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Hispanic Farmers Battle Interest Groups for Federal Aid

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Some California lawmakers are trying to address the needs of Hispanic farmers whose population is growing in San Diego and the Imperial Valley. But powerful interest groups are competing against them for federal dollars as Congress writes this year's farm bill. Jodi Breisler has more from Washington.

Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing group of minority farmers in the country. And there are more of them in California than in any other state but Texas. Yet historically the needs of Hispanics have been left out of most federal agriculture policy.

San Bernardino Democrat Joe Baca is trying to change that.

Baca: They finally have a voice, and I am one of their voices and one of the leaders, and I happen to be in position to speak out and lead in this area.

Baca is a senior member on the House agriculture committee, which is writing the 2007 farm bill. The massive legislation costs taxpayers about $285 billion. A chunk of the money pays for food assistance programs, while the rest goes towards farm subsidies, research and conservation.

Baca wants the legislation this year to help California's 12,000 Hispanic and Latino farmers – 1,000 of which farm in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Baca: When you look at the fastest growing of population of new farmers, it has increased by over 40,000 from 1992-2002. So that's important when you look at the market, and we want them to stay in business.

Baca's legislation would make it easier for minority farmers to get loans, manage disasters and turn their operations into organic farms – which sometimes can be more profitable.

Minority farmers – like most small producers – have struggled to make money in farming. Typically, they lease land and don't produce as much as large owners. They also don't have the experience or wealth of past generations to fall back on.

Those trying to get started in farming also face barriers.

Many come from poor backgrounds and run into trouble getting credit and loans.

Some California Hispanic farmers even filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture – claiming they faced discrimination.

Lorette Picciano: There have been serious deficits in how the Department of Agriculture has treated minority producers.

Lorette Picciano is the Executive Director of the Rural Coalition in Washington DC. She advocates for equality and the growth of minority farmers.

She says it is important to include them in federal policy, because they strengthen the country's safe and cheap food supply.

Picciano: Ya know, if we are going to have a healthy food system, we are going to need to include everybody.

Baca's legislation also improves working conditions for immigrant farm workers – including better protection from the harmful pesticides they work with.

But Oklahoma lawmaker Frank Lucas – who is also helping to write the farm bill – says getting this legislation passed will be tough. It is up against many other proposals that have the backing of powerful interest groups.

Lucas: I say that unless the majority leadership in the House puts more money in the farm bill, there are going to be a lot of things that are not going to be addressed.

Lawmakers do have a $20 billion reserve fund they plan to tap into to pay for new changes to the farm bill. But the bigger challenge is changing the minds of those who think farmers depend too much on the government already.       

San Diego Republican Brian Bilbray says he won't support funding new farm programs.

Bilbray: We got to get away from this assumption that the federal government aid is what makes good farmers – I think, in fact, it is just the opposite.

Many have criticized U.S. farm policy for its role in helping large wealthy farmers get richer.

The Environmental Working Group says more than $1 billion was paid out in subsidies to California crop growers from 2003 to 2005.

Critics also say millions of dollars have gone out to people who don't actually grow anything. San Diego Democrat Bob Filner rather the money help the state's fruit and vegetable growers and all the small farmers getting left out.

Filner: Farmers that may be Hispanic or black are just not getting the help that the big guys get, and there has to be a change of attitude in the way we look at all this stuff.

The controversial farm payments have dominated much of the debate so far during Congressional hearings. Some members of Congress want to end subsidies and replace them with tax-free accounts. Intense lobbying will likely continue through the summer to kill this proposal – while Hispanic farmers fight to get some help from the farm bill.

From Capitol Hill, I'm Jodi Breisler for KPBS Radio.

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