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When you shop at one of the many local farmers markets here, or dine at a restaurant that boasts about its locally sourced ingredients, what you’re really experiencing are tangible reminders that we live in a county with a genuine agricultural presence.
We’re not talking hobby farming here, folks. San Diego is the 18th largest agricultural county in the nation. We’re home to the largest number of organic farmers in the country (nearly 350 of them, producing more than 150 crops), and we account for 4 percent of California’s ginormous farm economy — producing a whopping $1.68 billion worth of agricultural products.
It’s an important part of our local economy. But I’m guessing for many San Diegans, last year’s activity on the Farm Bill (or let’s be real — lack of it), wasn’t something worth watching closely.
After all, it is wonky. It’s complicated. It has 15 separate titles that cover everything from crop insurance, private forest management and rural development to support for farmers growing commodity crops like corn and soybeans; as well as the biggest slice of the Farm Bill pie — nutrition. That’s the piece that includes programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly known as food stamps — and school nutrition programs.
Yawners, I know. Except what gets into (or left out of) the next Farm Bill can have important ramifications for our region.
At a 2013 Farm Bill Forum Tuesday night, sponsored by the San Diego 1 in 10 Coalition, about 60 people listened as speakers explained why San Diegans should care about the Farm Bill, urging them to pick up the phone to call their congressional representatives, especially new Rep. Juan Vargas, who holds an important seat on the House Committee on Agriculture.
“For the first time, San Diego has a real seat at the table, and that’s exciting,” said Kari Hamerschlag, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group.
We’re a nation wrestling with an ongoing obesity epidemic. But as a county, we’re growing the very prescription for that problem: fruits and vegetables. Health officials encourage us to fill half our plates with healthy produce every day, and yet, what our nation chooses to subsidize is the very base of our processed food diets. This is what is at the crux of what the Farm Bill could do, though it’s extremely unlikely that Congress will change which crops get governmental support any time soon.
San Diego County grows what’s known as specialty crops, and many of our local growers don’t qualify for funds under current Farm Bill titles the way many Midwestern corn and soybean farmers do. We don’t use a lot of crop insurance, and we don’t grow commodity crops.
What we do have is a significant percentage of our population — 15.4 percent or close to 480,000 people — that are considered food insecure, which means they often don’t know where their next meal will be coming from. Those people would be greatly impacted by cuts to SNAP benefits — a scenario many political observers believe will happen when lawmakers take up the bill again. Right now, the 2008 bill has been extended until September 2013.
Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said now is the time to put pressure on local lawmakers over the Farm Bill: “Our target is five: Juan Vargas, Susan Davis, Scott Peters, Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter. This is the time to start sending those messages. It’s much tougher to move them on the day of the vote.”