I have been lucky enough to live on the Central Coast of California for most of my adult life. Indeed the very essence of its rich agricultural landscape has profoundly shaped my career and belief systems. I was fortunate to connect with my Congressman Jimmy Panetta, who has also been touched by growing up on the Central Coast.
From artichokes to strawberries to lettuce to wine grapes, the Central Coast is the epicenter of organic agriculture producing over $5 billion annually. The community of farmers and farm workers that tills this fertile area produces more than 100 different crops and helps give the area its moniker “the Salad Bowl of the World.”
I thanked him for representing the area which boasts the largest areas of organic production in the country. I wanted to know why organic production is important and how it shapes his priorities.
“The Central Coast has always been on the leading edge of organic production. Producers in my district were instrumental in influencing the creation of the federal organic program, and they continue to lead the industry in organic fruit and vegetable production. For many of our producers, organic production is as much of a lifestyle as it is a business opportunity.
Recognizing the historical, cultural, and economic contributions of the organic industry to the Central Coast, I am advocating for strong investments in organic research and production in the 2018 Farm Bill. I am working with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to identify areas where Congress can continue to propel the success of the organic industry.”
I asked him what he thinks the biggest challenges are for organic agriculture.
“I think the greatest challenge to the organic community right now is continuing to protect its integrity. National headlines last year focused on how fraudulent organic imports are threatening to undermine consumer confidence.
To address this concern, I am a proud cosponsor of a bill that would invest resources in USDA’s National Organic Program and increase USDA’s authority to identify and to take retaliatory action on fraudulent organic imports.”
He serves on the Organic Caucus, and I asked him about its priorities.
“The Organic Caucus, of which I am a member, serves as a platform for Democrats and Republicans to advocate for the organic industry. The Caucus has been critical in ensuring that the organic bills currently in the U.S. House of Representatives have strong, bipartisan support. Additionally, the Caucus comes together during the appropriations cycle to push the House Appropriations Committee to invest discretionary funds into organic programs.
Being a member of this Caucus allows me to join a bipartisan coalition of members from all across the country to drive support for the organic industry. By working through this Caucus, we can effectively demonstrate why organic programs are needed.”
He is a Co-Chair of the Agricultural Research Caucus, and I asked him to elaborate on his work to champion organic research in the coming years.
“During my first year in Congress, I founded the Agriculture Research Caucus with Congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL), the chairman of the Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Subcommittee. This bipartisan Caucus now includes almost 30 members.
As the co-founder and co-chair of that Caucus, I am establishing a strong bipartisan platform for organic research advocacy. I have pushed members of the Caucus and other members to support my Organic Agriculture Research Act, increasing the number of cosponsors from a dozen to 57 Republicans and Democrats. These members, all with a vested interest in California agriculture, show a unified force in increasing funding to the organic industry.
Additionally, I have hosted my co-chair, Congressman Davis, in my district to highlight the importance of investments in organic research. We spoke with producers, both large and small, about the research needs of the organic industry. From soil health to pest management, Congressman Davis was able to hear firsthand from Central Coast producers about the challenges they face and where innovation could drive productivity.”
Since legalized cannabis production began in 2018, I asked him how it could affect the agriculture community in his district.
“California is ahead of Washington, D.C. when it comes to setting cannabis policy. This was proven with California’s recent legalization to allow the recreational use of cannabis. This state law went into effect just this year, so I think it is too early to definitely say what the effects will be on the agriculture industry.
That being said, I have heard some concerns from local producers. With an agricultural labor force that is aging and shrinking, many producers are concerned that they will lose workers to cannabis production. Cannabis is generally less labor intensive than many of our specialty crops, so there are concerns in the industry that workers will pivot to less strenuous work and add to the already existing problem of the shrinking agriculture workforce.”
I wanted to know how it will play out on the federal level.
“Unfortunately, I do not think that there will be any progressive movement on cannabis policy under the current Administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is strongly opposed to legalizing cannabis at the federal level and has even threatened to take legal action against California’s recent legalization.
I have advocated removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act Schedule I designation. The Scheduling system represents a drug’s medical value and the potential for abuse. Cannabis is designated a Schedule I drug because, without enough research, the United States government views it an illegal drug with no health benefits and a high potential for abuse.
Congress should start investing in federal research on cannabis. Currently, the only place legally conducting any cannabis research is the University of Mississippi. By expanding research opportunities, I hope the federal government will reschedule and appropriately regulate cannabis.”
I appreciate Congressman Panetta’s tireless work as champion of agriculture in my district. I asked him what drives his passion for public service in “ the Salad Bowl of the World.”
“My immigrant grandparents came to the United States to give their children a better life. Since they worked very hard to achieve the American Dream, we were taught that we should always give back to the country and community that gave us so much.
That commitment inspired and guided me throughout my adulthood, as a prosecutor in Alameda and Monterey counties to my service as an officer in the United States Navy, and now as a Member of Congress.”