California agriculture stifled by the massive budget crunch

Aug 14, 2009
by WLJ

California agriculture stifled

by the massive budget crunch

It is no secret that the state of California has been in dire straights this year as the recession has worsened. While small, but significant, cuts to the state’s budget have been felt all year through across-the-board budget cuts and the closing of state offices three days a month, perhaps the most severe blow came July 28 as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger surprised farmers and ranchers throughout the state by cutting funding for the state’s most broad-based land conservation program.

The California Land Conservation Act of 1965, more commonly referred to as the Williamson Act, allows local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of keeping specific parcels of land in agricultural or related open space use. In return, landowners receive property tax assessments which are much lower than normal because they are based upon farming, ranching and open space uses as opposed to full market value. Under the act, farmers get property tax relief from the county and the county is reimbursed for those lost revenues by the state.

Of the 29 million acres of eligible farm and rangeland in the state, 16.9 million are protected under the Williamson Act. And, with California having some of the most valuable land in the nation, farmers and ranchers simply can’t afford for their land to be taxed at full market value.

The bottom line is, it is hard to raise livestock if you can’t afford to pay taxes on the land required to raise your animals, and the Williamson Act makes the cost of farming and ranching in California more affordable.

Willy Chamberlain of Los Olivos, CA, in Santa Barbara County, said the Williamson Act has been vital to his 80-year-old ranch since the act’s inception.

"Land, particularly rangeland, in our part of California, is worth a lot more from a development perspective than from a cattle production standpoint," Chamberlain says.

As a cattle producer, Chamberlain says he hopes counties statewide will continue to honor their Williamson Act contracts and, hopefully, the subvention funding will be restored to keep counties supporting the open space that ranchers supply.

"If, in the long run, our county were to no longer support the Williamson Act, it would be nearly impossible for us to raise cattle here," Chamberlain said.

After lobbying fiercely to keep Williamson Act funding intact, livestock trade associations like the California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) and the California Wool Growers Association (CWGA), both in Sacramento, say they were taken by surprise following the governor’s signing of the 2009-2010 budget.

"There is a reason we have fought tooth and nail to save Williamson Act each time it has been on the chopping block—it is vital to our state’s farmers and ranchers," said Matt Byrne, executive vice president at CCA.

Byrne said farmers and ranchers were well aware of the budget cuts to the program earlier in the year and, after rallying support from politicians to protect the funding, an agreement was at some point reached between the Legislature and the governor for subvention funding to be at $27 million—80 percent of the normal amount. But, going from $39 million to $1,000 was almost unfathomable, considering the wide support for the act from agriculture and conservation groups and local governments.

"We were successful up to a point, but with a single stroke of the pen, the whole game changed. With $1,000 left in subvention funding, the program isn’t dead, but it is definitely on life support," Byrne said. "We are keeping the discussion alive for any future opportunity to regain what we’ve lost, even as the budget situation remains difficult."

"For 40-plus years, ranchers and farmers have held up their end of the bargain in benefitting California by conserving open space valued by all Californians. Our hope is that California will hold up their end of the bargain as the need for strong agriculture and open space in California has never been greater," Byrne said.

CWGA Executive Director Lesa Carlton said the Williamson Act has also been a priority for California wool growers during recent years due to the tough budget outlook for the state.

"This has been a subject we have worked tirelessly on and an outcome we are very disappointed with. Losing virtually all subvention funds for this year is troubling, and while we are doing what we can to get the funds restored this year, we need to work with counties to continue their contracts until a longer term solution can be found," Carlton said. "What is imperative for politicians to remember is that the Williamson Act does not just benefit farmers and ranchers, it benefits the public by maintaining open space and wildlife."

Williamson Act supporters are also closely monitoring legal challenges filed by both Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assemblyman John Perez, D-Los Angeles, who are challenging the governor’s authority to line item veto items which the Legislature already reduced funding for.

While the Williamson Act is likely the topic weighing heaviest on the minds of farmers and ranchers, it is not the only place that food producers are feeling the pinch. Last year’s 10 percent across-the-board cuts and second round of cuts this year have heavily impacted the University of California education and extension systems as well as all state offices.

The California Bureau of Livestock Identification is another area where producers have expressed concern over the loss of man hours. But, according to bureau chief Greg Lawley, his goal is to complete all of the work that is needed from the bureau.

"The furloughed days and having less time to get things done is a concern, but livestock producers are our priority and we intend to show them the same quality service as they have always received," said Lawley. "At this point, it is all a matter of continuing to prioritize our tasks to make sure we are using the time and manpower we have efficiently."

Lawley said goals of the bureau are still to get inspections and investigations done and continuously reevaluating their processes to make sure all the bases are still covered. One way that producers can help the bureau in their new work schedule is to give as much notice to brand inspectors as possible and avoid scheduling inspections on furlough days whenever possible.

"An example of a way we are being more efficient is by no longer inspecting project animals for fairs, just at processing facilities. We have to be at the processing facility either way, so it is much more time efficient to only have one place to be, rather than two," Lawley said. "Our goals are still the same and we are still meeting producers’ needs, we just have to plan ahead."

In addition to stretching the state’s brand inspectors extremely thin, the budget cuts early in the year also forced the California Animal Health and Food Safety System to close the doors on its Fresno diagnostic laboratory, leaving only four labs open in the state.

While Schwarzenegger was able to keep a $500 million reserve after 21 line item vetoes, it is expected that the budget situation will again be an issue later this fall. And, as the California Legislature reconvenes on Aug. 17, it is possible that more budget cuts will be proposed. California farmers and ranchers will be hoping that their elected leaders will keep in mind that agriculture is California’s number one economic driver, and do what they can to protect them. — WLJ