Feb 28, 2014
Farm bill promising for fruit, vegetables

An analysis by specialty crop advocates indicates the 2014 Farm Bill contains programs that constitute a 55 percent increase in the government’s investment in the produce industry’s competitiveness and the nutritional well-being of Americans through increased consumption of more fruits and vegetables.

President Barack Obama signed the nearly $1 billion-a-year Agricultural Act of 2014 Feb. 7, on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing.

The event was hosted by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The ceremony was attended by administration officials, lawmakers and agricultural industry representatives.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the new farm bill in the first week of February – ending a three-year effort to get a new farm bill approved.

“I give Debbie Stabenow credit,” Obama said prior to the signing ceremony. “She really shepherded through this farm bill, which was a very challenging piece of business. It’s a bipartisan farm bill that is going to make a big difference throughout the country. The farm bill is not just about helping farmers. It lifts up our rural communities. We’ve had the strongest stretch of farm exports in our history in the last five years. We are selling more stuff to more people than ever before. Agriculture supports about 1 million American jobs.”

“Farming is the riskiest business we have,” Stabenow said. “We’re lucky we still have Americans willing to get up every morning, taking up the challenges of weather and the marketplace, to produce our food. I’m proud this farm bill is focused on the future, not the past. It’s changing the paradigm of agriculture.”

The farm bill provides a financial cushion for farmers who face unpredictable weather and market conditions. It also provides subsidies for rural communities and environmentally sensitive land. But the bulk of its cost is for the food stamp program, which aids one in seven Americans. The new bill reduces food stamps by $800 million a year, or around 1 percent.

The Republican House passed a bill in September that would have made a cut to food stamps that was five times more than the eventual cut; that dispute held the bill up for more than two years.

The new farm bill provides nearly $4 billion in funding for programs that benefit specialty crop production, including fresh produce. It includes an overall increase in investment of 55 percent over 2008 farm bill funding levels in critical produce industry initiatives and programs, including the State Block Grant Program, Specialty Crops Research Initiative, a new fruit and vegetable incentive grant program for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients, and the pest and disease prevention program. The bill also maintains funding for the Market Access Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to provide fresh produce snacks in schools.

“Everybody seems to agree that in the history of farm bill reauthorizations, this has been the most challenging and has taken the longest,” said Robert Guenther, United Fresh Produce Association’s senior vice president for public policy. “But even though the overall bill took many unexpected twists and turns, one thing was consistent: strong, bipartisan support in the House and Senate for fresh fruit and vegetable policies.

“Throughout the long process, farm bill programs for fruits and vegetables were maintained or strengthened,” Guenther said. “This is a clear sign that policymakers recognize the importance of our industry to the nutritional well-being of all Americans and to the overall U.S. economy.

Grateful for ‘investment’

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, representing more than 120 specialty crop organizations from across the country, praised the passage of the legislation.

“(This is) the most significant government investment ever into the competitiveness of specialty crop producers and industry members, with support for research, pest and disease prevention, state block grants, child nutrition, trade and more,” said a statement from the alliance.

“The alliance has been steadfast in urging Congress to pass a five-year farm bill that continues a strong investment in specialty crop agriculture,” said Alliance Co-Chair Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. “We appreciate the dedicated efforts of the House and Senate agriculture committee leadership in bringing forward a bill that will put more nutritious produce in schools, provide critical research funding to fight citrus greening and other invasive plant pests and diseases, and help us to expand markets for our crops.”

Alliance Co-Chair John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, agreed.

“After years of effort, America’s fruit and vegetable growers are eager for a farm bill that supports producers, helps families put healthy meals on their tables and assists local economies in retaining and growing jobs. We look forward to specialty crop producers getting back to what they do best: growing high-quality fruits and vegetables for America and the world,” Keeling said.

Alliance Co-Chair Tom Nassif, CEO and president of Western Growers Association, said the federal government is an important partner for change.

“The federal government becomes an invaluable partner in food production when it invests in science and research that increases food safety, reduces our dependence on natural resources, increases the consumption of fresh produce and provides healthy, fresh snacks to those children least able to afford them,” Nassif said.

Bryan Silbermann, CEO of Produce Marketing Association, said, “PMA commends Congress’ passage of the farm bill and applauds their attention to the needs of specialty crops throughout the bill.”

Silbermann noted the farm bill includes increased spending for state block grants to support specialty crops and the plant and disease program known as “10201.”

“The bill also maintains nutrition programs such as the snack program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purchases of fruits and vegetables for school meals,” he said. “Also included is the reauthorization of the research program designed to target research needed by specialty crops, even attempting to address concerns the coalition has raised to better align that research with industry needs.”

Ray Gilmer, vice president of issues management and communication for United Fresh, said the new farm bill provides numerous benefits for specialty crop producers.

“It funds specialty crop block grants. This program is a pillar of the produce industry’s utilization of the farm bill by providing funding for local needs,” Gilmer said. “New in this bill is a multi-state program administered by USDA that will focus on food safety, plant pests and disease, research and crop-specific projects that address issues that cross state lines. Annual funding for the block grants starts at $72.5 million.

“Value-added grants also are enhanced,” he said. “The farm bill includes mandatory funding of $63 million over five years for grants that can help companies create new products, expand their marketing or develop specialty and niche products.”

Regarding the measure’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Gilmer said, “This produce industry hallmark of the farm bill maintains baseline funding at $150 million a year. Thanks to this innovative program, school kids across the country receive fresh produce snacks to help ensure their nutrition and educate them about the flavorful benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.”

The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program will be initiated for the first time.

“This important new program, funded at $100 million over five years, establishes grants to incentivize SNAP recipients to buy fruits and vegetables,” Gilmer said.

Other funding elements pertinent to specialty growers that were outlined by Gilmer include:

The Market Access Program. The farm bill reauthorizes MAP at $200 million per year.

Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops. This program is reauthorized at $9 million a year.

Specialty Crop Research Initiative. SCRI, a “critically important” funding source for industry-specific research, includes $72.5 million a year.

Plant Pest and Disease Program. The bill includes mandatory funding of $62.5 million a year in fiscal years 2014-2017, and $75 million in fiscal year 2018. Included is a minimum of $5 million a year for the National Clean Plant Network.

The farm bill includes nearly $4 billion (over 10 years) in funding for programs benefitting the apple industry.

“USApple and our Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance partners worked closely with Debbie Stabenow, House Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and key members of both the House and Senate to deliver the best possible bill for apples and other specialty crops,” said USApple President Jim Bair.

“This is a great victory for the apple industry, since the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the Clean Plant Network – both top USApple priorities – lost funding under the latest extension because they did not have a ‘baseline’,” Bair said.

Bair pointed to other bill provisions that are a win-win for specialty crop producers.

“Recognizing that many consumers live beyond our borders, the legislation maintains funding for the Market Access Program and the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops Program. Designed to promote U.S. agricultural exports and assist producers in fighting non-tariff trade barriers, both programs are critical for the apple industry that exports more than 25 percent of the fresh crop each year.”

Export help

Obama also is launching a new program to help American farmers and rural businesses boost their exports. The president announced the “Made in Rural America” initiative during his farm bill signing speech.

The president unveiled the new program to connect rural businesses with federal resources that can help sell their products and services abroad. The program’s creation comes as U.S. farmers are sending more products overseas – a record $140.9 billion in the last fiscal year – but U.S. officials say additional opportunities exist.

Obama plans to direct federal agencies to take several steps in the next nine months. They include hosting five regional forums for rural businesses, training USDA staff in all 50 states to advise on export opportunities, and putting on a national conference to highlight successful projects.

Gary Pullano

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