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State Farming Slide Ends, Industry Official Says

December 08, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — Agriculture, a $14.5-billion industry in California, appears to have stabilized after four years of decline, the head of the state's leading farm group said here Monday.

But, added California Farm Bureau Federation President Henry J. Voss, growth will hinge on the success of farmers in cultivating markets abroad while adjusting to changing consumer tastes at home.

In his assessment of farming as the 100,000-member bureau opened its 69th annual meeting, Voss said:

Shoppers More Aware

"The public has become increasingly sensitive to the quality and integrity of what it eats and drinks. A walk down the grocery store aisle will reveal that consumers are buying products that are light, lean, natural and low in sodium, sugar and fat.

"Shoppers are reading product labels," Voss continued, "and are more curious and concerned about what is used to grow and process foods."

A major reflection of this concern was the overwhelming vote enacting Proposition 65, the Clean Water Act, for which the state is now developing regulations that, depending on how literally the toxic substances are defined, could require that warning labels be placed on thousands of consumable products.

The federation opposed the measure as overly broad and vague, especially in determining what constitutes a "significant risk" to consumers, Voss said. It continues to press the Deukmejian Administration to moderate implementation.

"We can meet the goals of the law in a sensible and equitable way without jeopardizing our state's economy and industries like agriculture that make it go," Voss said.

In the area of trade, California has been a major beneficiary of export subsidies that are expected to restore the nation's traditional agricultural trade surplus. The Agriculture Department this month forecast that U.S. farm exports in 1987-88 will lead imports by more than $10 billion, reaching $31 billion, an 11% increase over 1986-87.

California cotton, almonds, grapes, citrus, beef and walnuts are major U.S. trade crops, with Japan being the state's leading customer, accounting for about a third of all sales, followed by Western Europe with one-fourth.

Exports peaked at $43.8 billion six years ago before beginning a slide that bottomed out at $26.3 billion last year.

But, USDA economists noted, government subsidies still comprise more than a fifth of total cash farm income.

California's extremely diversified agriculture--some 250 commercial crops are grown in the state--depends far less on federal aid than do the farmers who grow basic commodities in the Midwest and South.

Would Slash Spending

But the state's rice and cotton growers were, for the first time, major recipients of aid under the Food Security Act of 1985. Voss reminded them that they will have to relearn market discipline as Congress wrestles with deficit-reduction legislation.

"Future profitability and prosperity in agriculture will have to come less from harvesting farm-program dollars and more from working harder than ever in the marketplace," said Voss, who grows non-subsidized almonds and peaches in the San Joaquin Valley town of Ceres.

The congressional deficit-reduction package would slash farm spending by $900 million in the current fiscal year and by another $1.6 billion next year

Sen. Pete Wilson (D-Calif,) told the 600 farm bureau members gathered in Fresno's Selland Arena that the trade-subsidy program, which was part of the 1985 farm program, would be continued and expanded under pending comprehensive trade legislation. The measure calls for tripling export subsidies over the next two years to $325 million, he said.

Keeps Prices Down

(Under "target export assistance," the government pays farmers the difference between prevailing world commodity prices and government-set "target" prices. That way, farmers receive substantial income support without pricing their crops out of world markets. The difference between target prices and market prices is to decrease annually until the current farm program expires in 1990.)

"We've had to fight fire with fire," said Wilson, a favorite of the conservative farmer organization. "We've had to do this because we have been subject to abusive trade practices by our trade partners."

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