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Farm bill passes House, and California growers are happy

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California’s prune producers, winemakers and almond ranchers can take the new farm bill to the bank.

Following several fallow years, the House on Wednesday gave final approval to a 900-plus page farm and food stamp package that sustains California’s famed specialty crops, commodities and university researchers. The nation’s largest and most unique farm state, California gets multi-faceted attention in the long-stalled bill.

“For my home state of California, this farm bill is a dramatic investment,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Wednesday, adding that “this debate has gone on for far too long.”

Two years late, the bill approved by a 251 to 166 vote reflected bipartisan support as well as lingering opposition from liberals who dislike nutrition program cuts and free-market conservatives who dislike government subsidies. The uneasy coalition of California opponents ranged from Republican Rep. Tom McClintock on the right to Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters on the left.

But with most lawmakers weary and eager to get the farm debate behind them, the legislation is now headed for final Senate passage as early as Thursday and a signature from President Barack Obama. Once signed, it will set farm policy and federal spending levels for the next 10 years.

“California is number one in the nation in agricultural revenue . . . making the farm bill especially crucial to Californians,” noted Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., adding that he knows “how crucial farm policy on the federal level is to ensuring that our agricultural community can feed the nation.”

Costa and Denham serve on the House Agriculture Committee.

The bill is huge. It will cost $956 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Of this, an estimated $756 billion will feed nutrition programs. A large portion will be funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program and which served 4.2 million California residents as of last October, according to the Agriculture Department.

The bill trims nutrition spending by $8 billion over 10 years, primarily by tightening certain eligibility standards in some states, including California.

The new farm bill ends the direct payments that in 2012 provided about $111 million to California’s cotton, rice, wheat and corn producers, among others, according to data from the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. The commodity farmers aren’t bereft, though. Instead of direct payments made regardless of crop prices,  the new bill establishes a stronger, subsidized crop insurance system.

Reform proposals to limit subsidy payments were rejected by negotiators.

The new bill also builds on a foundation set in the 2008 farm bill, which at the behest of California lawmakers was the first to include significant specialty crop provisions.

It also continues steady funding for the $200 million-a-year Market Access Program, which helps overseas promotions and advertising. This year, for instance, the California Dried Plum Board received $2.5 million to market prunes overseas, while Blue Diamond Growers and the Almond Board of California received $4.7 million to help boost overseas sales. More than a dozen California-based farm groups regularly receive funding, with certain organizations like the Wine Institute big winners every year.

The bill likewise continues a specialty crop block grant program, which currently provides California about $18 million a year.

This money has previously been distilled down to individual grants to University of California, Davis researchers studying food safety,  prune and pistachio exporters offering baking seminars in Asia and state researchers fighting the “brown marmorated stink bug,” among other projects.

The legislation also continues a $55 million-a-year specialty crop research initiative, which in recent years has provided grants to U.C. Davis researchers trying to remove walnut rootstocks, among other projects. In addition, there is a new pot of $25 million for research into citrus greening, a troublesome disease caused by bacteria.

“Through commonsense policies, this farm bill fortifies the agricultural industry for the next five years,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. He praised the bill’s “needed investments in specialty crops, organic crops, research and the market access program, which are all very important for Northern California agriculture.”

For food stamp recipients, the bill curtails an eligibility procedure used in California and 15 other states. Currently, an individual receiving as little as $1 from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program can receive expanded nutrition aid in these states because of how the households can calculate income and deductions.

California joined this so-called “heat and eat” method of boosting food-stamp benefits last year. Under the new farm bill, though, an individual could only get the expanded food-stamp benefits if they receive $20 in the energy aid.

The farm package also includes advisory language inserted on behalf of some California farm interests, including statements urging the Agriculture Department to “remove the obstacles that are preventing the U.S. olive oil industry from reaching its potential.” For the state’s dairy industry, there is language that could set the stage for entry into the federal milk marketing order system. 

This article was originally published on the McClatchy website on January 29, 2014.

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