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Obama administration misses boat on drought assistance

President Obama’s visit to California’s Central Valley Feb. 14 gave the nation’s chief executive a prime opportunity to hear from a selected few in agriculture impacted by the state’s intensifying drought.

The president’s visit, in itself, brought the severity of the drought to the attention of the American people which is a positive.

As the president made his rounds, a news release from USDA outlined the administration’s new federal financial assistance package to California agriculture and other sectors plagued by the worsening drought.

The cornerstone of the government’s plan is $100 million in livestock disaster assistance through the new 2014 farm bill’s livestock forage disaster program. Livestock producers can apply for financial assistance for drought-related losses incurred over the last three years.

Producers could receive up to $100 million for losses this year alone, and up to $50 million for several years prior.

I have no beef with the administration’s livestock assistance package. Cattle and calves generated $3.3 billion in cash receipts in California in 2012, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Yet it was what the USDA release did not say which was a slap in the face for crop producers. There was nothing, nada, diddly squat in the assistance package, for example, for annual or permanent crop producers.

I’m sure this ‘oversight’ was especially appreciated by growers on the West Side (and others across the state) who have pulled orchards, fallowed fields, and watched their families’ futures take a financial whacking or evaporate into thin air.

Yep, the government’s financial assistance plan has nothing to assist the drought-plagued $6.7 billion tree nut industry (walnuts, almonds, and pistachios); or the $4.5 billion grape industry (wine, table, and raisin grapes).

To be fair, the USDA plan includes $5 million for California through the USDA’s environmental quality incentives program, plus $5 million in emergency watershed protection program assistance in targeted conservation assistance in the worst hit areas. A few of these ‘peanut dollars’ could be available for non-livestock producers.   

This also does not mean that future assistance for crops is not in the government’s tea leaves.

Speaking of nut crops, how is the drought impacting the pistachio industry? A crowd gathered at the World Ag Expo Water Forum Feb. 13 to hear numerous personal stories and insight on the drought from growers, plus city and water leaders.

Tulare County pistachio grower Mark Watte shared how his nut operation is affected by the drought. With surface water deliveries at zero, Watte is forced to turn totally to groundwater for the trees.

Since groundwater contains more sand than surface water, the sand is damaging his well pumps. Also, the water level is dropping below the pump levels. He is not alone.

Watte told the crowd, “Pumping repair companies are months behind (in availability)…Our well drillers are a year behind (in availability).”

He concluded, “We are not on a sustainable path here.”

This is a story President Obama should have heard.