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By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau

California can keep its strict animal welfare standards after all under a long-awaited farm bill finished by congressional negotiators early Monday evening.

As they wrapped up the overdue legislation, lawmakers dropped a controversial House provision that would have blocked California and other states from imposing stricter animal confinement rules. The decision clears the way for more California lawmakers to support the multi-billion dollar bill that funds both crop subsidies and food stamps.

"This is a victory for state's rights," Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., declared Monday, adding that that the omitted animal welfare provision "would have led to a race to the bottom for agriculture production laws nationwide...and imperiled the fate of California egg producers."

Two years late, the farm bill now set for House approval on Wednesday spans 959 pages and authorizes myriad agriculture, conservation, research and nutrition programs. Once a relatively routine legislative exercise conducted every five years, this latest farm bill has until now stymied House Republicans who had initially pushed for much steeper cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

The final farm bill cuts the supplemental feeding program by roughly $8 billion over 10 years, compared to a $39 billion cut originally passed by House Republicans. The savings primarily come from tightening a current system that has tied nutrition program eligibility to receipt of a very small amount of fuel aid.

"We're still providing support for those who are most in need," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Monday. "I think, given all the difficulties we've faced, and while there are things I wish were different, that this bill seems like something I can support."

Costa and Denham are both members of the House Agriculture Committee. Most of the negotiations over the farm bill that formally began last October, though, were conducted by staff and the four most-senior members of the House and Senate agriculture panels. They settled final differences Monday night.

Among the final provisions rejected was a proposal popped in by Republican Reps. Devin Nunes and David Valadao of California that would temporarily halt a San Joaquin River restoration plan and ensure continued operation of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta pumps. The last-minute presentation of a non-farm bill provision failed, with Nunes insisting the rejection meant California's Democratic senators "own the problem" of California water shortages.

Among other provisions closely watched by Californians, the farm bill and its accompanying report:

-- Urges Obama administration officials to "remove the obstacles that are preventing the U.S. olive oil industry from reaching its potential." Officials are also urged to "collaborate" in discussions about a possible olive oil marketing order.

-- Directs the Agriculture Department to resume establishment of an industry funded promotion program serving the fresh Christmas tree industry. Criticism over a supposed "Christmas tree tax" had previously spooked the administration into stopping the program.

-- Provides funding for specialty crop research and promotion programs. The Market Access Program, for instance, is widely used by California growers, and it will continue at the same level of funding.

-- Sets the stage for the California dairy industry's possible entry into the federal milk marketing program, with a call for an Agriculture Department hearing on the subject. If a federal milk marketing order is requested, the state's longstanding "quota" system could be retained, under the provision.

The potential inclusion of the animal welfare provision, authored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, had imperiled Californians' support for the overall bill. King's amendment targeted state provisions such as California's Proposition 2, a 2008 measure that required that certain animals be able to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs while confined.

The bill ends the crop subsidies known as direct payments, which primarily benefit growers of cotton, rice, wheat and corn. These direct payments would be replaced in part by what lawmakers call improved "risk management" programs, a form of subsidized crop insurance.

Direct payments to California rice, cotton, wheat, barley and corn growers totaled $123 million in 2011, according to figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Rice growers in the Sacramento Valley and cotton growers in the San Joaquin Valley soaked up most of these payments.

The overall bill is important for California's $43 billion-a-year agricultural industry, as well as for the roughly 4.1 million California residents who currently receive the supplemental nutrition assistance.

PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, speaks during a hearing Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press/Charlie Neibergall.



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