The lead Republican on the House Agriculture Committee's Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee, fourth-generation rice farmer Doug LaMalfa, wants to ensure in the next Congress that farm conservation practices stay voluntary, and he also intends to focus on what he considers proactive fire and timber management. 

LaMalfa will represent California’s 1st District — which covers a vast area of the northeast part of the state — for the sixth consecutive term in January.

“As a rice farmer and senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, Doug’s perspective on agriculture issues is invaluable going into a farm bill year,” incoming House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson said in a statement to Agri-Pulse.

“He has seen the devastation of our national wildfire crisis up close and personal and understands deeply the importance of responsible forest management. I’m grateful to have him on our farm team.”

Phrases like “climate-smart agriculture” and “carbon sequestration” are both finding their way into legislation, including additional funding in the Inflation Reduction Act.

LaMalfa recently sat down with Agri-Pulse for a wide-ranging conversation touching on his farm bill priorities, oversight goals and more.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Agri-Pulse: What do you see as some of your priorities heading into the 2023 farm bill?

LaMalfa: Getting one passed on time instead of doing a stopgap extension. That means we need to be coming out of the chute pretty seriously in the new Congress. We haven't really accomplished a whole lot in terms of quantifiable or substantive hearings the last four years.

All we talk about around here is climate change. I see this as harassment of farmers into doing things some new way to fit this new model of sequestering carbon. While I remind people, carbon is only 0.04% of our atmosphere which has increased from about 0.03% in our lifetime. So that increase is about 1/1000th of the atmosphere that they would have us move into caves and eat crickets to avoid.

Agri-Pulse: If you are again the leading Republican on the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, what would you like to see or not see within the farm bill conservation title?

LaMalfa: The conservation programs we have I think are pretty well-received by farmers and ranchers around the country. There's good participation; they're pretty much oversubscribed … These programs all need to be voluntary. I've watched the list for a lot of years in deals like this, and they start out looking voluntary, but then over time, the heavy-handed folks will say, "Well, we need you to do this in order to be eligible to get crop insurance or eligible for this or that," because the climate agenda is a very heavy-handed one.

So, when we're talking about conservation and forestry, I’m more of a mind that let's keep moving with what's been successful, what's been voluntary, what growers like to subscribe to and enjoy the success of that. Because carbon is a manipulation tool they've found and have been pretty successful at in the environmental realm to try and scare and control the industries that they've always sought to take more control over anyway.

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I mean electrifying tractors and combines and everything, give me a break; especially in my home state where our power grid is already stretched to the limit. Most of us in farming don't feel like we can go out and harvest for four or five or six hours and say, "Oh I gotta pull out here and gonna charge up again." You know $50,000 battery packs that last me five years or whatever is just not gonna fly.

Let's switch to the forestry side of this subcommittee, which, obviously, it's a huge priority for me. It's why I'm on the committee or asked to be on the committee in the beginning that my district, but also so much of California, so much of the West is forestlands. And we've suffered so much damage from unmanaged forests since the direction of them turned probably 50 years ago with the way Forest Service acts and prioritizes these to have balance in what federal forestlands are supposed to be: multipurpose, multiple use.

So, my real strongest emphasis I want to do in the committee is to hold Forest Service accountable for their lax goals on managing these lands. They consider burned land as treated acreage. They have made more promises recently about being speedier about responding when there is a fire.

I don't know why in the year 2021, we had to ask them, “Could you get right on the fire?” One example is called the Tamarack Fire in more central California on the east side. And they watched that burn for two weeks until finally a wind caught it and made it a nearly 100,000-acre fire.

Agri-Pulse: Do you anticipate there being some more money in the farm bill to address some of the forestry issues?

LaMalfa: Just throwing money at it hasn't produced results. They always say, "Oh, we need more money, more staff." What was that when your staff is sitting in training because there's a COVID issue instead of getting outdoors and getting the work done? You know, these guys are not motivated toward output. It's a bureaucracy. It's been very frustrating.

Early in 2022, they rolled out an ambitious plan to where they’re going to treat 20 million acres over a 10-year period. That was the ramp-up. Let's do the math: 20 million (acres) divided by 10 years is 2 million a year, out of 200 million acres that will take 100 years.

Agri-Pulse: What challenges do you see in educating not only new members on the House Agriculture Committee but an overall House makeup with many members who have not been through a farm bill process? 

LaMalfa: Every year it seems it's harder and harder for the rural side to explain its needs to urban legislators. And it's interesting the makeup of the Ag Committee Democrats, many of them are from just flat urban America. Relating to what we're talking about is going to be a challenge.

They think that all it is handouts to rich farmers, which really, it's the bottom line between whether certain crops, certain industries are going to be here in one year. The wheat crop in the Midwest really suffered a lot, so the insurance side of that is going to be extremely important … Farmers would rather not have to knock on the door of the [Farm Service Agency] at all, right? They would rather be able to just go out to the field each year, work with their banker, plant, harvest, make a living, and not have to be bothered. But that doesn't work that way.

Agri-Pulse: Drought and water levels in California are obviously a very big concern. Where is the crisis level meter with the drought conditions in California? And what are some things that may need to be done?

LaMalfa: I guess it depends on your water source for particular farmers on how big of a crisis it is. Everybody involved in water that comes from the Sacramento River or Shasta Dam system, that Central Valley Project, saw drastic cuts last year. Depending on the water district you're in, you could be getting maybe 18% or maybe you're getting 0%. That's a pretty big crisis if you're getting 0%.

In our home state, 50% of the water goes for environmental purposes, 40% goes for ag and 10% goes for personal use and urban uses. The (Los Angeles Times) wants to tell you that 80% goes for ag and 20% goes for personal human use health and such. That's taking the 50% environmental water and acting like it doesn't count. Well, that counts because that number keeps growing. And last year, it was because of that purpose that agriculture's normal 40% number shrank dramatically to maybe 25% or even 20% of the water supply. The state will blame drought, but what they don't acknowledge is that we had an incredible amount of October ‘21 rainfall and then … almost record snowpack in December.

Water managers and the government made the decision, "Well, we seem to have plenty of water right now." The two big lakes, Oroville and Shasta, were still under 30% full. They still decide to manage the water in the ways that they had a surplus and water was escaping out to the delta and through to all the environmental purposes. It's almost as if they were afraid the lake was going to fill up, and they had to make space for flood control. You don't need flood control space when you're 30-33%. So you have a lot of really dumb water management going on, mismanagement, on federal and state projects.

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