Politics & Government

As currently written, farm bill a mixed bag for California

WASHINGTON — Farmers markets in cities like Davis could flourish with funding included in a new farm bill that's become a mixed bag for California.

Central Valley growers could buy new pumps and engines with federal funds dedicated to improving air quality. University of California researchers could conduct more organic agriculture studies. Valley students would be served more fruit and vegetable snacks.

"I'm back to being happy again," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said Tuesday afternoon. "Currently, the bill is in a shape where I can support it."

Negotiators still face a potential presidential veto along with a May 16 deadline. Final House and Senate approvals may be extended until next week, while last-minute haggling continues. Key lawmakers met again behind closed doors Tuesday.

Still, much of the farm bill is now finished. Funding levels are set, along with crucial language covering everything from specialty crops to conservation and research.

The settled provisions are part of a bill expected to cost about $280 billion over five years and $570 billion over 10 years. Roughly two-thirds of the spending supports food stamp and nutrition programs.

The big wild card is a potential veto by President Bush, who has called the package "bloated." Congress could then either overturn a veto or simply extend current farm policy for another year, until a new president takes office. Cardoza, who chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, said his fellow lawmakers have little appetite for extending current farm policy and giving up the negotiating gains made on behalf of fruit and vegetable growers.

Farmers markets, for instance, are a modest winner in this year's pending farm bill. The bill includes $33 million for an existing Farmers Market Promotion Program that currently provides only about $1 million annually.

The program is very competitive, so the additional money could help. In 2006, for instance, the Davis Farmers Market Foundation was among 20 grant recipients out of 369 applicants. The Davis foundation received $41,800.

"We are pleased that there is such an explicit link between eating healthfully and supporting regional growers," said Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator at the University of California's Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Program.

On the other hand, an existing Value Added Producer Grant program came up short.

In recent years, the program has funded marketing campaigns by the California Olive Oil Council, Sun-Maid Growers, Sunsweet Growers and others. Sunsweet, for instance, received $150,000 to market "PlumSweets," which are diced, chocolate-covered prunes.

This year, the value-added grants total $18 million. By contrast, the new farm bill only guarantees $15 million over five years. Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition called this "far less" than growers had hoped for.

Key conservation provisions, meanwhile, remain fluid.

Some negotiators, for instance, want to stretch out payments for the Wetlands Reserve Program over 10 years. Nearly 100,000 acres in California have been enrolled in the easement program, and California lawmakers fear stretching out payments would deter more farmers from signing up.

Cardoza and other California lawmakers secured $150 million specifically for air quality projects funded through the existing Environmental Quality Incentive Program. The money targets farmers in rural counties that have not attained federal air quality standards. This includes the San Joaquin Valley, ranked among the nation's smoggiest regions.

Valley farmers could get grants for efforts to cut pollution. This might include replacing diesel irrigation pumps, controlling road dust and chipping orchard cuttings instead of burning them, among other activities.

"The citizens deserve to breathe cleaner air," Cardoza said.

The bill combines a five-fold increase in organic agriculture research, to $78 million, with a nearly five-fold increase -- to $22 million -- in the amount provided for organic farmer certification cost-sharing. The latter funding will help farmers afford certification, which in California typically costs between $400 and $1,000.

The bill includes a record $1 billion to expand an existing fruit-and-vegetable snack program. Currently, the program is limited to 25 schools in each of 14 states. The farm bill will expand this to schools in all 50 states, including California.

Apples, bananas, oranges, raisins, carrots and celery have been particularly popular, an Agriculture Department study found.