Future of Farming

As California contends with compounding crises, what’s at stake in farm bill negotiations

Photo of mostly dry irrigation ditch with sunlit dimming and fog in the distance
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An irrigation ditch carries a light flow of water along agricultural fields amid drought conditions on June 21, 2022 near Fillmore, California.

California officials are pushing to expand the financial protections available to farmers in the upcoming federal farm bill as the state’s massive agricultural industry contends with drought, wildfires and other weather extremes.

“The farm bill is a safety net,” Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said at a State Senate Committee on Agriculture hearing earlier this month.   

“But I think it’s really important that we also look at the farm bill as an opportunity for growth and an opportunity to improve the health of our citizens, the health of our agricultural economy and the health of our rural communities,” she added.

Ross was addressing participants in a special committee session focused on the 2023 reauthorization of the federal farm bill and its potential impact on California. Even though the Golden State is the country’s biggest food producer and exporter, it tends to benefit less from the farm bill than states that largely cultivate staple commodities. Those staples include corn, soybeans, wheat and rice. 

“California has 12 or 13 percent of U.S. agriculture and gets 2 or 3 percent of that money,” Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis, said at the hearing. 

“It’s not that people don’t like Californians — maybe they don’t — but that’s not the main reason,” he continued. “It’s what we grow. Because the programs went back to the 1930s, it’s the bulk commodity programs that are especially supported.”

Typically renewed every five years, the farm bill governs a variety of food and agricultural programs, with an emphasis on nutrition assistance and staple commodities. The $867 billion 2018 bill included 12 so-called “titles” that focused on distinct elements of farm-related policy.

Legislators from each state and side of the aisle have diverse interests when negotiating the farm bill, which has historically been a largely bipartisan effort. But in a state as big as California, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all perspective from agriculture stakeholders. 

California’s $51.1 billion agricultural industry is responsible for 50 percent of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, as well as 20 percent of the nation’s milk, according to a letter drafted by Ross and the heads of other relevant state agencies. 

Last month, the officials sent the 12-page document, which outlines California’s farm bill interests, to the chairs and ranking members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forest and the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture. 

Chief among the recommendations is “robust funding for food and nutrition programs.” The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, for example, provides more than 5 million Californians with food benefits, the letter explained. 

Food assistance programs, which receive the lion’s share of farm bill funding, have been part of the legislation since its creation during the New Deal era. California officials implored legislators to maintain that “to address the ‘hunger cliff’” that millions face.

Ross and her colleagues also emphasized the need for risk maintenance and access to a “safety net” for California’s farmers and ranchers. 

Their livelihoods “are disproportionately subject to unpredictable factors beyond their control,” the letter argued, citing drought, wildfires, floods and market instability. 

California’s ongoing drought is expected to cost the state’s agricultural economy $3.4 billion and has affected more than 34,000 jobs, according to the letter. Meanwhile, drought combined with long-term groundwater deficiencies have resulted in 752,000 acres of fallowed farmland. 

The legislation would ideally serve “the largest number of farmers possible with an emphasis on support for small and mid-size farmers and ranchers,” Steve Lyle, a spokesperson for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told The Hill in a statement.

With such support, the spokesperson explained, farmers could “succeed in growing food and crops for their neighbors, their fellow citizens, and consumers around the globe.” 

“It is easy to see that the impacts of the legislation are not just limited to farmers and ranchers, but to entire communities that we live in,” Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau, said at the hearing.

As farmers face rising costs, wildfires, trade disputes and supply chain dysfunction, ensuring that they have the means to generate safe and affordable food is critical, according to Johansson, whose organization represents more than 20,000 members across 53 counties.

“This farm bill should prioritize development of a new crop insurance tools for uncovered producers as well as improvements to existing tools in a practical affordable way, regardless of commodity or farm size,” Johansson said.

In the 2018 version of the farm bill, only farms that met certain size requirements were eligible for benefits like agriculture risk coverage and price loss coverage.

As far as commodities are concerned, fewer than a quarter of California’s crops are covered by existing insurance programs, according to Johansson. Crop insurance via past farm bills has been available for certain commodities, generally traditional ones; however, California’s crops are more diversified.

When contending with crises, California’s farmers have largely “had to rely on significantly delayed ad hoc federal funding,” he explained. 

“Many family businesses simply cannot afford to wait so long, and increasing crop insurance for our commodities will go a long way in alleviating these long financial delays,” Johansson added.

In addition to advocating for such a safety net, the letter from Ross and her colleagues called for both “robust climate smart agriculture” and on-farm efficiency incentives. They also stressed the need to recruit a new generation of farmers, noting that 40 percent of California farmland is expected to change hands in the next 15 years. 

Other recommendations centered on facilitating trade, bolstering plant and animal health, investing in research, promoting organic agriculture, supporting rural areas and maintaining forest integrity amid rampant wildfires. 

Although priorities may vary among agriculture sector stakeholders — with everyone having “a special interest” — Sumner recognized a few ways that the Golden State “is a bit unique.” 

“Trade is absolutely crucial, and not just exports, imports too, and they go together,” he said at the hearing. “It really has to be a two-way street.”

Subsidies on domestic bulk commodities, governed by the farm bill, actually may be hurting California’s crop export potential, due to resentment from competing countries due to what they see as market distortion. 

“Among the biggest trade disputes over the last decades has been countries like the United States that operate domestic farm programs that either subsidize exports or block imports, or subsidize production so much, it increases U.S. exports,” Sumner told The Hill in a follow-up interview. 

California, meanwhile, is a major exporter of fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, but it has been difficult for the state’s products to get into certain markets due to critical views of America’s “unfair trade practices,” according to Sumner.

“It makes it tougher to negotiate or open freer trade,” he added.

Yet while most crops grown in Iowa are subsidized, only a small fraction of those cultivated in California fall into this category, Sumner added.

Sumner told members of the Agriculture Committee that investment in agricultural research and development is key. He recognized the payoff is about 10 to 20 years into the future, making this a more difficult sell.

“It’s really asking a lot for governments to invest in science,” he told The Hill.

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