WASHINGTON -- Central Valley farmers harvest serious coin in the farm bill approved Wednesday by the House.
While President Bush calls the bill a big mistake, many valley farmers disagree. Whether or not the $289 billion package is a long-term good idea, it undeniably steers money toward the nation's most abundant agricultural region.
"Past farm bills didn't work for California, oftentimes," noted Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. This bill, he added, included "significant benefits" for the state.
The House approved the bill 318 to 106, sufficient to overcome Bush's promised veto. With many Republicans abandoning the president's position, the Senate is expected to follow suit as early as today.
The farm bill's California-related provisions and impacts include:
The bill includes $1 billion to expand a fresh fruit and vegetable snack program to all 50 states. Currently, the program is limited to schools in 14 states, and California hasn't been included.
This billion-dollar boost could be a twofer, aiding valley farms and schools alike. Using federal funds, eligible schools will be buying local produce to provide students with healthy snacks in kiosks and cafeterias. Carrots, celery, apples, oranges, pears and grapes are typically among the leading snacks bought, an Agriculture Department study found.
To participate, schools must have at least half of their students eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches. Many valley schools fit the bill. In Yuba, Merced and Fresno counties, for instance, more than 63 percent of schoolchildren were eligible for free and reduced priced meals.
Block grants for specialty crops
These are a mixed bag, as even some California farm lobbyists question their benefit. Nonetheless, the bill includes $466 million over 10 years for block grants to help states research and promote specialty crops, which include fruits, vegetables, nuts, dried fruits and flowers.
Lawmakers spread the political benefit by guaranteeing every state at least $100,000 annually. This reduces the amount that's distributed on the basis of a state's specialty crop production, thereby cutting California's share. Even so, California ends up with more than other states.
Past specialty crop block grants have funded walnut research at the University of California at Davis, subsidized salad bars in California schools and helped pay for Buy California promotional materials deployed in stores. Look for more of the same with the new funding.
"A lot of progress has been made from where we were five years ago," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Traditional crop subsidies
California farmers do not rely on commodity subsidies nearly as much as farmers in states such as Iowa and North Dakota. Still, California's rice, wheat, cotton and corn growers did harvest about $435 million in commodity payments in 2006, according to data collected by the Environmental Working Group.
The payments are concentrated. Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare county farmers alone account for about one-fourth of the state's total. By and large, the new farm bill retains these commodity programs.
The Agriculture Department's existing Environmental Quality Incentive Program will include $150 million to assist farmers in regions with serious air pollution. The money will help pay for new engines, pumps and other equipment, as well as air- friendly activities, including chipping orchard clippings instead of burning them.
A big priority for Cardoza and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the program was written specifically with the smoggy San Joaquin Valley in mind. In another green maneuver, California lawmakers included the Sacramento River watershed among several high-priority regions eligible for new "agricultural water enhancement" funding.
"We have the unique opportunity to shape the land and water preservation programs from the ground up," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.
Market access program
The bill authorizes $200 million a year for the Market Access Program, well known among California farmers. This is the same funding level approved in the 2002 farm bill, but markedly less than specialty crop lobbyists had hoped for. It is less than the House and Senate originally offered.
The program provides grants for overseas ads and promotional efforts. Most recently, for instance, the California Walnut Commission received a $3.5 million grant to boost imports, while the California Cling Peach Board received an $812,000 grant for the same purposes. California farm groups consistently have been the biggest beneficiaries of the program.
San Joaquin County asparagus farmers, among the nation's most productive, can pick up a share of $15 million, courtesy of a Michigan senator.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow included the money, to be divided equally between producers of fresh and processed or frozen asparagus. The money is supposed to compensate farmers hurt by South American imports in 2004-07.
The Dairy Promotion and Research Program, funded by industry fees, will grow under the farm bill. Following up on earlier efforts, the legislation will start assessing dairy product importers. They will pay 7½ cents per hundredweight, and the additional money will help fund ads and marketing campaigns.
The current dairy promotion program raises about $158 million a year. The money, for instance, has funded promotions for ham and cheese and other "dairy friendly" meals at Wendy's restaurants, as well as the "cheesy bites pizza" offered by Pizza Hut.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or 202-383-0006.