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In Farm Politics, State's Growers Come a Cropper

January 31, 1988|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — For 40 years, California farmers have made their state the nation's leading agricultural producer. Yet, when the 3.6-million-member American Farm Bureau Federation met this month to decide its national legislative policy, California's delegation ranked only as an also-ran.

Based on its 99,281 members, California's federation of 57 county farm bureaus stands 13th among the 49 member states and Puerto Rico. (Alabama broke with the national federation in 1981.) California is flanked by Ohio with 112,950 members and Michigan with 92,910.

"It bothers me something terrible how we can be so successful in farming and have so little influence (on policy)," Henry J. Voss, California Farm Bureau president, complained in an interview as delegates voted on scores of political, economic and social issues that will form the national organization's lobbying agenda in Washington.

"We're almost twice as big as any of the next three contenders," Voss said, "but they have far more members and, therefore, votes."

Yet, while Voss finds himself "very frustrated" at times, he also acknowledges that the national federation's skill at compromising regional differences is a lot of its strength.

These differences are often most evident in California's traditional staunch opposition to government farm subsidies. The Californians' anti-subsidy position stems less from any special virtue than from the fact that most of them produce fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts--crops that are unsubsidized.

Their Midwestern and Southern counterparts, on the other hand, have fewer crop alternatives and also enjoy far less clement climates, leaving them to produce prodigious quantities of the dozen basic farm commodities and foodstuffs--wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans and feed grains--whose prices have been supported by the government for more than half a century.

Moreover, many California farmers who do grow so-called program crops are excluded from subsidies by income limitations imposed by Congress--usually $50,000 in annual crop sales--to target aid to smaller, more vulnerable (and often less efficient) producers.

Still, California farmers earned $14.5 billion for their crops in 1986 and probably more than $15 billion last year (which also makes farming the state's leading industry in terms of sales). Iowa ran a distant second to California with 1986 crop sales of $9.1 billion, followed by Texas with $8.5 billion, and Nebraska and Illinois with $6.9 billion each.

Yet, California's clout in the American Farm Bureau Federation--by far the nation's largest organization of family farmers and ranchers--diminishes further in dealing with regional concerns, Voss said. The federation's 12-state Western Region accounts for 30% of the nation's crop value but casts only 10% of the 294 votes in the policy-setting House of Delegates, he explained. In contrast, the South (even without Alabama) controls more than half the total votes.

"There are actually more farms in other states," Voss acknowledged, "though it's not because our farms are larger on average, as many people think. The value per acre is higher in California because of the kinds of (specialty) crops we grow."

Voss estimated that 85% of California's farmers belong to the county farm bureaus, the grass-roots units formed early in the century as forums to receive agricultural research developed under new government programs. These county units form the essence of the state federations and the national federation that they organized in 1919. Among farm operators who generate gross annual income of $30,000 or more, as many as 95% are members, Voss said.

Farmers in tobacco states, on the other hand, evolved from a share-cropper tradition in which their predecessors worked small plots of land for absentee landlords. One result has been a large number of very small farms, many of which remain viable only because of government aid in the form of federal allocations of tobacco production quotas. Those small units translate, however, into large numbers of farm operators--and, therefore, farm bureau members, Voss said.

'Strength in Diversity'

In addition, Voss said, some state federations define "farmer" more loosely than does California, including people who earn as little as $1,000 a year from farming, further resulting in swollen farm bureau membership. North Carolina, for example, produced 1986 crops valued at $3.8 billion but contributed 255,016 members, 2 1/2 times California's membership. Other states count as members anyone who buys automobile- or property-insurance policies sold by companies affiliated with the state federations.

"We do have regional differences," acknowledged Harry S. Bell, a South Carolina cotton grower and national vice president, "but we do our best to hold them down. There certainly is strength in diversity."

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