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Editor's Letter

 

What the Farm Bill Means for Wine

March 2014
 
by Jim Gordon
 
 

Two events showered long-delayed and much-needed benefits on the wine industry as our staff prepared this issue of Wines & Vines. First, a drenching five-day rainstorm seemed to answer the prayers of thousands of California grapegrowers facing a critical shortage of water for the 2014 growing season. And second, Congress passed a nearly trillion-dollar Farm Bill that addresses the needs of grape and wine producers to a degree never seen before on the federal level.

Enjoy the rain
I will come back to the Farm Bill in a minute, but let’s enjoy the rain first. As you’ll see in Paul Franson’s article in Top Stories, the rains came in force to California’s North Coast. The five-day tropical storm was heavy and prolonged but well behaved.

Seven to 15 inches of rain fell in many parts of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The rain began slowly and continued steadily, gradually drenching the ground, filling reservoirs that were nearly dry and soaking into the root zones of grapevines.

As I write this a few days later, cover crops in Napa and Sonoma have sprung to life, the mustard is already blooming in some vineyards (as if to trash my headline in the last issue, “Where Has All the Mustard Gone?”), dairy cows are finally finding new grass to graze on, and two more rainy days are in the forecast for the next week.

But it wasn’t good enough news for most. Vineyards in California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and much of the Central Coast still face severe drought. To help you cope, two articles in the Practical Winery & Vineyard section explain new research on optimizing irrigation and understanding soil moisture. Check out these peer-reviewed pieces.

The Farm Bill giveth
The Farm Bill, which sets funding for ag industries across the country for a five-year period, made headlines for what it took away from other farmers, and from food stamp users. The bill eliminated the direct payments that commodity-crop farmers have relied on for many years and gave them more crop insurance options instead.

More than three-quarters of Farm Bill funds go to food stamps, but Congress slightly reduced the food stamp portion this time around. Advocates for the poor objected, saying families living below the poverty line will face new hardships as their food assistance is cut.

The wine industry, however, gained a big increase in federal support. As Andrew Adams’ report in Top Stories details, the bill gives 55% more for research that can be applied to grapes and also increased support for an ambitious export-promotion program managed by the Wine Institute, among other good uses.

It’s difficult to pull out of the actual bill’s language or the Congressional Budget Office’s review of the bill exactly how much money will come to grapes and wine. I tried. I do know that the words “grapes,” “wine” and “vineyard” are not printed anywhere in these two large documents. But it appears that the various “specialty crops” including grapes will split more than $200 million per year in several categories.

That is still a very small amount compared to what other ag industries have been receiving. Keep in mind that until the previous farm bill passed in 2008, grapegrowers and winemakers got next to nothing from it. Beginning then, however, the bill included research money for specialty crops. Grapes fall into that category, as do most fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursery plants.

The farm bill has been, and still is to a great extent, focused on corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and other mega crops. I find that ironic, considering that some of those crops and their byproducts are the ones making Americans obese and unhealthy, and which often require farming inputs that are equally unhealthy for the environment.

It’s not logical that starch and sugar producers get so much support when it’s the healthy fruits, vegetables, nuts and—let’s say it—wine that are lacking in the American diet. A forward-thinking Congress would back the specialty crops more and more to promote a healthier population that will need less medical care and be more productive, for example.

The wine industry should be very thankful to California’s Wine Institute and other groups for the education and lobbying efforts of many years that made possible the substantial increase in support from the Farm Bill.

To end this second drought-watch edition of the Editor’s Letter, I recommend that we all revive the 1977 bumper-sticker slogan: Conserve Water, Drink Wine!

 
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