California farmers get millions for overseas promotions

WASHINGTON — California farm groups on Tuesday received millions of dollars to promote overseas sales, from a program whose own future remains uncertain.

In a day of conflicting budget messages, the Obama administration simultaneously trumpeted the delivery of trade aid to groups like the California Kiwifruit Commission even as it pledged new spending restraints in the president's upcoming 2011 budget.

Call it a contradiction, a course correction or simply politics. Facing a $1.4 trillion deficit and surging Republican clout, the Obama administration is now sending several simultaneous signals: We're frugal and we're generous.

The generosity part is more fun.

"We must provide our exporters with the resources they need to compete overseas during the 21st century," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, announcing $234 million in grants to 70 farm groups.

Seventeen California farm groups will receive a total of more than $26 million from the department's Market Access Program. The funds will help advertise and sell products from asparagus to wine.

As has become customary, the San Francisco-based Wine Institute on Tuesday snagged the largest share of any California recipient, with a $7 million grant. Other major recipients include the Fresno-based Raisin Administrative Committee, which is receiving $3 million, and the Folsom-based California Walnut Commission, which is receiving $4.5 million.

Smaller grants are flowing to groups like the Sacramento-based California Kiwifruit Commission, which is receiving $297,558. The money will pay for trade seminars, in-store promotions, point-of-sale cards and other efforts in countries that could include Mexico, Canada and South Korea.

"The main importance is that it supports those markets that continue to be strong ones for our fruit," said Nick Matteis, assistant manager of the California Kiwifruit Commission.

Matteis noted the group's $297,558 allocation was less than last year's, and he speculated that next year's might be lower still. One key reason came out Tuesday at nearly the same time as the Agriculture Department was announcing the new funding.

In what one key administration budget official termed a "plan of necessity," Obama's budget being released on Monday includes a spending freeze for discretionary programs unrelated to national security.

"We have to change business as usual in Washington," Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Rob Nabors told reporters Tuesday. "We need to be in a position where we balance the budget and spend money wisely."

A domestic spending freeze would mean some programs get actively cut, while others would lag behind inflation. Nabors declined Tuesday to identify which specific programs might be cut, though the Market Access Program is a likely candidate. Last year, even before the renewed pledges about fiscal discipline, Obama sought a 5 percent cut in the Market Access Program.

Fiscally, the proposed spending freeze responds to a federal budget deficit now estimated to be $1.35 trillion. If adopted by Congress, the freeze would save an estimated $250 billion over the next 10 years.

Politically, the freeze comes as the White House scrambles to right itself amid a GOP resurgence that includes the Democrats' loss of their filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Legislatively, though, the freeze proposal runs up against lawmakers seeking to protect their favored programs. Repeatedly, programs including the Market Access Program have defied presidential budget-cutting efforts. Already, lawmakers are rallying around it.

"We believe that full funding ... is essential to the agricultural-based economy of rural America," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and 64 other House members wrote Vilsack on Tuesday.