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Column: California getting short changed at USDA

California’s farm income totals more than $27 billion: Montana’s agricultural income is $1.8 billion. There are four California counties with more gross income than that.

Outgoing California Department of Food and Agriculture secretary Bill Lyons pointed out several inequities in a bit of a parting shot at USDA and the Bush administration as a casualty of California’s first recall of a governor.

Lyons made his remarks during a session at Western Growers Association’s annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he participated in a panel detailing the new Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act of 2003, federal legislation recently introduced into Congress that would provide about $650 annually to bolster specialty crops in a ride array of programs ranging from promotion to added research.

Lyons is a staunch champion of California specialty crops, leading a coalition of Sun Belt states that Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona California that wrangled almost $170 million from Congress to help specialty crop agriculture in those five states. The new specialty crop competitiveness legislation builds on what Lyons and his peers in those states accomplished.

California’s cabinet level agriculture secretary makes no bones about being disappointed in how USDA and Congress treats the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation.

He cites funding for the 2002 USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) as another example of how he believes USDA is shortchanging California.

California’s environmental laws are the toughest in the nation. It has the largest urban population in the nation. Its agricultural production is double that of Texas and six times that of Colorado, yet California’s farmers and ranchers received less EQIP money for these perennial ag-urban issues than either Colorado or Texas.

California received a little more than $10 million in EQIP money last year, yet Texas received $21 million and Colorado 10.6 million.

California is the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation, yet it ranks 12th in subsidies paid to farmers. California farmers received almost $600 million in subsidies in 2001. By comparison, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota and Illinois received more than $1 billion annually in farmer subsidies. Arkansas, Missouri, Georgian, Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota farmers all received more than California producers.

California out-produced the bottom 24 states in the nation yet those 24 states combined received almost $3 billion in annual subsidies.

According to statistics compiled by Lyons, if California’s No. 1 ranked county, Tulare, was a state, it would rank 22nd in the U.S. in agricultural production. Tulare outranks 29 states, including North Dakota, which received more than 20 times more in subsidies.

Monterey County out-produced nine states combined, but those states received more than 12 more in 2001 subsidies.

Are California and other states looking for subsidies for specialty crops? No. Fruit, vegetable and tree nut producers know where that leads, and want no part of it. However, the economic plight of the specialty crop producers is no different than the commodity grower. Everyone is struggling right now, and Lyons said USDA should be funding much more specialty crop research, enhancing export loan programs for fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, helping promote increased consumption of special crops and doing other things for these growers.

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