Central Valley farmers look to set some federal priorities

The Associated Press
Wednesday November 15, 2000

FRESNO — A handful of Central Valley farmers filed into a meeting hall Tuesday to tell state and federal agricultural officials what the nation’s farming priorities should be. 

The California Department of Food and Agriculture hosted the public meeting to hear what the state’s farmers want included in the next federal farm law. The current law is set to expire in 2002. 

The law establishes the nation’s agricultural regulations, including federal subsidies, buyout programs, loan assistance and import and export rules. 

To prepare for the next round of Congressional negotiations that will lead to the 2002 law, CDFA officials are holding nine public meetings across the state over the next four months to gauge the public’s mood on a variety of agricultural issues. 

“These meetings will help California to play a pivotal role in developing this important federal legislation,” CDFA Secretary Bill Lyons told the crowd of about 50 farmers and farm group representatives who gathered Tuesday morning at the Fresno County fairground auditorium. 

The last version of the law was signed in 1996 and was designed to phase out government support programs and ease U.S. farmers into world markets. A sharp decline in commodity prices followed in 1998. 

The price decline led Congress to approve billions in special farm assistance for three years in a row. As a result, direct government payments to farmers are expected to exceed $23 billion this year, three times the 1996 level. Farmers at the Fresno meeting focused the bulk of their comments on animal and plant health problems, farmland conservation, international and domestic markets, agricultural research, farm loan and crop insurance programs. 

“Under the last farm bill, we went into a period of globalization and free trade and what we’ve seen is a tremendous downturn in the agricultural economy,” said Joaquin Contente, a dairyman from Hanford. 

Many farmers at the meeting complained that prices for everything from alfalfa to dairy products to citrus has dropped to the lowest levels they can remember. 

The next farm law should somehow address the subsidies foreign governments pay to their farmers and should prepare the country for the next round of World Trade Organization negotiations, said Shirley Batchman, a spokeswoman for California Citrus Mutual, a growers’ group. 

Also, Congress should fully fund the nation’s pest detection and exclusion program, Batchman said. 

“(The USDA) has gotten away from what their original intent was – the protection of domestic U.S. agriculture,” she said. 

California’s agricultural officials announced at the meeting that they have joined forces with their counterparts in New Mexico, Florida, Arizona and Texas. Each state is holding similar public meetings and will establish a list of priorities the coalition, dubbed NFACT, has agreed should be included in the 2002 farm law. 

The five states hold 27 percent of Congressional representatives and account for 26 percent of total U.S. agricultural output. 

“The idea was to find areas of common interest and present them to Congress,” said CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle.