Many issues facing California farmers, from the Food Safety Modernization Act to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the 2018 Farm Bill, came to the forefront as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a former farmer and veterinarian, made his first appearance in the state at a forum held in Modesto on Sunday.
From dairymen and walnut growers to the California Almond Board and various farm bureaus, a number of people took part in Secretary Perdue's question and answer session at a town hall meeting hosted by the California Farm Bureau and held at the Modesto Junior College Agricultural Pavilion. Secretary Perdue sought input from farmers on the issues they're challenged with and also sought additional input for the Farm Bill.
The event comes just a few months after community members and agricultural organizations spoke out before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture during a "Listening Session" for the 2018 Farm Bill in August.
From that August meeting, one of the most commonly discussed topics was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a program which provides food security for people unable to provide food for themselves and their families. The CalFresh program, the California variant of SNAP, serves approximately 87,000 participants in Stanislaus County, according to a January analysis from the California Budget and Policy Center.
The secretary addressed what he considered to be a major change to the SNAP program in the upcoming Farm Bill.
"I think that one major change that you will probably definitely see in that Farm Bill is to remove those waivers for able bodied adults without dependents," addressed Secretary Perdue, "and it's become a lifestyle for some people when we've seen those waivers being reduced for people who do not have dependents but who are continuing on the program.
"Our goal is to help people get a job and to be part of the economy that would help to provide for their families and give them governmental assistance for food while they need it but then help them with the training, if they need child care, transportation, other things [that] would help them to be duly employed," continued Secretary Perdue.
As the session progressed, concerns regarding the Food Safety and Modernization Act were expressed by multiple attendees and validated by the Secretary of Agriculture.
"You have a right to be concerned about it. We're concerned about it, and we're working to mitigate whatever we can at this point in time..." acknowledged Secretary Perdue.
Joe Ferrari, a walnut grower out of San Joaquin County, was vehement about vague language in the bill, second time noncompliance resulting in a Class E felony, and issues of being caught between the produce safety rule and preventive control rule.
"The problem is also that, in my operation, I sell to a buyer who then is under a different rule. He's under the preventative controls rule. They have a requirement to verify the supplier," said Ferrari.
"The problem is this shouldn't be in the law, because they have to tell me additional rules above and beyond what the produce safety rule has in the text. I don't even know what that is. That goes beyond my knowledge, and I could get the person subsequent to me in trouble by something I didn't know I was supposed to do or wasn't supposed to do."
The session also addressed trade agreements as the California Almond Board's David Phippen expressed his discomfort over President Donald Trump's remarks on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"I wanted you to know that these trade agreements are vital to our industry, and it's not just the almond industry here in California. As you well know, many of our crops are exported," Phippen stated, who also previously stated that 70 percent of California almonds are exported.
Escalon Dairyman Rien Doornenbal supplemented Phippen's claims by adding that dairymen, corn growers and hog producers have benefited from NAFTA.
"If we lose NAFTA, I know my dairy employee problems will be gone because I won't have any cows left for them to milk," Doornenbal said.
Addressing the concerns, Secretary Perdue responded, "Our president is an interesting negotiator. If you read the book ‘The Art of the Deal,' he feels like you're not going to be able to get the best deal if you're not willing to walk away from the deal, and that does concern me. I think we're going to get a NAFTA deal in the end, but there may be some bumpy roads in between."
As the session came to a close, Secretary Perdue acknowledged that there is more for him to do as he recognized the importance of trade, the labor concerns for dairymen and harvesters, and the environmental and tax regulations that impact farmers such as those regarding food safety.