Politics & Government

Proposed rules could give California growers a big boost

WASHINGTON -- California specialty crop growers could get much bigger federal grants, and for a longer time, under a new Bush administration proposal.

Grants now limited to $300,000 a year could jump to $500,000. The grants that most recently have funded groups like the California Walnut Commission and the California Apple Commission could also last for five years instead of the current three-year limit.

"I think it's a very good benefit to the industry," Alexander Ott, executive director of the Fresno-based California Apple Commission, said Wednesday.

The proposed Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops changes were published Wednesday, as one part of the lame-duck administration's regulatory last gasp. Among California farm groups, the grant changes could prove meaningful.

Last year, seven of the 14 organizations to receive technical assistance grants were based in California. The California Apple Commission, for instance, received $41,578 for help with exports to Taiwan. The California Walnut Commission received $4,800 for help with exports to Europe, and the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League received $159,900 for help in dealing with Mexican stone-fruit regulations.

Other past funding recipients have ranged from the California Fig Advisory Board and the California Pistachio Commission to Blue Diamond Growers.

The funds target "technical barriers" to agricultural exports, though the specific work can vary.

California apple growers, for instance, have used several different grants to pay the costs of inspectors from both Taiwan and Mexico. The health-and-safety reviews conducted by foreign inspectors working in this country make exports possible. This year, California apple exports to Mexico are expected to reach a record 100,000 boxes.

"We're finally starting to see a marked increase," Ott said.

In a similar vein, the California Grape and Tree Fruit League has used its technical assistance grant to pay for inspectors associated with the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These inspectors have helped boost grape and tree fruit exports to Mexico to 3.6 million boxes this year.

"We've made great strides," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "But is our job complete? No."

The proposed changes published Wednesday in the Federal Register, and now open for public comment through Jan. 2, do not go as far as some California farmers wanted. Bedwell said the new five-year funding limit is "a step in the right direction," but he said he would prefer no time limit at all.

On the flip side, some skeptics, including Government Accountability Office auditors, have pressed hard for time limits in other agricultural grant programs. The reasoning can apply to any federal grant that benefits an industry.

"Government assistance can help encourage firms to assume the risks of trying to export to new markets," GAO auditors noted in one assessment of the Market Access Program, which also helps exports. "However, once exports begin, these sales should provide the basis for continued market development efforts funded entirely by the commercial firms."

The Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops grants, like the Market Access Program grants, were largely designed by California lawmakers eager for a bigger share of the federal farm bill. The new five-year farm bill written this year boosts TASC funding from $4 million in 2008 to $9 million by 2012.