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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on February 7th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 49 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 49

Affiliates of the local ag industry talk Farm Bill with Rep. Salud Carbajal in Santa Maria

By KASEY BUBNASH

Farmers, ranchers, and growers on the Central Coast all seem to want one thing from the federal government: support for specialty crops.

Dozens of locals affiliated with California’s agricultural industry attended a listening session on Feb. 1 at the Santa Maria Fairpark, where Reps. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) and Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) listened to what Central Coast residents hope to see prioritized in the 2018 Farm Bill. While attendees brought up numerous obstacles faced by the Central Coast’s agricultural industry, nearly every speaker mentioned the importance of specialty crop research, insurance, and labor.


ALL EARS
Dozens of farmers, ranchers, and growers attended a listening session on Feb. 1 at the Santa Maria Fairpark, where Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), left, and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Detroit Lakes), right, listened to what locals hope to see prioritized in the 2018 Farm Bill.
PHOTO BY KASEY BUBNASH

“Many of the crops grown on the Central Coast are classified as specialty crops, including vegetables, fruits, and wine grapes,” Anna Negranti, president of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau, said at the event. “These are usually high dollar, high labor crops that are vital components of a nutritious diet and deserve federal support for production and inclusion in food aid programs.”

The Farm Bill, which acts as the federal government’s primary agricultural policy-making tool, is updated by Congress every five years, according to Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Fisher, who also spoke at the event. The listening session, Fisher said, was an opportunity for farmers, ranchers, and growers to advocate for local agricultural needs.

Congressman Peterson, who serves as ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, told attendees that their comments would be taken back to committee members for consideration. Peterson said he and other committee members hope to have this year’s Farm Bill off the floor by March and done on time.

“There are probably about 40 of us in Congress that actually have significant agriculture in our districts,” Peterson said. “And like all over the country, very few people get agriculture. Most people have no clue what you guys do. They’re easily manipulated and influenced by outside forces. So it’s a challenge.”

Attendees touched on the many unique issues faced by area farmers today, including drought, wildfires and mudslides, the farmworker shortage, poor water quality, and increasingly stringent state and local regulations.

Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, suggested the farm bill include expanded support for rural drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Water quality and groundwater sustainability are major issues on the Central Coast, and Wineman said federal assistance would be tremendously helpful.

The farmworker shortage should also be addressed, Wineman said at the event. Members of the Grower-Shipper Association recently reported $13.1 million in losses due to the labor shortage, she said.

“We’ve discussed that there are issues with the current federal H-2A guest worker program and the ability of that to reflect the dynamic needs of our local agriculture,” Wineman said. “One of the major limitations here, especially on the Central Coast, is the availability and cost of housing that is required by the current H-2A program.”

Wineman asked that the guest worker program be amended to reflect the cost of housing, construction, and land in California, and that existing restrictions be removed to allow further funding for housing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Many attendees echoed those sentiments. Ivor Van Wingerden, a local farmer, noted that because specialty crop farms in California produce year-round, farmworkers are needed constantly. The labor program should accommodate for that need, he said.

Several other locals said the Farm Bill should further support global trade through increased funding for the Department of Agriculture’s Market Access and Foreign Market Development programs. Many said the federal government’s disaster relief and insurance programs for damaged crops and livestock could be improved, and one speaker expressed concerns about potential ramifications of legalized recreational marijuana in the area.

Almost every speaker said that they hoped to see more funding go toward specialty crop research and the Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative, a program aimed at addressing the industry’s needs by awarding grants to support research in sustaining all components of food and agriculture.

A few representatives of Cal Poly, including faculty member Jim Prince, attended the listening session and advocated for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and block grants, which have allowed Cal Poly students and faculty to help local farmers through research in plant breeding, genomics, and genetics.

Local growers seemed to agree.

“It’s really important for our region to be seeing specialty crop research grants coming to the universities on the West Coast that are focused on this style of genetic work,” Marshall Miller, a Santa Maria Valley grape grower, said at the event.

California’s years of drought have put extreme pressure on grape and other specialty crop growers to develop increasingly drought and saline tolerant plants, Miller later told the Sun in a phone interview, and that type of work needs plant and technology research.

The listening session was a nice opportunity for California farmers, Miller said, who have historically felt ignored by the federal government because most of their crops differ from what’s grown in the rest of the nation. Although Miller said he wasn’t sure how much of what was said at the event would truly be considered in the 2018 Farm Bill, he was glad his colleagues had the chance to speak.

“I think California farmers know what is realistic and possible,” Miller said, “and we want to convey that we want our voices heard and that we want to be factored into how Congress views agriculture in general.” 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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