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USDA’s Draft Farm Bill
Targets Specialty Crops

For weeks the buzz in industry circles has been that U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns was about to unveil a Farm Bill proposal that would show special attention to specialty crops, including fruits and vegetables.

The background is that although specialty crops account for nearly half the value of crops produced, almost the entire farm bill goes to so-called program crops, such as wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton.

As a result, a sort of “let’s get our share” effort has been under way, and it seems Secretary Johanns has been sympathetic to the claim.

The PMA looked it over and defined the following areas as of special interest to the produce industry:

  • providing $1 billion for research programs targeted to specialty crops. This initiative will include fundamental work in plant breeding, genetics and genomics to improve crop characteristics such as product appearance, environmental responses and tolerances, nutrient management and pest management.
  • providing $3.2 billion to improve nutrition assistance programs by purchasing more fruits and vegetables. This funding will support efforts by schools and other participants to offer meals based on the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans by increasing the availability of fruits and vegetables to students participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs and to participants in other nutrition assistance programs.
  • Increasing the Market Access Program by $250 million. This initiative allows partnerships between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and nonprofit domestic agricultural trade associations to share the costs of overseas marketing and promotional activities such as consumer promotions and market research.
  • Increasing support for a number of initiatives that help to address sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues and other trade restrictions that affect specialty crop and other producers.

United Fresh has worked on this issue as part of the larger Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance and the alliance issued a statement praising the initiative:

USDA Farm Bill Proposal Recognizes Specialty Crop Need

Washington, DC (January 31, 2007) — In a statement today, the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA), a national coalition of more than 80 specialty crop grower organizations, stated that the comprehensive farm bill proposal released by USDA Secretary Johanns today clearly acknowledges the policy imperative to have specialty crop producers at the table during the upcoming debate over national agriculture policy. The Administration’s proposal calls for new mandatory spending of $5 billion over ten years to address issues important to specialty crop growers as part of a comprehensive plan of broad reforms to existing USDA subsidy, trade, nutrition, research, energy and conservation programs.

“Overall, specialty crops account for nearly fifty percent of domestic farm gate crop value, but receive very little consideration in the current farm bill. We applaud Secretary Johanns for his remarks today. We believe the Administration’s farm bill proposals begin to focus the appropriate attention on specialty crops, and emphasize the importance of these crops to the economic well being of U.S. agriculture,” said John Keeling, Executive Vice President & CEO, National Potato Council and Co-Chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance.

“The specialty crop growers across the country are appreciative of USDA for taking important first steps to address the needs of specialty crop producers as they work to improve the competitiveness of our industry,” said Mike Stuart, President of Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and Co-Chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. “USDA both understood and acknowledged the messages that specialty crop growers provided during the farm bill listening sessions about the need for adequate support for research, nutrition, promotion, conservation, market access, and pest and disease management, while at the same time not creating a system of direct payments for our industry,” Stuart commented.

“The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance will work with USDA and with Congress to draft a farm bill that provides a level of resources which reflects specialty crop growers’ large contribution to the economy and addresses critical needs,” stated Tom Nassif, President of Western Growers and Co-Chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. “However, the SCFBA believes strongly that this cannot include extending opportunities to program crop growers to grow non-program crops on acres that receive a continuing stream of direct payments. The SCFBA also believes that any farm bill approved by Congress must include strong funding for Specialty Crop Block Grants to states, which have proven successful in assisting specialty crop growers to improve their competitiveness in global markets,” Nassif stated.

USDA’s proposal includes significant expansion of current initiatives to assist foreign trade in specialty crops through the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC) and the Market Access Program (MAP).To further assist in expanding trade opportunities, the agency’s proposal calls for improvements to address phytosanitary restrictions on trade, to participate in international standards setting bodies, and to provide assistance in trade disputes and legal challenges.

Importantly, the USDA proposal would take strong steps to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables by the public and in federal feeding and school lunch programs. The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and Section 32 purchases would all be expanded and enhanced to encourage increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

The specialty crop industry appreciates the inclusion of specific provisions in the proposed energy title to encourage the development of a national agriculture energy policy that will allow evaluation and utilization of specialty crop waste and other biomass feedstock in the production of cellulosic ethanol. Finally, the USDA farm bill proposal makes a significant commitment to expanding specialty crop research. Specialty crop growers understand that research that improves production efficiency, reduces input cost, and improves product quality is the cornerstone of a competitive, successful specialty crop industry.

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance thanks Secretary Johanns for his leadership and commitment to developing an agriculture policy for the future that is equitable and sustainable. The coalition is ready to work with the USDA and the Congress to craft a farm bill that serves the needs of all agriculture producers.

The big battle in Congress is likely to be over the issue of whether program crop farmers can use land idled under those programs to grow produce. The produce industry thinks this unfair competition as these growers would have two streams of income — from the government and from the crop. Thus they would be in a position to pose unfair competition.

This whole area is obvious but also problematic. Yes, of course, if the government is going to spend countless billions on agriculture, we want our guys to get some.

Yet the bigger questions are: Why are we giving billions to program crop farmers? And if everyone just fights for his piece of the pie, who is going to fight for fiscal sanity on the farm bill?

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