets, local food systems, and value-added production, and ensured adequate and equitable access to credit and training opportunities for new, beginning, and minority farmers.  

Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below:

 

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write to express concerns about how a lack of access to healthy, affordable food is hurting low-income communities and communities of color during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. To help address the disproportionate impact of the virus on these communities, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs at the Department of Agriculture intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.

Initial research has identified several factors contributing to the disproportionate adverse health outcomes for low-income and communities of color during the pandemic, including a lack of access to health care services, a higher incidence of pre-existing conditions, and a greater likelihood of working in a front line job.Several of these factors are exacerbated by lack of access to healthy, affordable food.

Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert where the absence of a grocery store within one mile of their home makes it more difficult to purchase fresh, healthy, and nutritious food. Additionally, in some of the more rural regions of the country, individuals may have to travel further than 10 miles to the nearest grocer. Low-income Americans and people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with few healthy food options, and studies have shown that a significant barrier to the consumption of healthy foods in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods is limited access to a grocery store. Consequently, many in these communities are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. In addition, many people in these neighborhoods do not have access to food or meal delivery services and must rely on public transportation or shared rides to purchase healthy food, increasing their potential exposure to the virus.

To combat this public health crisis, we need a proactive approach that emphasizes the prevention of underlying health conditions and minimizes potential exposure to the virus while traveling to purchase food by expanding healthy food options in low-income communities and communities of color. Congress has provided the Department of Agriculture authority and funding to address the prevalence of food deserts and to support local food systems through such programs as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, the Local Agriculture Market Program, and the Urban Agriculture Program. Additionally, Rural Development has several business and industry loan guarantee and community facilities grant programs that can be applied to food development projects in underserved food desert areas.

As part of a comprehensive response to the coronavirus pandemic, we urge you to identify and prioritize programs intended to minimize food deserts and support local and regional food development projects.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) expressed concern with the disproportionately small share of food that Virginia has received under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Farmers to Families Food Box program and the lack of approved distributors able to meet the needs of food banks in rural areas. In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Senators raised a series of questions regarding the implementation of the food purchasing and distribution program, which was authorized by Congress to assist those in need during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“As of today, we understand food banks in the Feeding America network in Virginia are expected to receive approximately 2.3 million pounds of food out of the 264 million pounds of product that are expected to be distributed during the first phase of the Farmers to Families Food Box program,” the Senators wrote. “If this program were allocated in the same manner as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), we would expect Virginia to receive about 5.3 million pounds of product – more than double the current amount anticipated.”

The Senators also raised issue with the lack of contracts awarded to Virginia-based distributors, and noted the trouble that food banks throughout the Commonwealth have had in finding approved distributors able to reach more rural areas.

“Only one Virginia-based distributor – DeLune Corp in Springfield, Virginia – was awarded a contract in the first round of approval. This has made it difficult to get food boxes to all of Virginia’s food banks – especially in Southwest Virginia,” the Senators continued. “We have heard from a number of our food banks that have had difficulty finding approved distributors in the Mid-Atlantic region willing to provide food boxes. As you can imagine, this has put many of our food banks in a difficult position as they continue to experience record demand due to the ongoing public health crisis.”

In the letter, Sens. Warner and Kaine posed the following series of questions for Sec. Perdue regarding the program’s recent implementation:

  1. In awarding the first round of contracts, did USDA require awardees to demonstrate that they could service certain geographic areas to ensure each state in a region would receive coverage proportional to population and need? In future contract awards, will USDA examine a distributor’s capability to service large and diverse geographic areas?
  1. How does USDA intend to award subsequent contracts under this program in a way that ensures a fair distribution of the national allotment? What information will USDA consider as it makes future contract awards to ensure each state and region is treated equitably?
  1. According to press reports, at least one company that received a contract, Ben Holtz Consulting DBA California Avocados Direct, has had their contract terminated. How will this funding be re-allocated? Have any other contracts been revoked?
  1. Did USDA solicit information from food banks to assess their current needs before the first round of contracts were awarded? Does USDA plan to offer food banks the opportunity to provide information on the type and amount of food they need to feed their respective service areas as the agency considers future rounds of funding?

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong advocates of expanded access to food assistance for families in the Commonwealth amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Last month, following pressure by Sens. Warner and Kaine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally authorized Virginia’s request to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program, which allows SNAP recipients to order their groceries online amid the current health crisis. In March, the Senators also successfully pushed USDA to waive a requirement that needlessly forced children to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals. Additionally, the Senators previously secured Virginia’s USDA Disaster Household Distribution Program designation, which allows food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients.

 

A copy of today’s letter is available here and below. 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Secretary Perdue:

We write today concerning the recent implementation of the United Stated Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box program. We understand the enormous challenges you and your team are facing in combatting the effects of COVID-19, and we appreciate your efforts to assist farmers, food banks, and address food insecurity during this difficult time. However, we are deeply concerned that the Commonwealth of Virginia has received a disproportionately small share of food under this program to date. 

As of today, we understand food banks in the Feeding America network in Virginia are expected to receive approximately 2.3 million pounds of food out of the 264 million pounds of product that are expected to be distributed during the first phase of the Farmers to Families Food Box program. If this program were allocated in the same manner as The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), we would expect Virginia to receive about 5.3 million pounds of product – more than double the current amount anticipated.

In addition, only one Virginia-based distributor – DeLune Corp in Springfield, Virginia – was awarded a contract in the first round of approval. This has made it difficult to get food boxes to all of Virginia’s food banks – especially in Southwest Virginia. We have heard from a number of our food banks that have had difficulty finding approved distributors in the Mid-Atlantic region willing to provide food boxes. As you can imagine, this has put many of our food banks in a difficult position as they continue to experience record demand due to the ongoing public health crisis.

In order to better understand this program and how allocations were made, we ask that you please respond to the following questions:

In awarding the first round of contracts, did USDA require awardees to demonstrate that they could service certain geographic areas to ensure each state in a region would receive coverage proportional to population and need? In future contract awards, will USDA examine a distributor’s capability to service large and diverse geographic areas?

How does USDA intend to award subsequent contracts under this program in a way that ensures a fair distribution of the national allotment? What information will USDA consider as it makes future contract awards to ensure each state and region is treated equitably?

According to press reports, at least one company that received a contract, Ben Holtz Consulting DBA California Avocados Direct, has had their contract terminated. How will this funding be re-allocated? Have any other contracts been revoked?

Did USDA solicit information from food banks to assess their current needs before the first round of contracts were awarded? Does USDA plan to offer food banks the opportunity to provide information on the type and amount of food they need to feed their respective service areas as the agency considers future rounds of funding?

Again, we sincerely appreciate your commitment to helping keep families fed during this difficult time. We all want to ensure this program and other USDA programs designed to combat hunger work as effectively and efficiently as possible to maximize the benefits for all Americans. We look forward to continuing to work with you on ways to increase access to healthy and nutritious foods to all Americans.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) joined Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Reps. John P. Sarbanes (D-Md.)  Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and members representing the Chesapeake Bay region in a bipartisan letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging continued investment in the health of the Chesapeake Bay. The letter, sent to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Matthew Lohr, underscores the importance of supporting the region’s farmers in their efforts to reduce pollution and provides recommendations as the Department prepares a final rule on the implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which supports these efforts. 

The Members write, “As members of the Chesapeake Bay delegation, we write with recommendations regarding implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) under the 2018 Farm Bill. We thank you and your team for your ongoing work to implement the 2018 Farm Bill, which included key improvements to benefit water quality and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.”

“As you know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s financial and technical assistance for conservation efforts plays a critical role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed and supporting states’ efforts to meet their commitments under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint by 2025. These programs are essential to support farmers throughout the region as they adopt best management practices to limit the runoff of nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus and to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” they continue. 

The Members go on to lay out four major recommendations to help ensure the continued benefit of the program to the region. The recommendations include: ensuring that the Chesapeake Bay Watershed remain designated as a Critical Conservation Area (CCA), highlighting the need for administrative and financial support for lead partners in RCPP implementation, and pressing for clarity and transparency on reporting requirements on conservation goals and outcomes.  

In addition to Sens. Warner, Van Hollen and Casey, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), signed the letter.

In addition to Representatives Sarbanes and Scott, Representatives Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), David Trone (D-Md.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Donald McEachin (D-Va.), Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), Abigail D. Spanberger (D-Va.) and Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) joined the letter. 

The full text of the letter is available here and below.

 

Dear Chief Lohr:

As members of the Chesapeake Bay delegation, we write with recommendations regarding implementation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) under the 2018 Farm Bill. We thank you and your team for your ongoing work to implement the 2018 Farm Bill, which included key improvements to benefit water quality and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. 

As you know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s financial and technical assistance for conservation efforts plays a critical role in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed and supporting states’ efforts to meet their commitments under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint by 2025. These programs are essential to support farmers throughout the region as they adopt best management practices to limit the runoff of nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus and to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

RCPP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill by consolidating four previously separate programs, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI). CBWI provided an annual average of over $47 million over five years for conservation in our region, but that level of funding has not yet been provided to the region through RCPP. The 2018 Farm Bill made further modifications to RCPP, and the program continues to significantly contribute to farmer and partner driven conservation in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. To further enhance opportunities for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and implement the changes included in the 2018 Farm Bill, we provide the following recommendations for inclusion in the RCPP final rule:

1)      Ensure the Chesapeake Bay watershed remains a Critical Conservation Area (CCA)

Agricultural conservation efforts are central to the Chesapeake Bay states’ Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs). Our states’ agricultural sectors are committed to ongoing efforts to contribute to meeting nutrient reduction goals by 2025. Focused and targeted investments through partner driven programs like RCPP are a critical component of supporting our farmers in their efforts to improve the health of the Bay. We appreciate that the Farm Bill allocated 50 percent of RCPP funding to CCAs, and urge you to ensure that the Chesapeake Bay retain its CCA designation.  The 2018 Farm Bill made clear that Congressional intent was for the current CCAs to remain in place for the duration of the 2018 Farm Bill, unless the resource concerns of a given CCA were fully addressed. As conveyed through our states’ WIPs, there is still significant conservation needed to address water quality goals in the Chesapeake Bay.

2)      Provide support for the critical role that technical assistance plays in RCPP agreements.

We urge you to ensure that partners have appropriate technical assistance and administrative support from NRCS. We appreciate that Section 1464.23 (c) of the interim rule allows NRCS to provide funding to a partner for activities such as outreach, education and the development of metrics. As part of this critical component of RCPP projects, we also support the coverage of project management as part of an “Enhancement TA” allocation, within both RCPP Classic as well as the 2020 Alternative Funding Arrangement (AFA) funding announcement. We urge you to explicitly authorize this option in the final rule. There is a high administrative burden on lead partners and allowing them to recoup at least part of these costs is important and should be clearly stated. Additionally, we urge NRCS to provide clear guidance regarding the distinction between partner and NRCS roles under AFA or grant agreements. Following the publication of the AFA announcement, several outstanding questions remain, including questions around NRCS sign-off on implemented practices, producer privacy, contracts between partners and producers and the role of partners in monitoring project implementation following AFA completion. 

3)      Clearly include and identify reporting requirements in the final rule.

As highlighted in the Background section of the interim rule, and as directed in Section 2703 of the 2018 Farm Bill, NRCS must provide a semi-annual report on the status of obligated contracts and an annual report describing how the Secretary used technical assistance. This transparency and information is critical to partners in the Chesapeake Bay, and we urge NRCS to ensure that these details and directives are included in the final rule. Further, Section 2706 of the 2018 Farm Bill also required reports to Congress on RCPP projects. We recommend that these requirements also be specified in the interim rule. For CCAs, these reporting requirements include critical information regarding how conservation outcomes and goals are being achieved through the selected RCPP projects.

4)      Align Chesapeake Bay CCA goals with local WIP goals, CEAP findings and prioritize conservation outcomes.

The 2018 Farm Bill adds language to the purpose of RCPP directing USDA to engage producers and partners in projects to achieve “greater conservation outcomes and benefits” for producers than would otherwise be achieved. We therefore urge NRCS to ensure that RCPP implementation maximizes conservation outcomes and benefits for the Chesapeake Bay. We urge you to work with your State Technical Committees to inform the project selection and ranking process at the state level. Further, our states’ WIPs, which include local area goals, as well as the Chesapeake Bay Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) can help identify the acres, practices and projects with the greatest potential for water quality benefits. Through RCPP, and through collaboration with Bay partners, NRCS should ensure that targeted conservation efforts continue to improve the health of the watershed.

Thank you for considering our recommendations and we look forward to working with you on RCPP implementation and continued efforts to support farmers and program partners in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) applauded $10,453,400 in federal funding for water improvement projects in rural Virginia. The funding, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was awarded through the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program.

“Virginians deserve access to safe drinking water and waste disposal systems, regardless of whether they live in a dense city, or a small rural community,” said the Senators. “That’s why we’re glad to know that these federal dollars will be put towards these much-needed projects in the Commonwealth.”  

The funding will be distributed as below:

The Nelson County Service Authority in Nelson County, Va. will receive $1,174,000 in loans and $3,149,400 in grants to make needed improvements to the Schuyler wastewater system. Construction includes rehabilitation of approximately 12,760 linear feet of gravity sewer and the replacement of the trickling filter wastewater treatment plant with an extended air-activated sludge package plant. This project will correct an existing health hazard identified by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which issued a Notice of Violation based on incidences of noncompliance for Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BODs) and E. Coli. Violations occur due to a combination of the degradation of the treatment plant and excessive inflow and infiltration from the collection system.

The Scott County Public Service Authority in Scott County, Va. will receive $269,000 in loans and $269,000 in grants to provide public sewer service to the Daniel Boone community and correct a health hazard caused by failing private septic systems. Currently, many residents straight-pipe raw sewage to creeks and/or the ground and are not in compliance with the Commonwealth of Virginia's Sewage Handling and Disposal Regulations.

The Town of Amherst in Amherst County, Va. will receive $397,000 in loans and $938,000 in grants to make improvements to the town's wastewater collection and treatment system. The collection system was installed in the 1960's and 1970's and consists of terra cotta and concrete pipes. The most significant problems are structural failure and inflow and infiltration. The local health district has documented sewerage overflows that have created a public health threat as they overflow into individual homes, residential areas, and commercial areas. Construction includes the replacement and/or rehabilitation of approximately 42,154 linear feet of collection lines, manholes, bypass pumping, and related appurtenances. In addition, existing equipment at the wastewater treatment plant will be replaced, including new effluent disc filter equipment, a new ultraviolet disinfection system, and the replacement of a pump station.

The Town of Big Stone Gap in Wise County, Va. will receive $1,762,000 in loans and $2,091,000 in grants to make improvements to the town's water distribution system. The system is out of compliance with state waterworks regulations for minimum pressure, which creates cross contamination with groundwater and allows pathogens to enter the water system, creating a health hazard. Construction includes the replacement of approximately 33,500 linear feet of 3/4-inch to 10-inch water line, installation of master meters, replacement of water meters, a pump station upgrade, and related appurtenances. 

The Town of Clifton Forge in Alleghany County, Va. will receive $404,000 in loans to make improvements to the town's dam. These additional funds are awarded to complete the project. The dam is located on Smith Creek, a tributary to the Jackson River in Alleghany County, and impounds the drinking water reservoir that feeds the water treatment plant. Under the new Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's Dam Safety regulations, the structure has been classified as a "high hazard dam" with a documented principal spillway deficiency and inadequate structural stability. This project will bring the dam into compliance with dam safety regulations and includes raising the non-overflow sections of the dam, raising the left non-overflow earth buttressed core wall section, removing the existing spillway piers, installing one vertical anchor per spillway monolith and sealing a horizontal joint leak. Finally, the existing bridge piers and pedestrian bridge will be demolished and replaced with a single-span steel truss pedestrian bridge.

The USDA’s Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program provides funding for clean and reliable drinking water systems, sanitary sewage disposal, sanitary solid waste disposal, and storm water drainage to households and businesses in eligible rural areas.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine cosponsored legislation to increase the ability for Americans struggling with food insecurity to receive restaurant meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the COVID-19 Anti-Hunger Restaurant Relief for You Act of 2020—or the SNAP CARRY Act—expands eligibility for the SNAP Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) and waives program requirements to make it easier for states and restaurants to participate in the program during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. The RMP prevents hunger in some of the most vulnerable communities by allowing people who may not have the ability or a place to prepare their own food to purchase discounted prepared meals at participating restaurants with their SNAP benefits. 

“We are proud to support this effort to expand the use of SNAP benefits to participating restaurants,” said the Senators. “This legislation is a win-win for increasing food security and supporting local restaurants – two critical issues amid this pandemic.”

During emergencies like COVID-19 when there are often unforeseen challenges around food access, the RMP could serve to ensure those struggling with hunger can easily and safely access food. In addition, as the restaurant industry struggles with closures due to COVID-19, the RMP would help prevent job loss among restaurant employees. However, statutory limits to the program present barriers to its use. 

The SNAP CARRY Act

1.     Allows all SNAP-eligible individuals to utilize the RMP during a nationally declared disaster or public health emergency

2.     Eases regulatory barriers on states participating in the program

3.     Gives the Secretary of Agriculture broad authority to authorize additional food retailers to participate in SNAP and the SNAP RMP

4.     Establishes an option and process for participating restaurants in the RMP to end their participation after COVID-19

The legislation is sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy. Click here for a one-pager. 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) Jack Reed (D-RI), and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in pushing to make sure urgently needed federal assistance is delivered to America’s fishermen and seafood processors, who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

In their letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the senators request that upcoming coronavirus relief legislation include funding and provisions to support this critical industry.

“Our seafood processors and fishermen have been dealt a significant economic blow as a result of coronavirus and are in desperate need of federal assistance,” the senators wrote. “It has been reported that many of the nation’s fisheries have suffered sales declines as high as 95 percent.  In addition, while many other agricultural sectors have seen a significant increase in grocery sales, seafood has been left out of that economic upside, as stores have cut back on offerings.”

“The seafood industry is currently facing an unprecedented collapse in demand because of the novel coronavirus. We urge you to facilitate the government purchase of seafood products that would both ensure stability in this key sector and provide healthy, domestically produced food for Americans,” the senators continued.

Specifically, the senators recommend the allocation of $2 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and redistribute seafood products to food banks—just as the agency is currently doing for other agricultural products. In addition, the letter requests that $1 billion be allocated to the Department of Commerce and NOAA to support direct payments to fisheries, seafood producers, and processors.

Not only do fisheries help Americans put food on the table for their families, they have long been the lifeblood of local and regional economies across the country. In 2016, the industry supported over one million good-paying jobs and generated more than $144 billion in sales, adding an estimated $61 billion to the nation’s GDP. In addition to the jobs, families, and communities it supports along every part of our country’s coastlines, the seafood industry fuels jobs throughout the country in processing, distribution, and food service industries.

Warner, Merkley, Murkowski, and Reed were joined in sending the bipartisan letter by U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Angus King (I-ME), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Chris Coons (D-DE), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

The full text of the letter is available here and is available below.

We write to urge the inclusion of support for the American seafood industry in the next coronavirus relief measure. Our seafood processors and fishermen have been dealt a significant economic blow as a result of coronavirus and are in desperate need of federal assistance.

The seafood industry is critical to local and regional economies across the country. In 2016, the industry supported over one million good-paying jobs and generated more than $144 billion in sales, adding an estimated $61 billion to the nation’s GDP. In addition to the jobs, families, and communities it supports along every part of our country’s coastlines, the seafood industry fuels jobs throughout the country in processing and distribution.

Due to efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has led to a near total shutdown of restaurants and other outlets serving fresh seafood, the supply chain of fishermen and seafood processors has been decimated. Notably, more than 68% of the $102.2 billion that consumers paid for U.S. fishery products in 2017 was spent at food service establishments. It has been reported that many of the nation’s fisheries have suffered sales declines as high as 95 percent.  In addition, while many other agricultural sectors have seen a significant increase in grocery sales, seafood has been left out of that economic upside, as stores have cut back on offerings.

We strongly urge you to include in the next coronavirus relief package at least $2 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase domestically harvested and processed seafood products and distribute them to local, state, and national non-profits providing food to hungry Americans. Given that few seafood producers have historically participated in USDA commodity purchasing programs, we request that $1 billion be set aside to finance the purchase by USDA of seafood products that have not typically been purchased and that have experienced economic impacts as a result of coronavirus.

We also ask that you include an additional $1 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the terms of section 12005 of the CARES Act (P.L. 116-136) in order to provide direct relief to Tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants impacted by coronavirus. We request that Congress appropriate and permit the Secretary to make funding available as soon as practicable to all fishery participants, including commercial and recreational fishing and seafood businesses that have been impacted by declines in tourism and the closure of restaurants and other food service industries.

The seafood industry is currently facing an unprecedented collapse in demand because of the novel coronavirus. We urge you to facilitate the government purchase of seafood products that would both ensure stability in this key sector and provide healthy, domestically produced food for Americans.

Thank you for your attention to this critical request, and for your continued support of America’s seafood industry. 

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and a group of bipartisan senators in urging the USDA to target COVID-19 relief provisions to reach local farmers in the new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). USDA created CFAP to administer relief Congress provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. While the CARES Act specifically provides direct assistance to local food producers, USDA has not announced specific details on how this relief will be targeted to local farmers. In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the senators urged USDA once again to take steps to reach local farmers with assistance. 

“While USDA mentioned that the direct producer assistance program would be made available to producers of all sizes – including local producers, as required by the CARES Act – we are disappointed that there were no specific details on how this assistance will be tailored to the unique challenges that local producers face, or how the Department will conduct outreach to beginning and underserved farmers,” the senators wrote. 

The Senators are also specifically urging USDA to support local farmers by:

1.     Adjusting the CFAP payment calculations to better reflect the business models of local producers;

2.     Amending the covered time period to better reflect when local producers experienced losses; and

3.     Developing a robust and inclusive outreach plan to ensure all local food producers – including those with limited internet access and those for whom English is not their first language – are aware of the benefits available to them under the CFAP.

“While we appreciate USDA’s efforts to implement the CFAP with local food producers in mind, we encourage you to incorporate these recommendations as you finalize the CFAP program to ensure local producers are able to participate. By adjusting the mechanism USDA uses to calculate CFAP payments for local food producers, changing the covered time period to reflect those losses experienced after April 15, 2020, and implementing a robust and inclusive outreach plan to reach all local food producers, including new farmers, we can help minimize the significant burden COVID-19 has placed on our local producers,” the senators wrote.

The senators also pressed USDA for information it has yet to provide on how it will conduct outreach to ensure the participation of beginning, underserved, and local food producers in the direct producer assistance program. They urged USDA once again to develop a robust outreach plan that provides technical assistance and ensures local farmers are able to participate in the direct producer assistance program.

Earlier this month, the senators sent an initial letter urging the Trump Administration to provide relief for local farmers who are struggling, and pushed USDA to ensure that a portion of the $9.5 billion they secured in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, goes to local farmers who sell directly to consumers, schools, institutions, food hubs, regional distribution centers, retail markets, farmers markets and restaurants. USDA has yet to respond.

In addition to Warner, Brown, Collins and Stabenow, the letter was also signed by Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Angus King (I-ME), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Tina Smith (D-MN).

A copy of the letter can be read here and below. 

 

Dear Secretary Perdue,

We write to follow up on our April 9, 2020 letter regarding U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) relief for local food producers, and to urge USDA to incorporate provisions specific to local food producers as the Agency finalizes the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Specifically, we urge USDA to provide support for local food producers by: 1) adjusting the CFAP payment calculations to better reflect the business models of local producers; 2) amending the covered time period to more appropriately reflect when local producers experienced losses; and 3) developing an inclusive outreach plan to ensure all local food producers – including those with limited internet access and those for whom English is not their first language – are aware of the benefits available to them under the CFAP. 

On April 17, 2020, USDA announced the new CFAP, which will provide a total of $19 billion in COVID-19 relief provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including $16 billion for direct assistance to producers and $3 billion for commodity purchases and food distribution. While USDA mentioned that the direct producer assistance program would be made available to producers of all sizes – including local producers, as required by the CARES Act – we are disappointed that there were no specific details on how this assistance will be tailored to the unique challenges that local producers face, or how the Department will conduct outreach to beginning and underserved farmers.

Many local food producers sell a wide variety of crops, specialty crops, and livestock to a variety of local and regional markets. Often, specific records of sales are generalized into broad categories such as produce or livestock but not broken into specific sales by commodity. For example, these producers may have $100,000 in produce sales a year but may not be able to distinguish how much of a specific type of produce is sold at a farmers market versus directly to a restaurant or school. This type of commerce makes it extremely difficult for local food producers to participate in a generic “one size fits all” direct assistance program.

Given this complexity, we recommend that USDA calculate payments based on total farm revenue and consider price premiums for diversified producers, organics, and value-added producers. We also recommend implementation of flexible paperwork requirements that allow more producers to participate in the program and account for different types of record keeping that may be used to sell into local markets. 

During USDA’s public announcement, it was suggested that the direct producer assistance would cover up to 85 percent of losses incurred between January and April 15, 2020 and cover up to 30 percent of losses incurred after April 15, 2020. Many producers selling directly to restaurants or schools did not see an economic impact of the COVID-19 disaster until states began issuing stay at home orders and closed non-essential businesses. This occurred in most places starting in mid-March and could continue for several months into the future. We recommend USDA adjust the window of 85 percent coverage to reflect the time period during which farmers have experienced – and continue to experience – significant losses and additional costs as a result of widespread closure of businesses and institutions during the COVID-19 disaster.

In addition, USDA has not provided information on how it will conduct outreach to ensure the participation of beginning, underserved, and local food producers in the direct producer assistance program. Some of these producers already face existing barriers to entry including limited access to internet, English as a second language, and limited technical skills. We recommend USDA develop a thorough outreach plan that provides technical assistance and ensures these producers are able to participate in the direct to producer assistance program.

On top of these existing challenges, local food producers are in the middle of high planting season and many do not have existing relationships with USDA. These producers may struggle to learn a new federal program in time to participate before funding runs out so we request that USDA track farmer program participation and require receipt for service at local Farm Service Agency offices.

While we appreciate USDA’s efforts to implement the CFAP with local food producers in mind, we encourage you to incorporate these recommendations as you finalize the CFAP program to ensure local producers are able to participate. By adjusting the mechanism USDA uses to calculate CFAP payments for local food producers, changing the covered time period to reflect those losses experienced after April 15, 2020, and implementing an outreach plan to reach all local food producers, including new farmers, we can help minimize the significant burden COVID-19 has placed on our local producers.

Thank you for quickly implementing the CFAP; we appreciate your attention to the specific needs and serious challenges faced by local food producers and look forward to working with you on additional targeted relief efforts.

Sincerely,

 

###

 

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) joined U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and 35 Democratic Senators in urging Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the Trump Administration to take action to help ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply and protect essential workers in the food supply chain. 

“It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers,” wrote the Senators. “Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers. It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply.”

There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores, and markets falling ill from COVID-19. Some workers have reportedly felt pressured to go to work even when feeling sick. There are also serious concerns about the health of farmworkers who often work, live, and travel in close proximity, making social distancing very difficult.

“The severe shortages of adequate COVID-19 testing capability and personal protective equipment are exacerbating these problems,” wrote the Senators. “Lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment leaves essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread, harming more workers and further damaging our food supply chain.”

The Senators urged the White House and federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers and the food supply from further damage. The Senators also asked a series of questions about the actions being taken and coordination with the food industry.

In addition to Senator Stabenow, the letter was signed by Senators Stabenow, Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Robert Casey (D-Penn.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Jackie Rosen (D-Nev.).

The letter was sent to Vice President Pence, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.

The full text of the letter is below. A PDF of the letter is available here.

Dear Vice President Pence, Secretary Perdue, Commissioner Hahn, Administrator Wheeler, Acting Secretary Wolf:  

We write today to inquire about the actions you are taking to ensure the safety of our nation’s food supply and protect our essential federal and private sector food supply chain workforce. There have been numerous reports of essential workers in meatpacking plants, processing facilities, farms, grocery stores, and markets falling ill from COVID-19. Other sources have reported that employee absences are high as people fear going into work due to the threat of infection. Some workers have reportedly felt pressured to work even when feeling sick. There are also serious concerns about the health of farmworkers who plant and harvest our crops and often work, live, and travel in close proximity, making social distancing very difficult.

The severe shortages of adequate COVID-19 testing capability and personal protective equipment are exacerbating these problems. Lack of access to tests and personal protective equipment leaves essential food supply workers at even higher risk and makes the virus more likely to spread, harming more workers and further damaging our food supply chain. Beyond the risk of infection, the lack of personal protective equipment is also harmful to farmworkers who apply pesticides and lack basic protections.

It is vital that we do everything we can to protect food supply workers and federal employees from COVID-19 infection. Breakdowns in the food supply chain could have significant economic impacts for both consumers and agricultural producers. It is also imperative that precautions are taken to ensure the stability and safety of our food supply. 

During this public health crisis, the White House and your agencies must coordinate with state and local governments and the private sector to take aggressive action to protect essential workers in the food supply chain. We need bold action and creative solutions, including greatly increased testing and tracing of those exposed to the virus in order to stop the spread. This is critically important to protect our essential workforce, our food supply chain, our agricultural economy, and rural America from further damage. We ask you to respond to the following questions by April 24, 2020:

1.     What are your plans for and what actions have you taken to help ensure the safety of essential food supply chain workers?  In the event that essential food supply chain workers, including all farmworkers, contract COVID-19, what are the preparedness and response plans and actions to control the outbreak, ensure treatment of workers, and ensure that our food supply is maintained? 

2.     USDA’s coronavirus website instructs the food industry to follow protocols set by local and state health departments for guidance about its business operations. 

a.     How are your agencies coordinating with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to ensure that employers know what is necessary to protect their essential food supply chain workers from COVID-19?

b.     A clear safety and health standard applicable to this novel virus would ensure employers understand what is necessary to keep essential food supply chain workers healthy so they can continue to work to keep the food chain strong. Have your agencies asked Secretary Scalia to use his existing authorities under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to ensure employers of essential food supply chain workers institute necessary safety and health accommodations to deal with this virus? If not, why not?

c.     What are your agencies doing to create consistency regarding  recommendations from federal agencies that address issues related to monitoring of symptoms, sanitation practices, social distancing, personal protective equipment standards, and communication requirements? 

3.     Has the federal government worked with states or the food industry to develop contingency plans or guidance on how to adjust supply chains or move workforce capacity to other areas to address any personnel shortages?

4.     What concerns and unmet needs have you heard from the food supply industry regarding protection of these essential workers?  What are you doing to address shortages of personal protective equipment for private sector essential food supply chain workers?  

5.     What actions have you taken to make COVID-19 testing readily available to essential food supply chain workers?  

6.     Have you taken any actions to work with state and local governments and industry partners to find alternative housing options for essential food supply chain workers who have been infected by or exposed to COVID-19 to help stop it from spreading to others?   

7.     Protecting the health and safety of USDA inspectors from COVID-19 is critically important. 

a.     How many USDA inspectors have been infected by COVID-19? 
b.     Have infections of inspectors caused any slowing in or reduction of inspections or production? 
c.     Has USDA appropriately notified its personnel of the new COVID paid sick and family leave polices recently enacted by Congress? 
d.     USDA briefed congressional staff and said it has been unable to supply masks for all of its food inspectors and has instead offered to reimburse its employees for making or purchasing their own masks. What is USDA doing to supply all FSIS inspectors, APHIS inspectors, and AMS essential personnel with appropriate personal protective equipment and what is the timeframe when USDA will be able to provide this equipment? 

We thank you for your immediate attention to these questions. 

###

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging for swift approval of Virginia’s request to participate in the agency’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program. This program allows SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase items online with authorized retailers in an effort to follow the social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus outbreak.

“The current public health crisis has resulted in an unprecedented rise in unemployment and a subsequent increase in demand for our nation’s anti-hunger programs, including SNAP. While USDA has moved swiftly to reduce barriers and increase access to this program during the current public health emergency, most SNAP recipients are only able to utilize these benefits in person at grocery stores or other retailers. This requirement places SNAP recipients at higher risk of infection, as they are not able to utilize various online grocery delivery services that are available for consumers,” wrote the Senators in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to establish a pilot program to test the feasibility of SNAP beneficiaries utilizing their benefits online with authorized retailers. To date, only a small number of states are authorized to participate in this program and have set up systems to allow SNAP recipients in their respective states to use their benefits with online retailers. In light of the current public health emergency, USDA is working to expand the program to additional states on a case-by-case basis if they meet the requirements to administer the online program.  

In their letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, Sens. Warner and Kaine urge the agency to approve the Virginia Department of Social Services request to participate in the pilot program and expand the program nationwide.

“To ensure the health and safety of SNAP beneficiaries in the Commonwealth, we urge USDA to work with the Virginia Department of Social Services to approve Virginia’s request to participate in the Department’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot as quickly as possible. We also urge USDA to do everything within its power to expand this program nationwide so SNAP recipients across the country have the option to use online grocery delivery options and reduce their exposure to COVID-19,” they continued. 

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong advocates of expanded access to food assistance for families in the Commonwealth amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Last month, the Senators successfully pushed USDA to waive a requirement that needlessly forced children to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals. Additionally, the Senators secured Virginia’s USDA Disaster Household Distribution Program designation, which allows food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients.

A copy of today’s letter is available here and below.

 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue: 

We write today in support of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s request to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing Pilot Program. Inclusion in this program will allow Virginia SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase groceries online from authorized retailers, reducing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus for thousands of individuals in the Commonwealth.

The current public health crisis has resulted in an unprecedented rise in unemployment and a subsequent increase in demand for our nation’s anti-hunger programs, including SNAP. While USDA has moved swiftly to reduce barriers and increase access to this program during the current public health emergency, most SNAP recipients are only able to utilize these benefits in person at grocery stores or other retailers. This requirement places SNAP recipients at higher risk of infection, as they are not able to utilize various online grocery delivery services that are available for consumers.

The 2014 Farm Bill required USDA to establish a pilot program to test the feasibility of SNAP beneficiaries utilizing their benefits online with authorized retailers. To date, only a small number of states are authorized to participate in this program and have set up systems to allow SNAP recipients in their respective states to use their benefits with online retailers. Due to the current public health emergency, we understand USDA is working to add interested states to the program on a case-by-case basis if they meet the requirements to administer the online program.

To ensure the health and safety of SNAP beneficiaries in the Commonwealth, we urge USDA to work with the Virginia Department of Social Services to approve Virginia’s request to participate in the Department’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot as quickly as possible. We also urge USDA to do everything within its power to expand this program nationwide so SNAP recipients across the country have the option to use online grocery delivery options and reduce their exposure to COVID-19.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure every American has access to healthy and nutritious foods during this public health emergency.

Sincerely,

###

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner joined Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Hoeven (R-ND) in writing a letter to Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to urge the Administration to ensure the continuity of our country’s food supply and to support rural areas during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by providing needed relief to farmers. Klobuchar and Hoeven were joined on the letter by Senators Tina Smith (D-MN), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), and 38 bipartisan colleagues.

“We write to ask that you take action to ensure the continuity of our country’s food supply and support rural areas during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by providing needed relief to farmers—including by ensuring that the temporary flexibilities on farm loans recently announced by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) are made permanent for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery, and also by ensuring adequate and equitable access to credit during this period of market uncertainty,” the senators wrote.

“Americans always depend on our nation’s farmers to grow the food, fuel, and fiber that we all need, but that reliance becomes much more pronounced in times of crisis,” the senators continued.

“To provide additional support for those whose operations are being affected by the coronavirus, we urge you to consider making emergency measures such as deadline extensions, loan payment deferrals, payment forbearance, and a full suspension of all current and pending foreclosure actions effective for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery.”

“Such measures are critical to avoiding disruption in the country’s food supply chain.”

In addition to Klobuchar, Hoeven, Smith, and Cramer, the letter was signed by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), John Thune (R-SD), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Barrasso (R-WY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Mike Enzi (R-WY), John Boozman (R-AR), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Angus King (I-ME), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Todd Young (R-IN), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Doug Jones (D-AL), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Gary Peters (D-MI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jon Tester (D-MT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Martha McSally (R-AZ), Josh Hawley (R-MO), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).

Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below: 

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write to ask that you take action to ensure the continuity of our country’s food supply and support rural areas during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by providing needed relief to farmers—including by ensuring that the temporary flexibilities on farm loans recently announced by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) are made permanent for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery, and also by ensuring adequate and equitable access to credit during this period of market uncertainty.

As you know, farmers across the country have faced many challenges in the past several years. The coronavirus pandemic is now causing additional disruptions, driving further declines in market conditions, prices, and export demand, and some experts believe that the consequences of the pandemic could hit rural communities particularly hard. In the past week alone, cattle producers have seen excessive price losses and corn growers have seen biofuel producers suspend purchases due to weaker fuel demand. These conditions have created cash flow challenges as spring planting season quickly approaches. 

Americans always depend on our nation’s farmers to grow the food, fuel, and fiber that we all need, but that reliance becomes much more pronounced in times of crisis. We appreciate the Department’s recognition of the challenges facing farmers and the announcement made by FSA on March 26, 2020, to provide flexibility for those repaying farm loans. These actions will help alleviate cash flow concerns as producers make important business decisions for their operations. We respectfully ask that you provide us with additional information as to how the Department plans to communicate these flexibilities to producers, the criteria that the Department will consider when determining whether a producer receives temporary payment deferral or forbearance, and how long these extensions will be in effect for producers responding to loan servicing actions.

To provide additional support for those whose operations are being affected by the coronavirus, we urge you to consider making emergency measures such as deadline extensions, loan payment deferrals, payment forbearance, and a full suspension of all current and pending foreclosure actions effective for the duration of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery. The Department should also consider taking additional emergency actions – including the authorization of loan restructuring and loan balance write-downs – that were not included in the March 26 announcement. Such measures are critical to avoiding disruption in the country’s food supply chain.

We also urge you to prioritize and fully leverage existing programs at the Department that are well suited to resolving loan and credit impacts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Agricultural Mediation Program. This existing federal-state partnership has a proven track record of providing confidential and neutral forums to discuss and resolve loan and credit issues between farmers and their lenders. The program’s caseloads have steadily risen over the past eight years and can be expected to increase as the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic ripple through the rural economy.

We will continue working to provide for additional support for farmers and rural communities to address the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, we urge you to consider actions that will provide flexibility and temporary relief for borrowers and ensure adequate and equitable access to credit.

Thank you for your continued work on behalf of American farmers and ranchers. We stand ready and willing to work with you to help get farmers through these extraordinary circumstances. 

Sincerely,

###

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to waive a requirement that needlessly forces children – including those who are immunocompromised – to physically accompany their parent or guardian to a school lunch distribution site in order to receive USDA-reimbursable meals, therefore putting them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Current USDA regulations prohibit school districts from distributing meals to families unless the child is present. While we understand the need for this policy under normal circumstances, the current public health emergency demonstrates a clear need for flexibility in food distribution policies to ensure every child has access to a healthy meal,” the Senators wrote in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “The current policy is burdensome on families and places children at increased risk – especially those who are immunocompromised. This creates a difficult situation for some families who must decide between potentially placing their children at risk of infection and skipping meals.”

According to reports, Virginia families with at-risk children have already been put in the difficult position of choosing whether to seek the food assistance they need, or safeguard the health and safety of their child.

“To meet the nutrition needs of all children during the current public health crisis, we request that USDA establish guidelines for states that remove the in-person requirements for families with at-risk children to reduce unnecessary exposure to COVID-19,” they continued. “Removing this restriction would go a long way to ensuring children in Virginia have access to healthy meals during this public health emergency and are not placed at undue risk.”

In their letter, the Senators also urged USDA to do more to make sure that children in Virginia continue to have access to healthy and nutritious foods during this crisis.

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong advocates of expanded access to food assistance for families in the Commonwealth amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Earlier this week, the Senators urged USDA to swiftly approve Virginia’s request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program, which would allow food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia families in need while limiting interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients. 

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue 

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write today concerning the ongoing public health crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19 and the unprecedented nutrition challenges children in Virginia and across the country are facing. We appreciate all the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is doing to meet this unique challenge, including waiving the congregate meal requirements for child nutrition programs. However, we believe more must be done to ensure children in Virginia continue to have access to healthy and nutritious meals during this state of emergency.

Current USDA regulations prohibit school districts from distributing meals to families unless the child is present. While we understand the need for this policy under normal circumstances, the current public health emergency demonstrates a clear need for flexibility in food distribution policies to ensure every child has access to a healthy meal. The current policy is burdensome on families and places children at increased risk – especially those who are immunocompromised. This creates a difficult situation for some families who must decide between potentially placing their children at risk of infection and skipping meals. 

To meet the nutrition needs of all children during the current public health crisis, we request that USDA establish guidelines for states that remove the in-person requirements for families with at-risk children to reduce unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. Removing this restriction would go a long way to ensuring children in Virginia have access to healthy meals during this public health emergency and are not placed at undue risk.

Again, thank you for your attention to this matter and all you are doing to ensure children have access to healthy and nutritious foods during this challenging time. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely, 

###

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) sent a letter to the Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urging for swift approval of Virginia’s request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program. This designation by the Food and Nutrition Service would allow food banks to distribute USDA foods directly to Virginia’s neediest families while limiting the interactions between food bank staff, volunteers, and recipients during the coronavirus outbreak. 

“In Virginia, many households are out of work due to the ongoing public health emergency. This has created an unprecedented increase in need for food services across the Commonwealth. With little time to prepare, many families have found themselves without the finances to maintain a healthy diet. Unfortunately, congregate food distribution is not an option at this time due to the potential spread of COVID-19. A household distribution program is required to ensure the safe and efficient distribution of food to families in need,” wrote the Senators to Administrator Pam Miller of the Food and Nutrition Service. 

In their letter, the Senators underscore that food banks serve as a vital lifeline for families across the Commonwealth. With the designation of the Disaster Household Distribution Program, the burdensome paperwork that often accompanies a family’s application for food assistance would be removed in an effort to expeditiously distribute food to families in need.

“The Virginia Federation of Foodbanks – working in conjunction with VDACS – will operate the Disaster Household Distribution Program in the Commonwealth. Virginia foodbanks will utilize their existing inventories of USDA foods and donated foods to help supplement families’ nutritional needs. Participants in the program will not be required to complete long and burdensome application forms. The goal will be to limit interaction between staff, volunteers, and recipients to ensure the safe and expeditious delivery of food to families,” they continued.

On March 19, 2020, the Commonwealth submitted a formal request to operate a Household Disaster Distribution Program.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

 

Dear Administrator Miller: 

We write today in support of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service’s (VDACS) request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program in Virginia due to the ongoing public health emergency caused by the spread of COVID-19. Timely approval of this request is needed to ensure families in Virginia have access to healthy foods during this crisis.

In Virginia, many households are out of work due to the ongoing public health emergency. This has created an unprecedented increase in need for food services across the Commonwealth. With little time to prepare, many families have found themselves without the finances to maintain a healthy diet. Unfortunately, congregate food distribution is not an option at this time due to the potential spread of COVID-19. A household distribution program is required to ensure the safe and efficient distribution of food to families in need.

The Virginia Federation of Foodbanks – working in conjunction with VDACS – will operate the Disaster Household Distribution Program in the Commonwealth. Virginia foodbanks will utilize their existing inventories of USDA foods and donated foods to help supplement families’ nutritional needs. Participants in the program will not be required to complete long and burdensome application forms. The goal will be to limit interaction between staff, volunteers, and recipients to ensure the safe and expeditious delivery of food to families.

In order to ensure Virginians in need are able to access food in a safe and timely manner, we urge you approve the Commonwealth’s request to operate a Disaster Household Distribution Program. Thank you for your consideration of this request and all you do to ensure Americans have access to healthy foods.

Sincerely, 

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to enable thousands of federal civil servants, who have experience with rapid emergency response, to assist rural communities that are increasingly overwhelmed by the challenge of responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Of Virginia’s 67 confirmed cases, there are growing outbreaks in rural areas including James City County, Farmville, and Hanover. In their letter, the Senators underscore that the USDA and DOI have the relevant experience to best meet the challenges rural communities in Virginia face.

“We write to request your immediate assistance in mobilizing your agencies to offer coordinated support for rural counties, municipalities, and tribal communities as they respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” wrote the Senators in their letter to FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, and DOI Secretary David Bernhardt. “Rural communities are working to set up local emergency operation centers to help manage their response, but face challenges with limited staff capacity. Across many of our states, rural counties are experiencing outbreaks and some communities are already overwhelmed with the challenge.”

Federal civil servants across the country at agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are located in rural communities and uniquely qualified in emergency management. Many are Incident Command System qualified, have experience mobilizing resources, and coordinating communication and information flow to respond to and contain crises like forest fires. This expertise would bolster the response to coronavirus outbreaks in rural communities across the country.

“We believe these federal professionals are well suited to partner with rural counties and municipalities to enhance staff capacity and support communities facing this public health crisis,” continued the Senators. Therefore, in light of the national emergency declaration, we urge you to take immediate steps to ensure your agencies are working together to make your respective staff and resources available and able to assist with emergency response to COVID-19 across the country.”

In addition to Sen. Warner, the letter was led by Sen. Michel Bennet (D-CO) and signed by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-MI), Senate Indian Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), Doug Jones (D-Al), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jeffery Merkley (D-OR), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tina Smith (D-MN), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Jon Tester (D-MT).

A copy of the letter is found here and below.

 

Dear Administrator Gaynor, Secretary Perdue, and Secretary Bernhardt:

We write to request your immediate assistance in mobilizing your agencies to offer coordinated support for rural counties, municipalities, and tribal communities as they respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Rural communities are working to set up local emergency operation centers to help manage their response, but face challenges with limited staff capacity. Across many of our states, rural counties are experiencing outbreaks and some communities are already overwhelmed with the challenge.

Throughout rural America, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture employ thousands of federal civil servants who have the relevant experience to assist with emergency response. For example, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employ thousands of staff across the country who are Incident Command System qualified and have experience rapidly responding to forest fires, mobilizing critical resources, and managing information flow in times of crisis. With this expertise available, it is crucial that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide the authorities necessary and work with both agencies to deliver effective, coordinated assistance to rural communities.

We believe these federal professionals are well suited to partner with rural counties and municipalities to enhance staff capacity and support communities facing this public health crisis. Therefore, in light of the national emergency declaration, we urge you to take immediate steps to ensure your agencies are working together to make your respective staff and resources available and able to assist with emergency response to COVID-19 across the country.

Thank you for considering this request.

Sincerely,

 

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) released a statement after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced its decision to release an additional 35,000 H-2B temporary nonagricultural worker visas – a move that will benefit Virginia’s seafood processing industry, a community largely made up of rural, family-owned operations. This decision follows strong advocacy by Sen. Warner, who has repeatedly urged DHS to release additional visas in order to provide much-needed support to the seafood industry in the Commonwealth.

“I’m relieved to know that with harvest season approaching, Virginia’s family-owned seafood processors will be able to access these additional visas in order to hire more seasonal workers and keep their operations up and running,” said Sen. Warner. “I’ve heard from many seafood businesses how difficult it can be to fulfill labor needs in an industry with such tough and temporary jobs like processing crabs and shucking oysters. I know Virginia businesses still have questions about how the visas will be allocated and how soon they can get workers on the job. I will continue to stay in close contact with both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor and push for these answers. Going forward, we have to work to make sure that our seafood processors no longer have to worry about whether they will be forced to lose supply agreements due to a lack of labor. That’s why I’m going to continue fighting for legislation I introduced to strengthen the H-2B visa program and help seasonal employers better prepare for fluctuations in demand during peak seasons.”

H-2B visas allow employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrant workers to perform nonagricultural labor or services in the United States if U.S. workers are not available, after completing rigorous application and certification process. These visas are critical to the survival of Virginia’s seafood industry – particularly the seafood processing community around the Chesapeake Bay.

According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s last complete study of this kind, the commercial seafood industry in Virginia generates $407.9 million in economic output, which includes all economic activity from harvesters to restaurants. Of that $407.9 million, 62 percent comes from seafood processing/wholesaling firms – the primary companies who rely on the H-2B worker program. Additionally, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, in 2017, Virginia oysters alone had a dockside value of more than $48.9 million dollars, followed by Quahog Clams with more than $47.6 million and Blue Crabs with more than $38 million in dockside value.

Sen. Warner has long advocated for the release of these additional visas. Most recently, he led six of his Senate colleagues in urging DHS to release additional H-2B visas needed to support local seafood businesses. In February, in a bipartisan call, he pressed DHS Secretary Wolf to release the additional Congressionally-authorized H-2B visas, to publicly announce this intent, and to do so as quickly as possible. Additionally, earlier this year, he joined a bipartisan, bicameral letter calling on the Administration to increase the statutory cap of H-2B visas for FY20. He also recently met with DOL Secretary Eugene Scalia to discuss the impact of the H-2B program on Virginia and urge the Secretary to work alongside DHS to release the additional visas in a timely fashion.

Sen. Warner has previously introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen the H-2B visa program, and has requested an audit to determine the number of unused visas that could be made available to eligible petitioners.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement that 84 counties and cities in Virginia are now eligible to apply for two programs that protect hemp producers’ crops in the 2020 growing season. The Multi-Peril Crop Insurance (MPCI) pilot program provides coverage for hemp producers in case of crop loss due to natural disasters. The Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) coverage protects against crop losses where no permanent federal crop insurance program is available. Virginia’s eligibility in the hemp crop insurance pilot program is a direct result of the Senators’ successful push for the Commonwealth’s inclusion. Virginia’s hemp producers may now apply for the programs by the March 16, 2020 deadline. 

“We are pleased that Virginia’s hemp producers will now be able to protect their crops in the event of unforeseen disasters,” said the Senators. “With Virginia positioned to be a top producer of industrial hemp in the country, these additional protections will help hemp growers tap into this thriving industry.”

The 84 counties and cities now eligible are: Accomack, Amelia, Amherst, Appomattox, Augusta, Bath, Bedford, Bland, Botetourt, Brunswick, Buckingham, Campbell, Caroline, Carroll, Charles City, Charlotte, Chesapeake City, Chesterfield, Clarke, Craig, Culpeper, Dinwiddie, Essex, Fairfax, Fauquier, Floyd, Fluvanna, Franklin, Frederick, Gloucester, Goochland, Grayson, Greene, Greensville, Halifax, Hanover, Henrico, Henry, Isle of Wight, James City, King And Queen, King George, King William, Lancaster, Lee, Loudoun, Louisa, Lunenburg, Madison, Mathews, Mecklenburg, Middlesex, Montgomery, Nelson, New Kent, Northampton, Northumberland, Nottoway, Orange, Page, Patrick, Pittsylvania, Powhatan, Prince Edward, Prince George, Prince William, Pulaski, Rappahannock, Richmond, Rockbridge, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Smyth, Southampton, Spotsylvania, Suffolk City, Surry, Sussex, Virginia Beach, Warren, Washington, Westmoreland, Wythe, and York. 

Hemp is distinct from marijuana in that it has a miniscule concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and thus no narcotic capability. The plant is estimated to be used in more than 25,000 products, including agriculture, textile, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverage, paper, personal care, and construction products. In 2018, the Senators sponsored a provision in the Farm Bill that removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, allowing Virginia farmers to grow and sell the plant as a commodity and making it eligible for crop insurance. According to recent VDACS data, there are now over 1,100 registered industrial hemp growers across the Commonwealth. 

In December 2019, the Senators backed two bipartisan, bicameral spending bills that provided $16.5 million in new funding to implement the Hemp Production Program. Additionally, in December, they urged USDA to make changes to its proposed hemp regulations to better help Virginia farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp. Recently, the Senators sent a letter to the USDA to expedite its review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production to provide sufficient time for the General Assembly to update the Commonwealth’s hemp laws and address any potential deficiencies that may arise ahead of the 2020 growing season. 

 

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WASHINGTON – With the General Assembly session scheduled to adjourn in March 2020, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) today urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expedite its review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production, in order to provide sufficient time for the General Assembly to update the Commonwealth’s hemp laws and address any potential deficiencies that may arise following USDA review.

“Industrial hemp presents an unprecedented opportunity for Virginia producers, and it is critically important that state and federal guidelines provide certainty and security to our farmers,” wrote the Senators. “Expeditious review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production is needed to provide VDACS and other state agencies with the information they need to run an effective hemp program for the 2020 growing season.”

"Virginia is poised to be a top producer of industrial hemp in the country. In 2019, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) registered over 1,200 growers to produce approximately 2,200 acres of industrial hemp. We expect these figures to grow substantially in 2020 and beyond,” they continued. “If Virginia’s Hemp Production Plan is not processed in a timely manner, we are concerned this could cause complications for the Commonwealth’s hemp program and our producers, who are eager to take advantage of this exciting opportunity.”

Hemp is distinct from marijuana in that it has a miniscule concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and thus no narcotic capability. The plant is estimated to be used in more than 25,000 products, including agriculture, textile, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverage, paper, personal care, and construction products.

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong supporters of hemp as an agricultural commodity. In 2018, the Senators sponsored a provision in the Farm Bill that removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, allowing Virginia farmers to grow and sell the plant as a commodity. More recently in September 2019, Sens. Warner and Kaine successfully secured Virginia’s inclusion in a pilot to develop a crop insurance program for industrial hemp. In December 2019, the Senators backed two bipartisan, bicameral spending bills that provided $16.5 million in new funding to implement the Hemp Production Program. Additionally, in December, they urged USDA to make changes to its proposed hemp regulations to better help Virginia farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp.

A copy of the letter is available here and below.

 

Mr. Bruce Summers

Administrator

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)

1400 Independence Ave SW

Washington, DC 20228

Dear Mr. Summers:

We write today concerning the Commonwealth of Virginia’s recent submission of its Plan to Regulate Hemp Production. In the interest of ensuring the success of Virginia’s burgeoning hemp industry, we encourage USDA to review the Commonwealth’s plan expeditiously to provide growers across Virginia the certainty they require entering the 2020 growing season.

Virginia is poised to be a top producer of industrial hemp in the country. In 2019, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) registered over 1,200 growers to produce approximately 2,200 acres of industrial hemp. We expect these figures to grow substantially in 2020 and beyond. Industrial hemp presents an unprecedented opportunity for Virginia producers, and it is critically important that state and federal guidelines provide certainty and security to our farmers.

Expeditious review of Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production is needed to provide VDACS and other state agencies with the information they need to run an effective hemp program for the 2020 growing season. In addition, the Virginia General Assembly is currently in session, and if any deficiencies that require legislative updates are found in the Commonwealth’s plan, a quick review and response would be helpful to guide the legislature. Virginia’s General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn in early March 2020, which provides a relatively narrow window of opportunity for the legislature to address any potential deficiencies. If Virginia’s Hemp Production Plan is not processed in a timely manner, we are concerned this could cause complications for the Commonwealth’s hemp program and our producers, who are eager to take advantage of this exciting opportunity.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure the development of a viable U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program. Please let us know if we can be of assistance moving forward.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) announced $1,549,891 in federal funding for the University of Virginia (UVA) and Virginia Tech to improve resources for the U.S. agricultural industry and rural communities. This funding was awarded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics and Tools (FACT) Initiative, which focuses on data-driven solutions to address problems facing the agricultural industry.

“We’re pleased to announce this funding to focus on strengthening our country’s agricultural industry and lifting up rural communities,” said the Senators. “Agriculture is a significant part of Virginia’s economy, and we’re excited to see UVA and Virginia Tech receive significant investments to boost this critical industry.”

The funding will be awarded as below:

  • $999,975 for the University of Virginia to support a 10-week program for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and professionals to learn how to use data science to better address agricultural, economic, and social issues facing rural America. The funding will help the program create a workforce trained in analytics so they can better utilize data to strengthen their communities.
  •  $499,952 for the University of Virginia to better understand America’s agricultural commodity flows and their role in the spread of invasive species, which is important for food security and economic stability. This project will help provide policy makers with guidance to better address vulnerabilities in food systems.
  • $49,964 for Virginia Tech to safeguard the agriculture and food bioeconomy from cyber threats. The bioeconomy – innovation in biological sciences to boost economic activity – is estimated at approximately 25% of U.S. GDP.

According to the USDA, “FACT focuses on data science to enable systems and communities to effectively utilize data, improve resource management, and integrate new technologies and approaches to further U.S. food and agriculture enterprises. Projects funded through FACT will work to examine the value of data for small and large farmers, agricultural and food industries, and gain an understanding of how data can impact the agricultural supply chain, reduce food waste and loss, improve consumer health, environmental and natural resource management, affect the structure of U.S. food and agriculture sectors, and increase U.S. competitiveness.”

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), member of the Senate Committee on Finance, addressed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) before voting in favor of the deal during a Finance Committee vote. In his opening remarks, Sen. Warner expressed optimism for the deal’s positive impact on Virginia’s farmers, but noted his concern regarding the Trump Administration’s erratic approach to trade, and the impact that these strained interactions could have on our nation’s relationship with key allies and partners abroad.

“I’m optimistic that this trade agreement will help American farmers, ports, manufacturers, retailers, and workers. As others have pointed out, the deal addresses issues like digital trade, that NAFTA couldn’t fully anticipate and decreases market barriers to agricultural products that have been huge points of concern for Virginia farmers,” said Sen. Warner in the committee hearing. “Overall, I’m hopeful that this agreement will provide the consistency and stability that the business community needs. At the same time, I worry that the process that led us to this point may result in reduced U.S. credibility and trust from our allies and closest trading partners. Throughout the negotiation process, the President’s efforts to levy tariffs on Canada and Mexico, and to make repeated threats to withdraw from NAFTA or to heedlessly close the border with Mexico, have exemplified the troubling and erratic approach to trade issues that we’ve seen from the Administration.”

He continued, “Alienating our closest allies with the misuse of national security tariffs is counterproductive and endangers American security. That is why Senator Toomey and I have offered the Bicameral Trade Authority Act, to curb abuses of 232 authority. I’m hopeful that with ratification of this deal will offer an opportunity for this committee to reexamine those efforts in a bipartisan fashion.”

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was officially signed by the three participating countries on November 30th, 2018. In the wake of pressure from Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi, the Trump Administration announced on December 9th the addition of new labor protections and enforcement provisions. Soon after, Sen. Warner announced his support of the USMCA, which intends to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The USMCA, which passed the House of Representatives by a 385-41 vote, awaits consideration in the Senate.

 

Sen. Warner’s remarks are available below:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

As we all know, strong trading relationships improve our nation’s economy. I’m optimistic that this trade agreement will help American farmers, ports, manufacturers, retailers, and workers. As others have pointed out, the deal addresses issues like digital trade, that NAFTA couldn’t fully anticipate and decreases market barriers to agricultural products that have been huge points of concern for Virginia farmers.

I want to add congratulations to Ranking Member Wyden, Senator Brown and our House colleagues, because now this agreement finally includes strong labor protections to ensure that companies in our partner nations are held accountable and that American workers can compete on a level playing field.

Overall, I’m hopeful that this agreement will provide the consistency and stability that the business community needs.

At the same time, I worry that the process that led us to this point may result in reduced U.S. credibility and trust from our allies and closest trading partners. Throughout the negotiation process, the President’s efforts to levy tariffs on Canada and Mexico, and to make repeated threats to withdraw from NAFTA or to heedlessly close the border with Mexico, have exemplified the troubling and erratic approach to trade issues that we’ve seen from the Administration.

Our trade relationships are a key form of diplomacy, allowing us to increase U.S. influence abroad and deepen our relationships with foreign partners in ways that benefit not just American prosperity but U.S. security and leadership. Alienating our closest allies with the misuse of national security tariffs is counterproductive and endangers American security. That is why Senator Toomey and I have offered the Bicameral Trade Authority Act, to curb abuses of 232 authority. I’m hopeful that with ratification of this deal will offer an opportunity for this committee to reexamine those efforts in a bipartisan fashion.

Finally, and I made an agreement with the ranking member not to raise this issue during these considerations but I do want to take note that I have serious concerns with the inclusion of safe harbor language modeled on section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Congress is beginning, at this point, an important bipartisan debate about whether section 230 is working as intended. And many, including many prominent civil rights groups, believe that section 230 has allowed internet intermediaries to ignore misuse of their platforms by bad actors. This is an issue that I think needs our attention and that I hope we can revisit in a bipartisan way. Again, I commend everybody who worked on this.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make changes to its proposed hemp regulations to better help Virginia farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp. Responding to concerns raised by farmers in Virginia, the Senators encouraged the Department to make several specific changes to draft plans regulating the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program, which was established by Congress as part of the 2018 Farm Bill.

“We appreciate USDA’s commitment to developing a viable U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program for hemp producers in Virginia and across the country. We look forward to working with you to ensure Virginia hemp growers are able to take full advantage of this opportunity,” the Senators wrote in a letter to Secretary Perdue.

Among the issues the Senators raised in their letter:

  • USDA’s interim final rule requires growers to test hemp plants within 15 days of anticipated harvest. The Senators urged USDA to adopt a more reasonable testing timeframe of 30 days to reduce burdens to hemp producers and reduce unnecessary delays in getting products to market.
  • USDA’s interim final rules requires that hemp plant testing must be conducted by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-registered laboratory, but Virginia has only a small number of DEA-registered labs. The Senators urged USDA to remove the requirement that testing can only occur at DEA-registered labs and allow testing to be conducted at independent testing labs that meet USDA standards.
  • USDA’s interim final rule establishes a negligence threshold for hemp at 0.5% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). If a grower is found to have hemp with a THC level above 0.5% they could face legal repercussions under the current guidelines. The Senators urged USDA to raise the threshold to 1.0% THC before a grower is subject to penalties, since it is possible hemp growers could take all the necessary steps and precautions to produce hemp according to the guidelines and still produce hemp plants that exceed the 0.5% THC concentration due to factors out of their control. The Senators also urged USDA to examine mediation options to deal with growers who accidentally exceed the THC threshold.
  • The Senators also asked USDA to offer “maximum flexibility” to states like Virginia when it comes to implementing industrial hemp production, noting that Virginia is in the process of developing a State Action Plan to adhere to the 2018 Farm Bill and USDA rulemaking, but that the General Assembly in Virginia, like many states, is only in session for a short period, and it is possible that USDA will issue a final rule after the General Assembly has already completed its 2020 session.

Sens. Warner and Kaine championed the legislation to legalize the production of industrial hemp, a crop which is already cultivated for research purposes in Virginia. Hemp is distinct from marijuana in that it has a miniscule concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and thus no narcotic capability. The plant is estimated to be used in more than 25,000 products spanning agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverages, paper, construction materials, and personal care. In September, Warner and Kaine successfully secured Virginia’s inclusion in a pilot to develop a crop insurance program for industrial hemp.  

The full text of the letter appears below. A copy of the letter is available here.

 

The Honorable Sonny Perdue

Secretary

United States Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write today to provide comments in response to the issuance of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) interim final rule for the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program. While we applaud USDA for its work in developing this rule in a timely manner, we are concerned about some of the effects this interim final rule would have on hemp production in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Virginia has taken full advantage of recent changes in federal law to become a national leader in industrial hemp research and production. As of November 2019, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) has registered 1,183 industrial hemp growers, 262 processors, and 117 dealers. Nearly 2,200 acres of industrial hemp were planted in the Commonwealth in 2019. In addition, VDACS projects that Virginia growers could plant up to 15,000 acres of hemp during the 2020 growing season. Industrial hemp presents an incredible opportunity for Virginia farmers, and it is important that guidelines and regulations for the hemp industry do not unduly burden our growers.

Following, in no particular order, are our concerns regarding the interim final rule. We appreciate your consideration of these concerns and look forward to working with you as USDA finalizes its U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program.

  • USDA’s interim final rule requires growers to test hemp plants within 15 days of anticipated harvest. We are concerned that a 15-day testing window will not provide adequate time for growers to test each crop, submit the testing sample, and receive a response. A 15-day window would be incredibly burdensome for Virginia hemp producers and would lead to unnecessary delays in getting products to market. We believe a 30-day window would provide a more reasonable testing timeframe that would be less burdensome on producers and testing facilities.
  • USDA’s interim final rule requires that hemp plant testing must be conducted by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-registered laboratory. Currently, Virginia only has very limited number of DEA-registered labs. With the projected increase in hemp production in Virginia and the proposed 15-day turnaround time for testing, it will be incredibly difficult for a small number of DEA-registered labs to meet these requirements during harvesting season. A backlog at testing facilities could negatively impact Virginia growers, processors, and dealers. We recommend that USDA remove the requirement that testing can only occur at DEA-registered labs and allow testing to be conducted at independent testing labs that meet USDA standards.
  • The interim final rule establishes a negligence threshold for hemp at 0.5% delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). If a grower is found to have hemp with a THC level above 0.5% they could face legal repercussions under the current guidelines. We are concerned that the 0.5% THC threshold is arbitrary and far too low considering THC levels can vary widely depending on a number of factors including weather and geography. Hemp growers could take all the necessary steps and precautions to produce hemp according to the guidelines and still produce hemp plants that exceed the 0.5% THC concentration due to factors out of their control. We believe this threshold should be raised to at least 1.0% THC before a grower is subject to negligent violation to protect individuals who follow regulations and best practices. We also encourage USDA to examine mediation options to deal with growers who accidentally exceed the THC threshold.
  • Finally, as USDA begins to implement a final rule we ask that the agency consider how implementation impacts individual states. Many states, including Virginia, are in the process of developing State Action Plans that adhere to the 2018 Farm Bill and USDA rulemaking. However, the Virginia General Assembly, along with many state legislatures, are only in session for a short period. Once USDA implements its final rule, the Virginia General Assembly will need to pass legislation aligning its hemp program with USDA’s regulations. It is possible that USDA will issue the final rule after the Virginia General Assembly has completed its 2020 session. We ask that USDA consider these timelines and provide maximum flexibility to states as they prepare to implement their State Action Plans.

Again, thank you for your careful consideration of these concerns. We appreciate USDA’s commitment to developing a viable U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program for hemp producers in Virginia and across the country. We look forward to working with you to ensure Virginia hemp growers are able to take full advantage of this opportunity.

Sincerely,

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) today applauded the news that the Chinese government will lift the import ban on U.S. poultry products that has been in place since 2015, effective immediately.

“For years, we have raised concerns about China’s unfair ban on U.S. poultry products and today’s announcement that the ban will be lifted, effective immediately, is great news for Virginia poultry producers,” said the Senators. “While we’re pleased by today’s news that this unreasonable and arbitrary policy will be reversed, we remain deeply concerned that the Trump Administration still appears to lack a comprehensive strategy to deal with China’s unfair trade practices and the long-term threats to U.S. jobs and national security posed by China’s rampant intellectual property theft and economic espionage. We strongly urge the President not to lose sight of those important goals, or the pain the Administration’s tariffs continue to cause for many of Virginia’s businesses, workers and consumers.”

In July 2017, Sen. Warner and Sen. Kaine sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, urging the Trump Administration to push the Chinese government to end its ban on the sale of American poultry products. In February of this year, Sen. Warner and eight other bipartisan Senators sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, calling on the Trump Administration to reach a trade agreement with China lifting the ban on U.S. poultry and other barriers to U.S. agriculture products while also addressing issues such as Chinese intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and unfair subsidies for state-owned enterprises.

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WASHINGTON, D.C.— Today, U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine applauded Senate passage of bipartisan legislation to fund federal programs critical to Virginia under the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Commerce (DOC), Department of Justice (DOJ), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Department of Interior (DOI). 

On a bipartisan 84-9 vote, the Senate approved the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations package that covers funding for Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD); Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration; Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS); Interior and Environment; and all of their related agencies. Warner and Kaine pushed for many Virginia priorities through the appropriations process and have long pressed the Senate to return to regular budget order to make sure there are no gaps in funding that could cause a government shutdown.

“I’m pleased to see the passage of this bipartisan legislation, which includes significant support for Virginia priorities,” Warner said. “This bill provides much-needed resources for ongoing Chesapeake Bay restoration and cleanup efforts. It also supports investments to the Metro system that are critical to the capital region, and vital funding to support families across the Commonwealth. I’m also pleased that this bill includes my provision to give Congress more clarity on the Department of Justice’s progress on Ashanti Alert implementation. As we move forward, it’s my hope that my colleagues in both the House and the Senate will continue fighting to ensure the Ashanti Alert implementation is a priority for this Administration.”

“Each year, I’m proud to help secure federal funding that will strengthen the economy and improve the lives of Virginians,” Kaine said. “I’m pleased that again, key Virginia priorities we made the case for – like funding to promote a healthy Chesapeake Bay, improve daily commutes, and support economic development in coal communities – were included in the appropriations package passed by the Senate. I hope Congress passes a final appropriations bill quickly so that Virginians benefit from this funding without delay.” 

The following list includes many of the provisions Senators Warner and Kaine supported on behalf of Virginia that were included in the appropriations package:

  • Ashanti Alert System: The bill includes a provision supported by both Senators that forces the Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide Congress with a progress report of the Ashanti Alert implementation 30 days immediately after the appropriations bill is signed into law. Additionally, the amendment requires that the DOJ establish a deadline for full implementation no later than 90 days after the enactment of the Ashanti Alert Act, which creates an alert system for missing or endangered adults ages 18-64.
  • Broadband Grants: The bill provides $30 million to fund a grant program administered by the Rural Utilities Service that brings critical services to some of the most rural, underserved areas in America. The program provides financing to support new or improved broadband access across rural America and enable telecommunications providers to fill gaps where there is little or no broadband service. Broadband access has become a critical part of basic economic infrastructure for Virginians and is vital for job creation.
  • WMATA: The bill includes the full federal funding of $150 million for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) capital improvement. Warner and Kaine previously urged Senate appropriators to provide additional funding to WMATA to address the safety maintenance backlog. In May, the Senators introduced legislation to renew the federal funding commitment to Metro, provide critical safety reforms, and strengthen oversight of WMATA.
  • Child Nutrition: The bill provides $23.6 billion for Child Nutrition Programs, including $30 million for school equipment grants and $28 million for Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT). The Summer EBT program helps reach communities in Virginia that face barriers to participation in traditional summer food service programs and reduce rates of food insecurity among children.
  • Rural Water Infrastructure: The bill maintains $1.4 billion in water and waste direct loans and $549 million in water and waste grants to support quality of life in rural communities.
  • 400 Years of African American History Commemoration: The bill provides $500,000 for the commission to commemorate 400 years since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to English Colonial America at Point Comfort, Virginia and honor four centuries of African American history. The Senators sponsored legislation, which was signed into law in 2018, to establish the commission. 
  • Chesapeake Bay: The bill provides $76 million for the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership that directs and conducts the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. It also includes $3 million for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, which helps increase public access and the use of ecological, cultural, and historic resources of the Chesapeake region.
  • National Park Service: The bill provides $2.56 billion for operations of the National Park Service. In 2017, more than 24 million individuals visited Virginia’s National Parks. National Park Service assets also fill critical transportation needs for Virginians, such as the Arlington Memorial Bridge, connecting Northern Virginia with the District of Columbia. The bill also provides $1.25 billion for bridge repair and replacement, $100 million for nationally significant federal transportation assets, and $100 million for the Appalachian Development Highway System. This funding could help with Virginia's backlogged maintenance needs at Colonial National Historical Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, as well as long overdue needs on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Senator Warner has sponsored legislation, cosponsored by Kaine, to address the $12 billion maintenance backlog at the National Park Service, half of which is transportation needs.
  • Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF): The bill provides $465 million for LWCF, which has helped preserve forests, trails, wildlife refuges, historic battlefields, and Chesapeake Bay lands and waters in Virginia. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the Virginia outdoors industry supports approximately $21.9 billion in annual consumer spending and 197,000 direct jobs.
  • Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund: The bill provides $139.7 million for the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to remediate environmental contamination, rehabilitate sites for economically productive use, and support jobs in the process. Warner and Kaine spearheaded legislation earlier this year that would release $1 billion from the remaining, unappropriated balance in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to states to be spent on reclamation projects in communities impacted by abandoned mine lands and the recent decrease in coal mining production. 
  • Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG): CDBG helps communities develop projects that meet unique housing, infrastructure, and economic development needs and supports job creation. The bill provides $3.325 billion for CDBG. The bill rejects the President’s proposals to increase rent for public housing residents and protects critical sources of funding for affordable housing such as the HOME program. Senators Warner and Kaine have strongly opposed President Trump’s efforts to cut funding for affordable housing.
  • BUILD Infrastructure Grants: The bill provides $1 billion for competitive transportation grants through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program, formerly known as “TIGER” grants. Virginia has previously used these grants for projects including I-95 Express Lanes, I-564 connector from Norfolk International Terminals at the Port of Virginia, I-64 Delta Frames Bridges in Rockbridge County, the Pulse bus-rapid transit system in Richmond, and Northstar Boulevard in Loudoun County near Dulles.
  • Remote Tower System: The bill provides $9.5 million for the FAA to continue its remote tower systems pilot program at smaller airports. As part of the program, air traffic controllers are able to work remotely, which could help ease capacity and staffing constraints. This would support the Remote Tower Center partnership between Leesburg Executive Airport and Saab Technologies, as well as similar remote tower pilot projects being developed around the country.
  • Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT): The bill fully funds the PILT program, estimated to be around $500 million, in order to help local governments offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable federal lands within their boundaries. In FY2019, Virginia received roughly $5.8 million from PILT, of which the largest recipients were Augusta, Rockingham, Bath, Alleghany, and Craig Counties.
  • Virginia Tribes: In 2018, Congress passed and the President signed into law the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, legislation introduced by Senators Warner and Kaine that granted federal recognition to six Virginia tribes: the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan, and the Nansemond. The appropriations bill provides $1.281 million to continue to help Virginia tribes access the federal resources available to them after their successful, decades-long effort to secure federal recognition. It also includes an additional $11.5 million for delivery of health care services for Virginia tribes.
  • Hemp: The bill provides $16.5 million in new funding to implement the Hemp Production Program, which was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. Senators Warner and Kaine have been strong supporters of hemp as an agricultural commodity. The Farm Bill included a provision sponsored by both Senators that removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, allowing Virginia farmers to grow and sell the plant as a commodity for use in agriculture, textile, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverage, paper, personal care, and construction products. The bill also includes $2 million for the FDA to research and develop policies on CBD.

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WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) announced $593,056 in federal funding for a Virginia Tech project to increase the impact of the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition (ABFFC) by increasing membership and improving opportunities and capabilities among forest farmers. This funding follows a strong push by Sen. Warner, who has urged continued investment in this project by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The funding was awarded through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) at NIFA, which provides grants to support education, mentoring, and technical assistance initiatives for beginning farmers or ranchers.

“Through the conversations I’ve had with forest farmers in Southwest Virginia, I know the importance of forest farming for both our economy and our ecosystems. That’s why I was glad to have been able to help secure this funding, which will foster leadership and further strengthen our forest farming industry,” said Sen. Warner.

“I’ve traveled across Virginia to hear from farmers about challenges they face and how I can support their work at the federal level. One big concern I heard was about barriers to entry for young people who want to farm. I’m excited that this federal funding will help train the next generation of forest farmers in Virginia,” said Sen. Kaine.

Forest farming is an agroforestry practice that cultivates herbal, edible, decorative, and handicraft non-timber forest products (NTFP) under a forest canopy modified or maintained to provide shade levels and habitats that favor growth and enhance production. Forest farming allows farmers to produce and sell raw material that is traceable, unadulterated, and sustainable. In 2016, consumers spent an estimated $7.45 billion on herbal supplements, an increase of approximately $530 million from 2013. 

ABFFC is a network of forestland owners, universities, and governmental and non-governmental organizations that share a common goal of improving agroforestry production opportunities and farming capabilities among forest farmers. The project, "Seeded and Growing: Sustaining Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Education and Engagement," aims to recruit 400 new and beginning Appalachian forest farmers to ABFFC, increasing membership to more than 1,400. It also seeks to provide advanced training and technical assistance to farmers, as well as promote mentorships, partnerships and networking for new and beginning forest farmers.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), along with U.S. Reps. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Don Beyer (D-VA), Ben Cline (R-VA), Elaine Luria (D-VA), Denver Riggleman (R-VA), and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) today secured Virginia’s inclusion in a pilot program by AgriLogic Consulting, a private company developing a Federal Yield-Based Industrial Hemp Crop Insurance Program on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“We are thrilled to have been able to secure Virginia’s place in this critical pilot program,” said the members of Congress. “The Commonwealth has a long history of industrial hemp research and development and Virginia’s inclusion in this pilot program will allow producers to better protect their crops in the event of a natural disaster. Additionally, the data collected from our producers will help provide a stronger and more robust insurance product, benefitting growers, processors, consumers, and taxpayers across the U.S.”

Last year, Congress approved the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, commonly known as the “Farm Bill,” which legalized and clearly defined hemp as an agricultural commodity, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances and making it eligible for crop insurance. According to recent VDACS data, there are now over 1,000 registered industrial hemp growers across the Commonwealth.

Crop insurance is often critical for farmers to guard against unforeseen disasters. AgriLogic has been working with hemp growers and processors across the country to gather data as it develops a Federal Yield-Based Industrial Hemp Crop Insurance Program on behalf of USDA. Drafts of this pilot program initially did not include Virginia, potentially giving growers in other states an unfair advantage in the new market. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) was not even notified of an opportunity to participate until after initial pilot states had already been selected. 

Yesterday, the members sent a letter to AgriLogic, urging it to include Virginia in the hemp crop insurance program, which could begin as early as the 2020 growing season, if approved later this year by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) Board of Directors. Today, AgriLogic announced that it will include Virginia in the plans it will submit to the USDA next week.

Sens. Warner and Kaine have been strong supporters of hemp as an agricultural commodity. The Farm Bill included a provision sponsored by both Senators, that removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, allowing Virginia farmers to grow and sell the plant as a commodity for use in agriculture, textile, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, nutrition, beverage, paper, personal care, and construction products.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), along with Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-MD) asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to explain its decision to reduce payments to Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees who have declined to relocate to Kansas City following the Trump Administration’s slapdash decision to move the two key research agencies out of Washington D.C.

“We are troubled by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to lower VSIP payments by such a large amount, and we have serious concerns about the timing of this announcement and the burden it places on federal workers who have already endured significant hardship throughout this rushed relocation process,” the Senators wrote.

“This expedited timeline places an undue burden on these employees who were led to believe they would be offered buyouts at or near the federal maximum,” the Senators continued. “USDA has failed to explain why employees were not notified earlier that VSIP offers would be significantly less than $25,000, considering the agency already knew that more than half of ERS and NIFA employees had declined to relocate by the time VSIP applications were due. We are troubled that USDA did not relay this information to its employees sooner considering the impacts this decision can have on an individual’s career.”

On June 13, USDA informed ERS and NIFA employees that only a limited number of Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIPs) would be available to those who would not be relocating to the Kansas City region. Then, nearly two months later, employees found that the USDA had reduced their VSIP offers from $25,000 to $10,000, or $15,000 less than what is permitted, and often standard, under federal law. To make matters worse, employees were only given six days to accept this reduced payment, or make the life-altering decision of relocating across the country.

In their letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Senators reiterated their opposition to the proposed relocation while demanding that federal employees be treated with dignity and respect should relocation plans move forward. They also asked a series of questions, including how much USDA has budgeted for VSIP payments, why USDA was not prepared to offer the maximum buyout payment to employees, and why employees were not notified that the maximum buyout payment would be less than the federal maximum.

The Senators have been strong opponents of the USDA’s unnecessary relocation of ERS and NIFA. Earlier this year, Sens. Warner, Kaine, Cardin, and Van Hollen introduced legislation to bar the research agencies from leaving the National Capital Region. In May, they joined other members of Congress representing the National Capital Region in urging Secretary Perdue not to relocate the research agencies.

A copy of the letter can be found here and below.

 

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write today concerning the recent issuance of Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) acceptance letters to Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees that offer $15,000 less than what is permitted under federal law and what is standard in nearly all other cases. We are troubled by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to lower VSIP payments by such a large amount, and we have serious concerns about the timing of this announcement and the burden it places on federal workers who have already endured significant hardship throughout this rushed relocation process.

On June 13, 2019, USDA informed ERS and NIFA employees that a limited number of VSIPs would be available to individuals who declined to relocate to the Kansas City Region by September 30, 2019. Employees were subsequently given a deadline of July 15, 2019 to notify USDA if they did not plan to relocate. Employees who wished to apply for buyouts were only given one week – July 22, 2019 through July 29, 2019 – to submit their applications. This is a short timeline to a make a decision like this, especially considering that employees who accept these payments cannot work for the federal government for at least five years or are forced to return this payment.

Then, on August 20, 2019, those ERS and NIFA employees who received their VSIP acceptance letters found that their payments had been reduced from $25,000 to $10,000 – a reduction of 60 percent. Applicants were given only six days to accept or decline this payment by August 26, 2019. This expedited timeline places an undue burden on these employees who were led to believe they would be offered buyouts at or near the federal maximum. Traditionally, federal employees who resign with a VSIP have received close to the maximum amount of $25,000. From Fiscal Year 2012 to May 2017, nearly 37,000 federal employees resigned with a VSIP for an average payment of $24,470.

USDA has stated that its decision to reduce the amount per VSIP was made in order to accommodate all employees who were eligible to receive the buyout. However, USDA has failed to explain why employees were not notified earlier that VSIP offers would be significantly less than $25,000, considering the agency already knew that more than half of ERS and NIFA employees had declined to relocate by the time VSIP applications were due.

We are troubled that USDA did not relay this information to its employees sooner considering the impacts this decision can have on an individual’s career.

In response to this announcement, we would like to pose the following questions regarding VSIP payments:

How much does USDA have budgeted for VSIP payments, and from what authority?

Why was USDA not prepared to offer the maximum buyout payment or near the maximum to employees when that appears to be standard procedure among federal agencies?

Why were employees not notified ahead of the VSIP application window that the maximum buyout payment would be significantly less than the federal maximum?

As senators representing the National Capital Region, we remain opposed to this proposed relocation. However, should this process continue to move forward, we expect federal employees be treated with dignity and respect. We urge you to reconsider this decision and offer these employees the maximum VSIP payment allowable by law and extend the deadline for employees to consider these payments.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) released the following statement after China announced that it will instate additional retaliatory tariffs starting September 1 in response to President Trump’s plans to impose additional levies on Chinese goods:

“Time and time again, we have warned President Trump against escalating a trade war with China. Trade wars yield no winners and hurt consumers and producers all over the Commonwealth, especially the farmers and small business owners who count on Chinese demand for products grown in Virginia. We’re even seeing devastating second-order effects of this trade war, with the possibility that fires in the Amazon are being deliberately set to clear land for soybean exports to China. While the U.S. must absolutely crack down on China for its illegal trade practices, we can’t afford to do so in an incoherent and erratic way. Today’s announcement shows once again that the Trump Administration’s bizarre trade policies destabilize the economy, put the livelihoods of many Americans at risk, undermine global stability, and fundamentally fail to hold China accountable for its unfair practices.” 

According to an announcement by the Chinese finance ministry, China’s tariffs will range from five to ten percent on items such as agricultural products, apparel, chemicals, and textiles, in addition to a 25 percent tariff on automobiles and a five percent tariff on automobile parts. These levies are scheduled to take effect on September 1 and December 15, matching the dates of the President’s most recent tariffs.

Sens. Warner and Kaine have continuously warned the Trump Administration about how its haphazard approach on trade hurts Virginia’s families, businesses, and economy. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), China is the Commonwealth’s number-one agricultural export market for soybeans. In 2018, Virginia exported more than $58 million soybean products to China – an 83 percent decrease from 2017.

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