Farm Bill forum: State will benefit from unified voice
Conservation programs for farmers and ranchers are expected to be a significant part of the next Farm Bill.
Having a clear and unified voice on how best to advance common goals of California agriculture will be crucial in getting a national farm policy that truly benefits farmers and ranchers in the state, various agricultural groups, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the State Board of Food and Agriculture in a special forum last week to discuss California's stake in the current Farm Bill debate.
The State Board, which advises the governor on issues impacting agriculture and consumer needs, heard from numerous agricultural representatives, government officials and other organizations on what they want included in the 2007 Farm Bill and the best strategy to advance those goals. At the same time, the California Department of Food and Agriculture released its recommendations for the Farm Bill.
For the most part, the department's recommendations were echoed by the various groups in the session. Regardless of the farm commodity, industry sector or government agency they represent, many agreed that the current Farm Bill discussion should focus on issues that are in California's best interest.
"We can talk about how the money should be spent in one commodity or another, but we have to keep the big picture in mind as to what will move California forward, what will keep us most competitive in world markets, what research we need that will really advance all of California agriculture," said Jack King, CFBF manager of national affairs.
Unlike past Farm Bills that largely benefited Midwestern and Southern farmers who grow program crops such as corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat, the Bush administration's 2007 Farm Bill proposal shifts money from these traditional programs to boost spending for specialty crops, conservation, renewable energy research and trade expansion.
One area of consensus is the need to expand funding for all conservation programs and make them more workable for California, which faces many environmental regulations and challenges with air and water quality. But these conservation payments should be distributed more equitably to farm production areas of the nation that face the most challenges and where conservation threats are most severe, said Kathryn Phillips, manager of the California Clean Air for Life Campaign for Environmental Defense.
King said policy makers need to develop a creative use of conservation funds that truly work in California.
"We have as a state probably more conservation qualities than any other state in the nation with the number of species we're trying to save," he said. "Shouldn't more of those monies come to California in a creative way for working farmlands?"
With more than 235 species of waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife dependent on rice fields for their habitat, Paul Buttner, environmental affairs manager for the California Rice Commission, said California rice production offers conservation benefits that would otherwise cost the state more than $620 million in wetlands restoration and maintenance.
"This substantial public resource benefit comes essentially ?free' to the public because of a viable California rice industry," he said. "Farm Bill support programs that safeguard against the loss of California rice acres have real and quantifiable benefits to wildlife."
Whereas energy has been a bit player in past Farm Bill discussions, the 2007 Farm Bill proposal calls for $1.6 billion to support development of cellulosic ethanol, which would take pressure off of corn, the main ingredient in current ethanol production. Increased production of ethanol in the United States has resulted in skyrocketing cost of corn, which dairy and livestock producers depend on for feed.
Matt Byrne, executive vice president of the California Cattlemen's Association, said while cattle producers support efforts to increase renewable energy sources, they are concerned about federal incentives that would further drive up corn and other feed prices.
Missing from the current Farm Bill energy proposal is funding support for biomethane, which uses cow manure for fuel generation. Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen, said the organization hopes to see discussion of this technology in the upcoming Farm Bill debate.
Ethanol production based on cellulose would mean fuel could be made from virtually any plant source, including agricultural wastes such as orchard prunings, forest underbrush and rice straw.
Buttner said while corn-based ethanol may currently be cheaper to produce, "there are inherent public policy benefits from making ethanol from an agricultural residue that would otherwise be disposed of using methods that generally have high costs and environmental impacts."
Forest residuals and wood undergrowth can also be a great source for biofuel production, said Jay Chamberlain, deputy assistant secretary of the California Resources Agency, but harvesting, transporting and processing these biomass materials have been cost prohibitive. Therefore, the agency would like to see federal investments that help unlock these untapped resources, he said.
"The big picture is that better managed forests have the opportunity to sequester greater amounts of carbon," said Chamberlain. "If you are able to remove the under story that's impeding growth, you can actually grow bigger and healthier forests that provide more carbon sequestration opportunities and are less vulnerable to catastrophic disturbances like wildfires or insect invasions that make them vulnerable and contributors to the global greenhouse gas emissions."
The 2002 Farm Bill is set to expire at the end of the year. The final version of the 2007 Farm Bill, which would take effect in January, will be written by Congress and could go through numerous changes as it moves through the House and Senate.
Many agricultural advocates are hoping to influence California's diverse congressional delegation and encourage its 53 House members to sign on to one of two major Farm Bill reform efforts: the Equitable Agriculture Today for a Healthy America Act, also known as the EAT Healthy America Act, and the Healthy Farms, Foods and Fuels Act of 2007. The two bills include proposals to expand conservation and nutrition programs, encourage development of renewable energy, increase export market access and boost spending for new research programs.
"If you can reach those members and get them to unify on a California-friendly Farm Bill, you also reached across the country because you've got urban, suburban and rural members with similar interests across the country, so that the challenges that you meet in California, you'll meet it nationally," said Robert Tse, CDFA director of trade.
(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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