State Senate ag committee session offers farm bill input

As the No. 1 agricultural state, with a $51.1 billion farm economy and more than 400 commodities, California and its government leaders, farmers and residents are weighing in on how members of Congress should shape the 2023 Farm Bill.

During a state Senate Agriculture Committee hearing last week, Sen. Melissa Hurtado, the committee chair, said it is important to speak up on reauthorizing the federal legislation given the urgency of climate change threatening food security.

“Experts believe that if not more is done to adapt, global yields could decline by up to 30% by 2050,” said Hurtado, D-Sanger. “These threats impact us all, but they are most felt by those living in rural communities. California has always taken pride in providing food for the world. But we must give agriculture the attention it deserves, one that extends beyond farming and considers everything within the food system.”

The last farm bill was signed into law in 2018 and is set to expire Sept. 30. The omnibus legislation, up for renewal in the 2023 bill, governs many areas related to agriculture, including nutrition, commodity programs, crop insurance, conservation, trade, forestry and rural development.

U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, is a senior member on the House Agriculture Committee, which has oversight to craft a five-year farm bill. He described the legislative package as “a safety net for America’s farmers, ranchers, dairymen and women and farmworkers, but also for American consumers with the nutrition programs a critical component.”

Agricultural groups, including the California Farm Bureau, highlighted challenges facing America’s largest agricultural economy, including supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, inflation and rising input costs. To recover from related losses, leaders advocated for improved risk management for farmers by strengthening crop insurance and disaster programs.

“This farm bill should prioritize development of new crop insurance tools for uncovered producers as well as improvements to existing tools in a practical, affordable way regardless of commodity and farm size,” said California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson, who farms olives and citrus fruit in Oroville. “Here in California, less than a quarter of our 400 commodities are covered by existing crop insurance programs.”

Johansson said farmers facing significant losses from disasters often encountered delays in receiving federal aid. For example, California producers had to wait nearly three years to see any form of financial support from the federal Emergency Relief Program, formerly known as Wildfires and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus, or WHIP.

Napa County winegrape grower Peter Nissen told the committee that disaster assistance programs have been helpful to North Coast farmers, who in recent years have faced three major wildfires, flooding and high temperatures affecting crops.

“I had to replace irrigation equipment, and I went through the WHIP program in 2017,” said Nissen, president of the Napa County Farm Bureau. “It did take a while, a couple years, but it is an important component of the farm bill.Without the crop insurance opportunities, it would’ve been a difficult situation for me to keep a viable business going. It is important that this safety net of crop insurance continues.”

California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross told the hearing that “crop insurance is vital to the state because of the sheer diversity of the many crops we grow” in a state globally renowned for its fruits, vegetables, nuts and other specialty crops.

While specialty crops are highly nutritious and circulate dollars into rural communities, Ross said, they also come with high risk and high production costs.

“The farm bill touches every citizen of California on a daily basis, whether they realize it or not,” Ross said. “It is really important that we look at the farm bill as an opportunity for growth to improve the health of our citizens, the health of our agricultural economy and the health of our rural communities.”

Speakers at the informational session called for farm bill support for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for needy families, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps farmers and ranchers with conservation on working lands, and the Market Access Program, which helps boost agricultural exports.

“Establishing a fair, level playing field for American specialty crop producers includes assisting producers with unfair foreign competition, promoting American specialty crops in foreign markets and eliminating trade barriers that discriminate against U.S. specialty crop exports,” said Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association.

Noting that MAP is heavily oversubscribed, LeMay suggested that program funding be doubled.

Michael Delbar, president of California Rangeland Trust, which provides agricultural land conservation services, called for increased investment in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. It preserves working farms and ranches while protecting habitat and wildlife.

Delbar said the Rangeland Trust has conserved 371,000 acres across California. But he said agricultural land continues to disappear and that more conservation funding is needed to address the trend.

“The farm bill traditionally has distributed to the state of California between $5 million and $8 million a year. That’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “We could sure use more money out of that allocation.”

Dan Sumner, an agricultural and resource economics professor at the University of California, Davis, emphasized the importance of continued research funding. “I believe the economics of innovation is really what’s behind the success of agriculture, not just here in California but globally,” he said.

Authorizing programs as part of the farm bill is just one step of the process. Sumner explained that programs with mandatory spending are paid for by using multiyear budget estimates or baseline funding, while programs with authorized discretionary funding require additional congressional approval.

“Keep your eye on the appropriation side,” Sumner said, “because it’s really crucial.”

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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