A Farm Bill for All Americans

As the nation faces heightened concerns related to food and the economy, President Bush has chosen to veto the Farm Bill that this Congress sent him last week. Congress has taken up the Farm Bill reauthorization in part to address the needs of our nation's farmers and farm workers, as well as the nutritional needs of our country as a whole.

Agriculture in the United States is a vital component of our American fabric. Farmers and those who work the fields tend to our lands, feed our children, and embody the principles that this country stands for: perseverance, sacrifice, and hard work. Latinos are embedded in this American tradition and helping sustain it. Between 1997 and 2002, the Census of Agriculture reported a 200% increase in Latino farmers. An overwhelming 78 percent of farm workers today are foreign born. Of those, 75 percent were from Mexico and 2 percent from Central America. Of all farm workers, 83 percent self-identified as Latinos. As this population continues to grow, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) has committed itself to providing the Hispanic agricultural community with the resources and assistance needed to maintain their livelihoods. It is imperative that we continue supporting them to our fullest capacity.

Last week, Congress helped do just that -- sending the bi-partisan Farm Bill, passed with veto-proof margins by both the House of Representatives and Senate, to the White House. Thanks to the efforts of our Members, the bill incorporates several provisions directed towards helping Latino farmers and farm workers, while also extending programs to vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.

Latino farmers, a group that often harvests specialty crops, will undoubtedly benefit from the $1.6 billion allocated for fresh fruit and vegetable production. Resources will be funneled to Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI's) that have programs in agriculture, so that they can continue to improve on and pioneer new innovations in the agricultural sector. America must remain on the cutting edge of technology. With Latinos continuing to be an integral part of this industry, it is only wise to incorporate them and the institutions of higher learning that serve them, in efforts to promote this sector's growth.

There are 2.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers. For this country, they help produce 3.6 billion pounds of tomatoes, 10.9 billion pounds of lettuce, and 5 billion tons of apples. The strawberries they pick amount to $1.47 billion worth of produce. Yet, even after all these contributions, farm workers continue to be underpaid and exposed to dangerous conditions. That is why I was glad to push for the inclusion of a project on pesticide safety research, which will look at the long-term effects of pesticide exposure on farm workers and their families -- including a look at the increase risk of cancer and birth defects, as well as much other needed research.

It is important to understand that the Farm Bill does more than simply benefit the agricultural industry. Many families nationwide are feeling the onerous economic pressures caused by a volatile economy. Low-income minorities, including Latinos, comprise a significant portion of those most affected. The Farm Bill expands several federal programs to adjust for these changes. It increases funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) from $140 million to $250 million, while strengthening USDA school food programs, and helping put more fresh fruits and vegetables in our school's lunch rooms.

The CHC is proud of what its Members have fought to incorporate in the final the version of this bill. As CHC Members have remained involved throughout the Farm Bill's long path, the bill reflects many of the priorities of the CHC and needs of Hispanic community. By engaging the fastest growing community in the nation -- Latinos -- we ensure that our investments will return, benefiting not just one segment of the population or one industry, but our country in its entirety.

Today's veto was a loud message to the president, in support of all Americans who need the support this bill provides now.

Congressman Joe Baca represents the 43rd District of California. He sits on the House Agriculture Committee, and is the Chair of the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry. He is also the Chair of the 21-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus.