Our View: New farm bill on the horizon

December 21, 2013 

House Republican Jeff Denham and Democrat Jim Costa are among 29 representatives meeting with 12 senators hoping to set aside any partisan differences, link arms, and get the job of passing a farm bill done.

MANNY CRISOSTOMO — mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

  • AT A GLANCE

    Food stamps

    The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) is in this bill because all the food that food stamps buy comes out of America’s fields. The House wants to cut $42 billion over 10 years; the Senate, only $4 billion. There are signals that the less draconian Senate version will prevail. That’s good for hungry kids. And remember, we have a lot of hungry kids in the San Joaquin Valley. Through this program, they get fresh fruit, vegetables and milk products and farmers get a ready market.

    Food safety

    Rep. Steve King of Iowa is a tea party guy, supposedly buying into the concepts of small government and local control. Except when he wants to tell 37 million Californians what’s good for them. The King amendment would overrule California’s laws mandating that food brought into our state meet our state’s standards.

    Basically, he’s trying to sell more Iowa eggs.

    California egg producers were required in 2008 to give chickens enough room to move around; producers like Modesto’s JS West, which has huge operations in both Merced and Stanislaus counties, have invested heavily in new facilities to do just that. They’re happy with the results, but each egg costs around a penny more to produce. King figures that gives Iowans an opening to sell their cheaper eggs.

    King is also in the conference, but both Denham and Costa are serious about this one. Eggs are a $110 million business between their districts. But this goes far deeper. If this amendment survives, all of California’s food-safety rules could be voided.

    “It is a critical issue,” said Denham. “I believe very strongly you don’t ignore the Constitution when it suits your needs.”

    It’s a line in the sand.

    Environmental

    We celebrated when the local air board announced this year that we had met many of our clean-air goals. Without the 2008 farm bill provision that helped farmers replace old diesel equipment with electric motors, we wouldn’t have. Grants through the Environmental Quality Improvement Program help pay for those replacements, though many weren’t yet fully depreciated.

    EQUIP also helped farmers clean up water. Dairy farmers, for instance, got help putting gutters on big barns, allowing them to divert rain away from waste lagoons, reducing flooding and keeping nearby streams cleaner.

    We even support help for Midwestern farmers in maintaining prairie grasslands. Why? Because the bees that pollinate our trees each spring spend summers there, and there’s a link between lost grasslands and dying bees.

    Research

    Few northern San Joaquin Valley farmers get big subsidy checks. But since the 2003 farm bill they have been getting invaluable help in growing specialty crops. Gabriele Ludwig, a scientist and executive with the Almond Board, said farm bill money paid for a study on how nitrogen is best applied to almond trees. It led to less nitrogen going into groundwater, which is becoming increasingly important. Other research is helping to develop virus-free trees. This is critical.

    Marketing

    Why are California food products so popular all over the world? They taste good, of course, but also are well marketed. Since 2003, California farmers and producers have matched federal dollars to help introduce wine, almond, cheese, fruit and much more to consumers all over the world. Guess what? They love them. It’s money well spent.

    Dairy

    Michael Marsh of Western United Dairymen says getting a fair pricing structure for milk is essential to local dairymen. They also need help mitigating the effects of incredible swings in the cost of feed and the price of milk. Those spikes have driven hundreds of dairy families out of the business over the past few years. This might be the most crucial part of the bill in both Stanislaus and Merced counties, where dairy accounts for $1.8 billion.

There’s a good chance Congress will come back from its winter recess in January and pass a farm bill.

Why, after five years of rancorous dysfunction between House Republicans and Senate Democrats, do we hold such a crazy dream? Because two weeks ago Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., worked out a budget deal. Few liked the budget they got, but most liked that they got one. Our representatives are home on recess right now; hopefully, constituents are filling their ears with encouragement to keep this ball rolling.

Crafting a workable five-year, $900 billion farm bill would be a great place to start.

The farm bill is one of those huge, omnibus laws that reaches far beyond the farm gate. Many believe it exists only to help Midwestern corporate farmers. But it also helps feed poor children, affects prices of everything from fuel to fruit cups and, here in the San Joaquin Valley, plays a big role in cleaning up our air and water.

It’s important.

No surprise, the House and Senate versions passed earlier this year differed radically. Last month, the competing bills were carried into the House/Senate conference by a few members of each chamber. Their job is to bridge some vast differences and forge a single bill – if they can.

Jeff Denham and Jim Costa are both among the 29 representatives who are meeting with 12 senators. Republican Denham represents Stanislaus and part of San Joaquin counties; Democrat Costa represents Merced and parts of Fresno and Madera counties. This is a perfect opportunity to set aside any partisan differences, link arms and get the job done.

By helping our area farmers, we’ll be helping everyone in our part of the valley.

There are 12 “titles,” or sections, in the farm bill; several are big for us. The accompanying material explains why.

Forty-one legislators will try to hammer out a farm bill compromise in early January. Costa and Denham know the stakes. Like Ryan and Murray, they might not be able to get everything that’s important to area farmers. Without a farm bill, we’ll get very little.

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