BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Buttonwillow farmer Mike Young doesn't receive direct subsidies for his almonds, and he's not on food stamps. But that doesn't stop him from taking a keen interest in this year's federal farm bill.
That's because he, like most or all local growers, have a lot to gain from the bill. Versions of the legislation passed by the U.S. Senate and the House Committee on Agriculture would provide millions of dollars for local pest control, crop research and overseas marketing help.
"There's a clear benefit," he said.
There's also little doubt that some form of the bill will eventually become law. The real question is when -- and that worries Kern's agricultural community.
Election-year politics appear to be holding up the bill's passage. Amid a debate over spending cuts, House Speaker John Boehner announced Thursday that there will not be a floor vote on the matter before the existing law expires Sept. 30.
Any delay could impact wide swaths of the local ag community. But some would be hit harder than others, and the worst could fall to local dairies struggling with high feed prices and ranchers dealing with dry pastures.
Changes need to be made to a federal profit margin insurance program used by Kern's large dairies, otherwise their existing coverage won't last far into the new year, said Rob Vandenheuvel, general manager of the Milk Producers Council, which represents dairies across the state.
"The dairy industry cannot afford for this thing (the farm bill) to delay this year," he said.
Farmer Young is not so anxious. He checks in regularly with the office of Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy to find out the status of the farm bills. To him, though, it's more important that the right bill become law.
McCarthy, the House Whip and one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, has staked out a position somewhere in the middle.
In an interview Thursday, he said he would prefer to see a bill pass before the Sept. 30 expiration. He said anything short of that signals failure on the part of Congress and forces uncertainty on local farmers. McCarthy said he and other members of Congress shared such concerns with Boehner.
On the other hand, McCarthy said, delaying passage of a bill until next year might not be so bad. Taking up the debate in early 2013 would allow incoming members of Congress to weigh in.
He also noted that Kern is less dependent on the farm bill's bounty than it was in years past, when county farmers produced more cotton and wheat than they do now.
"The most important thing is, you want to make sure the bill is right, especially since it only comes up every five years," McCarthy said. He added that the House did pass a separate bill that would extend certain provisions relating to drought relief, which would help ranchers in designated disaster areas but not those in Kern. The Senate has not taken up that legislation, and many farming interests call it insufficient.
The farm bill is one of Washington's more complex pieces of periodic legislation. Typically renewed with bipartisan support every five years, it provides financial assistance to farmers of "program crops" such as wheat, corn, cotton and rice. Historically it has also funded food stamps and land conservation and helped farmers obtain crop insurance.
The Senate passed a $500 billion version of the bill in June. Not long afterward, the House Ag Committee approved a version with bipartisan support.
Committee member Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Congress is obliged to pass a bill fast. Failure to do so could endanger the availability of crop insurance, without which some farmers may not be able to get the loans they need to operate, he said.
"We're supposed to do our job," he said. "In 2008 we did our job. We're supposed to do our job here."
Members of the local ag community, without getting into the politics of the debate in Washington, said the farm bill plays an important role in various aspects of their operations.
"There are many crops grown in Kern County that benefit from the farm bill in different ways," said Melissa Poole, regulatory affairs manager for Paramount Farming Co.
The executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, Ben McFarland, said the pest detection and eradication that typically comes with the farm bill is "huge for our guys." Marketing assistance is also a big benefit for producers of specialty crops such as nuts and grapes, he said.
Kern's reliance on the bill is even stronger now that the state budget is in such distress, said Ken Barbic, a Bakersfield native who works as senior director for federal government affairs for the Western Growers Association, a trade association for fruit and vegetable growers in California and Arizona.
Certain programs funded by the existing farm bill law will continue beyond this month's expiration, Barbic said. But others might not, and he said the resulting uncertainty is a concern.
Given the ongoing debate in Washington, local farmers have been asking for farm bill updates almost daily at the local office of the Farm Service Agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the agency's county executive director, Garrett Pedretti.
Continuing delays to the farm bill will only lead to more calls and more questions, he said.
"The farmers are trying to budget how much they're going to be getting from us in terms of support," he said, "and right now, we can't tell them."