Hoe, hoe, hoe! Christmas trees are back, in new farm bill

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 16, 2013 

BIZ CHRISTMASTREES-FARMS QC

Christmas trees in California

SHMUEL THALER — Santa Cruz Sentinel/MCT

— A Christmas tree-promotion program that pumped up conservative mockery and panicked the Obama administration is back for a second go-around, under a new farm bill.

Tree farmers in California, North Carolina and other states secured the industry-funded promotion program through one of many amendments to the farm bill that the House Agriculture Committee approved late Wednesday night. Many of these farmers had been stunned when the administration quickly withdrew a similar effort in late 2011 after Fox News and conservative commentators lampooned it as a “Christmas tree tax.”

“I still find the whole thing hard to believe,” said Betty Malone, an Oregon tree farmer who’s a former president of Christmas Tree Promotion Now.

The promotion program would raise about $2 million annually for advertising, similar to the much larger industry-funded programs for beef and milk, among others. After three years, the Christmas tree industry would conduct a referendum on whether to continue the fee of 15 cents per tree.

"As demographics and buying habits have changed, we have watched the market for real trees shrink drastically, requiring us to spend much more time and money on promotion," Don Cameron, a past president of the California Christmas Tree Association, said previously.

In the farm bill, the revived Christmas tree-promotion measure, inserted by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., plays only a very modest part.

Approved by the House of Representatives panel shortly before midnight Wednesday, after more than nine hours of debate, the farm bill would change crop subsidies, food stamps, dairy policy and more. Over 10 years, the bill has an estimated price tag of $940 billion.

The measure, notably, eliminates the direct payments that currently provide about $5 billion a year to growers of commodities, including cotton, rice, wheat and corn. The bill replaces direct payments, in part, with a new, partially subsidized crop insurance program.

The direct payments are particularly abundant in states such as Kansas, where growers received $300 million in 2011, and Texas, where they received $371 million, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan health research and advocacy organization. The payments are less dominant, but still add up, in agriculturally diverse states such as California, where growers received $123 million. Other states, such as Florida, receive hardly any direct payments at all.

Continuing a policy initiated in the 2008 farm bill, the House measure offers funding for fruit and vegetable growers, including $375 million over five years for a continued Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. Last year, for instance, the program funded efforts that ranged from almond and pistachio research in California to the development of new blueberry products in Florida and a public relations campaign for Idaho wine.

The bill includes $275 million over five years for a continued Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which last year funded efforts such as citrus research at the University of Florida and Christmas tree research at North Carolina State University.

“There is too much good in this bill to let it die before it is heard on the House floor,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.

Nutrition programs such as food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, account for an even bigger part of the bill. They would take a hit, with an estimated $20.5 billion in savings from measures such as tightening eligibility requirements. The bill includes a measure authored by freshman Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., that would require the use of electronic databases to determine whether someone is eligible for the nutrition benefits.

“The success of the food stamp program should be measured by how many Americans become self-sufficient, not how many are added to the rolls,” LaMalfa declared.

Over the opposition of groups such as the International Dairy Foods Association and companies such as California’s big Hilmar Cheese Co., the committee kept a controversial new dairy supply management plan. This fight almost certainly will return later, on the House floor.

As often happens, the bill reflects some regional tensions. Committee members added an amendment authored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that blocks the states from passing their own laws governing the production of agricultural products. This could, for instance, block the stricter cage standards California voters adopted to protect egg-laying hens. A late-night effort by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., to turn back the King amendment failed by a wide margin.

The full Senate is expected to start debating its version of the farm bill next week. House members hope they can get their bill to the floor in June, though leadership conflicts and a divided Republican caucus interfered the last time they tried.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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