By JENNIFER BONNETT
Business Journal Writer
Congress plans to write a new farm bill next year, authorizing programs on conservation, research, nutrition and other aspects of agricultural and food policy — and local growers want to make sure their funding needs are met.
The Farm Bill is important to the California almond industry and other growers in the areas of trade, conservation, bioenergy, technical assistance, research and block grants. But it has fallen short, according to some growers.
Bill Lyons’ family has been in the farming and ranching business for 90 years.
From his Mapes Ranch west of Modesto, he grows almonds and is also diversified in alfalfa, wine grapes, forage mixes, walnuts, even cattle.
This vantage point, as well as serving as the former state secretary of agriculture, has given him a unique viewpoint of the Farm Bill and the various programs it funds.
“It’s important that the state growers and all of agriculture be engaged in the legislation, so I’m encouraging them to be involved in the Farm Bill, especially the specialty crops,” he said.
The House Agriculture Committee held a listening session in Modesto in August as part of its work to shape the new federal farm legislation. Its goal was to gather comments from farmers, ranchers and other interested people.
At that meeting, Almond Alliance of California President Kelly Covello reaffirmed that it is essential 2018 Farm Bill program funding levels are increased, especially as there hasn’t been any in the last two funding cycles.
She offered her comments to members of the House Agriculture Committee, including Jeff Denham (R-Modesto).
One of the particularly important programs for almond growers is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which provides funding to meet increasing environmental standards, which are particularly stringent in California, according to Covello.
“The almond industry has used EQIP to upgrade agricultural motors to help the San Joaquin Valley comply with federal air quality standards,” she said. “EQIP is historically underfunded and always over-subscribed. Additional funding for EQIP would help the California Ag industry meet increasingly strict air quality regulations.”
Lyons agreed. “The almond growers want to be good citizens, and these types of programs help us do this,” he said.
But the program that directly impacts his almond industry is the Market Access Program (MAP). “It’s extremely important one for us since 70 percent of our crop is exported,” he said of the crop that comes from mostly Merced and Stanislaus counties.
In turn, the Foreign Market Development program (FMD) and the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC) are crucial for continued economic growth, according to the Almond Alliance.
Despite the importance and success of these programs, funding under the Farm Bill to the MAP program has not increased since 2006 and FMD funding has not increased since 2002, Covello said.
She also told the panel the almond industry believes it can eventually produce almonds with zero waste, but current economic and environmental challenges along with bioenergy technological hurdles have slowed the development of bioenergy outlets for almond biomass and byproducts.
After a year of Farm Bill discussions with members across the state, the California Farm Bureau found there is strong interest in retaining much of the existing bill. However, the organization feels there are areas in need of improvement such as updating the dairy Market Protection Program, increasing the AGI for crop insurance, creating an animal pest and disease program, improving EQIP, providing mandatory funding to the MAP and improving the definition of “rural.”
The current threshold is 35,000 residents for a county to be considered rural. Given the size of California’s counties, many do not qualify for this funding, the Almond Alliance pointed out.
That organization, too, is in full support of a need to redefine “rural.”
The 2014 Farm Bill did improve upon previous iterations by providing more emphasis on risk management and disaster, specialty crops, conservation and research, CFBF president Paul Wenger said in a letter to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Still, the bureau submitted its priorities for the next farm bill reauthorization.
Among them is MPP, an issue for dairies throughout Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
It has many flaws and is not suited to benefit California dairies as the prices used to calculate the margin do not reflect a California dairy farmer’s true margin, and the program isn’t designed to protect the level of production in the state, according to the bureau.
The premium levels are set to protect annual production levels of 5 million pounds and less, when the average size California dairy produces 29 million pounds annually.
CFBF supports keeping the MPP and improving its effectiveness for smaller California dairy operations, including using regional feed prices instead of national feed prices.
The livestock industry is also seeking a program like the Plant Pest and Disease Prevention Program for livestock and poultry producers. The bureau supports this new program concept as an outbreak of a foreign animal disease could severely impact the economic viability of U.S. livestock and poultry production.
Building upon the 2014 Farm Bill’s authorization of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, Congress needs to summon federal resources with states, industry and universities to reduce disease impact, provide rapid detection and response, as well as develop disease prevention and mitigation to include vaccines, prevent entry and spread of foreign animal diseases into the U.S., plus identify and support critical research needs, according to the bureau.
Its officials also feel the new Farm Bill should allow greater flexibility to implement innovative solutions to local and regional resource challenges including groundwater sustainability and drought relief, resilience and preparedness.
Under the new Farm Bill, there is a need to expand job training programs across the farming board, according to both Lyons and Covello.
“We are at a critical time in California with regards to labor in rural California,” Covello said. “In the next five years, we’re going to see a change in the agricultural job landscape of California.
“With the adoption of labor laws including a new minimum wage and new agricultural overtime laws along with the rapid changes in science, technology and mechanization, the ag jobs of today will not be the jobs of the future.”
She also encouraged NRCS and the FSA to modify grant criteria for disaster program income limits and other program participation income criteria for specialty crops in the 2018 Farm Bill as the value of California specialty crops is higher than most production ag commodities.
“That limits their participation in these programs,” she said, adding that growers turn to high value crops to be profitable given the regulatory environment in which they operate and criteria for these programs should take these costs into consideration.
In the end, Lyons said the Farm Bill is very critical to all crops in California.
“These are our tax dollars and we need to be engaged with USDA and Congress and make sure we get our fair share back here.”