It’s more than two years late, but California farmers say they’re relieved the House of Representatives has finally passed a compromise farm bill, one that is expected to clear the Senate in the next few days.
The $100 billion-a-year bill includes some key provisions sought by state farmers.
California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger says he’s pleased that one amendment didn’t make it into the bill. It would have allowed chicken ranchers in other states to sell eggs here without following California's voter-approved, animal welfare rules. The rules require that chickens be able to open their wings fully, and stand up, lie down, or move around freely.
"It's important that if producers in California are going to be held to this standard, any other egg sold in California have to meet that standard," Wenger said. "Otherwise our local egg production would go out of business because they would not be able to compete with imported eggs."
Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis, says this may not be the end of the pressure against California’s egg law. Given that it dictates certain aspects of how farmers in other states can produce eggs for sale here, the law may still face constitutional challenges on commerce clause grounds.
“But it certainly helps California egg producers not to have that in the farm bill,” he says.
One of the changes that has happened over the last decade or so and that continues with this year’s farm bill is the shift from subsidies to crop insurance.
The bill also creates a new insurance program that will benefit dairies in the state, Sumner says. Soaring feed prices have driven the closure of more than 400 California dairies over the last few years.
Sumner says the program “gives industry some security that they can literally take to the bank. In other words, when they’re getting a production loan, they can go to banker and say, ‘My downside’s covered by this insurance provision.’ That will help them keep their operations financed.”
An effort failed to amend the farm bill to get extra water to farmers who may have to fallow land because of the drought. That’s not surprising, Sumner says, given that it was a last-minute effort to change a compromise that got nailed down in December. And it would have been a controversial amendment, diverting water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for farms, and stalling restoration of the San Joaquin river.
“The developments in the California drought really, in a sense, happened too late for this farm bill,” Sumner says. “So to add one more provision that was very complicated was going to be a tough one. As you can imagine there would have been lots of people on either side of that.”
Nonetheless, he says, the drought is actually a much bigger concern for California farmers than farm subsidies. Most farm bill subsidies were designed for agriculture in the South and Midwest, he says, and California fruit, vegetable and tree nut farmers have largely rejected subsidies.
“The California fruit and vegetable and tree nut industry has probably prospered more without all the subsidies and the rules that go with them,” Sumner says, “than have the industries with the government programs. That may seem counterintuitive somehow, but as usual, it’s not just free money, and the fruit and vegetable folks knew that."