Community Columns

Cardoza leads the way to improved ag funding

For years, many have called upon California agriculture to have a clear and unified voice so that we can advance our common goals. Unfortunately, the diversity of California agriculture -- usually among our greatest assets -- has made it challenging to get everyone on the same page.

This year, we have found a common voice, thanks to the leadership of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. As a result of Cardoza's skillful maneuvering, California agriculture is a big winner in the 2007 Farm Bill adopted by the House of Representatives.

Despite being the No. 1 farm state in the nation, California has not received its fair share of funding under previous farm bills. In 2002, California ranked sixth among states getting government payments and 12th among states receiving conservation funding -- despite the fact that California has more environmental regulations to comply with than any other state.

The specialty crop industry was consistently denied federal farm benefits until Congress implemented a Specialty Crop Block Grant Program under an emergency appropriation and then refined again under the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act in 2002. These acts helped to fund the successful "California Grown" marketing program that was developed during my tenure as Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The funds also provided support for pest and disease prevention, child nutrition and agricultural education programs, as well as helped to establish the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security located at University of California at Davis and the California Institute for Specialty Crops at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Unfortunately, after the 2002 appropriation, these funds all but dried up.

Immediately upon being elected to Congress, Cardoza saw the 2007 Farm Bill as an unprecedented opportunity to link support of our nation's specialty crop industry with our nation's healthy eating goals to combat obesity and diet-related illnesses. He began laying the groundwork, starting by encouraging California agriculture to speak with one voice, then encouraging California's specialty crop industry to join with specialty crop industries in other states.

Cardoza then introduced a marker bill, "The Eat Healthy America Act," gaining the support of 120 other members of Congress by packaging support for specialty crops, conservation and nutrition and a new vision for the Farm Bill.

After months of skilled negotiations -- whether through his role as a House Agriculture subcommittee chairman, member of the powerful Rules Committee or adviser to his California colleague, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- Cardoza was able to secure major changes in the farm bill. This will provide tremendous benefits to California agriculture, if the bill is enacted.

For the first time since the Congress started adopting farm bills in the 1930s, California is a major player.

The bill adopted by the House includes historic increases for specialty crops -- more than $1.6 billion over five years. These funds will go to support programs addressing research, marketing and trade promotion, food safety and pest and disease prevention and detection. These funds will also increase the amount of healthy fruits, vegetables and nuts in school lunches and snacks. Our specialty crop industry will be more competitive and better-equipped to compete in the global market.

The House bill also provides for a $2 billion increase to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help farmers address environmental issues. Most important to the San Joaquin Valley is a set-aside of $150 million for an air quality program to help farmers meet state and federal regulations.

This bill gives California agriculture the support it deserves.

Now it's time for the Senate to act. California agriculture needs to step up once again to make sure that the gains made in the House bill stick.

Lyons is the former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. He farms in Stanislaus and Merced counties.