Date: Jan 17, 2018
Magazine:
January/February 2018

By Western Growers staff

 

Born and raised in the city of Corona, California, in the western-most part of Riverside County, Congressman Ken Calvert witnessed the growth explosion of his hometown and the surrounding areas over the last several decades. The lifelong Riverside County resident, who currently represents the state’s 42nd Congressional District and serves on the powerful Committee on Appropriations in the U.S. House of Representatives, watched the area transform from a largely rural one to a congested urban satellite where traffic has become one of the biggest issues to most who live there.

The 42nd congressional district is not new territory to Calvert. He has represented the area in one way or another since he was first elected in 1992. Redistricting required him to change the districts he previously served, bouncing him from the nearby 43rd and 44th congressional districts, respectively, to where he is now.

His district, which is part of the Inland Empire, and encompasses such cities as Corona, Murrieta and Temecula, once thrived with agriculture. From the turn of the 20th Century until the 1970s, the area was dominated mostly by citrus, heavy concentrations of dairy farms and vineyards that produced table grapes, raisins and wine. In fact, for more than 75 years, Corona was known as the ‘Lemon Capital of the World,’ housing industry giant Sunkist, and its 700 employees who grew and processed lemons and citrus products. During a recent interview, Calvert recalled the importance lemons had on the area, saying of him and his family, “We used to put lemon on and in everything.”

Eventually, agriculture’s hold on the region gave way to the demand for housing and other development, falling victim to Southern California’s population boom and the ensuing urban sprawl in the 1970s. Though sprawl never killed agriculture in that part of the Inland Empire, it certainly dictated what ag remained in the area. The focus is now on more higher-priced products, such as the wine that comes out of places like Temecula and Murrieta in the southern part of Calvert’s district.

Despite the shift, agriculture is still a focus of Rep. Calvert’s efforts in Congress. As chairman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations subcommittee, and as a member of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee, he overseas a variety of issues that directly and indirectly affect agriculture.

One of Calvert’s earliest efforts in Congress was on behalf of the wine industry. Grape growers were battling Pierce’s Disease (PD), a grapevine-killing malady spread by a pest called the glassy-winged sharpshooter that scourged California's wine industry. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the first threat posed by this disease “occurred in Temecula, Riverside County in August of 1999, when over 300 acres of grapevines infested with the glassy-winged sharpshooter were infected with [Pierce’s Disease] PD and [were] ultimately destroyed.”

Calvert worked with California’s congressional delegation, growers, the Wine Institute and others to secure federal and state funds to fight the pest and the disease. He also worked with UC Davis and UC Riverside to come up with plant species that are disease resistant.

Unfortunately, as Calvert points out, the fight against ag diseases continues, referring to the appearance of the Asian citrus psyllid in California, including in his district. The insect can carry a virus that causes a condition known as “citrus greening.”

“Frankly, it scared the hell out of us,” he said, adding that the citrus industry in Florida and Texas have been partially destroyed by the virus. “We don’t want that to happen in California so we’ve been working with those states to get the resources farmers and the state need to fight the psyllid.” Calvert said now that the psyllid is here, we need to make sure that they don’t have the disease and don’t spread it. “It’s a real problem,” he said. “We are all working together to find the funding to invest in the research needed in order to find a way to deal with this.”

As a former ag committee member, Calvert was quick to address the importance of passing a farm bill that includes programs for research and development funding for pest and disease prevention, among other programs that benefit specialty crop growers. Because many provisions that are part of the 2014 Farm Bill will expire in the fall of 2018, Congress will take up debate on a new farm bill this year.

The bill also includes programs related to production agriculture and controversial nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As in years’ past, debate around nutrition programs and subsidies for production agriculture will undoubtedly be highly-contentious, making passage of a bill difficult and dependent on bi-partisan support. Calvert acknowledged the importance of each of the major programs that are part of the bill. He stressed the need to ensure that funding is in the bill for research into pests and plants, ag inputs and the development of agtech advancements to help the industry. Tying it back to the psyllid threat, he said research is needed to find an effective way to deal with the pest in the short-term while also developing a long-term solution that eliminates it once and for all. He added that working closely with the citrus industry to stop the threat is crucial.

A supporter of President Donald Trump, Calvert said farmers should already be enjoying and realizing some of the benefits of policy changes being made by the new administration. In particular, he was referring to the Administration’s rollback of Obama era processes and regulations that were more harmful than good to individuals and businesses, adding that such policies were a trademark of that administration. “I think that a lot of people in the farming industry already noticed that there is a new sheriff in town,” Calvert said. “In Congress, we used the Congressional Review Act about 15 times to repeal regulations that made it difficult for small businesses to thrive and also made it tougher for people to find jobs,” he proudly added.

As chair of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee, one of the agencies Calvert funds is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He said as chairman, he tries to ensure Congress funds agencies and programs that provide improvements for taxpayers rather than ones that are bureaucratic and create more red tape. “That’s been one of the things that has been very important to me. That’s been a big deal,” he said.

On the subject of North American Free Trade Agreement and the trade pact’s renegotiation, Calvert said he voted for the initial agreement and got a lot of blowback for doing so at the time. But things have changed and trade groups like Western Growers and the wine industry are pushing for the deal to be renegotiated instead of terminated. Calvert said he believes in free trade, but like the president, he also believes in fair trade and feels President Trump and his administration are simply trying to equalize the trade imbalances that exist between Mexico and Canada in industries other than ag, even though ag is part of the overall equation. When the president and his administration talk tough on NAFTA it’s with that goal in mind he surmised. He personally doesn’t feel it’s the president’s goal to get rid of it. In the end, he hopes an agreement will be reached that is largely beneficial to everyone.

Calvert also addressed two of Western Growers’ members’ top issues. The first was immigration reform and the use of e-verify. The second was infrastructure needs and funding.

The e-verify issue is one of Western Growers’ most important issues because it deals directly with its members having access to workers now and in the future. Calvert was the original creator of the e-verify program and currently is sponsor of a bill that would require all employers to use the system, something that Western Growers opposes as a stand-alone measure.

Calvert said it’s been a number of years since the program was integrated into the immigration process and although the system is not mandatory, he believes it has worked quite well for those who have used it. “Millions go through the system every year and it works,” Calvert said, noting that its use is already mandated in a number of states.

Western Growers’ supports the use of a mandatory e-verify program, but that support is contingent on ensuring that practical and reasonable solutions are achieved for both the current and future workforce that American farmers depend on in order for the industry to remain competitive. In other words, Congress must also pass immigration reform.

Despite his affinity for e-verify, Calvert recognizes ag has a labor problem. He said that’s one reason he supports Chairman Goodlatte’s bill, which he believes will be improved as it makes its way through the legislative process. Calvert did point out that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a high priority item for Congress and that issue will most likely be addressed first. He said he is not sure if e-verify will be part of that discussion but suspects we will soon find out.

“I recognize ag is an important industry in our state and across the country and needs labor to provide food and fiber to the American people,” Calvert said. “We in Congress want to make sure you continue to do that. I talk to a lot of farmers and they mention this issue to me as their first, second and third item of importance.” On this and on every issue, Calvert said it was important for farmers to remain engaged on these subjects and continue to remind their elected leaders of the issues that concern them.

Lastly, Calvert addressed the issue of infrastructure reform, reiterating the president’s goals of addressing welfare and infrastructure reform now that tax reform has been signed into law. Calvert said that many infrastructure projects fall under his jurisdiction. He realizes that infrastructure reform goes far beyond surface projects, acknowledging the need to address airport, utility and water projects, among other things.

“Water storage and conveyance is not only important for farmers, but it’s also important to the general population,” he said. “I’d like to get the Shasta Dam addition under construction. An increase in the height of the dam by a modest elevation of 18 feet will give us a lot more yield in acre feet. It’s important to get things moving.

Calvert also cited the various funding mechanisms in place that can leverage state and federal dollars to help complete road, water, sewer, wastewater and flood control projects. “We will give folks tools to build more projects that are qualified rather having them simply work us over for more money.”

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