June 19--California is the nation's No. 1 farm state, producing more than 400 crops on 81,500 farms with 800,000 farmworkers. One fourth of the land statewide is used for food or fiber production.
So the nation's five-year food and agriculture bill, known as the "farm bill," matters a lot to California.
And it is in deep trouble. The 2008-12 farm bill expires Sept. 30. While the Senate expects to vote on a bill this week, the summer to-do list released by the House does not include the farm bill.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told the National Journal that if the House fails to pass a bill, the nation reverts to the 1949 base law, "like going back to the Stone Ages."
Getting a bill passed is urgent.
The Obama administration set a target for cuts of $33 billion over 10 years. The Democrat-led majority in the Senate is considering cuts of $23.6 billion, within the realm of negotiation with the White House and reasonable House Republicans.
But the House has been extreme, with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposing cuts of $170 billion over 10 years. That just is not serious.
The farm bill should provide a food safety net, particularly during economic downturns, so that Americans don't go hungry.
It should provide a farm safety net, to minimize the volatility of the weather, pests and world prices.
It should provide a land safety net, to minimize the effects of floods, drought and erosion.
The Senate bill would meet those aims and is the best bet for a new farm bill.
S. 3240 would reauthorize the food stamp program -- the bulk of the bill -- as a program that responds to economic downturns. California, a state hard hit by unemployment, certainly has seen the value of food stamps in keeping households out of poverty -- 8 million Californians are eligible. Republicans would make food stamps a block grant, a big backward step, hindering states from weathering economic busts.
In a major policy change that Californians should support, the Senate bill ends direct payments to farmers -- traditional farm subsidies -- in favor of crop insurance. About 9 percent of California producers benefit from direct payments, but a lot use crop insurance.
The Senate should consider amendments setting income limits, subsidy caps and requirements to conserve lands.
California makes good use of conservation programs, with record numbers participating and many on waiting lists. The Senate would combine programs. For example, the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program and the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative would merge into a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program -- giving California flexibility and leveraging private investment.
But there's no getting around some cuts to programs that benefit California -- such as the working lands program and easement programs.
California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables and has been at the forefront in urging the nation to prioritize these so-called "specialty" crops. The Senate bill extends key fruit and vegetable programs that California won in 2008, a big plus.
Senators should get the farm bill done this week, so Americans can put a full-court press on the House before the August recess. This bill should be on President Obama's desk before the old bill expires in September.
(c)2012 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)
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