Agriculture

Why the farm bill matters to Californians

California agriculture interests will find the farm bill Congress passed this week largely means more of the same.

California is the largest agricultural producer in the nation, with a $47 billion agriculture economy in the state alone. California farmers produce half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, 20 percent of the milk and more than 400 different agricultural commodities.

Some of the bill’s provisions, such as forest management to prevent wildfires and work requirements for those who receive aid to buy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, held up passage of the bill for months.

But bill is full of far less controversial points that are vitally important to Californians that had farmers on edge as the bill languished in congressional limbo.

SNAP

About 4 million Californians are enrolled in food assistance programs, and the eligibility of those people for food aid remains unchanged, to the chagrin of most House Republicans.

Additional work requirements House Republicans tried to put in the bill failed. That means the 80-hour per month work or work training requirement in order to receive food assistance continues to only apply to able-bodied adults under age 50 without young dependent children.

House Republicans wanted to expand work requirements to those under age 60 and people with dependent children as young as 6.

There are also waivers that allow CalFresh to make exceptions for some people who fall under those parameters but cannot meet the work requirements due to high unemployment in the area.

Fifty-five of California’s 58 counties in the last application period were allowed to make exceptions for people, and that application process remained unchanged except requiring support from the governor — a non-issue in California’s near future, since Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is a Democrat sympathetic to the current system.

Some minor changes to the program include more data collection on those who use SNAP without identifying individuals, so the federal government can better understand what is helpful in getting people off food assistance without risking their privacy, and a smaller time frame for people to use their food aid benefits before they expire. Instead of one year, it will be nine months.

Forestry

Like SNAP, the farm bill mostly leaves alone provisions on how to control forests in the interest of curbing potential wildfires, as California has faced more and more devastating fires.

Republicans tried to roll back environmental restrictions to promote forest management, but failed to make significant progress in the final bill.

Smaller items include continuing a program that allows state officials to perform forest management on federal lands, a new $20 million per year grant program for forest restoration on state and private land and the beginning of a pilot program to encourage utility companies to clear brush and trees national forest land near power lines.

The last point could be a small but significant development for California, where gas and electric provider PG&E has been blamed for igniting dozens of blazes in the last year.

Environmental protections

The farm bill helps agricultural producers — whose business interests can often run contrary to environmental well-being — protect the environment, providing money so they don’t have to pay more out of pocket in order to be environmentally conscious.

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), for example, provides farmers with counsel on environmentally friendly practices and matching funding for extra costs.

In California’s Central Valley, the new bill would help farmers purchase equipment that has less impact on air quality, protect honey bee populations and avoid the use of certain pesticides and chemicals that cause water pollution.

That program’s funding is up from the last farm bill, which the California Farm Bureau endorsed, from $1.75 billion per year to just over $2 billion per year by 2023.

Another program, known as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, allows farming communities to work with interest organizations to protect the environment and wildlife. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, for example, farms exist in place of former marshland where tri-colored blackbirds are annual nesters. The tri-colored blackbird is protected under state and federal law.

Rather than the farmers harvesting crops and destroying the birds’ nests, the California Audubon Society worked with them through the conservation program to reimburse farmers for crops they had to sacrifice in order to protect the birds’ habitats.

Funding for those programs comes partially from interest groups and partially from taxpayers, and available funds doubled in this year’s farm bill, from $100 million per year to $200 million.

Trade

About 44 percent of California’s agriculture revenue comes from, so provisions that encourage trade markets in foreign countries are vitally important.

The Market Access Program does exactly that — develop overseas markets and promote products overseas. A good example of one of the program’s successes is the promotion of California wines in China, with sales amounting to $200 million in revenue in 2017. Funding on that program will be $200 million per year, similar to funding levels of previous years.

The Foreign Market Development Program is similar, helping agricultural producers set up offices overseas to aid in promotion of their products. California almond farmers rely on this program to promote their product in China. Funding on that program will be $34.5 million per year.

Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops provides American exporters with information on foreign countries’ standards before products can be exported to their countries, preventing huge potential waste if exports were turned away at the border and lowering barriers to farmers breaking into a new market. It’s a comparably cheap program, funded at $9 million.

Specialty crop programs

The Specialty Crop Research Initiative, funded at $80 million per year, works to protect crops from other threats such as insects and disease.

A major example of the importance of the program in California is citrus greening disease. California is the only state with major citrus production that has not had commercial groves infected by citrus greening, a disease spread by insects that permanently kills citrus trees. It has devastated the citrus market in Florida and Texas and research so far has been unable to find a cure, though it has limited its spread.

That research specifically will continue to receive $25 million per year in this farm bill, in a category separate from other specialty crop research.

Emily Cadei contributed to this report.
Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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