Ag Notebook: Ardent Mills formation can go forward; Groups question oil and gas compromise; Equine virus spreads

Ardent Mills formation can go forward after sale of 4 mills

The formation of Ardent Mills, which would be the nation’s largest flour miller, will be allowed to proceed if the companies involved sell four competitively significant mills, the U.S. Justice Department has ruled.

The Denver headquarters of Ardent Mills — a joint venture of three huge agribusinesses — is expected to employ about 250 workers initially.

ConAgra Mills is merging with Horizon Milling to form Ardent Mills. Horizon Milling is a Cargill-CHS joint venture formed in 2002.

In addition to its downtown headquarters, expected to begin operations on May 29, Ardent Mills will have satellite offices in Omaha and Minneapolis.

ConAgra Foods spokeswoman Becky Niiya said that the formation of Ardent Mills has created a lot of excitement among employees and “a good number of ConAgra Mills and Horizon Milling employees have decided to move to Denver and be a part of Ardent Mills.”

— The Denver Post

Colo. business groups rebuff Hick’s stab at oil and gas compromise

Business groups representing homebuilders, agriculture and oil and gas on Thursday rebuffed Gov. John Hickenlooper’s efforts at compromise legislation for local control of oil and gas drilling.

“We are surprised and dismayed by the haste in which you and your team are departing from more than six years of rigorous rule-making,” Colorado Petroleum Association president Stan Dempsey wrote to the governor.

The governor also received a critical letter signed by seven groups, including the Colorado Association of Homebuilders, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado Farm Bureau.

“We are extremely concerned legislation that is not in the best interests of our organizations and industries could be introduced,” said the letter, which also was signed by the Colorado Dairy Farmers, the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers and regional political advocacy groups Action 22 and Progressive 15.

The Hickenlooper administration is trying to fashion a bill giving local government more control overoil and gas operations, while protecting the right of oil and gas companies to drill.

— The Denver Post

Equine virus spreads, kills local horses

It’s a disease that kills.

It’s not a fear tactic.

And it’s back.

Equine infectious disease experts at Colorado State University discussed the dangers of equine herpesvirus (EHV-1) and how to prevent potentially fatal infection among horses, especially those traveling to rodeos, clinics, horse shows and other events this spring and summer.

Many equestrian facilities, including the Wild West Stables in Pueblo West, has canceled events until news of the virus passes.

Last week, the Colorado Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian’s Office announced that a suspected case of equine herpes myeloencephalitis, caused by EHV-1, tested positive, as confirmed by the CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories.

The horse was euthanized after developing severe neurological symptoms.

­— The Pueblo West View

No irrigation water for marijuana crops, feds rule

Delivering a blow to pot growers in Washington state and Colorado, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday that it won’t allow any federally controlled water to be used on marijuana crops because Congress has banned the drug.

The ruling makes clear that the Obama administration is willing to set limits on the states’ legalization experiments, even though the Justice Department said in August that it wouldn’t block their plans to tax and sell the drug.

The decision might hit hardest in Washington state, as the federal agency controls the water supply for two-thirds of the state’s irrigated land.

According to his calculations, an acre of marijuana could be worth $7.4 million a year, based on a sales price of $3 per gram, four crops per year and the plants being grown 2 feet apart, each producing 1 ounce of pot. By comparison, he said, blueberries were the top-valued crop in Washington state in 2011, and were worth $17,000 per acre.

— McClatchy Washington Bureau

Ag secretary: US must figure out hemp production

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday he’s working with the Department of Justice to permit the importation of hemp seeds for cultivation.

The farm bill signed into law by President Obama allows the industrial production of hemp, marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin.

But the federal government has effectively prevented the two states that want to grow the crop from obtaining seeds to start production. Kentucky has sued the federal government to force it to release hemp seeds. Colorado is waiting on Vilsack’s go-ahead to get seeds from Canada.

At a news conference in Denver on the upcoming wildfire season, Vilsack said his agency is trying to resolve a conflict between what the farm bill permits and what federal drug laws prohibit.

He said he’s discussed the issue with Attorney General Eric Holder and passed onto him a law-review article that outlined one way the seeds could legally get to the states.

Hemp is the non-intoxicating agricultural cousin of marijuana. Recreational use of that drug is legal in Colorado and Washington state but still banned under federal law.

— The Associated Press

Calif. drought could cost Central Valley $1.7 billion

California’s leading agricultural region, the Central Valley, could lose $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs because of the state’s severe drought, according to preliminary results of a study released Monday by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Researchers estimate that irrigated farms in the valley will receive only one-third of their normal river-water deliveries this year.

That will result in expensive groundwater pumping and the fallowing of 410,000 additional acres, or 6 percent of the Central Valley’s irrigated farmland, the study found.

The drought is expected to raise the price of some fruits and vegetables, and many California ranchers have been forced to liquidate their herds because of withered pastures.

— Los Angeles Times

EPA mulls ethanol change as industry profits soar

Just as ethanol producers have been seeing the industry’s most profitable months ever, the federal government is considering whether to lower the amount of the corn-based fuel that must be blended into gasoline.

That could be a serious blow to a biofuels industry that saw booms and busts connected to corn and petroleum prices before a renewable fuel standard approved by Congress in 2007 acted as a stabilizing factor.

The law, designed to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and cut automobile emissions, increased the amount of ethanol required to be used each year, setting the standard at 14.4 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol for this year. In November, however, the EPA proposed the first rollback since the standard was enacted, to 13 billion gallons.

EPA officials say fewer gallons of ethanol are necessary because the fuel efficiency of cars improved more quickly than expected, helping lower fuel demand. The U.S. consumed about 134 billion gallons of gasoline last year, about 6 percent less than the record high of about 142 billion gallons consumed in 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

— The Associated Press

Colo. ranchers snapping up California cattle

California ranchers, despite near-record beef prices, are culling their cattle herds in response to one of the most severe droughts the state has ever faced, and Colorado ranchers are taking advantage.

The Denver Post reports Colorado ranchers are buying steers as they have in years past, but they are also buying cows to rebuild herds thinned after years of dry conditions. The state Department of Agriculture says nearly 57,000 cattle have entered Colorado this year from California, compared with 28,980 in the first four months of last year.

Billy Gatlin, executive director of the California Cattlemen’s Association, says about 150,000 of the 600,000 breeding cows in California have been sold off this year.

Agriculture officials say California’s cattle are mostly being sold in Nevada and Texas.

— The Denver Post

California’s flawed water system can’t track usage

Call them the fortunate ones: Nearly 4,000 California companies, farms and others are allowed to use free water with little oversight when the state is so bone dry that deliveries to nearly everyone else have been severely slashed.

Their special status dates back to claims made more than a century ago when water was plentiful. But in the third year of a drought that has ravaged California, these “senior rights holders” dominated by corporations and agricultural concerns are not obliged to conserve water.

Nobody knows how much water they actually use, though it amounts to trillions of gallons each year, according to a review of their own reports by The Associated Press. Together, they hold more than half the rights to rivers and streams in California.

But the AP found the state’s system is based on self-reported, incomplete records riddled with errors and years out of date. Some rights holders have vastly overstated their usage — in the mistaken belief, asserts Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, that it will preserve their right to draw more water in the future.

— The Associated Press

Vilsack announces action to decrease forest fire risk

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced action to help 94 national forest areas in 35 states to address insect and disease threats that weaken forests and increase the risk of forest fire. These areas are receiving an official designation that will provide the Forest Service, working collaboratively with stakeholders, additional tools and flexibility to more efficiently plan and accomplish restoration treatments in those areas. Vilsack announced the designations in Denver where he discussed additional efforts to help better prepare for and combat the threat of wildfire.

The new Farm Bill amends the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 to allow the Forest Service to more quickly plan projects for insect and disease treatments within designated areas, in an effort to increase the pace and scale of restoration across the National Forest System. Using the new tools in the Farm Bill, restoration projects in these designated areas have to be developed in collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders and must meet environmental safeguards.

— U.S. Department of Agriculture

Corn Growers Applauds Senate Passage of WRRDA

The National Corn Growers Association praised the U.S. Senate for its vote today passing the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 with a 91-to-7 vote. Now, NCGA urges the President to sign this final reauthorization bill into law and thus improve the reliability and efficiency of the U.S. inland waterways system.

“We must improve our infrastructure, and we must do it now,” said NCGA President Martin Barbre. “Our locks and dams transport our cargoes today but were built in the 1920s and 1930s to accommodate far smaller loads and far less river traffic. For farmers in particular, it is crucial as more than 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports are transported by barge. The need is urgent; U.S. farmers and businesses rely upon this transportation channel to create economic opportunities at home and supply markets abroad.”

NCGA also hopes Congress will soon address a proposed increase to the diesel fuel user fee which would provide additional revenue to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund. By increasing this tax between six and nine cents per gallon of fuel, the industries using the waterways would be able to provide needed funds for the improvement and maintenance of the infrastructure on which they rely.

— National Corn Growers Association

Legal Defense of COOL Continues

This morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard argument en banc in AMI v. USDA. While a three-judge panel had affirmed the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction on the implementation of the revised Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) regulations, the panel had noted that one issue might warrant rehearing en banc. The Court scheduled today’s hearing as a result.

The parties’ positions before the Court are essentially the same as what was presented to the panel although additional briefing was sought by the Court on the reach of a certain Supreme Court decision in the First Amendment area.

National Farmers Union (NFU), along with fellow intervenors the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, American Sheep Industry Association and Consumer Federation of America, has participated at both the district court and at the D.C. Circuit supporting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s revised COOL regulation and opposing the preliminary injunction request of the plaintiffs/appellants.

— National Farmers Union