California farmers discuss farm bill priorities for 2012
By Christine Souza
With less funding likely to be available for agricultural programs in the next federal farm bill, California farmers and farm organizations emphasized the need to maintain research, pest exclusion and market development programs during California Department of Food and Agriculture listening sessions.
State Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said the sessions would help her better advocate California farm bill priorities at the national level. The current farm bill will expire in 2012, necessitating action by Congress.
"The most important thing that we can do if we want to make a difference in Washington is to have a strong, unified, California voice around our themes that really illustrate for Congress that what's good in California is very helpful to the future of America," Ross said.
During a listening session in Sacramento, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said he realizes those drafting the 2012 Farm Bill have a tough job ahead.
"We know we are facing challenging times, but just like on our farms and ranches when we are challenged financially, as we sit back and prioritize, we really can make the decisions that will help us build for a great future," Wenger said.
He emphasized the importance of continued support for research through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service and the University of California.
"Cooperative Extension through our land grant universities is so critical to where we have come as a country agriculturally that sometimes we overlook that it is also extremely important to our urban areas," Wenger said. "As we think about food safety, food handling and nutrition issues, we need to be really looking at how we can be supportive of Cooperative Extension."
Dean Neal Van Alfen of the University of California, Davis, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences said the nation "has not been supporting agricultural research the way it has many other areas of research ... and this is not going to help us solve our needs for the future."
Many speakers emphasized the need to retain adequate funding for plant, pest and disease programs.
At a listening session in Fresno, Tulare County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tricia Stever Blattler referred to the pest and disease control and exclusion programs as "an important and critical tool in protecting our agricultural production industry."
She noted that the region's citrus farms face the threat of disease carried by the Asian citrus psyllid.
"It is not a question of if this bug will threaten the Central Valley, but when. We must maintain vigilance about keeping pest eradication and early detection programs funded and in place," Stever Blattler said.
Several speakers supported maintaining an appropriate safety net for program crops such as corn, cotton, rice, wheat and dairy.
Eric Erba of milk processor California Dairies Inc. cited the cooperative's recommendations for reducing the volatility of the dairy business.
"The basic theme for dairy producers since 2009 has been one of survivability," he said.
Erba said he would like to see programs for dairy farmers that help with risk management and enhancing international markets for dairy products.
Other speakers sought continued support for market development programs such as the Market Access Program.
In the 2008 Farm Bill, specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables and nuts earned their own section for the first time. Chris Valadez of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League noted that his organization was one of 120 groups that formed a national coalition known as the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. Valadez praised the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program and advocated for a stronger emphasis on the Specialty Crop Block Grant program.
Claudia Reid, policy director for California Certified Organic Farmers, asked that the new farm bill retain programs and funding for organic agriculture that were added to the 2008 Farm Bill.
Speakers highlighted the benefits of farm bill conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Nita Vail of the California Rangeland Trust described conservation programs as critical for California.
"We know that conservation programs are regularly oversubscribed, that there are more farmers and ranchers who would like to get into the programs than funding allows," she said.
Wenger noted that nutrition programs in the farm bill can benefit both farmers and consumers.
"We encourage focusing on programs that build demand for California's diversity of fruits, nuts and vegetables and get these products into the hands of all consumers," he said.
Still to be seen is the impact that federal deficit-reduction efforts will have on the farm bill debate. In October, the House and Senate agriculture committees will submit recommendations to the 12-member congressional deficit reduction committee.
As the deficit-reduction debate continues, Wenger said Farm Bureau and other farm organizations "will be looking at the programs important to California farmers and seeing which ones we can't afford to lose and seeing where changes could be made."
To submit comments to CDFA on the 2012 Farm Bill, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to California Department of Food and Agriculture, 1220 N St., Suite 400, Sacramento, CA 95814.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.