Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and defense secretary under President Barack Obama, used an appearance before the California Farm Bureau to deliver a forceful call for both political parties to work together to bolster agriculture and address the nation’s fiscal problems.

Speaking at the group’s annual meeting this week, Panetta said the nation faces a pivotal moment on a range of issues, from the national debt and climate change to the immigration and environmental challenges facing farmers in California and elsewhere.

Panetta also suggested policymakers were forcing farmers to make do with fewer resources.

“Very frankly, scarcity is not a solution,” Panetta said. “It's an excuse for failing to come up with a policy to deal with it.”

He warned policymakers against taking agriculture for granted.

We can't ignore the threat and you've got to provide adequate water supply, so we've got to build infrastructure for your water supplies. You've got to invest in research, specialty crop research. You've got to expand crop insurance, farm mechanization,” he said.

“We have to preserve family farms, (we have) got to provide adequate labor," he continued. “We have to promote working lands that are in the hands of the producers of agriculture. ... We need clear communication and coordination between federal agencies and state agencies and agricultural producers.”

Panetta, 84, has a long connection to agriculture, having grown up on a walnut farm his father, an Italian immigrant, started along the California coast near Monterey.

Panetta, who still lives on the family farm, served as a Democratic congressman for 16 years before leaving to become then-President Bill Clinton’s budget director in 1993. Panetta later served as chief of staff for Clinton and then founded a public policy institute based in Monterey before returning to government service under Obama.

Panetta’s son, Jimmy, now represents the congressional district that includes the Salinas Valley, one of the state’s most productive agricultural areas outside the Central Valley.

The elder Panetta told Agri-Pulse after his speech to Farm Bureau members that California farmers are victims of Democratic Party dominance of state politics.

“We govern best in this state where we have two strong parties, and that's not the case right now. So, you've got Democrats that emphasize their priorities, and these guys [Farm Bureau members] are getting screwed,” Panetta said.

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He expressed confidence that agriculture in California would flourish despite the pressure farmers are feeling on several fronts, including water supplies and environmental regulation.

“Economically, this state can't survive without agriculture, so that’s what's going to ultimately create the right momentum,” Panetta said. The state has to ensure an adequate supply of water and “manage it in a way where agriculture plays a role,” he added.

Panetta, who is very much a throwback to the days when each of the political parties represented a much broader spectrum ideologically, decried the increased polarization in Congress, saying “Washington is more divided than I’ve ever seen.”

But he also expressed optimism that Democrats and Republicans could somehow begin working together more closely next year after the GOP takes control of the U.S. House in January.

“I've been there, you can work with divided government,” Panetta said. “It's actually a good, good place to be because it means everybody is part of the action. And that's OK. It can produce a willingness to go to compromise.”

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