Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has a reputation as a good listener, and he had plenty to decipher recently when he hosted his first California farm bill forum in the agricultural heart of the Golden State agriculture, Fresno County, the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation with more than $4 billion in annual agricultural income.

A parade of people representing everything from firefighters to rice growers to FFA and 4-H members sweltered in an unairconditioned exhibit building at the fairgrounds in Fresno, Calif. on the 21st day of a record San Joaquin Valley heat wave to offer two minutes apiece of what they want to see in the 2007 Farm Bill.

The most persistent message Johanns heard was that specialty crop growers want a piece of the federal farm bill pie when the new 2007 Farm Bill is written, not in the form of direct subsidy payments but in the form of help in overcoming trade barriers, in export market promotion, specialty crop research and development and phytosanitary issues.

Only about 10 percent of California's $30 billion per year agriculture industry economic juggernaut comes from federal program crop support payments, primarily in rice and cotton production. That did not surprise Johanns who was well indoctrinated on non-programmed specialty crops among the 350 commercial crops grown in California on his one-day farm visit to the state hosted by A.G. Kawamura secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Mike Chrisman, California's Secretary for Resources; three congressmen from heavily agricultural districts and a host of others representing tree and vine and vegetable crops. Kawamura and Chrisman both farm specialty crops in Southern California and in Tulare County, Calif. Two of the three congressmen, Jim Costa of Fresno and George P. Radanovich of Mariposa farm wine grapes and almonds. Tulare County, Calif., Congressman Devin Nunes represents not only the No. 2 agricultural county in the nation, but also the largest dairy county in the nation. His county also includes a majority of those 350 specialty crops.

‘Cannot be ignored’

“Cannot be ignored,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit league.

In California, specialty crops represent an estimated 92 percent of the state's agricultural crop production value and about the same percentage of the agricultural workforce, according to Bedwell.

Nationally, specialty crops represent about 50 percent of the nation's farm income, according to Tom Nasiff, president of Western Growers. The Irvine, Calif.-based trade group has been the driving forces behind getting more federal funds for tree, vine and vegetable growers.

Western Growers led the effort to win passage last year of the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act, which provides federal funds to help market specialty crops nationwide and internationally. Western Growers organized specialty crop producers nationwide to successfully lobby passage of the bill.

Johanns acknowledged that the last farm bill offered some help for specialty crop producers, but he indicated specialty crop producers will have more impact this time around. He expects a specialty crop coalition to be at the table for the ‘07 Farm Bill final debate.

Bedwell encouraged funding within the new farm bill to increasing awareness of the benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables and fighting obesity.

“We also need to recognize the importance, from many viewpoints, but particularly that of national security, of the production of a domestic food supply,” added Bedwell.

“We will require a farm bill that will help our competitiveness, strengthen our research efforts, enhance our conservation program and encourage investment and efficiency in all agricultural production sectors,” he concluded.

Although the increasing economic importance of specialty crops has tree, vine and vegetable producers demanding a more prominent place at the federal farm policymaking table, it took on even greater importance when the WTO ruled earlier this year in favor of Brazil's complaint against the U.S. cotton program giving the U.S. an unfair advantage to the detriment of Brazil's cotton exports.

Brazil complained that current U.S. farm policy precluding fruits and vegetable from being planted on commodity crop program ground created an unfair advantage for U.S. cotton in international trade.

If that is removed from U.S. farm policy, special crop producers fear it could have a huge impact on the supply side of their markets. It does not take much more production of crops like lettuce or strawberries to destroy a market.

Artificial barriers

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, echoed other specialty crop representatives and growers when he asked for USDA help in breaking down artificial trade barriers created over perceived pest problems.

Johanns also heard about labor, air quality and water issues impacting California agriculture.

Ivanhoe, Calif., citrus producer Richard Moss said producers “need help in meeting air quality mandates,” and asked the former Nebraska governor who grew up on an Iowa farm that USDA provides research funds to address air quality issues.

Several producers asked for additional Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is a voluntary conservation program for farmers and ranchers that promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible national goals. EQIP offers financial and technical help to assist eligible participants install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land.

Others utilizing the EQIP programmed asked that the application and approval process be streamlined.

Moss also recommended the secretary look into an EQIP program to address air quality improvement like EQIP now does for water and soil conservation.

Immigration reform

Manuel Cunha, president Nisei Farmers League, Fresno expressed frustration at the lack of federal immigration reform, despite the fact that farmers and the United Farmworkers have agreed on reform legislation, but it has not passed into law by Congress.

“If you have no labor, you have no farm bill,” sad Cunha. He said Sam Joaquin Valley agriculture is facing a labor crisis. He said it takes 236,000 seasonal workers to harvest crops in the valley each year and 560,000 in all of California. This is a significant part of the U.S. agriculture labor work force estimated at about 1.6 million.

“Seventy percent of the labor force in the valley is undocumented,” said Cunha.

Commodity crops may have been outnumbered, but leaders in the rice and cotton industries were not timid about telling the secretary that they believe the current farm program is providing a needed safety net for American cotton and rice production.

Fresno County, Calif., cotton producer Don Cameron, who grows a wide array of crops besides cotton, also chastised the secretary for efforts by the Bush administration to change the current farm bill to reduce federal spending.

Do not use budget cuts to rewrite farm policy in the middle of a farm bill term, he suggested.

The current farm program has served commodity crop producers well by allowing a planting flexibility safety net, he said.

California Cotton Growers Association chairman Tom Teixeira of Dos Palos, Calif., said any attempt to lower payment limits would “discriminate” against California where costs are higher and farm sizes larger. He called the current farm bill “workable.”

California Rice Commission chairman Frank Rehermann of Live Oak, Calif., said the next farm bill must have a strong market orientation with farm policy and trade policy tied together.

California rice growers, like most all California commodities, are highly dependent on export markets. Fair trade policies are essential to continued California rice production.

There are no barriers to rice imports into the U.S., but California rice producers constantly struggle with trade barriers to export 40 percent of their crop each season, said Rehermann.

Johanns called the California farm bill forum “excellent — 0ne of the best so far.” It was the sixth forum Johanns has hosted. Kawamura expects him back for a second Farm Bill listening session.

Johanns hopes to have a new farm bill in place in early 2007.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com