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USDA delays deadline for farmer aid to offset tariff losses

DES MOINES (AP) — Farmers already reeling from low prices and uncertainty amid the nation's trade dispute with China are welcoming a decision to extend a deadline for federal aid because of the partial government shutdown.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the Agriculture Department would extend a Jan. 15 deadline for farmers to apply for payments to offset losses they had incurred due to the trade dispute, which led to new tariffs that lessened demand and lowered crop prices. About $9.5 billion in direct payments have been set aside for growers of soybeans, corn, wheat and other commodities.

Many farmers already have received the first of two payments to offset some of their losses, but others haven't been able to apply for aid because snow and rain delayed their harvest. Farmers can't apply for federal payments until they can specify the size of their crop. It's unclear how much of the federal money has been spent.

"People didn't have time to get all this done, and then the government shutdown happened," said John Newton, chief economist with the American Farm Bureau. "This is very, very welcome."

Farmers can apply online for the aid, but Perdue noted they couldn't complete the application because the USDA's Farm Service Agency has been closed since Dec. 28. Under Perdue's new order, the application deadline will be extended by an equal number of days to the business days the government was partially closed.

Newton said the shutdown also meant growers who had questions about the process couldn't reach out to USDA employees.

"I've been waiting 19 days to get a call returned from the USDA," Newton said.

Perdue's announcement was welcomed by Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a farmer who earlier had said he'd seek the federal aid.

"Farmers who haven't been able to apply for trade assistance would've missed the deadline through no fault of their own," Grassley said in a statement. "It's worth recognizing that farmers applying for assistance in the first place are hurting because of a trade war they didn't start."

The government shutdown comes as farmers were already enduring a fifth year of low prices even as the cost of land, fertilizer, chemicals and seed have remained high, leading to a drop in net income. As they make plans for this year's crop, farmers have been left guessing about the market and other issues because the shutdown has forced the USDA to delay the release of crop reports providing key information about global demand.

Brian Duncan, a farmer and vice president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said the trade dispute and shutdown are difficult for growers, but most are taking it in stride.

"Farmers generally are pretty level-headed and used to being thrown some curve balls," Duncan said. "As we get closer to planting season, their patience will ebb."

Legion, VFW commemorates Britt business owner's U.S. citizenship

BRITT | Members of American Legion Post 315 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4370 celebrated Sophia Martinez’s recent U.S. citizenship Wednesday, Jan. 2, at the Veterans Building in Britt.

Martinez, owner of La Guadalupana in Britt, became a citizen on Oct. 25 during a naturalization ceremony in Des Moines.

“We talked about it and ... we wanted to present you with a flag, a 3-by-5,” said Jerry Christensen, a member of the Britt American Legion and VFW posts, while presenting her with a book about the U.S. flag, as well.

Martinez came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 17, and although she got her green card 10 years ago and had been a permanent resident since then, she needed to be a citizen to cast a ballot.

Once she applied for citizenship, it took her about a year to complete the process.

In addition to having a green card for at least five years, good moral character and the ability to read, write, and speak basic English, those who wish to become American citizens must pass a test on U.S. government and history.

Martinez had nine months to prepare for her naturalization interview. She was given a book on civics to study.

During the interview she had to correctly answer six out of 10 questions about U.S. government and history. After that she had to wait for a letter inviting her to a citizenship ceremony.

“Thank you so much,” Martinez said after Christensen, Legion Post Commander John Francis and VFW Post Commander Jason Hanson presented her the flag and book, which was greeted with applause.

As Martinez left the Veterans Building, veterans shook her hand and congratulated her.

CHRIS ZOELLER The Globe Gazette 

NIACC sophomore Tahya Campbell drives the ball to the lane against Iowa Central on Wednesday in Mason City.

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Federal judge strikes down Iowa law on undercover ag workers

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday struck down an Iowa law that made it illegal to get a job at a livestock farm to conduct an animal cruelty undercover investigation, finding the law violated the constitutional right to free speech.

U.S. District Court Judge James Gritzner sided with opponents of the 2012 law that was intended to stop organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals from doing animal abuse investigations at farms and puppy mills. Iowa lawmakers approved the measure, which threatened up to a year in jail to those who conducted an undercover operation, after several high-profile cases in which animal welfare advocates recorded questionable animal treatment and then publicized the images through the media.

Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, called the ruling "an important victory for free speech" and argued the so-called ag-gag law was an example of government using its power to protect those with power. The ACLU joined with animal welfare, food safety and open government advocates in the lawsuit, filed in 2017 in U.S. District Court in Des Moines.

"Ag gag clearly is a violation of Iowans' First Amendment rights to free speech," Bettis said in a statement. "It has effectively silenced advocates and ensured that animal cruelty, unsafe food safety practices, environmental hazards, and inhumane working conditions go unreported for years."

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which joined in the lawsuit, noted no undercover investigations had taken place in Iowa since the law was approved in 2012.

"Ag-Gag laws are a pernicious attempt by animal exploitation industries to hide some of the worst forms of animal abuse in the United States," Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells said in a statement.

Federal courts have struck down similar laws in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. Litigation is ongoing in North Carolina.

A spokesman for the Iowa attorney general's office, which represented the state, says an appeal is under consideration.

The Iowa Pork Producers Association supported the law and expressed disappointment at the judge's ruling.

"Iowa pig farmers will continue to properly care for their animals and provide safe and secure working conditions for their employees. And, they will fight those who try to destroy or attack their livelihoods one case at a time," the organization said in a statement.