Picking up the pieces in Florida (2023)

Presented by the National Grocers Association

With help from Marcia Brown


— Florida farmers are just starting to dig out from one of the most destructive hurricanes to strike the major fruit and vegetable-producing state in recent years. The damage is widespread and will take years to recover from while likely pushing up food prices across the U.S.

— Georgia’s U.S. Senate race, one of the most closely-watched contests in the upcoming midterms, will help decide control of Congress. According to Glenn Heard, the peanut farmer in Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’snewest political ad, the lawmaker’s role on the Senate Ag Committee ahead of 2023 farm bill negotiations might be his biggest asset in the ag-focused state.

— A slew of House Republicans are requesting a GAO report on foreign investment in U.S. farmland. The group is concerned that the Agriculture Department may be underreporting the level of foreign investment.

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Driving the Day

AFTER THE STORM: Florida farmers are facing widespread destruction after Hurricane Ian struck major fruit and vegetable-producing regions of the state. Florida’s ag sector is a major supplier of winter-time produce for the rest of the U.S., and the damage will ripple through grocery stores for months to come.

Florida’s Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried told MA there’s reports of “100 percent crop loss” in southern parts of the state where the hurricane hit. It carved a path of destruction through the state’s citrus region where 400,000 of Florida’s 450,000 citrus acres have been impacted, Fried said. One dairy farm lost more than 200 head of cattle. Tomato farmers lost entire crops. Widespread power outages are impacting greenhouses, produce storage and milking operations that are struggling to stay up and running.

More than half of the state was impacted by the storm, including areas nowhere near the coast due to wind and flooding. Inland farms in central Florida are now battling rising floodwaters, days after the storm. Strawberry farms initially spared by Ian are now water-logged and farmers are delaying planting.

Daunting backlogs in disaster assistance, especially crop insurance, are a major concern for producers who’ve lost everything. Fried said she’s encouraging producers to report their losses as soon as possible to receive help in a timely manner. She’s also pressing for a federal disaster package lawmakers are eyeing when they return in December.

President Joe Bidenis traveling to Puerto Rico today and Florida on Wednesday to assess storm damage.

NUTS ABOUT GEORGIA: In one of the hottest Senate races in the country, U.S. peanut exports have become the center of a new political ad for Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). About half of all U.S. peanuts are grown in Georgia. The industry is relatively small in the U.S. but represents a critical piece of the state’s agriculture and history.

Why it matters: Control of the U.S. Senate is likely to run through Georgia, again. This time, Warnock is leveraging his coveted spot on the Senate Ag Committee to woo support from the state’s conservative-leaning ag sector. He’s facing Trump-backed, former NFL star Herschel Walker and needs to limit Walker’s margins in the state’s rural GOP strongholds.

In the ad, Glenn Heard, a peanut and cotton farmer in southwest Georgia, blasts protectionist efforts by foreign countries to hinder market access for U.S. peanuts and praises Warnock’s effort to “fight back” against those trade barriers.

Warnock then touts his bipartisan work with Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama and fellow Senate Ag Committee member, to challenge strict European Union trade requirements for U.S. peanut exports.

MA caught up with Heard, who farms with his wife, son and two daughters in Bainbridge, Ga. — in a county Donald Trump won by 17 points in 2020 and where Warnock could use every vote he can get in what’s expected to be a tight race.

“I saw where the Senator helped us already, in a short time of being there on the trade issue with Europe. And, you know, I appreciate that,” said Heard, 62, who’s voted for Republicans in the past. “Every little bit helps,” he added of export sales, as inflation and high input costs squeeze farmers.

“He could have chosen something else,” Heard said of Warnock’s peanut trade advocacy. “This is south Georgia. We’re not Atlanta.”

Farm bill boost? “We're looking for him to lead the charge for us in the next farm bill. So I want to help if I can,” Heard said.

If he keeps his seat, Warnock and other Senate Ag lawmakers will help steer hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding to the U.S. ag industry in the coming months, shaping key disaster relief programs and market conditions for crops like peanuts.

MA asked if there was anything else Heard wanted non-Georgians to know about the ad or his state. “Eat more peanuts,” he replied.

GT, GOP, REQUEST GAO INVESTIGATE FOREIGN FARMLAND: House Republicans led by Ag Committee Ranking Member G.T. Thompson (R-Penn.) and Oversight Committee Ranking Member James Comer (R-Ky.) are requesting a Government Accountability Office review of foreign acquisitions of U.S. farmland.

Context: USDA’s most recent audit from December 2020 found that foreign entities have a stake in about 2.9 percent of privately owned farmland. That’s about 37.6 million acres of land.

Foreign acquisitions of farmland have been top of mind for lawmakers lately, especially purchases by entities associated with U.S. adversaries like China. In their letter, Republicans cite a national security concern with a recent purchase of a farm near an Air Force base in North Dakota by a Chinese company. They also say purchases by biofuel entities could take land out of food production.

What they want: The House Republicans in a letter say the estimates USDA provides, which are based on reporting mandated by the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act, may be “underreported due to the data’s lack of reliability and definitions used by USDA to report foreign ownership.”

They ask GAO to conduct a study that addresses the extent and trends of foreign farmland investment; how the USDA collects its data; the procedures in place to ensure proper and accurate disclosure; whether current standards under AFIDA ensure accurate disclosure when a farm is purchased by a foreign entity through a U.S. chartered company; how the U.S. ensures land remains in agricultural use and doesn’t pose a risk to national security; and how to strengthen reporting.

What’s next: Depending on its timing, the results of the investigation, if undertaken, could spur action to address foreign farmland concerns in the 2023 farm bill.

The concern isn’t new. The House’s minibus appropriations package approved over the Summer includes a ban on foreign farmland purchases by China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

Row Crops

— POLITICO’s Natalie Fertig and Eleanor Mueller take a deep-dive into the world of undocumented migrants working in illegal cannabis operations. “All the ingredients are there for major abuse,” said Jamie Padilla, a former United Farm Workers organizer who worked with men and women working on the farms.

— Corn was not always king, Sarah Laskow writes in The Atlantic. In fact, many other of America’s “lost crops” had their day in the sun before corn’s takeover.

— New York is to lower farmworker overtime to 40 hours per week by 2032, POLITICO’s Joseph Spector reports. It currently stands at 60 hours per week.

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