The Central Valley is one of the country’s most productive agricultural hubs, so it was only fitting that five members the House Agriculture Committee made their way to Modesto this past Saturday to hear input on the next Farm Bill from farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders in the state’s agricultural and food programs.
Over 250 people attended the listening session, which included a panel with Chairman Michael Conaway (R-Texas), Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), just five of the 46 members which make up the committee.
“What a wonderful exercise in democracy this morning,” said Conaway. “This is the opportunity for members of Congress to actually listen to constituents. We hear them, we agree or disagree, but we certainly listen and hear a lot of really terrific information.”
The listening session was just one of several around the country, which have already taken place in Minnesota, Texas and Florida.
Denham took a moment before the session began to thank his fellow committee members for traveling this time to his 10th congressional district in California, specifically, to the Modesto Junior College ACE Ag Pavilion.
“There’s no better way to understand our industry and our community than by coming here,” said Denham. “Not only are we in the middle of California’s Central Valley, where they grow just about everything, but you’re at MJC and Modesto Junior College is like no other.”
Over the course of two hours, speakers were allowed two minutes to make their pleas to the committee of what they would like to see included in the 2018 Farm Bill. The current Farm Bill expires next year, and has $489 billion in spending, with the largest part being the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Advocates for the program made it clear Saturday that they would like to see funding for SNAP expanded, rather than cut, in the upcoming bill. Steve Summers, who lost his job during the Great Recession and was able to survive thanks to SNAP, shared his story with the committee members.
“I know from personal experience that SNAP is vital and is one of the most important Federal programs to fight hunger,” he said. “It helps us make healthy choices when eating, because they serve a lot of junk food in the shelters.”
Conaway later thanked Summers and others who shared their stories about personal experiences with SNAP.
“Particularly poignant were the individuals who shared with us the impact SNAP has had on their personal lives. Think about sharing that. That’s not easily done,” said Conaway. “It puts a face on an important program that I think is going to be helpful as we consider what we’re going to do with SNAP and the reforms that are necessary.”
Frank Coelho, a third-generation dairy farmer from Modesto, asked the committee members to ensure that pasteurization rules and enforced in organic dairy farms throughout the country, ensuring their integrity regardless of their ownership.
“All organic dairies must be held equally to the same standard of rules, regardless of certifiers, State or privately-owned,” said Coelho. “Those certifiers and inspectors must be held accountable to enforce the rules.”
Alicia Rockwell of Blue Diamond Growers called for an increased investment in the Market Access Program in order to offset lost trade momentum, calling it a “critical tool in maintaining export markets.”
Representatives from meat industries like poultry, pork and beef addressed the vitality of including programs to stop animal diseases, and also called on the committee to create a vaccine bank in order to combat outbreaks.
“We are here to advocate for a new program that focuses on animal pest and disease prevention,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.
Following the listening session, Conaway said that a very common thread at all of the sessions so far is that almost everyone “wants more money.”
How the committee prioritizes who gets what, he said, is a difficult decision.
“We base it on as wise a decision that we can make. It will not be easy,” said Conaway. “We have a set amount of available money we can deal with, and we’ll sit down together as a team and hammer out how we parcel that out.”
Conaway hopes that the House Ag Committee can finish the Farm Bill this year, with the bill reaching the U.S. House floor for a vote in early 2018.
Full video and audio of the listening session can be found at https://agriculture.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=4009, and those who were unable to attend the session, speak at the session or would like to add to their statement can submit a written comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.