Farm and ranch leaders representing California Farm Bureau Federation visited the nation's capital last week, discussing with elected leaders and agency officials top issues important to the organization, including support for critical agriculture programs in light of a tight federal budget and the need for immigration reform legislation.
Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger, a Modesto walnut and almond farmer, said it became immediately clear in meetings with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and congressional representatives that cuts to the federal budget will mean less continued funding for certain agricultural programs and will affect the development of the 2012 Farm Bill.
"The federal budget is the driver right now in Washington, D.C., and our budget message was very clear: We understand the need for spending cuts, but when deciding where to make those cuts, we shouldn't gut programs that are highly effective and critical to agriculture, such as pest and disease exclusion," Wenger said.
He said Farm Bureau members also focused on immigration and plans to introduce a mandatory electronic verification program to determine an employee's eligibility for employment, known as E-Verify.
In congressional visits, the CFBF delegation voiced strong concern that the House Judiciary Committee is considering immigration enforcement legislation without the development of an effective guestworker program. Dirk Giannini, a vegetable grower and president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, expressed concern with pending legislation that would make mandatory the voluntary E-Verify program. That, coupled with an ineffective H-2A guestworker program that doesn't work for California, would result in serious problems, he said.
"Immigration reform is in a serious crisis right now in Arizona and California, with a tight labor force and others that cannot legally migrate to California to work," Giannini said. "In each meeting I participated in, I was able to convey that we've got to come up with a program to secure workers and if we do nothing or if just come out of here with E-Verify, we're going to fail."
Farm Bureau meetings with U.S. Reps. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, and Elton Gallegly, R-Solvang—both members of the House Judiciary Committee and key players in the E-Verify debate—and with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., centered on immigration reform.
Regarding prioritizing necessary agricultural programs in light of cuts to the federal budget, Farm Bureau leaders spoke of the need to preserve federal funds that will protect California farmers from invasive and exotic pests and diseases that affect both crops and livestock. During a meeting with the Farm Bureau group, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Administrator Gregory Parham acknowledged that agencies within USDA, including APHIS, have a tough job ahead when it comes to prioritizing funding.
"Our work is definitely cut out for us. We can't do more with less all of the time," said Parham, who said he is in the process of realigning resources. "But the reality is that pest and disease exclusion is a priority for USDA, and California is our first line of defense."
During the APHIS meeting, Farm Bureau Second Vice President Jamie Johansson, an olive oil producer in Oroville, told Parham that "budget crises are everywhere and certainly in California."
"The point we emphasized is that California is the first line of defense for pest protection, so whatever we can do to maintain the presence at the border and international visitors, that is the critical message to get across," Johansson said. "The governor's budget calls for cuts in the California Department of Food and Agriculture budget of $15 million this year and an additional $15 million next year. These cuts put more importance on federal funding for APHIS programs."
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, in a recent interview with Ag Alert®, called the budget cuts to agriculture "significant."
"The cuts mostly hit three agencies the hardest at USDA: NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), ARS (Agricultural Research Service) and APHIS," Merrigan said. "There were some significant cuts and there are more significant cuts on the horizon."
She said the department will "have to tighten the belt and just forego some of the things that we know we want to do, that we need to do. We may just have to put it off for a few years until we get things under control."
Other issues the Farm Bureau group emphasized included implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, reform of the federal estate tax and support for pending free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"I agree with Farm Bureau on the importance of world trade, but on behalf of the cut-flower industry, we'd just like a little bit of verbiage that acknowledges that the fair trade agreement with Colombia does affect us because they are our direct competitor," said Todd Ingham, a flower grower from Ventura County.
Farm Bureau members also met with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on key crop protection measures, including the development of regulations to address endangered species and the Clean Water Act.
Placer County Farm Bureau director Christine Turner, a retired county agricultural commissioner, emphasized the importance of representing farmers and ranchers before government officials in Washington.
"In telling California's agricultural story to congressional representatives and others, I realized that our voice does matter and we can make a difference by being engaged in our political process," Turner said. "Although the political process is slow and cumbersome and often difficult to work through, it can work. But it requires everyone to participate in creating workable solutions. The bottom-line message I came away with is: get involved!"
Source: Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation