I know some are still reeling from the recent Obama administration announcement on biofuels and its implication that it remains a bit too much in thrall to the concerns of Big Ag. And Tom Vilsack’s continued pimping for Monsanto and other biotech companies seems both unsustainable and uninformed. But a slew of positive decisions have come down from the USDA in recent days that merit attention and suggest that business is very much not as usual at ag’s end of the Mall.

First up was USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s announcement of $50 million in funding from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program for organic farming. This is a double victory since it not only offers significant support for existing organic farms, as well as for farms transitioning to organic, but it represents a small step toward reform of EQIP, a conservation program that has, to this point been [mis]used by the USDA and Big Ag, as a subsidy regime for industrial pollution from livestock factory farms. It’s a further sign of what Food Democracy Now’s Dave Murphy calls the Obama administration’s “progressive stance on EQIP and issues of air and water quality.”

Murphy also observes that Obama’s commitment dates back to the early days of the Presidential campaign: “When Obama came through Iowa during the caucus he saw firsthand the damage that the hog confinement industry has had on Iowa’s environment, rural communities, and family farmers and he vowed early on that he would help end these abuses.”

The President seems to be making a good start–though it’s worth noting that there are several more EQIP decisions pending, including whether to allow factory farms to continue to receive pollution mitigation payments. Should the USDA end that practice, Obama will have gone a long way to fulfilling his promises. And EQIP would finally be in a position to live up to its potential.

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Next comes news (via Atlantic_Food) that the US has tabled (and likely ended) its trade war with Europe over exporting beef doused with growth hormone. The EU has refused to accept rBST beef and, as a result, the US (with the ever-popular WTO behind it) slapped on a set of tarrifs, including the infamous 300% tax on Roquefort cheese. And wouldn’t you know it but, according to the WSJ, we blinked:

The European Commission and the U.S. announced a provisional agreement in a lengthy dispute over the European Union’s ban on hormone-treated beef.

The deal ends for now the threat of retaliatory duties from the U.S. on EU products ranging from Roquefort cheese from France to Spanish hams and Italian mineral water. And it more than triples the amount of beef from cattle untreated by hormones that the U.S. can export to the EU.

While the US goverment still maintains that rBST beef is safe, the US Trade Representative’s office (which negotiated the settlement) admitted that “it was too early to say if the administration would seek to revive the dispute later.” Meanwhile, the US just gave a big leg up to farmers who raise beef without the help of growth hormones and an incentive for those that do use hormones to stop. It’s a classic legal settlement — the “guilty” partner admits no wrong-doing, but a quick scan of the terms makes it pretty clear who won.

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Then we’ve got the USDA’s announcement of (and inclusion of funding in the budget for) a settlement to the long-standing discrimination case knows as the “Pigford Claims.” Obamafoodorama has been doing a bang-up job of following this disgraceful saga involving open discrimination against black farmers by USDA programs and officials. ObFo broke the news of the settlement this morning:

Later today, when the President announces his 2010 budget, which slashes spending in 121 programs and about $17 billion, there’ll be one crucial area where spending will increase. Working with his closest advisers, President Obama is attempting to redress the longstanding civil rights grievances of black American farmers, by proposing a $1.25 billion deal to settle their discrimination case against USDA, which has come to be called ‘The Pigford Claims.’

The funding could benefit as many as 80,000 black farmers, who experienced decades of unconscionable behaviour from USDA employees, in the form of denied services and discriminatory lending practices. The President inherited the longstanding problems, and after taking office, both he and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged to help. Pigford has been an emotional battle spanning multiple administrations and Ag secretary tenures, and the budget announcement is due to years of work by a bipartisan group of farmers, lawyers, and non-profit Ag and justice groups, led by Dr. John W. Boyd, Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA).

Sen Chuck Grassley and Sen. Kay Hagan have introduced legislation that would write the settlement into law. If passed it would represent a just ending to a great, and little-known, injustice.

And, not to re-open “the Great Swine Flu / CAFO Debate of Aught-Nine,” but the USDA announced a recent livestock-related hire that had sustainable ag folks cheering (again). Chief Tom Vilsack has chosen Dudley Butler to head the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. As the Ethicurean explains, Butler has a long history as an advocate for family farms, even winning a significant legal settlement for a small farmer against one of the big meat companies (companies which now control a vast majority of the US market) — and his job offers the chance to makes major changes to policy. Indeed, Vilsack is on record as supporting enforcement the Packers and Stockyards Act, a law designed to limit consolidation and monopolist practices in the meat industry and which, to date, is observed entirely in the breach.

And finally, wrapping up a busy week, we’ve got this just in: the USDA has proposed a revision to the organic dairy rules that would require a significant amount of grass-feeding (i.e. pasturing) for dairy cattle as a pre-condition for organic certification. As the AP reports, this would effectively shut down the controversial “organic” factory farms run by Big Organic companies Horizon Organic and Aurora Organic. It would also bring the USDA organic label that much closer to the organic ideal (at least for milk). And in case you’re concerned that the final rule won’t survive industry pressure, the AP noted that, “In an earlier public comment round, only 28 of more than 80,500 comments were against tightening the rules.” So there.

All in all, it certainly appears that Obama and Vilsack are starting to turn the battleship. There are enormous battles yet to be fought, for sure. But can’t we enjoy the small victories along the way?