San Joaquin Valley farmers' wish list is long

FRESNO -- 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 tour collecting opinions from farmers on what the new bill should contain. It will spell out five years of funding for programs that include nutrition, farm support and conservation.

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 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," he 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 milk prices have put many California dairymen in a financial tailspin for at least 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.

Paul Van Konynenburg, who grows fruits and nuts near Modesto, said the legislation should build on the parts of the 2008 farm bill that promoted these healthy foods for schoolchildren and other consumers.

Many schools cannot handle large amounts of fresh produce, he said, so the programs should include products such as "peach snack cups or a box of raisins."

Van Konynenburg urged support for research that reduces labor needs in orchards, such as a mechanical peach thinner being tested by the University of California Cooperative Extension.

He asked the committee to support efforts on food safety, exports, pest and disease prevention, and research.

"Tree fruits and nuts are vital to the good health of the American diet," he said. "The next farm bill should support foods which the nation's medical community believes will enhance health and help fight disease."

Also gaining attention during the hearing was immigration reform, which usually is not part of the farm bill.

"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.

Van Konynenburg agreed, saying farmers have tried to attract a legal work force, but many legal residents don't want to do the physically demanding jobs.

"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," he said.

Congressman 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.

Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.