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California Farmers Say Relief is Needed to Save Family Farms

June 09, 2005 By Daisy Nguyen, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES Edwin Camp has spent most of his life working on the family farm, tending potatoes, carrots and grapes in California's fertile Central Valley -- famously known as "America's salad bowl."

But in recent years, he has logged less time in the fields and more days politicking against what he calls stringent labor and environmental laws threatening family farms.

More and more California farmers like Camp are lobbying for relief from economic pressures, including taxes and fuel costs, they say are forcing many to downsize or quit farming altogether.

"We're just getting hammered," said Camp, 49, manager of D.M. Camp & Sons farm, near Bakersfield. "We need to get involved with people we're not traditionally involved with."

California is losing about 1,000 farms a year, according to a 2003 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, the latest figures available.

In 1950, the state had 144,000 farms. Two years ago, the number had dropped to about 78,000, with more than 95 percent operated by families, the agency said.

Farmers say the decline has hurt national farm production. In June 2004, the United States imported more food than it exported, marking the first year since 1986 in which agricultural trade showed a monthly deficit, the USDA said.

"We've reached a breaking point where you have a lot of families going out of business and leaving the state and more farmland is taken out of production," said George Gomes, administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation, which launched its "Protecting California Family Farms" campaign last month.

Farmers are pushing for tax breaks and other incentives on a number of issues, including estate taxes, workers' compensation rates and water and fuel costs.

During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., a group of farmers met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to press for relief from the federal estate tax.

Howard Gantman, Feinstein's spokesman, said the senator has been "exploring ways in which there could be additional relief provided to help ensure that family farms are not jeopardized because of the estate tax."

When his grandfather died 10 years ago, Grant Chaffin's family inherited 3,000 acres of alfalfa, cotton and wheat in southeastern California. At the time, tax laws required anyone inheriting property worth $600,000 or more to pay 55 percent of the value in estate tax, he said.

"We had to take a 30-year mortgage on some of the land in order to pay our estate tax obligation," said Chaffin, 38. "It further tightens the very small margin we have in this business to make a profit."

Chaffin's farm in the Coachella Valley is five miles from the California-Arizona border. The location is a constant reminder of the difference that regulations can make.

"They're growing the same products across the (Colorado) river in Arizona," Chaffin said. "They pay lower fuel, material, health insurance and workers compensation insurance costs. And yet we compete against each other for the same consumer."

Source: Associated Press





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