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Fair Farming
August 14, 2001

On Monday, with a stroke of his presidential pen, George W. Bush provided $5.5 billion in farm aid beyond the fiscal year's regular appropriation. Over $63 million is earmarked for California, the state responsible for half of our fruit and vegetable crop. But with prices barely outpacing production costs, Golden State farmers still suffer growing pains.

It's been a bumper year in the Central Valley, and growers should be celebrating a bountiful harvest. Instead, they're declaring bankruptcy and leaving fruit to rot in the fields. Farming communities are boarding their windows as vineyards and orchards are bulldozed to build parking lots.

The summer dealt California farmers a difficult hand -- trebled electric bills, shrinking water supplies, and increased labor and fertilizer costs. But generations of Western growers have weathered natural disaster before and would again were it not for a threat they cannot engage: unbridled foreign competition.

With the dollar riding high, exports are flagging, and with foreign currencies sinking, overseas competitors are scrambling to offload their subsidized oversupply. Add to that mix their lax environmental policies, non-existent fertilizer or pesticide restrictions, and limitless labor pools, and the prospects for American agriculture look barren indeed.

One pair of California farmers has resolved to not go down without a fight. This week, Jon Brandstad and Lisle Babcock launched a ballot initiative to force foreign growers to comply with the state's strict growing regulations if they want to sell their produce in California. They will need 419,000 signatures to put the measure on the November 2003 ballot as a new law; 670,000 for a constitutional amendment.

The request is eminently reasonable. "All we're saying is live by the same standards we do, and you can bring your crops in," says Brandstad, a San Joaquin pear and walnut farmer. But even if they succeed in the signature drive and prevail at the ballot box, the farmers' initiative will face a court challenge. Competitors would cry foul because state restrictions on countries are without precedent - a hurdle that would tumble if the federal government stood as ready to strengthen domestic suppliers as it is to sign aid checks.

What Washington fails to understand is that family farmers aren't begging for federal handouts. Make no mistake, they welcome Mr. Bush's latest infusion, but none see it as a final solution. They understand the uncertainties of the life they've chosen and have weathered droughts, overcome disease, and outlasted depression for the love of the land. But they need national clout to answer the countries putting them out of business and they're still waiting for the Administration to take their side -- not in a protectionist bubble, but on a level playing field.

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