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July 21, 2022

President’s Notes: A Sharper Focus on American Food and Farm Policy

By Dave Puglia, President and CEO, Western Growers

Among the more irritating adages used in political discourse is: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It is often applied inappropriately, kind of like: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” which is both painfully overused and mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain.

And yet, most of these well-worn phrases reach peak utilization precisely because they are valid in so many situations.

The crisis adage is attributed in modern times to Rahm Emmanuel, Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama—but historians give the credit to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who made the remark in the final days of World War II about his work to create the United Nations.

We have a lot of crises buffeting American agriculture—and especially the Western fresh produce industry—so maybe we should not let them go to waste.

The COVID lockdowns threw the global economy into chaos at the outset, and the effects of economic restarts sparked a host of headaches, from supply chain turbulence to inflationary pressures. Russia’s war on Ukraine crimped the production and supply of fertilizer inputs and threatens to greatly reduce the global supply of wheat. The UN projected that the number of “severely food insecure” people across the globe increased from 135 million prior to the pandemic to 276 million people today.

Here at home, drought and climate impacts exacerbated by water management policies are forcing a major reduction of food production in the Central Valley. The water shortage in the Colorado River system is getting worse, which will impact farm production. We face a chronic shortage of labor, arbitrary restrictions on crop protection tools and escalating energy costs.

We have a collision of crises that presents a danger to America’s food security. Policymakers must act wisely, or we could see a large and permanent reduction of food production capability within our borders.

That brings us to the federal Farm Bill, which is due to be reauthorized next year.

Few in the fresh produce industry know that the Farm Bill is relevant to us. That’s understandable—from its inception during the New Deal until the early part of this century, it had virtually nothing for “specialty crops.” The Farm Bill was the province of the “program crops” such as corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. But today the Specialty Crop sector benefits from nearly $4 billion in Farm Bill programs. Funding for research, pest and disease threats, nutrition priorities and block grants to states make up the bulk of our funding.

As a new Farm Bill process gears up, the specialty crop industry is preparing to defend our position, since there is always an interest group that would like to poach our funding. Interests representing products that are clearly not specialty crops are seeking to be defined as such. Among them: Hemp, shellfish, wild rice and other niche grains…and even decorative stone.

Beyond protecting what we have, we need a unified effort to expand federal support for our industry. We face domestic and international crises and the status quo won’t cut it.

We are well organized in the form of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, a coalition of more than 120 organizations. I am privileged to serve as one of three national co-chairs, following the footsteps of Tom Nassif (whose leadership in the early 2000s led to the first-ever investment of federal Farm Bill funds for specialty crop priorities). Our first action for the 2023 Farm Bill is to strongly oppose adding hemp and other non-produce crops to our sections (or “titles”) of the Farm Bill.

The larger question is whether we should be content protecting what we have? I have been warned not to ask for new funding, because “there just isn’t any new money for the Farm Bill.” Didn’t Congress just finish finding, or rather printing, $5 trillion in “new funding” for COVID relief, much of it highly questionable in its connection to the impacts of the pandemic? Immense amounts remain unspent, but we’re supposed to accept that there isn’t any new money available for food production?

No way. The needs are clear: Step up research into pests, diseases and the strategies needed to protect our food production. Fund harvest automation, which would put the federal government into a true partnership with private sector innovators. Fund improved data collection and analysis to enable the USDA to support the fresh produce industry—especially for disaster relief—the way it does with corn, soybean, wheat and rice.

These programs need additional federal support. After all, we should never let a good crisis go to waste.