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Strawberry, flower and wine grape growers across the Central Coast will receive additional assistance in the coming years as a result of the 2018 farm bill, which establishes federal food and agricultural policy for five years.

Congress passed the the $867 billion bill in December after months of bickering and unsuccessful negotiations to replace the legislation. A previous version lapsed in June. In addition to renewing federal subsidies for commodities (namely corn, soy, wheat and cotton) produced outside of California, the bill, which was signed by President Trump on Dec. 20, also includes provisions to fund research initiatives, support specialty crops and expand federal crop insurance programs.

"It's certainly not perfect in everything we want, but it's taking the status quo and building on it," Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, said by phone Tuesday. 

"We want to make sure California gets its fair share in farm bills that have traditionally focused on other crops," said Carbajal, who voted to pass the bill when it returned to the House. Carbajal said the bill includes several policy positions local growers advocated for during a February 2018 listening session held in Santa Maria.

"Slowly over the last decade [the farm bill] has geared itself to our issues," explained Josh Rolph, federal policy manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "The 2018 bill has a lot of improvements to support our crops and the variety in our state. We're really pleased with what we ended up getting."

Outside of commodity subsidies, the bill will contribute to research initiatives that benefit California producers as they grapple with issues posed by labor shortages and natural disasters (like mudslides and wildfires). It also brings some relief from an escalating trade dispute that has limited access to foreign and emerging markets.

What began as U.S. tariffs on Chinese solar panels and washing machines imposed by Trump in January later expanded to $50 billion in tariffs on goods by March 2018. In response, the Chinese government imposed a 25-percent tariff on pork products and 15-percent tariff on U.S. fruit and nut products — including strawberries and wine.

"It's definitely had an impact," Rolph said of the trade dispute, noting that some growers have reported fewer international sales and overseas shipments. "The longer this goes on the worse it's going to be for our producers."

The bill makes an effort to mitigate those impacts by committing to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program, which supports domestic marketing efforts targeted to foreign countries, at $200 million. Under the bill, the program will match marketing expenses (up to 50 percent) by producers and trade associations with the goal of improving exports for branded and generic items.

"Funding has been used to open different markets [and has been] a success in improving exports overseas," Rolph said. "There's always been a question that [the program] wouldn't be funded, but now there won't be a fight."

Funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which funds grants across five research areas, was increased by $25 million annually to a total amount of $80 million per year. The bill also commits the Department of Agriculture to research and implement a strategy regarding mechanization and automation in the production and processing of specialty crops.

"Worker availability has become more challenging for our producers," said Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission.

Recognizing the future potential for continued labor shortages, the Commission has partnered with Cal Poly to establish the Strawberry Center, a research institute dedicated to improving the sustainability of the state's strawberry industry. Research into mechanization and automation of field and processing operations are key areas of the Center's research, as are pest control and management methods. Both are eligible for research funding under the new bill.

"On any plant you have strawberries in various stages of development ... and you want the machine to be able to identify and harvest without damaging the plant or the berry," she said. "When you harvest celery you take the whole plant out. Here you want to keep the plants intact."

Improvements to crop insurance and the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program will not only make insurance available for certain types of specialty crops, like flowers, but also expand protections during natural disasters.

"You may have growers in Santa Barbara County that are now able to mitigate against future losses from weather events and be better protected," Rolph said. "Today they would not be. It will make it a lot easier to get it covered for crops that are smaller in scale. This be a huge help for our growers."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.