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‘Fruits and Nuts Caucus’ flexes its muscles in D.C.

The phrase “the land of fruits and nuts” has long been used to deride California. But a group in Washington informally known as the Fruits and Nuts Caucus is beginning to throw its weight around.

Officially known as the Specialty Foods Caucus, the group has managed to craft many of their most sought-after goals into the latest five-year agriculture bill put forth by the Bush administration. That bill would cut into the large subsidies that traditionally have gone to wheat and corn growers while adding money for crop research and sustainable agriculture.

The goal is not to grab big checks for California farmers, said Troy Phillips, senior legislative assistant to Caucus member Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas. Instead, the caucus wants to change the entire focus of federal agriculture policy to improved research and conservation.

“No one is asking for a check for growing spinach,” Phillips said.
The term “specialty crops” may not be familiar to many people. It generally refers to fruits, vegetables and nuts–better known to most Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods-shopping Californians as food.

In fact, many say the very term “specialty crops” says a lot about farm policy. Phillips notes that current farm policy began in 1938, in the later stages of the New Deal, with price supports designed to help out the struggling farmers. The main recipients of these supports were growers of the so-called “program crops,” such wheat, corn, cotton, rice and soybeans.

And so it stayed for a long, long time. California has by far the largest agricultural economy in the country–nearly $32 billion in 2004. Nine of the top 10 revenue-producing agriculture counties in the country are in California, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. If Fresno County alone were it’s own state, it would rank 29th among U.S. states in the value of it’s agricultural output. For many specialty crops, California grows 90 percent or more of the U.S. supply, said California Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura.

But traditionally, hardly any federal farm-subsidy money has gone to California–about 3 percent in 2005, a mere fraction of California’s share of the agriculture market. To the extent that California farmers have gotten anything, it was for growing crops not traditionally associated with the state. Over half this amount went to cotton growers, while much of the rest went to corn and rice.

“Specialty crops have long been a huge part of the farming economy, but weren’t getting a lot of attention,” Kawamura said.

It has long been noted that farm policy exists in a political universe where geography is more important that party politics–and the Fruits and Nuts Caucus is a great example. It was founded around five years ago by one of the more fiercely partisan congressmen in California’s delegation, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, the scion of an old San Joaquin Valley farming family.

Yet the group Pombo founded quickly grew into one of the most bipartisan and multiregional caucuses imaginable, with 27 Democrats and 23 Republicans representing 21 states. Thirteen of these members are from California. A disproportionate number of these are moderate Central Valley Democrats, including the Caucus chairman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, who took over when Pombo was defeated by Democrat Jerry McNerney in November.

No other state boasts more than four members; the traditional breadbasket states of the Midwest have only six members in the caucus. Phillips said the caucus has grown by linking, as members recruiting each other from diverse places as Florida, New York and Texas–all of whom, it turned out, stood to gain from changes in federal policy.

In recent years, specialty crops have become food staples around the country; USDA Secretary Mike Johanns noted recently that the annual market value of these crops equaled and then surpassed that of the program crops within the last few years. Johanns traveled the country last year having “listening sessions” with farmers and other interests on how federal policy should change.

This included four stops in California: Sacramento, Los Angles, Fresno and Monterey. During yet another stop in the state earlier this month, Johanns promised that California fruit and vegetable growers would see “a presence in farm policy that you have never seen before.”

These trips show the increasing clout of California agriculture, Kawamura said. This was already demonstrated by the 2004 Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act. Under this bill, the federal government appropriated $7 million in grants to states last year for research and promotion for specialty crops.

But the big fish is the new five-year agriculture bill, which still must work it’s way through the House and Senate. It includes $1.6 billion renewable energy for and $7.8 billion for conservation programs. It also has money for research on making food more pest resistant and to avoid a repeat of the E. coli scare that hit California produce recently.

Kawamura also noted that any new spending has to come with reductions elsewhere; the latest five-year bill is for $87 billion, down sharply from the $105 billion in the 1998-2002 farm bill. The ultimate goal is to scale back subsidies while improving the efficiency of agriculture. The goal is to create a “zero waste” system, Kawamura said, with farming waste turned into fuels.

In the meantime, caucus members are hoping that a shift in priorities will result in people consuming more veggies and fewer fast food hamburgers and corn syrup laden soft drinks–helping California farmers while reducing obesity.
“If everyone ate what California produces, we would all be a lot healthier,” Phillips said.

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at
malcolm.maclachlan@capitolweekly.net


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