By Vicky Boyd

What was originally billed as a debate between the area's two congressional candidates turned into a town hall meeting when only Rep. Jeff Denham showed up at the event hosted by the San Joaquin Farm Bureau.

Josh Harder, a Turlock venture capitalist running against Denham in the 10th District, had other arrangements that night and couldn't make it, SJFB President Jim Ferrari told the audience.

Denham took the opportunity to point out his opponent's previous comments to debate him any time, any place. Yet Harder also was visibly absent at a debate-turned-town-hall held with Denham the previous week at The House Church in Modesto.

Ferrari said he was a bit "surprised that a guy who's seeking office wouldn't take an opportunity to talk to anyone who could be a potential constituent or could be a potential voter. I think he lost an opportunity to present his views to us."

David Strecker, SJFB first vice president, said he, too, thought it unusual that Harder was a no-show. "I thought he would have wanted to address the ag community," he said. "We're a neutral enough group – we just wanted to hear from both sides, and he could have spoken to agriculture and the community."

Wide range of topics

For more than an hour, a panel of four comprising Ferrari, Strecker, and SJFB directors Mick Canevari and Dave Simpson, asked wide-ranging questions drafted by the Farm Bureau as well as submitted by audience members.

Strecker said he enjoyed the variety of questions, some of which dealt with issues outside of agriculture.

"It allowed (Denham) to back up some of his decisions and back up some of the things he's done in the past," he said.

Denham currently sits on three House committees: Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Transportation and Infrastructure. Should he be elected to another term, Denham likely will be named chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and possibly another on which he currently sits.

When Simpson asked if he would seek membership on other committees, such as the Ways and Means that handle larger budgets, Denham said that wasn't in his plans.

"I'm on these committees because it's representative of my district, plus it's what I know," he said.

Water: The top issue

Having been at the Sacramento Capitol water rally earlier in the day, Denham said his top priority has been and will continue to be water.

"There's no other issue that's more critical," he said. "If you take away our water, it affects our communities, it affects our industry – it has devastating effects. We've never had a battle like this." Building new water storage is critical for the state, especially since the last project completed was New Melones Reservoir in the 1970s. Since then, the state's population has nearly doubled.

As a member of the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, Denham said he continues to broach the subject of new water storage. He's also has met with President Donald Trump on the topic. "Water, both from the immediate issue of wasting water and pushing it out to the ocean, we have to stop this state water grab," he said. "But second, this is our biggest opportunity to get infrastructure built."

Among the water projects on the drawing board are Sites Reservoir in Colusa County, Temperance Flat Reservoir near Fresno, and raising Shasta and Los Vaqueros Reservoir dams.

Denham said building desalination plants also has a place in other parts of the states, where urban water users can afford to pay for more expensive water.

He also toured Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke around the state in mid-August to give them a first-hand look at the challenges farmers face.

2018 Farm Bill progress

With little acreage planted to "program crops" compared to Midwestern states, many California growers feel left out of current Farm Bill negotiations, Canevari said. Program crops include cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, peanuts and rice.

Denham said lawmakers from specialty crop states, including California, banded together before the previous Farm Bill and were able to get additional funding for programs, such as research and market access, to help those sectors.

Coming off their success with the last Farm Bill, Denham said, specialty crop states were in a good position to expand those targeted options this go-round.

Versions of the 2018 Farm Bill have passed out of both the House and Senate and await conferencing, which is scheduled to start Sept. 5.

One of the main hurdles during current Farm Bill debates is the King Amendment attached to the House version, he said. It would prohibit any state from imposing a condition on the production or manufacture of an agricultural product sold in interstate commerce if the regulation is more stringent than federal law or standards set by other states.

If it remains in the Farm Bill, it would nullify Proposition 2, the California voter-passed initiative that sets minimum cage sizes for egg-laying hens. Subsequent state legislation barred the sale of eggs from any farmer, in or out of California, if the hens' pens didn't meet those standards.

"I can certainly see an unfair playing field," Denham said. "I actually believe it's a state's rights decision. It's one of the issues we're still fighting, but I'm confident we'll win over the next week."

Trade and tariffs

Denham also was asked about trade policy and tariffs, since many of San Joaquin County's specialty crops – such as almonds, walnuts and winegrapes – are caught in current trade wars.

"NAFTA I thought was a great program when it was first started," he said. "But like anything else, when you have a trade agreement, it needs to be adjusted every now and then."

Calling China the "worst actor," he said that country has had a history of usurping intellectual property rights and other technologies. China also erects phytosanitary barriers that don't have merit. Already, some of the trade issues between Canada and Mexico are being resolved, Denham said, with Japan following closely behind.

"We can't afford to have a long, drawn out battle with some of our best trading partners," he said. Canevari asked where California stands in receiving a share of the $12 billion in trade adjustment assistance designed to partially offset the effects of trade tariffs.

The bulk of those funds will go to growers of "program crops," such as soybeans, wheat, cotton, sorghum, dairy and hogs, who farm mostly in the Midwest, Denham said. A small part will be used for government purchases of fruit, nuts, legumes and other crops for distribution to food banks; and development of new export markets.

Immigration and border security

Immigration and border protection remain a top priority for the Trump administration. In fact, Denham had just returned from the California-Mexico border where he had viewed a 90-foot tunnel used to smuggle in people and contraband. He also got to see eight different prototypes of structures being considered along the border.

"It's disappointing it's becoming such a partisan issue," Denham said of border security. Along with securing the border also comes a need to repair the nation's broken immigration policy. As Strecker pointed out, many other states don't understand California's critical labor needs to help harvest and work in the myriad specialty crops.

"One of the most important issues in my district is making sure we're fixing the broken immigration system," Denham said.

One of the hurdles in the July GOP-backed immigration reform package was a proposed cap on guest workers, and he said the limitations would have harmed California. Although other groups had started to compromise as the negotiations progressed, he said the California Farm Bureau and Western Growers held strong. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte ultimately pulled the bill.

"Until we fix it for California, we'll continue to fight to make sure it's in our best interest and we don't want to be held at a disadvantage," Denham said. "Every industrialized nation has a guest worker program. Ours has been broken for a long time."