House farm bill has plenty for California growers

05/14/2013 4:59 PM

05/15/2013 6:32 AM

California lawmakers will now help plant another farm bill, hoping it will bear fruit for the state’s frustrated growers.

The last farm bill died on the vine. But on Wednesday, House Agriculture Committee members are scheduled to start trying again, with a draft 576-page package that would change rice and cotton subsidies, potentially shake up California’s dairy industry and open an olive oil debate, among other provisions.

“California farmers are looking for stability,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, said Tuesday, “and this farm bill provides it.”

Denham serves on the agriculture committee, one of six Californians on the 46-member panel that’s writing the farm bill. Neither of California’s two senators serves on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, which relatively quickly approved its own version of the legislation Tuesday.

The Senate likewise did its job last Congress, handily approving a farm bill by a 64-35 margin, but conservative resistance in the House helped keep the bill bottled up. Skeptics question the bill’s overall cost, which reaches upwards of half-a-trillion dollars over five years, as well as the policy of subsidies and the extent of food aid for the poor.

“I think we’ll get it worked out, and I think we’ll get it to the (House) floor shortly,” Denham predicted.

Still, issues big and small still divide lawmakers, even before negotiators try to reconcile differences between the House bill and its 1,102-page Senate counterpart.

House members on Wednesday, for instance, expect intense debate over a renewed proposal by an Iowa congressman that would effectively block a California law mandating larger cages for egg-laying hens.

In the bigger picture, the House bill would eliminate traditional crop subsidies, which take several forms. Direct payments to California rice, cotton, wheat, barley and corn growers, for instance, totaled $123 million in 2011, according to figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Rice growers in the Sacramento Valley and cotton growers in the San Joaquin Valley soaked up most of these payments.

These direct payments would end, under the House bill. They would be replaced by what lawmakers call improved “risk management” programs, a form of subsidized crop insurance.

“Ending such (direct) payments will make agricultural markets more efficient, lower federal costs and increase competition,” said freshman Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, adding that “the farm bill needs to spend less than in previous years.”

In other cases, the House bill would retain programs popular among California farmers. The revamped Market Access Program, which pays for overseas advertising, would continue at $200 million a year. Major recent recipients of funding include the California Prune Board, California Table Grape Commission and San Francisco-based Wine Institute, among others.

A Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which has provided California about $18 million a year for programs like produce safety research at the University of California at Davis, would likewise be continued.

Besides doling out money, farm bills can open doors.

The House bill, for instance, would allow California dairy producers to petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture for entrance into the federal milk marketing order system. If the producers filed that petition, approval by two-thirds of the producers in a vote would be required.

Marketing orders, among other things, establish the pricing formula that determines how much milk processors pay for the milk they use. California operates under its own system, and California producers have complained about being paid less than producers in other states, who are part of the federal marketing order system.

“It’s time dairy producers, farmers and ranchers in every state have a say in the dairy pricing system,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said last week.

The bill wades into a fight between importers and domestic olive oil producers. Imports would have to meet domestic quality standards if the U.S. olive oil industry separately establishes its own marketing order to set standards. Denham supports the provision, saying that “anybody who is going to import into our state ought to meet our standards,” but some Californians disagree.

“I don’t support it and none of my growers support it, to my knowledge,” said Carl Nelson, president of the Cullen Creek Group, a major olive oil press operation in Fresno County. “We feel it will raise prices and influence consumers to opt for other choices.”

The House bill also would consolidate dozens of individual grant programs that have previously been tapped for specific California projects.

The bill would eliminate, for instance, the distinct Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, which in 2011 delivered a $500,000 grant to the Modesto-based Western United Dairymen. A distinct Wetlands Reserve Program, in which California farmers have currently enrolled more than 12,000 acres in exchange for easement payments, would likewise be eliminated, as would a Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, which has paid farmers to protect 29,148 acres in California.

The eliminated programs would, in a number of cases, be consolidated into broader programs.

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