But healthy-food activists say their top goal is not met
By Carolyn Lochhead
WASHINGTON — After decades playing the stepchild of U.S. farm policy, California will see billions of dollars in federal aid under the new five-year farm bill that won final congressional passage Tuesday and now goes to President Obama for his signature.
Senators hailed the wide-ranging legislation as a major reform in passing it by a bipartisan 68-32 vote. But although it contains more money for healthy-food efforts in California, the nation’s largest farm producer, Bay Area activists said the bill falls far short of one of their prime goals — shifting government assistance away from industrial agriculture and toward locally grown food that advocates say is better for both people and the landscape.
The bill’s assistance for California is substantial. It provides for a large boost in research and other assistance for the state’s produce growers to combat pests and diseases and improve crop safety.
It gives California farmers more money to control air pollution, improve irrigation and help market fruits, vegetables and nuts, and it boosts the use of fresh produce in school lunch programs. It also provides retroactive aid to ranchers, tree-crop farmers and other growers affected by the drought.
The bill more than doubles, to $11.5 million a year, aid to farmers to meet organic certification rules. And it makes it easier for organic growers to obtain subsidized crop insurance, now the main form of aid to all farmers.
Both of California’s senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted for the bill. The House passed the legislation last week, and Obama has indicated he will sign it.
In a big victory for environmental groups, the bill requires farmers who use crop insurance to follow good stewardship practices on their land, a provision that one of its main backers, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, called critical to protecting wetlands and other fragile areas. Yet overall, the bill cuts $6 billion from land conservation programs.
The farm bill will cost $500 billion over five years, most of which pays for food-stamp benefits. Advocates said the legislation’s foremost reform was doing away with annual cash payments to producers of corn, soybeans and other commodities crops, most of them in the South and Midwest, that the government paid regardless of whether farmers grew any crops.
Such payments have grown to $4.5 billion a year. Although the bill abolishes the direct aid, it adds crop insurance subsidies that are largely directed at the same industrial-scale growers.
“Most subsidies will still go to the same crops in roughly the same amounts,” said Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center in Davis.
State gets its share
California has been the top farm state by revenue since 1948 and grows more than 400 crops, mainly fruits, nuts and vegetables. By a quirk of history, however, Congress largely ignored fresh produce when it established subsidies for corn, wheat, cotton and other storable commodities during the Great Depression. To this day, California growers operate in highly competitive markets without the direct subsidies and price supports that commodity-crop farmers enjoy.
Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, a trade group, said California growers historically have not used crop insurance. But increasingly, he said, they are finding it to be a useful way to shield themselves from the effects of food-borne disease outbreaks that may be centered on one farm but cause an entire market to collapse.
“What people don’t realize is how much money a farmer can lose when he does nothing wrong whatsoever, but maybe somebody else had an outbreak, salmonella or E. coli or something, (and) it affects that entire commodity,” Nassif said. “So we’re looking for crop insurance to help us when the market drops out from under us for reasons that have nothing to do with our horticultural practices.”
Food stamp fight
The farm bill was held up for two years in part by partisan fighting over the food stamp program, which House Republicans wanted to cut sharply. Democrats were largely able to preserve the benefit, but some food activists said the legislation still represented a missed opportunity.
They noted that although the bill gives a big boost to a program that encourages food stamp recipients to buy fresh produce, it also codifies in law their right to use benefits to buy sodas, candy bars and other junk food that is contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Bay Area food activist Michele Simon, who battles the marketing of junk food to children, called the provision “a deliberate swipe” at efforts by states and cities to exclude sweetened beverages and other unhealthy foods from the food stamp program.
The produce incentive program gets a big boost to $100 million a year under the farm bill, providing food stamp recipients more benefits if they buy fresh produce — in some cases doubling their buying power if they do so at a farmers market. Yet the program will require nonprofit groups to step in with matching grants in order to use the money.
Simon said $100 million is a minuscule amount in the context of the $80 billion a year that the federal government spends on food stamps.
“Overall, agricultural policy remains the same,” Simon said. “There is very little to celebrate.”
Scott Faber, a lobbyist for Environmental Working Group, said the bill represented a significant gain in the battle to shift government funding to healthier foods and better land stewardship. However, he added, Congress “continues to provide the lion’s share of funding to the largest, most successful producers of the basic ingredients of processed foods.”
— Reach Carolyn Lochhead at firstname.lastname@example.org