After the fanfare of the opening ceremonies were over, a small number of the expo attendees gathered in the banquet hall of the Heritage Complex.
This group comprised of farmers and other agriculture-related professionals gathered to listen and speak with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who opted to attend the World Ag Expo.
Perdue said California was the 33rd state he has visited in the past nine months.
“I’m here in California to learn about …your state and expanse of California agriculture because it is a huge part of U.S. agriculture,” Perdue said. “It’s the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation.”
In his introduction of Perdue, Rep. David Valadao said the secretary’s experience as a farmer in Georgia, a state with diverse crops, leads him to have a greater understanding of the issues farmers in California face.
Perdue spoke on what he knew and was apt to point out what he didn’t know. After explaining his history and what is great about farmers, the secretary got into some of the issues California agriculture leaders face: regulations, funding, labor force and water.
The concerns of the crowd seemed to focus on how California is treated, funded and regulated based on its size and layout in comparison to other states.
Hanford-based dairy producer and president of the California Dairy Campaign, Joaquin Contente, addressed the margin protection program. He mentioned how the new program does not aid the average size dairy in California.
The California Dairy Campaign estimates that in most California dairies herd size is around 1,200 cows while herd size in other states is closer to 120.
According to the USDA 2012 Agriculture Census, Tulare County, with $1.8 billion in revenue from dairy, produces the most milk in the nation. Kings County, with $600 million in revenue from dairy, followed in fifth place. Seven of the top 10 counties are in California.
Contente said the new margin protection program mainly helps smaller dairies in the nation. He said there needs to be a balanced program that addresses the needs of all dairy producers, not just small ones.
Perdue did not directly provide a solution to the problem Contente raised.
Another issue was raised by Glenda Humiston, vice president of Agriculture & Natural Resources at the University of California Office of the President.
She said the current definition of rural prevents enough funding to go toward agriculture research in California. Humiston said rural counties have no cities with populations greater than 50,000, disqualifying many counties.
“If a county has one town that has 50,000 population in it, the entire county is labeled metropolitan for purposes of allocating funding,” Humiston said.
Perdue said that there is work being done to fix the definition of rural amongst different departments in the government.
One member of the audience was concerned about whether California will receive federal money since it is a sanctuary state. Perdue responded that he has no knowledge of the sanctuary status affecting infrastructure funding.
Perdue also said that the best way to voice concerns about how federal money is spent in California is to contact state legislators.
Ken Melban, with the California Avocado Commission, brought up immigration and said the H-2A program does not work well in terms of cost and flexibility.
Perdue responded that he hopes an immigration bill will be discussed in the next few weeks. He went on to say that Melban was correct in that “around the country there is not enough money you can pay people” to do agricultural work.
When asked about water supply in California and what the federal government can do to help, Perdue tried to relate the problem to water problems in Georgia where most of their rainwater flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Then Perdue asked the crowd if anyone understands California’s allocation of water. The crowd said no, and he responded that he didn’t think so.
He ultimately suggested that water issues be addressed to the state government and that their are limits on how the federal government can actively help since it has to do with state regulations.
After the town hall meeting, Perdue and his team explored the Expo. The next two days he will visit some of the local farms and dairies, including Giacomazzi Orchard and DeGroot Dairy, to learn more about California agriculture.