House Speaker Kevin McCarthy sent a message about the political significance of ag policy Tuesday, sitting through the entirety of a House Agriculture Committee farm bill listening session in California and also fielding questions from reporters on a range of issues.

At the listening session, McCarthy, R-Calif., and his House colleagues heard appeals from California farm groups to expand crop insurance and disaster aid options and also boost foreign marketing assistance, all issues that would resonate with producers in many regions of the country.

The event at the annual World Ag Expo in Tulare also put a focus on varying concerns of the state’s huge dairy sector and the industry more broadly. 

It's highly unusual for a House speaker to take part in a committee meeting, much less one focused on the farm bill, but McCarthy’s Bakersfield-based district represents one of the most highly productive areas of California and U.S. agriculture.

Both at the committee event and during a media availability ahead of it, McCarthy stressed the importance of addressing the needs of farms that grow fruits, vegetables, nuts and other specialty crops.  

“There's a lot of different concerns when it comes especially out here with specialty crops and others,” he said at the outset of the listening session, stressing what he saw as a need for research and market development funding.

He noted that farm bills have sometimes been hard to pass but suggested the committee was getting off to an early start with the listening session.

“I believe we’re starting on the right date with GT as the chairman,” McCarthy said, referring to committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa. He also noted that both Democrats and Republicans attended the informal event.

The Democrats in attendance included committee members Jim Costa and Salud Carbajal of California as well as former House Ag member Jimmy Panetta.

Earlier Tuesday, McCarthy answered “yes, yes” when he was asked by a reporter whether a farm bill would pass this year with Democratic support. But he also suggested Republicans will review work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an issue that could trigger a fight with Democrats should the legislation attempt to tighten the regulations.  

As for Thompson, he said at the listening session that he was committed to passing a “highly effective” farm bill this year.

Crop insurance and market promotion funding are among the issues that surfaced most frequently during the listening session. 

The farm bill “should prioritize the development of new crop insurance for uncovered producers as well as improve existing (policies) in a practical affordable way, regardless of commodity and farm size,” said Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

He said that only about one-quarter of the state’s commodities are covered by crop insurance. 

“Our producers have often had to rely on significantly delayed, ad hoc federal funding,” he said.

Ian Lemay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, said a permanent disaster assistance program is needed, too, to address issues such as smoke exposure and losses from pests and disease. "We need a permanent program that we can rely on versus piecemeal. programs as issues come up,” he said. 

The lawmakers heard repeated appeals for increased funding for the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program, both of which help promote exports of U.S. commodities. Lawmakers have reintroduced proposals recently to double the funding for both programs

McCarthy mentioned MAP specifically in his opening remarks, although he didn’t say whether it needed to be expanded or not. MAP funding can be used by U.S. groups for consumer advertising, public relations, product demonstrations and other promotional activities. FMD funding goes to long-term projects aimed at the removal of trade impediments or the development of new markets for commodities. 

Lemay said MAP “has been funded at $200 million for over a decade. We would like to see it at least go to $400 million, if not more. It is an oversubscribed program.”

Jodi Devaurs, director of trade policy for the California Table Grape Commission, said doubling MAP funding “is critical to providing opportunity for U.S. growers to compete on a global level.”

Alicia Rockwell, chief government affairs officer for Blue Diamond Growers, said her group can return $152 for every dollar in MAP funding.

“Unfortunately, our trade policy at the moment is rather stalled, and so it becomes even more critical that we utilize a tool such as MAP in order to get our product into the global market right now,” she said.  

Lemay also said Congress should provide marketing assistance to promote the consumption of specialty crops domestically. That would “help increase consumption of good, healthy products,” he said. 

The lawmakers heard a variety of concerns on dairy issues. 

Brad Bosch, a producer with California Dairies Inc. and Dairy Farmers of America, noted that the industry was still trying to reach an agreement on reforms to the way milk is priced under federal milk marketing orders. He endorsed reverting to the pricing formula in place before changes made by the 2018 farm bill. 

Linda McBride of the California Farmers Union raised concerns that a federal hearing process for changing the pricing formula could result in an increase in make allowances, the formula used to determine how much processors get for their costs. That would mean the amount “dairy farmers pay to process products could increase, and that would make milk production even less responsive to changes in market demand,” she asserted.

Tony Lopes, a dairy producer from Gustine, California, said dairy farmers should be allowed to buy protection at the 100% price coverage level, similar to what is available under the Livestock Risk Protection program. 

Glenda Humistonvice president of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, appealed for new funding for ag research facilities, saying studies have estimated $11 billion in deferred maintenance needs.

"This puts the U.S. at a huge disadvantage with our research to find solutions,” she said.

She also that in specialty crops, many small and young farmers are trying to start businesses by leasing land. "Too many farm bill programs discriminate against leased land versus ownership when trying to access programs,” she said. 

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