Congressmen hold ag roundtable discussion in Salinas

Reps. Jimmy Panetta, Collin Peterson and Jim Costa of the House Agriculture Committee hold session in Salinas to hear concerns from the ag industry to incorporate into the 2018 Farm Bill

Growers, farm workers, food bank representatives, anti-hunger and nutritional experts came to Hartnell College on Aug. 10 to voice their concerns to three Democrat members of the House Agriculture Committee during a roundtable session. In doing so, they were hoping that some of what they had to say might be reflected in the pending 2018 Farm Bill that is facing deep cuts to the fiscal 2018 budget to the USDA of more than $228 million over a decade, according to Politico Morning Agriculture.

Congressmen Jimmy Panetta (Calif. 20th District), Collin Peterson (Minn. 7th District) and Jim Costa (Calif. 16th District) and other members of the House Committee on Agricultural have been holding similar roundtable listening sessions across the country. The provisions in the current Farm Bill are due to expire September 30, 2018.

Jim Bogart, president and general counsel for the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, acting as moderator for the session, told the audience the Congressional leaders where there primarily to listen and encouraged them to voice their concerns. First, he introduced Panetta, who he said he had worked with his father, Leon Panetta. Bogart said Jimmy Panetta was picking up where retired Congressman Sam Farr, who was in the audience, had left off as an advocate of Central Coast agriculture, also as a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

“This is a session for us not to talk,” Panetta told the audience. “It’s a session for us to listen to you and gather evidence. This is a great opportunity for me as your congressman to show off what we have here that I call the ‘salad bowl of the world.’ It’s an absolute honor to be on the Ag Committee. My father was on the committee. Sam Farr was on it, and it was my first choice when it came to committee assignments.”

Panetta told the audience that the session was their opportunity to assure the Central Coast would be represented in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“We’ve got to make sure we take care of our farmers, shippers, farm workers, the anti-hunger group, consumers, and organics to conventional (crops),” he said. “It’s great we can be that bridge from here to Washington to provide that information.”

In his opening comments, Costa said the Ag Committee is attempting to put the 2018 Farm Bill on a fast track, but its success remains to be determined. He said most Americans overlook the importance of agriculture.

“With less than 3 percent of our nation’s population, we produce the most important agriculture commodities anywhere in the world, at the highest nutritional value and the most cost-effective basis on American dinner tables every night,” he said. “Food is also a national security issue and that is often taken for granted. The majority of Americans think their food comes from the grocery store. They may buy it there, but it comes from here, the salad bowl of the United States. And the men and women who work so hard to make that a reality is each and every one of you.”

Peterson is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, having been a member since 1990, and the 2018 Farm Bill will be the sixth that he will be a part of authorizing. He told the audience that even though Republican members of the committee had met in Modesto the day before, it was scheduling conflicts that prevented him from being there. He assured everyone that the process of gathering evidence would be on a bipartisan basis.

“We want to get this done sooner than later,” he said of the process. “It’s going to be a challenge. We’ve got money issues and we need more resources. Cotton got screwed up because of the Brazil situation (millions in subsidies have been paid to Brazil). We need to fix the dairy program. I’m sure we’ll hear here today about needing money for research and market access.”

Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics in Watsonville, was the first to step up to one of the microphones to tell his story of starting out with one and a half acres just five years ago to where he now farms organics on more than 100 acres and employs 30 workers. He said he can now feed thousands of people thanks to certain programs that he hopes will continue. He said university researchers come to his farm to study food safety. He told the congressmen there remains a critical need for more food safety research, as well as addressing labor shortages.

“I’m not here to ask for money and I appreciate you coming down to visit this group because it’s a rare opportunity to speak out and be heard,” he said. “I enjoy growing food for thousands of people. I enjoy paying my employees really well so they stay with us. I enjoy when UC Extension does research on my farm and Hartnell students come and learn how to grow things.”

Lorri Koster, CEO/Chairman of Mann Packing Co., which has more than 1,000 employees, serves on a number of boards and advisory committees. She addressed some priorities of the specialty crop industry, saying the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, a nationwide coalition of grower-shippers, is unified to advocate for a common objectives that span commodities. The alliance of grower-shippers, she noted, will share the objectives on Capitol Hill soon, but she wanted to highlight some of them for the listening session.

“SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) will have reached four million low income elementary school-aged children nationwide this coming school year,” she said. “This program should be continued. I know some have advocated for all forms of fruits and vegetables to be included, but I encourage you to keep it fresh. There is a difference between biting into a fresh apple and eating applesauce.”

Koster also said there is no challenge to agriculture greater than finding adequate labor to harvest and process specialty crops.

“Americans will not do these jobs, which means we must rely on foreign-born labor,” she said. “It is a constant struggle trying to find workers. Our nation’s dysfunctional immigration policies make the struggle even harder. As leaders of Congress we encourage you to help us find a solution.”

After several people spoke about their desires for funding to continue for nutrition, conservation and research programs, Vivian Soffa, executive director of the USDA Monterey County Farm Service Agency, had high praise for what she described as one of the more successful programs in the Farm Bill, the Conservation Reserve Program. She said Monterey County has approximately 5,000 acres of environmentally-sensitive crop land that has been set aside, for which the landowner receives a “modest rental payment,” as the land is converted to wildlife habitat.

“I believe that because the national program is capped at 24 million acres, a lot of our acres are coming out of expiration and are not being renewed,” she said. “It’s happening in San Luis Obispo County to the tune of 10,000 acres. I hope the cap on that acreage will be increased in the next Farm Bill. A really good example we have is one contract coming out where over the years they’ve developed a very unique Tule Elk herd, and that contract will not qualify for the next sign-up. We’re going to lose that habitat for those animals.”

Phil Foster, owner of Phil Foster Ranch, grows 300 acres of mixed organic vegetables near San Juan Bautista. He employs 65 people, 85 percent of whom are full-time, year-round workers. He said 80 percent of what he grows is sold within 100 miles of his farm. He asked the congressmen to consider support of the National Organic Program and local organic research.

“A number of years ago, Sam Farr was instrumental in getting the first organic research USDA station in Salinas,” he said. “We’ve really benefited from research on our farm and incorporated a lot of that research in our farming techniques.”

Foster said there needs to be more attention to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to attract new people into agriculture because “a lot of us are getting a little long in the tooth.” He also hoped for immigration reform.

“We have a number of employees that work in agriculture that we need to transition to legal status because they are so valuable to our production,” he said.

Panetta concluded the session by telling the audience that it was the second such meeting he has attended, the first being in Florida.

“I can tell you there are different issues brought up there than here,” he said. “Most of it was about peanuts and cotton. This is very important that you took the time to come here to have your voices heard.”


John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]