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Recent California Water News

Senate Farm Bill a Small Step Forward for California

May 28, 2012

San Francisco Chronicle


Monday, May 28, 2012


Washington -- The Senate is poised to take up a new farm bill in the coming weeks that will set the nation's food policy for the next five years and cost nearly $1 trillion over a decade.

But California, the nation's largest farm producer and a strong voice in environmental and health policy, is destined to cede billions of dollars to entrenched commodity interests in the Midwest and South.

The state's fresh fruit and vegetable growers are pleased that the Senate bill preserves hard-fought gains in the last farm bill in 2008, including research for organics and produce, farmers' markets and more fruit and vegetable purchases for school lunches and other federal food programs.

This year, California Democrats are weighing into the debate earlier and more forcefully than in the past. Still, the great bulk of federal support for farms remains focused on such commodities as corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, just as farm bills have since 1933.

Programs rooted in the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and never aimed at fresh fruits and vegetables, took on a life of their own, leaving California to chart its own way separate from the rest of farm country.

Subsidies in the new legislation would encourage corn and other commodity crops that are a major component of processed foods and animal feed rather than the produce that is the staple of a healthy diet.


State generally bit player

Despite its productivity, California historically has played a bit part in farm bills, ceding control of the powerful House and Senate Agriculture Committees to the Midwest and South.

"The bill does not restructure the food system for the 21st century," said Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, a San Francisco philanthropy intended to move the farm economy to more localized production of fresh food.

Dimock said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the first committee chair to hail from a produce-growing state, "has done the best she can given the realities in Congress right now. But there are people in my world who are going to fight like hell to make it painful for Congress, and they should."


Specialty crops rule

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations panel that doles out farm spending and one of the few Californians with a big voice in farm policy, called the Senate bill "a small step forward, but certainly not as much as California would like and that California is already doing for itself."

Since 1933, when federal farm support began during the Great Depression and a quarter of Americans still lived on farms, Congress has written five-year bills to control the prices and quantities of corn, wheat, rice, cotton and other commodity staples in an effort to boost farm incomes.

Over the decades, the programs hastened the concentration and industrialization of agriculture into fewer and larger farms focused on single crops.

California produce growers never participated in these programs, priding themselves on their independence. Because they did not rely on federal payments, California fruit and vegetable growers led the country in innovative farming methods, adapting to market demand and diversifying risk.

This year, they are happy to preserve the research, marketing and other small programs they won in 2008. Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, which represents California produce farmers, called the Senate bill "outstanding for the speciality crop industry."

Most of the bill's spending goes for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, which aid the poor and provide a market for farmers. But a big chunk, $142 billion over 10 years, would go to support corn and other commodities at a time when farmers are riding a historic commodity boom.


New entitlements

Senate leaders plan to take up the farm bill in June. Under pressure to cut the federal deficit, the committee cut farm spending by $23.6 billion over 10 years, partly by eliminating so-called direct payments, billions of dollars in checks that are sent to commodity growers for no reason other than that they received federal aid in the past.

From 1995 to 2010, commodity growers received $41.5 billion in direct payments. Direct payments were so widely disparaged after the last farm bill that commodity groups concluded they were dead politically.

Yet at the same time, the bill creates a new entitlement program for commodity growers to protect them from "shallow losses," or small dips in their income of the kind that other businesses routinely weather without federal aid.

In addition, the bill expands subsidies for crop insurance, a program whose costs have grown explosively as corn, wheat and other grain prices have skyrocketed. The government pays on average 62 percent of the cost of the premiums, and also subsidizes the agents and companies that sell crop insurance.

Crop insurance is not well suited to many California growers. Weather-related losses are less of an issue on irrigated land, and insurance is costlier for a multiplicity of small crops with relatively small markets such as pears or Brussels sprouts compared to one large crop such as corn.


Spending on commodities

The Government Accountability Office projected that crop insurance subsidies will cost almost $90 billion over the next decade, even as net farm income reached a record $98.1 billion last year. As a result, total spending on commodity crops in the Senate bill "virtually remains unchanged" from 2008, said Kari Hamerschlag, a senior analyst for the Environmental Watchdog Group.

Commodity farmers "have been making more money than they ever had in their lives," said Daniel Sumner, a farm economist at UC Davis. "It's kind of nice, so they want to guarantee that."

Of critical importance to California are farm bill conservation programs to protect wildlife habitat, soils, air, water and wetlands. The farm bill covers more than a billion acres, greater than half the U.S. contiguous land mass, making it one of the biggest pieces of environmental legislation that Congress considers.


Cuts in conservation

The Senate bill cuts conservation by $6.4 billion. "It's a very substantial 10 percent cut," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a group that supports smaller, diversified farms.

Dimock said Congress lags years behind California in moving toward healthier food and farming.

"The underlying problem in the food economy is that industrialization destroys diversity," Dimock said. "That leads to ecological impacts, human health impacts and economic impacts." He said the Senate bill, "as it stands, has only very small portions that focus on that."

Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle's Washington correspondent. E-mail:

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