For most of the 83,000 farmers in California, discussions in Congress about the farm bill and its renewal every five years are just so much political chatter. The chatter has been louder and longer this year because more opposition has arisen to some of the bill’s provisions.
Serious doubts have been expressed about its passage, threatening to leave some aspects of the nation’s agricultural industry in limbo.
Strong opposition has been raised to some of its welfare provisions. Though it seems to defy logic, the SNAP or food stamp program is part of the farm bill. For that program to continue to provide benefits to millions of recipients depends on the farm bill’s renewal.
For farmers, the heart of the farm bill is subsidies. Those federal payments extend to those who grow certain crops that have been judged by tradition to require payments from the government to offset foreign competition or other economic pressures. Primary purpose of the payments is to keep American farmers viable as they produce crops that are essential to the nation’s welfare, especially its economy.
The subsidies are provided for growers of a limited number of crops. A notable example is sugar, produced primarily from beets in this country, but from sugar cane as well as beets in offshore locations. Traditionally the foreign production can be imported at prices below the cost at which farmers in America can produce it.
A bare minimum of crops grown in California are subsidized, or the subject of government payments. One of the major ones has been cotton, 14th in value of the more than 350 crops grown commercially in the state.
When cotton first began to be produced in California on a large scale 85 years ago the economic scene was very volatile, and the feds determined that payments to those willing to grow such a vital crop should be rewarded with government payments.
As cotton growers gained stability and size of acreage the stimulation of government payments became less necessary, until direct payments to California’s 600 to 700 cotton growers were terminated in the current farm bill.
The growers of grain crops and rice receive payments and/or assistance at various levels and under specific conditions from the federal government.
The significant agricultural industry in California that is tied to the apron strings of the federal government is dairy. The price of milk and milk products is under the control of both the federal and state governments. Many dairymen believe these controls are not responsive enough to economic realities, and some believe they have outlived their usefulness altogether.
While direct payments to dairymen are not part of the equation, the price for dairy products, from whey and cheese to fresh milk, are controlled by government programs and formulas.
The programs began innocently enough from a desire to assure that health-giving fresh milk be available, especially to children and their families, everywhere at affordable prices. The programs also aspire to maintain competitive pricing between milk producers in other states.
While the government programs for the dairy industry are administered with advice and involvement of producers and distributors of dairy products they are widely criticized by industry members for their inflexibility and their rigidity.
So the farm bill touches, mostly obliquely, the growers in California of only a few commodities. For the growers of more than 350 other profitable crops the wrangle by politicians over the farm bill every five years is about as exciting as yesterday’s newspaper or broadcasts.
Across the Midwest yesterday’s news about the farm bill occupies farmers’ conversations today, and their bank accounts tomorrow. The reality, stability and enormity of California agriculture never quite reaches them — or their congressmen.
More from Western Farm Press