TULARE — Gov. Gray Davis took his reelection campaign to the world's largest farm equipment show Tuesday, touting a sales tax cut on tractors approved last year and a program earmarking $79 million in state and federal money to promote California agriculture.
Davis spoke at the World Ag Expo of his admiration for farmers and the adversity they overcome. And he recounted his administration's efforts on behalf of the $28-billion agriculture industry, citing an array of programs, including an eradication campaign against the glassy-winged sharpshooter, an insect that ravages grapevines.
Forgoing his trademark dark blue business suits for casual khaki pants and blue blazer, Davis stepped into the cab of a John Deere forage harvester. Later, leaders in the agricultural industry hosted a fund-raiser for Davis in nearby Visalia.
Agricultural interests have accounted for about $1.5 million of the roughly $40 million Davis has raised since taking office in 1999.
"I'm not going to cede any part of California," said Davis, who views the Central Valley as an important swing part of the state. Davis won a majority of votes here four years ago, and said: "I anticipate doing so again this year."
Secretary of State Bill Jones, a rancher from Fresno and Republican candidate for governor, was quick to criticize Davis, saying the governor has failed to provide leadership "on one of the most important issues facing California and our farmers, the state's looming water crisis."
Davis helped win voter approval in 2000 of a $2-billion water bond to finance conservation, planning and development programs. But Jones said Davis should have gone further by, for example, intervening on behalf of ranchers in the Klamath River Basin whose water supplies were cut last year because of environmental concerns.
"This governor's record on agriculture has been abysmal," Jones said by phone from a campaign bus tour in Southern California.
In recent months, Davis has tilted to the left on several issues as he tries to shore up his support among Democratic backers, including labor and trial attorneys. But in the more conservative San Joaquin Valley, the governor waxed nonpartisan.
"It doesn't matter if you have an R or a D after your name," Davis said. "What matters is whether you've delivered, and we've delivered big time for agriculture. We do it because agriculture has to succeed for the rest of us to succeed."
Davis cited a decision last year to cut the state sales tax on farm equipment, which could save farmers a combined $50 million a year, or $5,000 on a $100,000 piece of heavy equipment. Davis and Democratic lawmakers' decision to support the tax break helped secure passage of the budget last summer by swaying Assembly Republicans from the San Joaquin Valley.
Davis also extolled a $79-million promotional program, funded by $62 million from the federal government and $15 million from the state, with matching money from growers. The program includes $51 million for a "Buy California" marketing campaign for farm products and to promote California products internationally.
The campaign comes as much of California's farm industry struggles with low commodity prices, foreign competition and rising costs for electricity and workers' compensation insurance premiums. Whether the promotional campaign will have a bigger impact on farmers' morale or on their bottom lines remains to be seen.
Davis said he was not prepared to estimate the campaign's impact on sales for farmers.
The governor, who has promoted increased trade relations with Mexico, also was careful not to sound too protectionist.
But he said he has a vision for marketing California farm products:
"California standards are the highest in the world for agriculture. We have the most rigorous environmental standards. We need to use that to our advantage and advertise through the Buy California program that no food is healthier than food grown in California."
Davis is the first governor to visit World Ag Expo since his former boss, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, appeared here 21 years ago.
The expo is spread across more than 100 acres and includes heavy farm equipment, trucks and other products offered for sale by 1,453 exhibitors.
It draws thousands of farmers from across the state and country. Some come from other countries.
In a news conference after his talk, Davis offered no solution for dairy farmers who, because of disputes and litigation with environmentalists and the state, have been unable to obtain permits to expand in Tulare County, the nation's top dairy producing county. The disputes have blocked new dairies for three years.
"Somebody has to step in and resolve it," said Jack Prince, executive vice president of Land O' Lakes, a dairy cooperative.
The administration appears to have no plans to intervene. "What we've made a decision to do is to let the two sides get together and work it out," said Bill Lyons Jr., Davis' agriculture secretary.
The California Farm Bureau, perhaps the most influential organization of farmers, has endorsed Jones' candidacy.
"He is part of our family," Bill Pauli, head of the farm bureau, said of Jones.
Pauli said he is not sure whom his group will support if Jones fails to win the March 5 primary. The other Republican gubernatorial candidates, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and businessman Bill Simon Jr., are refining their positions on farm issues.
Davis, by contrast, is a known quantity, Pauli said.
"The governor has done some good things," Pauli said Tuesday.
"We're not in a position where we're in strong, strong disagreement with the governor."
Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.