PD Editorial: Broken eggs in Senate's farm bill
Published: Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 1:30 p.m.
Sonoma County's annual crop report details agriculture's importance to the local economy.
Combined with wine and processed food, agriculture adds almost $2 billion to the county's $24 billion economy. In 2011, income from farming and ranching added up to $581 million, with 15 separate categories topping $1.5 million.
Sonoma County is renowned for wine and grapes, but, as Staff Writer Robert Digitale noted in Wednesday's paper, “the county is also home to an array of small farms that have helped preserve the area's rural feel while feeding the region's residents and shaping its food culture.” The bounty includes grapes and eggs, apples and vegetables, ornamental plants and hay.
A healthy farm economy is vital to Sonoma County, just as it is to California, the nation's No. 1 agriculture state. That's all the more reason to pay close attention to the farm bill pending in Congress.
This legislation will set national agriculture and food policy for five years. It also funds food stamps, a safety-net program that has doubled over the past eight years, now assisting 46 million people, including more than 20,000 here in Sonoma County.
There are significant improvements in the measure that cleared the Senate on Thursday, beginning with a $24 billion cut in spending compared to the farm bill that expires on Sept. 30. Better still, it eliminates direct subsidies to farmers, which cost $5 billion a year and get doled out regardless of whether farmers plant crops.
The subsidies would be replaced by an expanded crop insurance program, which pays farmers for losses on fields that are actually planted.
But, in important ways, this bill still comes up short.
For starters, some of the savings from ending direct payments to growers are being diverted to subsidies for crop insurance premiums. With high crop prices offering an incentive to plant marginal land, taxpayers would be on the hook if the land failed to produce sufficient yields. The Senate also refused to change price supports for sugar, a Depression-era program that's no longer defensible.
Our biggest concern is the Senate's refusal to consider an amendment that requires more humane treatment of egg-laying chickens. The amendment, sponsored by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, codified an agreement between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society. The terms are similar to those of Proposition 2, an initiative approved by California voters in 2010.
The changes would be expected to add 10 cents to the price of a carton of eggs by 2025, but this wasn't about cost. It was about the opposition of cattlemen and some other sectors of agribusiness that don't want pressure to make similar accommodations for their animals.
As it stands, Proposition 2 will set the standard for egg farms in California as of 2015, and a subsequent state law will prohibit the sale of eggs from other states unless they require humane conditions.
A national standard makes the most sense, and there's still a chance to establish one, and fix other shortcomings, in the House version of the farm bill.
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