California policymakers and industry groups are hoping to tap into federal spending through the farm bill reauthorization to shore up climate programs and help farmers meet state-mandated air quality goals. The Newsom administration and the Legislature are grappling with a budget deficit and negotiating sweeping cuts to various climate-smart agriculture programs.

Senate Agriculture Chair Melissa Hurtado of Bakersfield ran through the many federal requests in a hearing last week on the 2023 reauthorization as it relates to California communities. She stressed the critical role farmers play in both combating and adapting to the climate crisis.

“There is urgency in elevating agriculture because climate change is threatening our food security beyond ways we can physically see,” said Hurtado, citing an projected 50% drop in yields by 2050. “These threats impact us all, but they are first and most felt by those living in rural communities.”

Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, who partnered in hosting the listening session as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, explained that the farm bill provides a safety net to the nation’s farmers and ranchers as well as its consumers. One of the many issues he was watching was if the Regional Conservation Partnership Program adds alternative management practices and flexibility for water resources in dealing with climate change and local air quality issues.

“Climate change is here. It's real. It's creating so many disruptions in farm productivity,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “The conservation title can truly be part of that mitigation and adaptation.”

The Newsom administration has submitted several requests related to conservation and climate investments. Topping the list was an increase in incentives for on-farm water use efficiency, particularly for the Colorado River Basin. In his initial budget plan, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed cutting $40 million from the state version of these grants, known as SWEEP.

Ian LeMay CFFACFFA President Ian LeMay

The administration is calling for more funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The governor has not proposed any new funding for FARMER, a grant program for replacing aging agricultural equipment with lower-emission models.

The state is also seeking to boost dollars for conservation stewardship, agricultural management assistance and conservation easements. The conservation programs should incorporate farming practices to further address drought and carbon sequestration, among other issues, according to the administration’s letter.

It also calls for more grants, loans and loan guarantees for developing renewable energy from agricultural products through dairy methane digesters and biomass plants that utilize biproducts from fruit and nut trees.

“Farmers and ranchers in California are on the front lines of climate change,” according to the letter. “Their operations, livelihoods and employees are disproportionately subject to unpredictable factors beyond their control.”

Those concerns drove requests for improving price loss coverage to factor in higher production costs in California and for expanding the eligibility cap on dairy margin coverage to account for higher feed costs in the region. With disaster assistance, the agencies pushed to enhance eligibility for drought conditions within the Livestock Indemnity Program.

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Ross stressed that expanding crop insurance is vital to California agriculture, due to the “sheer diversity” of crops and the high value for several commodities.

“Having disaster relief of some kind to noninsured and specialty crops is going to be critical with the kind of volatility that we're trying to manage,” she said.

As a member of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, California Fresh Fruit Association President Ian LeMay requested a permanent disaster relief program that “considers the full breadth and depth of climate-related impacts on our commodities.”

The trade group applauded the inclusion of fire and smoke exposure in the 2020 and 2021 re-authorization for an expanded Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP+).

According to the specialty crop alliance, “climate change is here and affects the economic sustainability of farming, just as the Dust Bowl did in the 30s.” The alliance underscored that conservation programs should remain voluntary and “climate change should be used to mandate conservation production practices.”

UC Davis Agricultural Economics Professor Daniel Sumner testified on the valuable role the farm bill plays in financing research and extension. The administration asked to send more funding to institutions like UC Davis to bolster research into methane reduction strategies for enteric fermentation to reduce short-lived climate pollutants.

Sumner speculated the efforts to boost climate funding in the Biden administration may lead to a climate title in the farm bill, rather than just climate-related provisions within the conservation title.

Trade groups like the California Farm Bureau agreed with the administration’s requests for strengthening wildfire resilience and forest health in several areas. Peter Nissan, president of the Napa County Farm Bureau, added that climate change has not only exacerbated fires, but also extreme heat. Calistoga faced a severe heatwave last September that socked the relatively temperate region with 115-degree temperatures for five days.

“It was very debilitating to a lot of people who hadn't harvested at that time, and there was also crop losses there,” he said of the celebrated wine region. “I had another crop insurance claim on three of my four [winegrape] varieties that I farm.”

In supporting rural communities, the state is hoping to expand federal investments into charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and to incentivize affordable housing that is fire safe and climate resilient. Ross noted that fewer state dollars are going into these programs and saluted federal spending last year that broadly supported many of the conservation and climate programs.

The sprawling hearing provided an opportunity for Sen. Hurtado to learn how federal programs are addressing international food security and the “human security crisis” threatening her rural district.

“We must give agriculture the attention it deserves, one that extends beyond farming and considers everything within the food system,” she said.

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