Two of the non-traditional planks of the federal farm bill — greatly expanded conservation funding and the first ever specialty crops programs — netted praise for the House Agriculture Committee in a rare appearance in California.

Collin Peterson, D-Min., Committee chair, brought his congressional panel to the heart of California agriculture, Fresno, to get input from farmers and ranchers on the 2012 farm bill. Fresno County is the No. 1 agricultural county in the nation with $5.6 billion in income from more than 250 crops.

Although helpful, the traditional farm programs have not played well in California. The No. 1 agricultural state in the nation ranks ninth among 50 states in subsidies from 1995 through 2009, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Only about 10 percent of California’s farmers get direct subsidies.

Fruit, vegetable and nut producers account for about half of the $36 billion value of the state’s agricultural economy and get almost no direct support.

California agriculture is also the most regulated in the nation with strict air and water quality regulations. The federal $150 million Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) has helped farmers like Caruthers, Calif., almond grower Tony Campos meet air quality standards to stay in business. Campos has utilized part of the $37 million in EQIP funds California has receive to replace farm and processing equipment.

EQIP funding was used to purchase 340 low emission replacement tractors and processing equipment.

“This program has been one of the most successful in reducing PM 10 and PM 2.5,” noted Campos, who requested that funding in the 2012 farm bill increase to $400 million.

“There is a great demand for replacement of the older Tier 0 engines in both farm and processing equipment,” Campos told the congressmen at the hearing in Fresno City Council chambers. Many growers are small and cannot afford to replace these engines without EQIP assistance.

Praise for federal support to meet state air and water quality regulations drew measured criticism from Frank Lucas, ranking minor member of Oklahoma, who questioned why federal funds should be used to help meet state regulations.

Most of California’s regulations are in place to meet federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Five Points, Calif., farmer John Diener also responded that the farm bill is designed to protect the nation’s food supply and California produces 40 percent of that. Unless farmers meet the water and air quality standards, they cannot continue to produce that food.

Fresh produce from California, a critical part of the food pyramid, is shipped to the nation daily, Diener reminded the Congressmen.

Although the last farm bill ventured into new areas, Diener suggested the next farm bill should cast an even bigger net in support of American agriculture.

“’We must embrace the American farmer’s ability to be innovative and forward thinking by including broader definitions for programs that include our expanding technologies,” said the second-generation San Joaquin Valley farmer.

Diener is involved in a wide array of innovations to cut costs, use less water, mitigate a growing land drainage issue and generate energy. This includes a new co-op multi-resource project to create energy from sugar beets at a beet plant that closed a year and a half ago; a perched, saline water clean up project using desalination technology that also produces marketable minerals; conservation tillage to reduce fuel costs and using an old technology new to California, center pivots, to mitigate dwindling water supplies and increasing irrigation labor costs.

Rice is one of the few California crops receiving direct crop support payments. Live Oak, Calif., rice grower Frank Rehermann, a California Rice Commission member, told the committee “the current farm bill is working and that reforms adopted in 2008 are having a tremendous effect.”

Although farm program spending on rice has been reduced from $1.2 billion to just over $400 million annually, farmers receive a “small, but predictable” level of ongoing support and have the “benefit of a greater safety net when market prices fall.”

The Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) and the Supplemental Revenue Assurance (SURE) programs were part of the last farm bill. They were created as an alternative to the counter cyclical payments and as a standing disaster assistance supplement to federal crop insurance.

However, Rehermann said “These programs do not work for rice as evidenced by the nearly non-existent sign-ups for these programs.” The other California farmer panelists indicated to the committee that they do not use these programs. He added the federal crop Insurance program does not work for rice growers. Most others who spoke said the crop insurance programs do not fit California agriculture well.

Rehermann asked the committee for help in opening up Cuba to trade with the U.S. Cuba, he said, is a potential 400,000 to 600,000-ton market for U.S. rice. On another trade front, Rehermann said the WTO DOHA round is making matters worse for rice producers. “Enshrining in our trade agreements decisive advantages for our trading partners … may be marketed as trade liberalization in Washington and Geneva, but we see it as picking winners and losers in the global economy based on politics.” He cited specifically trade deals with China, India and Brazil.

The specialty crop funding in the current farm bill brought praise from Jamie Strachan, president of Growers Express, an eight-grower marketing organization that ships out 15 million cartons of produce annually from a ground base of 50,000 acres.

Based in Salinas, Calif., Growers Express also grows produce in Arizona, Mexico, Oregon, Michigan and Ohio.

While Growers Express benefits from most of the programs contained in the farm bill, Strachan cited four for extra credit:

• The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program

• The Department of Defense Fresh Program

• The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program

• The Specialty Crop Research Initiative

Strachan supports them not only because they increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, but they help develop good eating habits to overcome childhood obesity, among other benefits.

“The specialty crop policies and programs contained in the 2008 farm bill generated broad industry support and have helped enhance the competitiveness of our industry, as well as address specialty crop needs,” he concluded.

Modesto, Calif., tree fruit and tree nut grower Paul Van Konynenburg, echoed Strachan praise of the specialty crop programs and wants to see them expanded in the 2010 farm bill.

The snack program is particularly effective with long storage and long season crops like apples and table grapes and for school districts with efficient logistics and distribution infrastructure.

However, many districts do not have efficient infrastructures and Van Konynenburg would like to see the program expanded to smaller districts who cannot handle large volumes of fresh product by including items like fruit snack cups and boxes of raisins.

The diversified Modesto grower, whose family has been growing fruit and nut crops for more than 100 years, has a long list of improvements he would like to include in the 2012 farm bill.

One was agricultural labor reform. Improvement in the H2-A guest worker program and passage of the AgJOBs bill would help, he said.

Ag labor is not about pay, he noted, since many of the jobs pay well above minimum wage. “The work is physically demanding and seasonal. It is next to impossible to find American workers who are capable and willing to do the work.”

With meaningful labor reform, Van Konynenburg said the nation’s fresh fruit industry will be forced offshore where labor is available.

Although not under the umbrella of the farm bill and USDA, several growers asked for help from the committee in California’s water crisis and the “use and abuse” of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

David Roberts, Visalia, Calif., citrus grower and board chairman of California Citrus Mutual, recommended that the next farm bill include mandated participation from USDA and landowners in the biological opinions of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Without adequate input, without transparency and without balanced direction, but with a bias, these services are robbing farmers like me of our crop protection tools, our water, our land and ultimately our ability to farm in an economically viable manner,” he said.

Availability of water to irrigate is often entangled in ESA and the water issue was repeatedly brought up in the hearing, even though the committee has little to do with the issue.

The California water crisis is threatening the existence of the state’s No. 1 industry, according to U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes.

Unless the crisis is resolved politically, “there may be no one left in agriculture in California in 10 or 20 years,” said the young congressman from the Tulare area.

Nunes has been one of the most vocal critics of the federal and state water policies and their impact on water deliveries to farmers.

“There is a 100 percent water supply behind dams and only a 40 percent water supply to farms,” he said.

email: hcline@farmpress.com