Nation & World

Farm bill is fertile ground for complaints

California dairy processors are still trying to squeeze a better deal from a big farm bill up for House debate this week.

They aren’t the only ones.

The Obama administration is threatening a veto. California liberals complain it cuts nutrition programs too much. The state’s conservatives say it’s still too generous. Everyone agrees the 1,200-page House bill is a work in progress.

“There’s a lot of things I like, and there’s some things I have some difficulty with,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Tuesday, “but I think it can be worked out in (the negotiating) conference.”

Costa is one of six California members of the House Agriculture Committee, which approved the measure by a 36-10 margin last month. The full House vote is expected to be much closer on Thursday, following consideration of dozens of amendments.

Last Congress, stymied by the many political cross-currents, the Republican-controlled House failed to bring a farm bill to the floor. That meant a Senate-passed measure died and lawmakers had to temporarily extend provisions of the 2008 farm bill.

This year’s bill is potentially important for California’s $43 billion-a-year agricultural industry, as well as for the roughly 4.1 million California residents who currently receive the supplemental nutrition assistance, formerly called food stamps. The House bill ends the crop subsidies known as direct payments, which primarily benefit cotton, rice, wheat and corn growers, and also cuts nutrition programs.

The House measure offers funding for fruit and vegetable growers, including $375 million over five years for a Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. Last year, for instance, the program funded efforts like cantaloupe safety research at the University of California at Davis and “new product research” with pistachios.

The bill also includes $275 million over five years for a continued Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which last year funded U.C. Davis work on almonds, grapes and walnuts, among other crops.

Still, the House bill has triggered opposition from several quarters.

Broadly speaking, the Obama administration this week proclaimed that it “strongly opposes” the House farm bill, citing the cuts in supplemental nutrition programs and increases in crop insurance subsidies.

More narrowly, the bill pits dairy producers, many of whom favor a new voluntary supply management program, against dairy processors, who contend they’ll be hurt by artificially curtailed supplies. The supply management provision does not set a production quota, but does tie dairy payments for program participants to certain market conditions.

“We see it as a significant threat to our ability to provide a product, if we have this scheme that would throttle supplies,” David Ahlem, vice president of Hilmar Cheese, said in an interview Tuesday. “Any manipulation of supply and demand like this will distort the market.”

The opposition by Hilmar Cheese and other members of the International Dairy Foods Association to the farm bill’s dairy supply management program will come to a head in a closely watched vote on an amendment to strike the provision.

Beyond the high-profile dairy issue and the big-ticket subsidies and nutrition programs, the House bill includes myriad provisions that matter to different sectors of the California farm economy.

The bill, for instance, adds canned, frozen and dried products to the fresh fruits and vegetables offered through the existing federal school lunch program. In a victory for some California olive oil producers, among others, the bill also adds imported olive oil to the list of imported commodities that must meet domestic quality standards, if the industry ever sets up a marketing order that establishes quality standards.

The olive oil provision is targeted for elimination by an amendment, one of 228 that have been proposed.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., has an amendment that would replace a farm bill provision that undermines California’s cage standards for egg-laying hens, adopted by the state’s voters through Proposition 2 in 2008. The House Agriculture Committee rejected Denham’s earlier effort during mark-up of the bill.

“I have a number of concerns that still need to be addressed,” Denham said.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., has an amendment to eliminate the $20 million Farmers Market Promotion Program. A conservative whose redrawn congressional district includes several central Sierra Nevada counties, McClintock calls the program “duplicative” and unnecessary. Last year, records show that it helped fund expansion of the West Modesto Farmers Market, as well as markets in rural Siskiyou, Plumas and Shasta counties, among other locations.

Other amendments resurrect farm bill debates going back decades.

Several lawmakers have amendments, once again, to eliminate the $200 million-a-year Market Access Program, which funds overseas advertising and marketing. The program regularly funds California organizations representing the state’s wine, almond, strawberry, walnut and raisin producers, among many others, and it just as regularly fends off congressional skeptics who try to cut off funding.

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