By Christine Souza, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert
Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation
With Congress set to craft omnibus legislation to govern the nation’s agricultural and food programs, farmers and others with an interest in farm policy offered feedback on what is working and what isn’t.
“We want to hear where we can make improvements in the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a senior member of the House Agriculture Subcommittee who held a listening session last week at California State University, Fresno, as well as online.
Costa, farmers and others discussed how the next Farm Bill could help farmers navigate the many challenges facing agriculture—including extreme drought, a limited labor supply and supply-chain backlogs that impact trade.
“Clearly the No. 1 problem for pistachio growers at this time is the drought and the reduction or elimination of access to state and federal water,” said Richard Matoian, president and CEO of the American Pistachio Growers. “We urge your committee to expand or adopt existing or new programs that will increase water supplies for our growers.”
Fresno County farmer Dan Errotabere suggested that the next farm bill include funding for ecosystem restoration to improve water supplies and reliability.
“We hope the farm bill will include funding for programs that help the delta estuary that a lot of the water projects depend on,” said Errotabere, who added that better forest management also means a better yield of water into reservoirs.
Fresno County farmer Carol Chandler, a member of the Western Growers Association board, asked for increased funding for research on improving the nation’s labor system and elevating innovation in agriculture.
“On our farm, we’ve had to transition away from high-labor crops like raisin grapes and tree fruit to harvest more mechanized crops,” Chandler said. “We believe the farm bill needs to dramatically spur on innovation around automating harvest and farm labor in our sector.
“The speed of innovation is not fast enough,” she added, “and we want to be sure innovation reaches producers of all sizes and crops.”
In discussing trade, many participants touted benefits of the Market Access Program, or MAP, and other programs that aim to enhance the competitiveness of fruits and vegetables.
Matoian recommended that MAP funding be increased to $400 million, double stagnant funding levels of previous decades. “We believe this program has been a great benefit to opening export markets,” Matoian said.
Discussions on the farm bill also centered on risk management, including federal crop insurance and a critical safety net for farmers.
California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said crop insurance and disaster programs are needed to assist farmers, ranchers and foresters affected by changing weather conditions and “catastrophic wildfires that are burning more intensely and no longer limited to a season.”
“The Congressional Research Service estimates that only about 80 specialty crops are covered through crop insurance programs from the roughly 400 agricultural commodities grown here in California,” Johansson said. “You must find solutions to overcome limitations inherent in the current system and provide RMA (Risk Management Agency) with the necessary tools and structures. They need to close this gap.”
Johansson said Farm Bureau is also seeking sufficient funding for initiatives such as the Emergency, Livestock, Honey Bees and Farm-Raised Fish program, or ELAP, the Livestock Indemnity Program, Livestock Forge Disaster Program, Tree Assistance Program, Dairy Margin Coverage Program and others.
“We must preserve the integrity of the crop insurance program,” Johansson said. He also called for expanding conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Reserve Program.
Dairy producers and others representing the sector called for improving the Dairy Margin Coverage Program.
“We need to make some changes to this program,” said Fresno County dairy producer Melvin Medeiros, who is involved in Dairy Farmers of America and the National Milk Producers Federation. “We feel that these programs are designed as safety nets and should be equitable for all-size producers.”
Kings County farmer Kirk Gilkey said cotton producers “must have an effective safety net.”
“This includes all commodity policy that provides either price or revenue protection for the prolonged periods of low prices and depressed market conditions,” Gilkey said. “This bill should also include a strong and fully accessible array of crop insurance products.”
As farmers face dramatic increases in production costs, Gilkey said, input increases have undercut protection from traditional farm policies and crop insurance tools designed to protect revenue against yield losses.
“These sharp increases translate into a significant decline in the effective safety net offered by the Price Loss Coverage (program)reference price,” he added. “Considering the big increases in production input cost, the PLC reference price needs to be evaluated.”
Many speakers emphasized the farm bill must continue funding for protection of agricultural commodities from pests and diseases. Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Melissa Cregan, also representing the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association, praised the success of the Plant Protection and Quarantine Program.
“Given the program’s overwhelming success, we are urging Congress to authorize the plant protection act program at $100 million each year,” Cregan said.
Jon Reelhorn, president of Belmont Nursery in Fresno, also called for continued support for the National Clean Plant Network. He said the network provides “improved access to clean plants for nursery crops such as tree fruit, citrus, berries, grapes and roses, and enhances the competitiveness of these sectors.”
Speaking on concerns over wildfires impacting Sequoia groves, Tim Borden of the Save the Redwoods League called for additional funding for prescribed burns, forest treatments and a streamlined permitting process.
Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, said the farm bill is important because “growers deserve a bolstering of resources that can help propel our industry towards a sustainable and competitive future.”
“The production of our food and fiber is not only a national security issue but a global security issue,” LeMay said. “We have the opportunity to fortify that security with a reauthorization, and it is CFA’s hope that Congress will be bold enough to make the meaningful investment necessary to meet that moment.”