Calif. farmers hope for a financial harvest from farm bill |

Calif. farmers hope for a financial harvest from farm bill

FOWLER, Calif. (AP) – Third-generation farmer Bill Chandler has coaxed ripe fruit from a dusty maze of trees here since he was a child, but he’s finding developers’ offers to buy the land for housing increasingly appealing as he nears retirement.

Chandler, 66, says laws that govern how he nourishes and harvests his crops have made farming a hassle. He’d nevertheless like to live through a few more harvests, and some $1.6 billion added into this year’s farm bill that benefit California farmers _ who grow over half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables _ may help keep his sunbaked plot in production, he said.

“I figured by the time the trees filled out we’d pull them out and plant houses,” said Chandler, standing next to a canal that channels water from Sierra Nevada rivers to his orchards. “This’ll stop the bleeding a little bit.”

Members of the state’s congressional delegation organized a last-minute huddle in the House Agriculture Committee this week to make sure the Golden State got a piece of the federal funds. The latest draft now includes money to market specialty crops abroad and stave off sprawl in rural areas, concerns Chandler faces daily.

Though the new rash of payments pale compared to the $40 billion in direct subsidies the bill includes for corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice growers, they mark one of the biggest shifts in farm policy since the Great Depression, analysts said.

“California, really for the first time, has been treated with the respect and fairness that it deserves based on the volume of production that we have in the state,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Merced Democrat who helped broker the deal. “It’s a huge win.”

Telephone calls from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also helped convince committee chair Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, that the bill should be restructured to keep the nation’s most productive farm state competitive, said Cardoza, a committee member.

California is first in dozens of fruits, nuts and vegetables _ including grapes, almonds, raisins and carrots _ but the bulk of its $17 billion-a-year specialty crop industry doesn’t qualify for the federal subsidy payments corn and soybean producers get.

With land values soaring across the state, many farmers in the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley have opted to sell their land to real estate developers. Between June 2002 and June 2004 alone, 18,800 acres of orchards and fields were plowed under and seeded with subdivisions and shopping malls, according to state figures.

Cardoza, whose constituents include some of the country’s largest farming operations, threatened California Democrats would block an earlier version of the farm bill and would join forces with other farm policy reformers unless the Agriculture Committee gave over more money for specialty crops.

After a late-night session with Peterson, Cardoza said he got a total of $1.6 billion specifically for specialty crops written into the bill. The legislation is expected to be approved by the committee this week and to reach the House floor later this month.

Instead of receiving direct payments like commodity farmers, fruit and vegetable growers would get indirect supports through marketing programs, block grants and research funding.

As written, over the next five years the farm bill would hand out $365 million to promote and research specialty crops, $350 million to buy fruits and vegetables for public schools and about $110 million to create or expand farmers’ markets. It also includes $150 million to help farmers meet air quality requirements and $50 million for organic farming, Cardoza said.

The produce aisle got a higher profile in this year’s package in part thanks to a blossoming alliance between environmentalists and groups like Western Growers, which represents 3,000 fruit and vegetable farmers, all of whom oppose traditional subsidies.

“There have been times when you’ve kind of had to wonder what on earth am I doing in bed with these people,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that advocates for farm policy reform. “Together we’ve made progress, but it’s not really a fair share yet.”

San Joaquin Valley farmers also found an ally in organic yogurt czar Gary Hirshberg, a major supporter of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama. Based in New Hampshire, Hirshberg advocated for a $300 million program to preserve farmland now written into the bill thanks in part to the California delegation’s efforts.

Last month, he topped eight million of his Stonyfield Farm yogurt containers with lids warning consumers that in the time it took them to finish their yogurt, 10 acres of cropland would be eaten up by development.

“The yogurt lids generated lots of interest in the idea that farm policy is something that matters to people in San Francisco and New York and Florida,” said Tim Male, a senior ecologist with Environmental Defense. “This isn’t just about farms, it’s about food quality and wildlife habitat and preserving open space, too.”

The new programs hit even closer to home for Chandler. He hopes the new measures will help his sons see what inspired his grandfather in 1889, when he left Illinois to start the family farm in the valley flatlands.

“The developers come out and offer me prices if I were to sell today,” Chandler said. “But I look at the land and think we have some of the best soil, weather and water in the country. For now at least, I’ll keep farming.”

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