Farmers fear budget cutters could prune favorite federal programs

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2011 

WASHINGTON — California farmers hope congressional budget-cutters spare some of their favorite subsidies and trade promotion programs.

On Thursday, even as Capitol Hill was consumed with talk about saving money, the farmers urged lawmakers to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars to boost U.S. farm exports.

"Without the assistance of federal funding, participating organizations such as Gerawan Farming would be unable to undertake (certain) types of activities," Fresno County farmer George Nikolich advised a House panel.

Nikolich and Sunkist Growers vice president Michael Wootton were summoned to the House subcommittee that oversees foreign agriculture, as part of the groundwork being laid for the 2012 farm bill. They found a sympathetic audience, amid an uncertain time.

Just a few hours before Nikolich and Wootton testified, the House Budget Committee approved a far-reaching budget plan designed to slash the $1.6 trillion federal deficit. The budget plan would include nearly $30 billion in farm program cuts over the next decade.

"With crop prices, and deficits, hitting new highs, it is time to adjust support to this industry to reflect economic realities," the committee's chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., declared in his 73-page budget document.

The House Budget Committee proposal, backed by Republican committee members including Rep. Tom McClintock of Granite Bay, amounts to a broad blueprint. Many details will change.

Still, the Budget Committee bill underscores the difficulties that lawmakers face in writing the new farm bill. When money is scarce, programs are vulnerable. When programs are vulnerable, lobbying ensues.

"In this tight budget environment, producers ... would be well served to know that they need to place a priority on educating their members of Congress about (program) benefits," noted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Nikolich, accordingly, told the House subcommittee on rural development, research, biotechnology and foreign agriculture that certain farm programs are vital to opening export markets.

Nikolich is vice president of Reedley-based Gerawan Farming, the nation's largest grower of peaches, plums and nectarines. The farm's president, Dan Gerawan, has vigorously opposed certain Agriculture Department programs such as those that compel growers to pay fees for industry advertising.

But Gerawan and Nikolich smile upon the relatively modest Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program. Last year, it provided $7.3 million to help U.S. farm exporters overcome foreign trade barriers.

Stone fruit growers like Gerawan, for instance, received help with establishing an export database. California table grape growers received help in meeting Australian phytosanitary standards, and the state's fig growers got help satisfying Japan's food safety regulators.

Separately, the Market Access Program provided $197 million to farm groups last year to aid in foreign advertising and other export efforts. Sunkist received $4 million, one of the largest grants.

"American producers cannot succeed without a reasonable partnership with our government," Wootton testified, stressing that other countries subsidize their own exports.

Wootton attributed increased U.S. lemon sales in China and increased orange sales in Singapore to the marketing campaigns made possible by a combination of federal funds and matching Sunkist dollars. Since the program began in the mid-1980s, Sunkist has consistently ranked among the largest funding recipients.

Another Agriculture Department effort championed Thursday, the Foreign Market Development program, provided $34 million last year to help groups like the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the U.S. Rice Federation maintain long-term market access.

Yet another funding source discussed Thursday, the Emerging Markets Program, provided $8.3 million for efforts that included getting California almonds into Poland, California prunes into Russia and U.S.-run beer-making seminars into Brazil.

All of these programs, and more, will come under tighter scrutiny in coming months, setting up an inevitable clash between farm-state Republicans and the GOP's most dedicated deficit hawks.

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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