Central Coast ranchers, growers, educators and agricultural advocates told the House Agriculture Committee’s ranking member what they want and need in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill at a stop on his listening tour Thursday in Santa Maria.
Sponsored by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, the event brought Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, to the Santa Maria Fairpark, where about 55 agriculturists from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties explained the issues that impact their operations and how they can be addressed in the next farm bill.
Of the nearly 20 people who spoke, many focused on adequate funding for research, particularly for specialty crops and mechanization, as well as crop insurance, drought relief, land management, farmworker housing and foreign competition.
The audience also included Santa Barbara County 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino, Guadalupe Mayor John Lizalde and Jefferson Litten, chief of staff for 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann.
Peterson comes from an area that’s also heavily dependent on agriculture, and while some of the issues faced in his area are the same as those here, others are not.
His stop in Santa Maria was designed to give him some insight into the obstacles faced by Central Coast farmers, Carbajal said.
“I was in the Salinas Valley six months ago,” Peterson said following the event. “But today, I heard three or four things I hadn’t heard before.”
The most senior member of the committee, having served on it since 1991, Peterson said he’ll take issues raised at this and other listening tour stops around the country back to Washington, D.C.
Carbajal said Peterson will add what was said at the listening session to the official record on the farm bill so the committee members will be aware of the local concerns.
The farm bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that establishes policies and creates programs affecting farm, food, fiber, forestry and rural issues under the jointly written by the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
Traditionally, the primary focus of the bill is on support for farm commodities and supplemental nutrition programs. In recent years, the bills have expanded to address conservation, crop insurance, farm credit, renewable energy, rural development, horticulture, agricultural research and forestry.
The current farm bill will expire in September.
Members of both the House and Senate committees have said little about what will be in the 2018 bill, and those who hoped to hear some of that Thursday were likely disappointed.
“This is mostly just to listen,” Peterson said of the meeting.
Several of those who spoke brought up the importance of specialty product research grants and help in dealing with drought, increasing salinity, crop losses and land management problems.
Grape grower Marshall Miller said vineyards need more drought-resistant and saline-tolerant root stock, which research could provide.
“As I look forward 30, 40, 50 years, I can only see greater pressure on grapes,” Miller said.
Jim Prince, associate dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at Cal Poly, urged Peterson to see that the specialty crop research program as well as specialty crop research grants are reauthorized.
He also asked for support of a proposed new agriculture infrastructure improvement program.
“Agriculture schools have $8 billion in deferred maintenance alone,” Prince said, adding that new facilities are also needed.
Water, drought, wildfire and their relationship to land management were on many speakers’ minds.
“Water supply is our lifeblood here,” George Adam said. “The forests and the way they are managed has really hurt us here.”
Adam said land management has been subject to “a lot of personal agendas” that led to the Montecito mudslides and runoff that caused silting in the Santa Maria Riverbed, reducing water percolation rates.
“The bottom line is we need to do something as far as vegetation management,” he said. “We could double our water supply and reduce salt … if we fund research.”
Lisa Bodrogi, a land use consultant, had similar concerns.
“Recently, we’ve seen a catastrophic event in land management,” she said, referring to the mudslides, adding that managing drought, air quality and land should be integrated.
Robert Acquistapace said he lost a fair amount of his ranch in the Alamo fire, but seven months has passed and he still hasn’t seen any funds from USDA Farm Service Agency’s Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.
“In three weeks, I’m going to sell my herd,” he said. “I hope to get money for hay from the drought and fire.
Some also brought up how foreign produce undercuts the prices of California growers, but it’s difficult to sell American products in other countries.
Ivor Van Wingerden, whose family grows cut flowers, greenhouse vegetables and avocados in Carpinteria and Nipomo, said the government should require cut flowers to list their country of origin on labels.
Ken Melvin, who said he represents California avocado growers, said top producing Florida accounts for 10 percent and California accounts for 9 percent.
“Production is not down, but demand is up — about 10 percent a year,” he said, adding money is needed to help producers gain access to foreign markets.
“It’s important … to make sure the California avocado brand is out there globally,” he said.
Brian Talley, whose family grows vegetables and winegrapes near Arroyo Grande, emphasized the importance of crop insurance.
“I learned there is some opposition to crop insurance in Congress,” Talley said. “It’s a very important part of the safety net for farmers.
Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, told Peterson the Endangered Species Act has had a major impact on growers, farmworker housing and even an airport, noting 180,000 acres have been designated critical habitat for the tiger salamander.
“There are more (endangered) species listed in this county than any other county in the United States,” Caldwell said.
Peterson expressed doubt that much could be done about that.
“It’s very hard to change endangered species,” he said, noting the legislation has changed from its original intent. “It’s gotten off the rails.”
Peterson didn’t promise anything regarding issues brought up by local growers.
“One of the problems is we don’t have any extra money to do this bill,” he explained, although he said nothing would be cut. “If I had my way, there’d be more money.”