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Produce Notches Up On Farm Bill

Farm Bill to Push Fruit and Veggies is the headline — which means the produce industry did far better than expected in negotiations in the Ag Committee in the House of Representatives:

WASHINGTON — Congress wants you — and your kids — to eat more fruit and vegetables.

For the first time, substantial help for fruit and vegetable growers is included in the farm bill that’s scheduled for debate in the House beginning Thursday.

“It’s a dramatic increase,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee. “It’s probably four times as much as in past farm bills.”

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., said the bill will help not only the blueberry and strawberry farmers in southern North Carolina but also school children who will see more fresh produce as snacks and at lunch.

“We can now give proper attention to crops that have been overlooked,” he said.

Since its inception in 1938, the federal farm program has subsidized farmers who grow such commodity crops as corn, rice, cotton, soy beans and wheat. It also underwrites the food stamp program.

Critics say the federal government subsidizes corn, wheat and sugar that contribute to the nation’s obesity problem but does nothing to help farmers growing foods that are considered healthier.

“We’re overfed and undernourished,” said Stephanie Patrick of the American Dietetic Association.

The House version of the bill includes more than $1.5 billion over five years to put more fresh fruit and vegetables in the schools, research better growing methods and help farmers market produce internationally.

But don’t look for price supports for blackberries and broccoli. These farmers reject federal programs that began in the New Deal and now subsidize commodity crop farmers to the tune of $12 billion to $25 billion annually, depending on market prices.

“I do not want this farm bill to be a subsidy in any way,” said Ervin Lineberger in a telephone interview from his farm in Cleveland County, N.C., where he grows blackberries, strawberries and grapes on 50 acres. “I would rather the emphasis be placed on helping the consumer toward a healthy diet. That will take care of our market.”

Apple grower Phil Glaize in Winchester, Va., said federal support would help firm up prices and open new markets. “It gives me an idea whether the apple industry is sustainable over 15 years or we are going to have to fold due to low prices and competition,” he said.

“It really is just enough to help us stay competitive and perhaps expand our markets,” said Lisa Lochridge of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Nutrition advocates hope that providing free fruit and vegetables to students will help wean them from fatty snacks.

“It’s not enough to tell kids to eat more fruit and vegetables if you don’t serve lots of fruit and vegetables in school lunches and as snacks,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The bill authorizes the Agriculture Department to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables for school lunch programs and expands the federal program that provides free fruit and vegetables as school snacks.

“They eat sliced apples, and watermelon and baby carrots as opposed to the more popular snack food items,” said Erik Peterson of the School Nutrition Association. “The demand at the vending machines goes down a little bit.”

The health snack program currently costs the government $9 million to put produce in 25 schools in each of 13 states. The bill calls for a $70 million program in at least 35 schools in each of the 50 states. Advocates hope that Congress will expand the program to 100 schools in each state.

“That makes it a huge win-win for improving child nutrition and to help us create future consumers,” said Lorelei DiSogra, nutrition and health expert for the United Fresh Produce Association.

Congratulations are certainly due to the trade’s government relations teams that have been working hard on this issue.

Of course, “tis many a slip ‘tween the cup and the lip,” and passing a committee in the House is a long way from a law and an appropriation and money actually being spent. But it is big progress.

Of course, that depends on how one defines progress. One of the questions in all the discussions of PMA/United merger is what kind of government relations the industry actually wants. It is in the DNA of advocates to want “more” and, perhaps, that is what the trade wants. Or, perhaps, the trade thinks that is the best deal that can be gotten.

Yet the produce industry is pretty conservative. One wonders if you did a survey whether what the industry would urge is actually more money for produce in the farm bill or, rather, getting rid of the trillions spent on big program crops and reducing taxes instead.

Senator Lugar, who is a Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is pushing the Farm 21 Bill, which phases out commodity subsidies by implementing new “Risk-Management Accounts.” When Senator Lugar was Chairman of the Ag Committee, he thought he had phased out subsidies at that time. But the minute the business got bad, the Congress caved and sent hundreds of billions more to big program crop growers.

In any case, it may all be moot. Brazil has joined Canada in a complaint at the World Trade Organization against U.S. agricultural subsidies. Already Brazil won a complaint requiring the U.S. to overhaul its cotton subsidies. Since the U.S. has no real case, it has been stalling by withholding documents from the WTO since 2001. But things are coming to a head.

It is all fine to add money for nutrition and conservation to the Farm Bill, but we hope the price we pay is not to have to acquiesce in supporting enormously inefficient and wasteful program crop payments.

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