Ag Today February 28, 2019

U.S. employers resume fight for more H-2B visas for foreign workers [Wall Street Journal]

Employers who rely on seasonal foreign-worker permits are renewing their fight to lift limits on temporary H-2B visas, saying computer problems this year that thwarted many applications highlighted the need to raise the cap. The Labor Department website used by U.S. businesses to apply for this spring’s round of H-2B visas crashed after a scramble by employers chasing 33,000 available permits. The Jan. 1 system meltdown, in the moments thousands of employers were applying for their permits, stemmed from high demand and a move to make the process first-come, first-served. While the Labor Department said Tuesday it would switch to a randomized process for employers who applied within the first three days for the next round of fall visas, businesses say the administration’s response for the current round has been: tough luck. The administration said Friday that all 33,000 permits have now been claimed. But the initial problem with the computer system, the switch to first-come first-serve and subsequent system problems—with some unable to access the servers—left many applicants feeling the process was unfair. Industries ranging from tourism to agriculture to landscaping to amusements say they are reliant on foreign workers and the H-2B program. They apply for the permits through a system known as ICERT. A coalition representing the industries hopes to use the problems suffered by some sectors as an argument to increase the cap for all of them.


Farm loan delinquencies highest in 9 years as prices slump [Associated Press]

The nation’s farmers are struggling to pay back loans after years of low crop prices and a backlash from foreign buyers over President Donald Trump’s tariffs, with a key government program showing the highest default rate in at least nine years. Many agricultural loans come due around Jan. 1, in part to give producers enough time to sell crops and livestock and to give them more flexibility in timing interest payments for tax filing purposes….While the federal government shutdown delayed reporting, January figures show an overall rise in delinquencies for those producers with direct loans from the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency. Nationwide, 19.4 percent of FSA direct loans were delinquent in January, compared to 16.5 percent for the same month a year ago, said David Schemm, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Kansas. During the past nine years, the agency’s January delinquency rate hit a high of 18.8 percent in 2011 and fell to a low of 16.1 percent when crop prices were significantly better in 2015.


LA offers to supply water instead of IID to get Colorado River drought plan across the finish line [Palm Springs Desert Sun]

With a Monday deadline looming, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has offered to break an impasse on a seven-state Colorado River drought contingency package by contributing necessary water from its own reserves on behalf of the Imperial Irrigation District. It’s not help that IID is seeking, but Metropolitan general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said he had no choice. He informed IID and federal, Arizona and Nevada officials at meetings in Las Vegas on Monday of the offer. “I told them Metropolitan would be willing to go ahead and sign off for California, in the absence of the Imperial Irrigation District being willing to do that. We would make both IID’s and Metropolitan’s water contributions,” Kightlinger said. He said U.S Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman and the state officials were appreciative of the offer, while IID officials preferred his agency not move forward until their conditions are met. IID, the lone holdout on the multi-pronged deal to conserve water for 40 million people and thousands of acres of farmland across the West, voted in December to only approve the plan if $200 million in federal funds was awarded to restore the fast-drying Salton Sea. The sea, California’s largest inland water body, lost imports from the river 13 months ago, sending ever greater clouds of hazardous dust across neighboring communities, farms and wildlife refuges. An avenue to provide funding was created in this year’s Farm Bill, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Trump trade adviser defends China deal before congressional skeptics [New York Times]

Robert Lighthizer, the president’s top trade adviser, cautioned lawmakers on Wednesday that hurdles remain to reaching a significant trade deal with China but said the administration’s talks represent the best hope for resetting economic terms between the two nations. Mr. Lighthizer, in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, confirmed that the United States would formally abandon its plan to raise tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports. President Trump said over the weekend that he would delay the higher tariffs, which were expected to kick in on Saturday, citing “significant progress” in talks with Beijing. But Mr. Lighthizer struck a more circumspect tone than Mr. Trump, who in recent days has predicted a “very, very good chance” of striking a deal with China and turned his attention toward a signing ceremony, potentially next month, at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, with President Xi Jinping of China….Mr. Lighthizer told lawmakers that he and his negotiators are maintaining a tough line with the Chinese, repeatedly using the word “if” when talking about the potential for reaching a deal with Beijing.


California Senator proposes $400M bill to repair sinking Friant-Kern Canal [Visalia Times-Delta]

State Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) is proposing a $400 million bill to lift the sinking Friant-Kern Canal. On Wednesday, Hurtado said Senate Bill 559, will “help secure California’s water supply by investing $400 million toward restoring lost (delivery) capacity on the Friant-Kern Canal, one of the San Joaquin Valley’s most critical water delivery facilities.” The Friant-Kern Canal delivers on average one million acre-feet of water, and 2.2 million acre-feet in wet years, to more than 18,000 farms across the Central Valley every year. The canal has been slowly sinking.


Green power: The quest to harness energy from leaves [Wall Street Journal]

Scientists looking for a new supply of green power are investigating an appropriate source: plants. Researchers at the Center for Micro-BioRobotics at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, a research institute in Pisa, Italy, have adapted the leaves of a plant to capture and convert wind energy into 150 volts of electricity, enough to light up 100 small LEDs. The leaves produce an electrical charge when they come into contact with artificial leaves—translucent sheets of soft silicone rubber fitted onto the plant—much like a balloon rubbed against hair. Plants could be used to power electronics from streetlights to robots, according to Barbara Mazzolai, the Center’s coordinator. The planet already has trillions of leaves. Why not put them to use as a biodegradable, renewable energy source? “For powering LEDs, it works very well,” says Fabian Meder, a scientist on Mazzolai’s team. He added: “Now we have to find out whether it is a possibility outside the laboratory.”