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More Challenges For Farm Bill

It seems like just the other day we were running pieces, such as USDA’s Draft Farm Bill Targets Specialty Crops and produce Notches Up On Farm Bill, pointing out the trade’s success at getting additional funding in the Farm Bill.

Yet now The International Herald Tribune reports that of the trade’s $8.5 billion dollar wish list, the House only came up with $1.6 billion:


With Americans eating bad diets and getting fatter by the year, the country’s produce industry made a bold political calculation.

Surely, farmers thought, the government could be talked into supporting crops like New Jersey tomatoes, Michigan apples and California spinach.

A new farm bill is on the drawing board in Washington, and growers of fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and nursery crops, known collectively as specialty crops, came up with an $8.5 billion wish list. They built political alliances. They doubled their campaign contributions. They even sent nine perky watermelon queens in white sashes to Capitol Hill to press their case.

But confronting what a U.S. Senator calls “old-time power politics,” mastered long ago by savvier farm lobbies like cotton and corn, the specialty crop growers are coming up short of their goals. They have secured only $1.6 billion so far in a House vote and hope to improve on that in the Senate.

“We have a voice in Washington, but it isn’t anywhere near what the cotton boys or corn or soybeans or ethanol has,” said Chuck Obern, a vegetable farmer in Clewiston, Florida.

Farming may conjure up images of red barns and Holstein cows. But in Washington, farm politics is a game of sharp elbows and opportunistic alliances, and the agricultural policies that emanate from Capitol Hill are remarkably resistant to change.

Those policies come up for renewal about every five years. What is emerging this time, in legislation that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, looks a lot like the system that has been on the books for decades. It would spend some $14 billion a year on payments to farmers, with billions going to growers of big commodity crops like feed corn and cotton, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

It would spend little on crops that most people recognize as food, like carrots, peaches, almonds or spinach. Such crops, along with nuts and nursery plants, generate almost half the country’s crop receipts, $57 billion out of a total $120 billion in 2006. But the industry is fragmented and growers have never had much political clout.

Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, is a veteran of the farm wars. He summed up the way things work on the Hill like this: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back, and we’ll save programs that are worthless.”

For decades, even as commodity growers collected hundreds of billions from the government, produce farmers wanted nothing to do with Washington. Concentrated in the sunbelt states of California, Texas and Florida, they enjoyed healthy prices for their crops and managed to grow them with no government subsidies.

But in recent years, the industry has confronted unprecedented challenges. Outbreaks of food-borne illness from contaminated lettuce and spinach created an urgent need for research to safeguard the food supply. Non-U.S. competition and labor shortages, meanwhile, have decimated some produce sectors like garlic, tomatoes and apricots.

Produce farmers argue that consumers have a stake in their success, and should therefore support their requests for farm bill dollars. Without a strong and competitive produce industry in the United States, consumers would depend on foreign sources of fruits and vegetables where regulations may not be as stringent, they contend.

And the industry wants government money to promote consumption of fruits and vegetables. For instance, the House version of the farm bill would expand a program that provides free fruits and vegetables as school snacks to all 50 states.

Produce growers first decided they needed help the last time the farm bill was up for revision, in 2002, and they created an alliance with other specialty crops such as nursery growers, tree-nut farmers and the wine industry. The coalition debated whether to ask Congress for subsidies but ultimately decided to seek money for research and marketing instead, mostly to help farmers compete with an onslaught of foreign competition.

With little experience lobbying Congress, the industry’s campaign fell flat.

“We put together a nice little booklet for the farm bill. We were so proud of it,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association. “We didn’t work the Hill much.”

Having learned from those mistakes, industry leaders began planning for the current farm bill in May 2005. They set their sights much higher, $8.5 billion for marketing, research and grants, but no direct subsidies. They cultivated ties on the Hill.

Whether the political strategy of the specialty crop industry will pay off should become apparent in coming weeks.

You can read the complete article here.

One senses from the piece that legislators may vote for bills establishing and expanding funding for all kinds of programs that will play well with the folks back home: Conservation efforts, produce in schools, produce food safety research, etc.

In D.C., however, “tis always many a slip ‘tween the cup and the lip,” and there is a long road before appropriation bills are passed and the Treasury starts writing checks.

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, came out with a statement applauding the Senate Finance Committee for its willingness to ‘provide more than $8 billion in new funding for overall farm bill priorities’ and praising the Committee for addressing the alliance’s priorities ‘outside the baseline funding’ — this is all code for agreeing to spend money on specialty crops but not having the courage to take any away from program crops. Yet this is unlikely to work.

In a new fiscal environment where the President is anxious to regain Republican fiscal credentials by vetoing bills that exceed spending limits, every dollar that goes to produce is a dollar that can’t go somewhere else.

That means the upcoming Senate battle over the Farm Bill will be filled with challenges.

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