US & World

Ag secretary Tom Vilsack: California farming still matters

A farmer pulls vegetables from his farm.
A farmer pulls vegetables from his farm.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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In the dense suburbs of 21st century Southern California, it’s easy to forget how important farming is to the state’s economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that last year, California farms and ranches exported more than $18 billion worth of agricultural products.

One of the biggest complaints from California farmers is that the bulk of federal crop subsidies — called “direct payments” — go to the ones who grow corn and wheat.

That's because California’s big cash crops are nuts, fruits and vegetables. The federal government also spends billions of dollars every year on those harvests, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says.

"So it may not be a direct payment, so to speak, as maybe a corn farmer would receive in Iowa, but by stabilizing the prices that fruit and vegetable growers get for their products by purchasing surplus and taking it out of the market; and then using that for food banks or using it for school lunch programs, [means] we basically help producers in that way," said Vilsack.

Still Vilsack says that change is on the way. This year, Congress is considering a new multi-year farm bill. The chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees have pledged to cut $23 billion over the next decade. "I think it’s safe to say and fair to say that the bulk of that money will be coming from farm programs," he said. "I think it’s fair to say that it’s probably going to result in either a change or a total elimination of direct payment that’s in place today."

Members of Congress from Midwestern farm states want to preserve some subsidies. They’ll present their plan to the super committee this week. Activists are concerned that members of Congress are using a back door route — without the customary public hearings — to lock in farm subsidies that will shut out most California farmers.

Vilsack wouldn’t comment on that process. Instead, he pointed to new revenue on the horizon. Now that the United States has signed trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and particularly South Korea, Vilsack estimates close to $2 billion of additional trade in the kinds of agricultural products that play to California’s strengths.

"California producers are in the nut business, they’re in the fruits and vegetable business, they’re in the dairy business, they’re in the livestock business, they’re in the poultry business. All of those have opportunities for expanded trade opportunities."

Vilsack calls these good times for farmers. Agricultural income is the highest it’s been in 40 years. Unlike the housing industry, with so many homes under water, farm debt has dwindled by half since the 1980s debt crisis.