Valley farmers air concerns to House panel

Help for struggling dairies, incentives for reducing air pollution and support for a legal farm work force are among the items on California agriculture’s wish list for the 2012 Farm Bill.

Nearly a dozen farmers testified to members of the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing Monday at the Fresno City Council Chambers.

Several members of the committee, including Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, are on a nationwide tour collecting opinions from farmers on what the new farm bill should contain. The multibillion-dollar bill provides funding for programs that include child nutrition, farm support and conservation.

Farmers who help the state provide a large share of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables heard May 3 that their requests for help paying for government mandates, such as reducing air emissions, face challenges from some committee members.

Fresno County almond grower Tony Campos wants to nearly triple the $150 million budget for a program that helps farmers pay for new tractors and other agriculture equipment to meet California’s stringent air quality rules.

But Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said that may be a tough sell as the committee deals with potentially less money.

“We can’t drive public policy on what one state does,” Conaway said. “We are going to have to make some tough choices.”

Issues that transcend California were received more favorably, including the crisis in the dairy industry and the need for a legal work force.

Jamie Bledsoe, a Riverdale dairy operator and president of Western United Dairymen, detailed how high production costs and low dairy prices have put many California dairymen in a financial tailspin for at least the last 18 months.

Bledsoe urged the committee members to create a farm safety net program that looks not just at low milk prices, but also the high costs of grain, forage and energy.

Also gaining attention during the May 3 hearing was a non-traditional farm bill issue — the call for immigration reform.

“For at least the last 12 years, a significant majority of workers who plant, harvest and tend specialty crops and livestock lack proper immigration status,” said Jon Reelhorn, a Fresno nursery plant producer.

Modesto tree fruit farmer Paul Van Konynenburg agreed, saying farmers have tried in vain to attract a legal work force. But many legal residents don’t want to do the physically demanding job. “The reality is that we have a group of people who want to work, so let’s come together to create a program that works for everyone.”

Costa said he supports efforts such as the AgJOBS bill, which would create a path to legal residency for more than 1 million illegal farmworkers.