SACRAMENTO, CA — Following Tropical Storm Hilary damage to California specialty crops, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) today hosted United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials alongside local leaders and growers to announce bipartisan legislation to improve access to federal agriculture disaster programs. The announcement comes ahead of the September 30 deadline for Congress to pass the 2023 Farm Bill. The conversation focused on efforts to ensure producers who grow ‘specialty crops’ can get back on their feet following natural disasters.
The Fair Access to Agriculture Disaster Programs Act, which is co-led by Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), would waive the adjusted gross income (AGI) restriction on producers who derive 75 percent of their income from farming, ranching, or related farming practices from receiving USDA disaster program relief. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) will also cosponsor the bill. Representatives Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.-19) and Kat Cammack (R-Fla.-03) have introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
“Whether from drought drying out our farmland or storms flooding our fields — growing conditions for farmers in California and across the country are facing unprecedented impacts from natural disasters,” said Senator Padilla. “As we approach the Farm Bill expiration this September, hundreds of thousands of farmers are counting on us to make things right. That’s why today I’m announcing the introduction of bipartisan, bicameral legislation to even the playing field for specialty crop growers hoping to access critical federal agriculture disaster programs.”
“North Carolina farmers are all too familiar with natural disasters and the barriers to access disaster relief programs,” said Senator Tillis. “I am proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to expand access to critical disaster relief programs for farmers across the state and give them the tools to rebuild when disaster strikes.”
“Our bill is about fairness for specialty crop farmers, the majority of California agriculture. The reality is that many specialty crops are more expensive to grow and these farmers should not be excluded from federal disaster assistance programs – especially when floods, wildfires and other natural disasters are becoming more common and more destructive,” said Senator Feinstein.
“Too often, high-input producers are excluded from vital disaster relief programs because of an outdated and misleading USDA implementation process,” said Senator Cornyn. “This bill would expand access to these safety net programs for full-time Texas farmers, and I’m glad to support it.”
“Production agriculture is vital to the California economy, and USDA stands ready to assist in the recovery from the natural disaster events that have happened this year,” said Blong Xiong, State Executive Director USDA’s California Farm Service Agency (FSA). “I assure you that USDA employees are working diligently to deliver our extensive portfolio of disaster assistance programs and services to all impacted agricultural producers. We’re also proud of recent updates FSA made to disaster assistance programs that allow us to improve our response to California producers.”
“With the frequency and intensity of disasters in CA, the scope of agricultural losses are becoming more and more difficult for our producers to bounce back from. Re-setting the AGI to accommodate the uniquely high value of CA crops against the uniquely high costs of producing food and fiber here will help our producers remain resilient through the increasing challenges they face,” said Christine Birdsong, Undersecretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
“We thank Sen. Padilla for striving to ensure that all full-time farmers can access a comprehensive safety net in case of natural disaster,” said Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia. “Catastrophic flooding this year and fires last year in California impacted the economic health of rural communities. Relief efforts must not bypass farmers and their employees who together support so many businesses in these rural regions.”
“Even in a normal year, farming is a tough business, with growers facing many challenges. The devastating storms in 2023 severely impacted the production costs for strawberries and other specialty crops. On behalf of the more than 400 California strawberry growers, shippers, and processors, we are grateful for the work by Senator Padilla and his staff. It is vital to provide storm-impacted growers the financial assistance needed to produce crops so important to the American diet,” said Rick Tomlinson, California Strawberry Commission President.
Catastrophic floods, fires, freezes, and other disasters are disrupting food production and devastating farms across the country, but outdated AGI eligibility requirements disproportionately exclude certain producers from meaningfully participating in USDA disaster programs. The USDA currently prohibits payments to growers with combined farm and nonfarm AGI in excess of $900,000 for most disaster, commodity, and conservation programs, excluding California growers — large and small — who produce higher value specialty crops on expensive land. These AGI limitations fail to account for high input costs or inflation, and leave producers growing strawberries in California, for example, without access to critical safety net programs in the wake of disasters. The unique methods utilized in specialty crop production mean these producers generally have fewer effective risk management and relief options than growers of major field crops.
Specifically, the Fair Access to Agriculture Disaster Programs Act waives the AGI limitation for the following disaster programs: Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP), Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP), Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), Tree Assistance Program (TAP), and Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP).
The legislation is endorsed by the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, Western Growers, California Strawberry Commission, California Farm Bureau, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, and American Honey Producers Association.
Last month, Senator Padilla introduced the Agricultural Emergency Relief Act to create a permanent USDA structure to provide relief for farmers who lost crops due to natural disasters. He also introduced a pair of bills to equip the USDA to better meet the needs of farm workers.