WASHINGTON, Sept. 30, 2015 - The odds-on favorite to be the next House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, could hardly come from a more important agricultural district in the nation. The bulk of his sprawling district is in Kern County in California’s prodigious Central Valley, which ranks No. 2 nationally in the value of the crops it produces, according to the latest Agriculture Department census.

McCarthy, now the House majority leader, doesn’t have a farm background himself. His grandfather was a cattle rancher. His father was a firefighter. Early in his career, he started his own deli. He didn’t get a seat on an agriculture-related committee after he won election in 2006.  

But his presence has paid off on occasion for California farmers, most recently in the 2014 farm bill. At the time, the U.S. citrus industry was casting about for some way to get the money desperate growers felt they needed to stop citrus greening, or Huanglongbing (HLB) disease.

California growers have so far largely escaped the disease, which has ravaged Florida groves, but McCarthy came to the industry’s assistance, recalls Joel Nelson, president of California Citrus Mutual, an industry trade group.

Nelson reached out to aides to McCarthy, then the House majority whip, and McCarthy eventually reached Nelson on his cell phone and asked, “What do you need?” Nelson recalled. “I said, ‘I need a sustained research program. … ‘” “He said OK.” McCarthy then reached out to the then-chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and the result was a provision in the farm bill providing $125 million in dedicated research spending over five years, Nelson said. “Kevin made it happen.”

Nelson said McCarthy’s interest in agriculture has ebbed and flowed and has been stronger recently than it was when he first came to Washington. Still, some in California agriculture have been frustrated that McCarthy hasn’t done more to pass immigration reform, Nelson acknowledged. 

Farmers in Kern County, as well as the entire Central Valley, rely heavily on immigrant labor. Kern County (county seat, Bakersfield) produced an estimated $7.5 billion worth of commodities last year, including table grapes, almonds, milk, citrus, pistachios and carrots.

As House speaker, McCarthy will be “in a perfect position” to lead on immigration, but the outgoing speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, “seemed to be in many ways more into that issue than Kevin,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association.

McCarthy “is in a tough spot, things are so polarized,” said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

McCarthy opposed a provision in the Senate’s 2013 immigration bill that would have provided a special path to citizenship for immigrants, industry officials said. He also was hearing objections in his district to wage requirements in a proposed agricultural guest worker program in the bipartisan Senate bill, said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

But he and other industry officials say McCarthy understands that agriculture can’t be forced to use the E-Verify system to check the legal status of employees until there is an adequate guest worker program. ”He also understands that the current H-2a program doesn’t work,” said Wenger, referring to the temporary visa program for farmworkers.

Wenger said he thinks McCarthy’s experience with farm policy issues in California can pay off for farmers elsewhere. For example, at a recent fundraiser McCarthy brought up the issue of the Obama administration’s new rule re-defining what ditches, streams and wetlands are regulated by the Clean Water Act.

“He’s not a farmer but he grew up around farmers. His base is agriculture. He understands it,” Wenger said.

But Wenger, as well as others in California agriculture, say they have to be realistic about how much McCarthy can get done for agriculture as speaker.

“It’s got to be a benefit, certainly, to have him in that position,” said Bedwell. “Whether he’ll be able to utilize that leadership and leverage it, given all the other challenges he has, I think we have to be realistic.”


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