California's stake in farm bill debate
Richard E. Rominger, Tom Nassif
January 24, 2007 SF Chronicle
California farmers do more than just feed the
world. They hold the key to maintaining the
That's why all Californians have a huge stake in
the debate already taking place on farms and in
our nation's capitol about the next federal farm
Farmers own nearly 28 million acres in California.
Their stewardship, more than the actions of any
other group, will determine whether our children
will have clean air to breathe, plentiful, clean
water to drink, and whether many of the state's
more than 200 imperiled species will return from
the brink of extinction.
Most farmers want to be good stewards. But they
need help, because the price we pay for food
doesn't cover what we want them to do for the
The market doesn't consider the value a farmer
provides when he leaves a stream bank intact as
habitat for native plants and wildlife; when he
replaces an old almond harvester that still does
the job, with a new one that produces less
pollution; or when she puts water back in her rice
field after harvest to provide a safe stopover for
migrating snow geese. Indeed, the biggest market
failure of all is that farmland is more valuable
for development than agriculture, pressuring
farmers to sell -- forever foreclosing the
possibility of good land stewardship and its
environmental benefits, and compromising the
nation's ability to feed ourselves.
That's where the farm bill's conservation
provisions come in. They correct the market's
inability to recognize environmental stewardship
and farmland preservation as valuable to all
The farm bill passed in 2002 introduced a number
of voluntary incentive programs that help farmers
implement environmentally beneficial practices.
These programs are a good start, but they aren't
More than two-thirds of California farmers who
apply for these programs cannot participate simply
because there isn't enough funding available. At
the same time, some programs need changes to make
them work better for Californians, encourage
innovation and more effectively help farmers meet
environmental challenges sooner.
As Congress prepares the 2007 farm bill, it has a
chance to fix it; but only if California's 53
members get engaged and stick together. The
California congressional delegation needs to
ensure that the 2007 farm bill does at least three
First, money for the conservation, air quality and
water quality programs needs to increase to fill
unmet demand. For the next farm bill, California's
delegation should work to double the amount of
money being provided for conservation on working
farms and ranches.
Second, the conservation programs need to reflect
the differ ences among states and regions.
California farmland is expensive and subject to
development pressure. Crop values are the nation's
highest, because among the 300 crops we grow are
most of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables.
The programs need to pay higher rates for higher
cost areas to offset the cost of buying and
renting land in parts of California suffering from
increasing urban sprawl.
Third, farm bill conservation programs must
encourage innovative practices and cooperation
among farmers to address air and water pollution
challenges, and keep the most fertile farmland
from developers, so it can continue to produce
food and environmental benefits for society. For
example, dairy farmers are working together to
capture the methane emitted from manure to produce
energy and reduce emissions of a potent global
warming gas. There must also be more money
available to provide technical assistance to
ensure real results from these innovations.
The two major agriculture bills introduced in
Congress -- "The Eat Healthy for America Act"
(introduced by California congressmen), and "The
Healthy Farms, Foods and Fuel Act," would bring
more benefits to Californians through
conservation, nutrition, energy and research
policies. Both have bipartisan support; both have
proposals for more conservation program funding.
Unfortunately, fewer than half of California's 53
members of Congress have signed on in support of
either of these bills.
The 2007 farm bill debate will soon heat up. We
need our state's congressional delegation to work
for all of California next year. Signing on as
co-sponsors of these bills when they're
re-introduced early this year would be a strong
Richard E. Rominger is a farmer in Yolo County and
served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture during the Clinton administration
and secretary of the California Department of Food
and Agriculture. Tom Nassif is president of the
Western Growers Association and served as the U.S.
ambassador to Morocco during the Reagan