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Boxer, Feinstein have yet to reveal where they stand on farm bill

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Nov. 1, 2007

California's two Democratic senators, longtime advocates of environmental protection, public health and the state's farmers, would seem natural allies of a coalition that will make a last-ditch effort in the Senate next week to end an antiquated system of farm subsidies.

Yet neither senator has yet taken a public stand on the effort to reshape federal agricultural policies to promote healthier food and environmentally friendly farming. Instead, the huge federal farm bill would preserve large government payouts to a minority of farmers, most of whom are nowhere near California.

Both senators will have to choose sides next week when the $288 billion, five-year renewal of farm and food programs goes to the Senate floor. The current bill would retain a 70-year-old system of payments to corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soybean farmers.

The legislation also would raise federal support for sugar and dairy, increase crop subsidies, and add a big "permanent disaster" program that would funnel billions more dollars to a handful of Plains states where marginal farmland has routine crop failures.

Also at stake are the government's giant nutrition programs such as food stamps and school lunches that affect the diets of millions of poor Americans and also serve, by design, as an outlet for farm commodities.

Never before have farm subsidies been the target of so much criticism from so many places. But it hasn't seemed to matter.

Barbara Boxer at a press conference in the Hampton Room in the St. Francis Hotel before the fundraiser in the Grand Ballroom in St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Photo taken on 2/19/07, in San Francisco, CA. Photo by Lea Suzuki/ The San Francisco Chronicle MANDATORY CREDIT FOR PHOTOG AND SF CHRONICLE/NO SALES-MAGS OUT.

"I would like to shift and change some of the way that we support farmers to more 'green payments,' which I've been trying to do for a lot of years now," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "But there's just not support in committee for it. The support was for higher target prices, higher loan rates for crops. ... Some people want to totally change the farm programs, but I don't think the votes are there to do that."

But rising alarm in the medical community about growing obesity and its connection to government subsidies for the cheap, refined carbohydrates that make up junk food has begun to force lawmakers to take another look.

The American Institute for Cancer Research released a monster five-year analysis of medical research Wednesday that makes a direct link between diet, obesity and cancer. Obesity is rapidly approaching smoking as the leading preventable cause of cancer, the researchers said.

Dr. Philip James, a British obesity researcher who helped present the report, drew a link between U.S. farm policy and cancer.

"It's very clear that both European and American agricultural policy has actually led to a systematic cheapening of fats and oils," James said, making fruits and vegetables relatively more expensive and less accessible to poor populations plagued by obesity.

"We have actually had a policy of decades which was based on postwar, old-fashioned ideas that we needed as much meat, milk, butter, fat and sugar as possible," James said. "And that's locked into the whole of agricultural policy."

This year's farm bill is a case study of why some federal programs, no matter how damaging, outdated or hard to justify, persist with bipartisan support, even from urban lawmakers who bill themselves as pro-environment and anti-poverty.

At least two major assaults on the bill are planned next week. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, would limit payments to large farms but preserve the subsidy structure. A more radical plan by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., would end crop subsidies and replace them with a free insurance plan for all farmers. Both would divert the billions of dollars to conservation, nutrition and other programs favored by reform groups.

Even Harkin, who tried to shift money from crop subsidies to environmental and nutrition programs, was unable to prevail over commodity interests led by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

The United State has roughly 337,000 commercial farms, concentrated in about six states in the Plains, Midwest and South, a tiny minority of the population and a minority of the Senate. Subsidies are hard to justify this year, with farm income breaking records and Department of Agriculture studies showing that federal payments are rapidly shifting to the largest, richest farms.

Yet the politics of farm subsidies confound party lines and terrorize Democrats and Republicans alike.

Party leaders worry that control of Congress rests on a few races in heavily subsidized regions and dare not risk being labeled anti-farm, Lugar has said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, made that calculation in July when she moved a House farm bill that actually increased crop subsidies, hoping to aid newly elected Democrats in farm states.

Lugar described classic political logrolling this year, where commodity groups have tried to buy off their critics, succeeding with California's fruit and vegetable growers.

At the start of the year, the unusual left-right coalition of environmentalists, overseas development advocates, health professionals, anti-poverty groups, budget hawks, and organic growers and others who oppose crop subsidies was allied with California fruit, nut and vegetable growers.

California is the nation's largest farm state, but 91 percent of its farmers do not receive subsidies, because fruits, nuts and vegetables are not eligible. Payments to California farmers are concentrated in cotton and rice, and cotton acreage is shrinking fast. With rising nutrition worries, fruit and vegetable farmers who played almost no role in past farm bills had newfound muscle in Washington.

Their alliance with the reform coalition formed a potent political force that threatened to draw the votes of California's big House delegation and upset the farm bill. The growers wanted $6 billion for research, pest and disease programs, access to school lunch programs and other aid. An obvious source of the money was crop subsidies, especially the $26 billion the Senate would spend on direct payments that go to farmers and landowners who have grown subsidized crops in the past.

But commodity groups do not want those payments touched. When fruit and vegetable growers threatened to bolt from the farm bill, money was found - in the House and Senate - in part by closing alleged tax loopholes. Specialty crop growers got $1.6 billion over five years in the House, and more than $2 billion in the Senate bill. That is a pittance next to crop subsidies, but it was a first for fruit and vegetable growers.

The House and the Senate agriculture committee also boosted spending on environmental, nutrition, rural development, organic farming, ethanol and other programs favored by reformers, while leaving crop subsidies intact.

That also leaves intact the myriad social problems the subsidies aggravate: obesity, farm consolidation and the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone" created by Midwest fertilizer runoff, to name a few.

"In our case, we really had no choice but to support" the House bill, said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, which represents California fruit, nut and vegetable farmers. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater (Merced County), "went to the mat for us to get us the little money that we got. It looked like we were going to get almost nothing."

Cardoza pressured Pelosi, and "the speaker understood what we needed and basically provided funding for us to get what we got," Nassif said. "For us to then say, 'Thank you so much but we oppose the bill because it doesn't reform the program crops, wouldn't have been wise politically, wouldn't have been wise economically.' "

John Keeling, chief executive of the National Potato Council and co-chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, said the new money for fruits and vegetables is historic, and he fully expects Boxer and Feinstein to vote for the Senate Agriculture Committee bill, commodity subsidies and all.

Boxer and Feinstein, he said, "have been very supportive of everything that's been done in the specialty crop area. ... We would assume they would be supportive of the committee bill."

What's next: The Senate plans next week to take up a $288 billion, five-year renewal of farm legislation. Committee's recommendation: As proposed by the Senate Agriculture Committee, crop subsidies and other commodity programs would remain largely intact, while money would be added for research on fruit and vegetables, marketing, organic farming, food stamps and other nutrition programs for the poor, and conservation.

Whom to contact to speak out on bill Contacts where you can provide your views on the upcoming farm bill, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco: -- Boxer's Washington office: (202) 224-3553 San Francisco office: (415) 403-0100 E-mail (link on Web site): -- Feinstein's Washington office: (202) 224-3841 San Francisco office: (415) 393-0707 E-mail (link on Web site): -- Pelosi's San Francisco office: (415) 556-4862 Washington office: (202) 225-4965

-- California Coalition for Food and Farming:

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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