House committee hears California farm bill priorities

Issue Date: August 9, 2017
By Christine Souza
Members of the House Agriculture Committee hold a listening session on the 2018 Farm Bill at Modesto Junior College.
Photo/Christine Souza

Doing more with less in the 2018 Farm Bill is a challenge for members of Congress, who are holding listening sessions around the country about federal farm policy.

Passed about every five years, the farm bill is an omnibus, multi-year piece of authorizing legislation that governs an array of agricultural and food programs.

About 250 people attended a listening session in Modesto Saturday, led by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas. He was joined by fellow committee members, Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock; Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale; David Valadao, R-Hanford; and Dwight Evans, D-Pa. California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger moderated the session.

The representatives heard from dozens of people, including farmers and ranchers, spokespeople for agricultural associations, food bank leaders and others at the event held at Modesto Junior College.

Mariposa County cattle rancher and CFBF second vice president Tony Toso cited farm bill programs critical for California, such as crop insurance, commodity programs, research and development, and disaster programs. Toso noted that his ranch suffered damage in the Detwiler Fire, losing 660 acres of grassland.

"The ability to help our communities fight through those problems is going to be critical," he said. "We need those programs that help us to manage and mitigate these damages."

Specialty crop grower Ron Ratto of Modesto said farmers need help in responding to shortages of employees, such as investment in research for increased automation and mechanization. Ratto also supported programs for "food safety research, pest and disease issues and biological controls of pests, and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) featuring fresh fruit and vegetables."

Nutritional programs, which represent about 80 percent of farm bill funding, were a key topic for many.

Shanti Prasad of the Alameda County Community Food Bank said SNAP is designed to help people when they need it most.

"No one in this country should go hungry," Prasad said. "SNAP is the most efficient and effective anti-hunger program in America."

Many specialty crop growers expressed interest in nutrition programs, as well as in research and grant funding.

Nelia Alamo of Renaissance Food Group, a vegetable processor in Rancho Cordova, said the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance supports efforts to fight exotic pests and diseases, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, specialty-crop research, grant funding, and market access and trade programs.

Alicia Rockwell of Blue Diamond Growers called the Market Access Program "a critical tool in maintaining export markets," and called for increased investment to offset lost trade momentum.

Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner Milton O'Haire emphasized the continued need for maintaining an early warning system for combating invasive insects.

"The outcome (of deploying traps) is significant cost savings with the biological pest and disease management provisions of the farm bill. I urge Congress to continue to adequately support these programs," O'Haire said.

Modesto-area nursery owner John Duarte, who has been involved in a lengthy dispute with federal agencies about wetlands policy, told the committee "a major priority of this farm bill absolutely needs to be to clarify protections of right to farm from regulatory overreach."

Several farmers urged continuation of conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a cost-sharing program that helps growers comply with regulations.

Cotton grower Gary Martin of Fresno said programs such as EQIP "have become integral parts of many producers' operations and achieve the goal of protecting and improving the environment."

Regarding dairy policy, Steve DeBrum of Dairy Farmers of America said, "Improving the Margin Protection Program and restoring MPP to the original proposal is vital for dairy farmers to have a viable and dependable safety net, which dairymen currently do not have." He called for correcting key elements of the program, saying it "needs to be a program that will work when margins are significantly low."

California Poultry Federation President Bill Mattos expressed support for "a new program that focuses on animal pest and disease prevention."

Larry Salinas of California State University, Fresno, requested support for development of new and innovative technologies to help U.S. agriculture remain competitive and economically viable.

California FFA State President Luke O'Leary encouraged the members of Congress to "consider those students who are beginning to join colleges and careers."

Speaking to reporters after the session, Conaway noted, "Not many of the presenters asked for less money," and said the committee will work "to address all of these issues and take scarce resources and apply them to the best of our ability and knowledge for the most number of people in this country."

Conaway said written comments about the 2018 Farm Bill may be submitted to

A roundtable session on the farm bill with House Democrats is set for Thursday, Aug. 10, at 9:30 a.m. at Hartnell Community College in Salinas.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.