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Congressional Farm Bill Hearing February 14, 2023

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By Don A. Wright

It was a day filled with firsts. It was Valentine’s Day and 10-Congressmen gathered in Tulare on the first day of the 2023 World Ag Expo to listen to a large room full of folks about what they’d like to have included in the next iteration of the Farm Bill. This is the first public interaction for this Farm Bill and the first time it has taken place at the World Ag Expo. It was also the first time a Speaker of the House and the Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture both attended the Expo. Congressmen Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania and their colleagues were there to hear what the public wants in the Farm Bill. It’s an American tradition to rewrite the Farm Bill every five years.

The morning began with an opening ceremony for the Expo that included the singing of the National Anthem and a fly over of two fighter jets from Lemoore Naval Air Station. For those of you who regularly attend the WAE or just drive by on Highway 99 you’ll see a plethora of large, tethered balloons hovering over the event grounds acting as both guide and advertisement. I secretly held hope (in light of the recent invasion of our nation’s airspace by the Chinese) we might get to see one or two of the balloons shot down but no such. But it was still majestic to see those war birds streak past with a sound of power that makes you glad they’re on our side.Conterra

At the end of the beginning of the opening ceremonies McCarthy went outside by the main gates of the International Ag Center and fired off a small cannon. Out came confetti and a big boom. I wasn’t paying any attention and it made me jump just a little. I’m proud to state after decades of reporting on water I’ve learned a thing or two about controlling liquids. Even though surprised by the very loud noise I neither spilled my coffee nor lost control of my bladder.

Farm Bill

Speaking of hot air thrusting things forward I was pleasantly surprised to find the congressmen at the Farm Bill listening session* far less pontifical than those speaking to them. The vast majority of speaker were cognizant of their five-minute time limit and got to the point.

There were some who used most of their time to extol the virtues of whatever interest it was they held special. It sounded a lot like a national political convention where a spokesperson from, “. . . the great state of West Dakota, home of the nation’s largest traffic interchange and the American Institute of Hangnail Research . . .” verbally meanders too long before getting to the point.** I don’t want to hear about the rutabaga’s long history and contributions to literature and western civ. I want to hear what you as a rutabaga grower would like included in the farm bill. Towards the very end of the session one fellow wouldn’t stop to the guy behind him stepped between him and the microphone.

Public Opinions

Speakers wishing to present their desires to what was called the Congressional Farm Team had to make prior written arrangements before the hearing, excuse me, listening session began. They were called up to the microphone one at time and invited to cut loose. Let’s take a look at what some of them had to say.

Jamie Johannson, President of the California Farm Bureau Federation said he wanted to see four areas addressed. Like many other speakers he urged the law take a fresh look at crop insurance. There are many needs not being met under the current policy and he’d like to see updates to match the changing conditions agriculture is facing. He also pointed out there are 38-million dead trees in California from pests, fires and droughts. Forest management must change. Johannson observed many of the programs are understaffed and underfunded. And finally he would like the next Farm Bill to enhance the programs of state and local governments purchasing food from state and local farmers.

Tony Lopes, California Dairies Inc., said it would be beneficial for dairy cattle to receive some of the same legal considerations as beef cattle. (Many of the requests and opinions expressed at this session were very specific. You may have to search out details by contacting the various commodity groups.) He also wanted more dairy products in the food stamp program.

Ben Fong is a State Assemblyman from Bakersfield. He reiterated the need to update crop insurance. He also included water and supply chain problems are serious issues to be addressed in the new Farm Bill.

Aubrey Bettencourt of the Almond Alliance said about 100 percent of the nation’s almonds are grown in California. They provide a great source of trade in exports, but if I understood correctly they are classified as specialty crops and therefore don’t receive some of the benefits going to commodity crops. I don’t think specialty crops get as good a shake from the EQIP program. She also requested more help on water and trade issues.TechnoFlo

Dr. Glenda Humiston, Vice President of Agricultural & Natural Resources for the University of California brought a good point about investing in ag research. Ease up the match requirements for grants for specialty crops. She also advocated for upgrading research facilities. Many young and beginning farmers lease property and there are very few programs accessible to them. She also brought up something I’d never heard mentioned – the San Joaquin Valley is classified as an urban area and that defines limits to benefits under the federal regulations. We’ll have to look into that more.

Ian LeMay, California Fresh Fruit Association said the Marketing Assistance Program needs to ramp up to at least $500 million in funding. He wants to see disaster insurance for specialty crops included in the insurance program. More research in on-farm mechanization and he wants the USDA to have more authority to promote domestically.

Jacob Devore, Farm Credit wants community gardens included in the Farm Bill. He wants changes to crop insurance and adjustments to the lending regulations for new farmer and conservation/climate change loans.

Dereck Swindell, Ducks Unlimited wants more incentives for voluntary conservation and easement programs.

Natalie Caples, Central Valley Food Bank spoke for a long time and I’m not sure what she wanted. I think she was asking for more emergency food support or food stamps or?

I believe it was Alyssa Houtby, California Citrus Mutual who asked for more research support for the HLB disease.*** There is an annual $25 million trust fund dedicated to this and she wants to see it continue. I understand HLB could take out the world’s entire citrus crop.

Lynn McBride, California Dairy Farmers Union would like more country of origin labels so we know where our food is really coming from.

Mike Herman of Netafim said there is no need to fallow large swaths of farmland in California and the west even with the pressures from SGMA and the Colorado River supplies. New technology supported by the NRCA and EQIP could dramatically reduce the water usage and deal with dairy effluent.

Erin Wilson, Irrigation Association wants to increase and change eligibility for EQIP grants. There is also an ever-growing need to upgrade the high speed internet access to rural areas to keep up  with technological innovations.

Manuel Cunha, Nisei Farmers League asked for the new Farm Bill to address the ag labor situation. He was also critical of increased air quality regulations without any alternatives being offered.

Richard Matoian, President American Pistachio Growers reminded folks 99-percent of American grown pistachios are grown in California. He wants better water infrastructure, improved crop insurance and upgrades to the MAP, Marketing Assistance Program that helps American farmers with export issues.

Since the listening session took place at the World Ag Expo, which is in Congressman David Valadao’s district, Number 22, he was credited as host. Good for him for getting this together. In addition to McCarthy and Thompson participating with Valadao for the listening session were Representatives Jim Costa (CA-21), John Duarte (CA-13), John Rose (TN-6), Jimmy Panetta (CA-19), Doug LaMalfa (CA-1), Salud Carbajal (CA-24), David Rouzer (NC-07).

When you stop and look at who these gentlemen represent, we got a very good cross section for supporting common sense upgrades to the Farm Bill. There was a mix of Democrats and Republicans and good coverage of most of California’s farming areas. The out of state Representatives understand farming but they got a look at farming California style. And they all got to see the World Ag Expo which is pretty dog gone impressive in itself. Sources who know what they are talking about say without major hiccups the Farm Bill hearings in Washington DC will wrap up and a new bill presented to Congress in the fall. Now that you know what was asked for, let’s see what we get.

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*Somehow a congressional listening session is different than a congressional hearing. One definition is “hearing is the passive intake of sound while listening is the act of intentionally striving to comprehend the sound.” On a congressional level I believe it has to do with formality of recording statements into the record.

**This criticism doesn’t apply to meandering while writing. That’s known as an in depth topical introduction.

*** Huanglongbing=HLB. Wonder where that nasty biological problem came from.

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