WASHINGTON — The U.S. Farm Bill is up for renewal this year, and the outlook is looking good for fruit and vegetable growers.
Historically, the Farm Bill — last renewed in 2002 — has favored large subsidies for commodity crops such as wheat, corn, rice, soybeans and cotton. Growers of these five crops, primarily major agribusiness operations, have received more than 90% of the subsidy payments allocated in past farm bills.
However, this year, “specialty” crops — an umbrella category that includes fruits, vegetables and other non-commodity crops — may finally have their day in the sun, as growers and produce industry groups find themselves allied with childhood nutrition advocates, conservation experts and even the leadership of the USDA in recommending a bill that would place more emphasis on supporting these foods.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns himself has become a vocal advocate for specialty-crop parity, saying at the National Potato Council's annual meeting in February that “if we are serious about securing the future of agriculture, we need to tend as well to our specialty crops as we have done with our [commodity] crops in past years.”
Rather than focus on obtaining similar subsidy payments for fruit and vegetable growers, industry groups such as the United Fresh Produce Association are putting forward proposals they say would help improve their industry's competitiveness, both domestically and internationally. These include requests for a strengthened state block-grant program; increased federal investment in specialty-crop research programs that would improve trade access to international markets; and programs that would increase the supply of fruits and vegetables to schools for lunches and snacks.
These goals have already gained significant support. The USDA's own set of proposals for the 2007 Farm Bill, released in late January, recommended $5 billion in funding to support specialty-crop producers.
Working with the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, a coalition of dozens of fruit and vegetable groups and regional associations, Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., Randy Kuhl, R-N.Y., John Salazar, D-Colo., Adam Putnam, R-Fla., Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., helped craft the Equitable Agriculture Today for a Healthy America Act, or EAT Healthy America Act.
Putting forth a framework of the specialty crop portion of the Farm Bill the industry would like to see, this marker bill was introduced to the House of Representatives last month. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, have said they will soon reintroduce a companion bill, the Specialty Crops Competition Act of 2007, to the Senate.