The House Agriculture Committee approved the $940 billion farm bill on Wednesday, which will bring some relief to frustrated California growers. Working late into Wednesday night, the House passed the 576 page draft, with a 36-10 vote.
The bill is especially important to Stanislaus County farmers who grow specialty crops and are not beneficiaries of direct payments given to larger subsidized crops. The approved bill would cut these direct payments.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R- Turlock, who serves on the House Agricultural Committee, is one of the six Californians sitting on the 46 member panel that wrote the bill.
"One of the biggest issues that continues to come up in national farm policy pertains to specialty crops," said Denham."We're not only the largest ag state in the nation but a majority of our crops are specialty crops."
According to figures collected by the Environmental Working Group, direct payments to California rice, cotton, wheat and barley growers totaled roughly $123 million in 2011. A majority of these funds were soaked up by the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. Under the proposed House bill, these direct payments would end and be replaced with "risk management insurance."
Denham added that current direct payments given to subsidized crops plays a detrimental role to local Stanislaus farmers, who cannot afford the high feed prices due to the subsidization.
"The feed prices have been so high that it has put a lot of our smaller farmers out of business," Denham said.
The approved House bill would allocate over half a billion dollars over the next five years in specialty crops programs. Some of these programs include block grants, research initiatives, market access programs and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable programs.
Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner Milten O' Haire also agreed promotion of specialty crops is essential for California growers.
"Anytime there is a promotion of specialty crops that is a good thing," O'Haire said. "It gives our growers a bigger market to sell their crops."
The House bill also makes significant impacts on the dairy industry. For example, the bill would allow California dairy producers to petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture for entrance into the federally mandated ordering system. Currently, California operates on its own ordering system and dairy owners claim that the producers who do not enter the federal system are paid less. Also, the bill contains a "supply management" component which would allow the government to limit dairy production, in order to combat times when production outweighs supply.
Ray Souza, Turlock dairy farmer and former president of the Western United Dairymen, said that the restriction of production would raise prices locally but won't affect global markets due to foreign competition.
"Our competition is global now," said Souza. "The fact of the matter is that response for the lack of production will be filled with foreign production."
Souza also said that the currently proposed bill will most likely not make it to the final version.
"The farm bill still has a long ways to go, and when all is said and done the supply management component will not be there," Souza said.
The Senate version of the bill, which was passed Tuesday, also supports cutting of direct payments and promotion of specialty crops. However, it differs from the House version in regards to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) funding. The House bill slashes $20.5 billion for the food stamp program, while the Senate version only cuts $4.1 billion.
According to the California Food Policy Advocates, the House proposal would cause "significant harm" to 500,000 households, or 1.5 million low-income Californians.
U.S Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, stated that the administration applauds the efforts of the farm bill, but does not agree upon the proposed SNAP cuts.
"SNAP helps families put food on the table, while also benefitting farm and rural economies," Vilsack said. "These issues need to be resolved so Congress can achieve passage of a final Food, Farm and Jobs Bill without delay."
Denham said that both the House and Senate versions are about "creating efficiencies" in the food assistance programs.
Supporters of the bill are hoping to pass legislation by the summer before it expires in September.
For information regarding the 2013 farm bill visit, www.ag.senate.gov/issues/farm-bill