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Farm bill might not reach floor until 2018, listening session features urban, rural advocates

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said he wanted to finish the next farm bill in 2017, but pushed that timeline back a quarter.

Less than a week ago, Conaway said he plans to start work on the bill to have on the House floor before the end of the year. But at the start of a House Agriculture Committee farm bill listening session on Aug. 5 in Modesto, Calif., he said the plan is to have the bill on the floor in the last quarter of 2017 or the first quarter of 2018.

Conaway, California Republican Reps. Jeff Denham, Doug LaMalfa, David Valadao and Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania listened for three hours to statements from agriculture, nutrition and animal welfare advocates.

At the end of the session, Conaway said writing the farm bill will be a challenge since "no one asked for less money."

The top 20 percent of earners in the country spend more on food than the bottom 20 percent make, and Conaway said he will keep that in mind as the bill is written.

Conaway also said American consumers "get a deal" on a food and he would "deputize" all the attendees "to tell that story."

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A series of urban and rural advocates, including a homeless man and a woman who had grown up on food stamps, said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be maintained at current levels.

Several speakers also talked about the importance of the "Double Bucks" programs which allows SNAP beneficiaries to buy more fruits and vegetables at both farmers markets and grocery stores.

Lupe Lopez, the owner of six grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay area, said she sees "the struggles of people without money." They reach for pasta and hot dogs, which leads to obesity, she said. But through the "Double Bucks" program Lopez said she's been able to buy more California produce, which supports the SNAP program and especially the incentive programs.

"You gain a customer that is putting food on the table … we gain not spending as much money on medical bills," Lopez said. "More produce grown in California is being bought. It is a win-win situation. Let's expand the program."

ANIMAL WELFARE

Several representatives of the Humane Society of the United States said the bill should address animal welfare issues, and praised Denham for his willingness to introduce bills on these issues.

Other representatives expressed needs for ways to stop the spread of animal diseases, keep invasive species out of the U.S., along with a vaccine bank with enough to deal with outbreaks.

Many speakers also said they need workers and that Congress should deal with the immigration issue.

Farm group leaders repeated many of the same statements including the need to continue the commodity, crop insurance and conservation programs, but a representative of the California rice industry said the reference price for California rice is not high enough.

As was the case at the listening session in San Angelo, Texas, there was a call to put cotton back in Title I of the farm bill.

Several speakers said the Margin Protection Program for dairy is not working and needs to be fixed.

Others said the foreign market development programs are important to maintaining exports, especially in light of President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. But a consultant from Atlanta noted that California wine exports have declined and said she believes that data can be used to spend foreign market development money more efficiently.

Several representatives of the almond industry noted that their product is California's biggest agricultural export, but added that the Environmental Quality Incentives Program is important in meeting California air quality standards, that the Market Access Program should be increased to deal with unfair foreign competition, and that more needs to be done to address bee colony collapse disorder.

Speakers for the organic industry also said their industry deserves more money because it has grown and it is vital to maintain the organic standards so that consumers continue to have confidence in organic food.

A representative of the aquaculture industry said it could expand, especially if growers had access to the Pacific Ocean.

A representative of the olive oil industry said that European Union subsidies create excess supply and that American growers face fraudulent imports. Olive growers utilize conservation, market access, specialty crop and crop insurance programs, the representative said.

Representatives of California state and polytechnic universities said the farm bill should provide funding for agriculture at non-land-grant colleges, particularly for Hispanic students.

At the end of the session, Conaway said he wanted to "take my member of Congress hat off," and repeated his frequent statement that the United States cannot govern itself if it is not a moral country.