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Farm bill has unusual focus: fruits, veggies

The `specialty crops' get clout alongside cotton, corn, rice and the like.

March 18, 2007|Stephen J. Hedges | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — The building congressional debate over the Bush administration's proposed 2007 farm bill involves something unusual: actual food.

This bill puts new emphasis on what the Department of Agriculture calls specialty crops: fruits, vegetables and nuts from trees. They make up a third of the nation's cash crop receipts -- a full 50% of receipts if floriculture and greenhouse plant sales are counted -- and, until now, they haven't drawn much federal money or attention.

Expanded competition from overseas -- as well as a change in the government's nutrition pyramid in 2005, new concerns about nutrition in the federally funded school meals program, and the growing organic foods market -- have all helped to elevate specialty crops in the agriculture funding debate.

"The specialty crop group has always been tangentially involved, and now we expect to be in the middle of things," said John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive of the National Potato Council. "This promises to be a more open process than before."

Past farm funding measures have been dominated by the needs of what the agriculture industry calls "program crops" or, more informally, "the big five" -- corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. Those crops are used not just to feed people, but for products as diverse as corn syrup sweeteners, animal feed, fabrics and ethanol.

A new emphasis

Now that emphasis is changing. In 2003, fruit and vegetable growers pushed a Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act through Congress, elevating their industry's profile and the need to fund crop research and market expansion. But that funding is just a fraction of the $12 billion that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will be spent annually until 2016 under Agriculture Department programs to pay farmers for failed crops, land set-asides and disaster relief.

About two years ago, the produce growers also formed an alliance to promote their agenda in Congress. And the House in January established a subcommittee on horticulture and organic agriculture.

Charles Conner, deputy secretary of Agriculture, told a House committee last month that the latest farm bill would "create greater equity in farm policy by increasing support for specialty crop growers through an array of changes that will enhance their ability to compete in the marketplace."

The proposed bill, which requires congressional approval, would "target nearly $5 billion in funding to support specialty crop producers by increasing nutrition in food assistance programs, including school meals, through the purchase of fruits and vegetables, funding specialty crop research, fighting trade barriers and expanding export markets," according to the USDA. The House and Senate Agriculture committees are examining the proposal.

For specialty crop growers, the biggest boost could come from $500 million over 10 years that the USDA proposes to spend to put more fruits and vegetables into the national school meal programs. Those direct purchases would probably expand a school lunch fruit and vegetable snack program that is active in 16 states.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has also proposed spending $20 million a year to study obesity in low-income Americans, work that is almost certain to emphasize consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Jean Daniel of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service said: "The administration has also offered a proposal to increase spending on fruits and vegetables across all 15 feeding programs [by] about $2.75 billion over 10 years. That will provide fruits and veggies not only to school meal programs but to emergency food assistance that we have through food banks and in reserve."

Other proposed changes in the farm bill include $68 million for the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops Program, and $230 million over 10 years to expand market access for nonprogram crops.

Unfair advantage?

Some in the specialty crop industry say that some of the proposals are deceptive.

Most distressing, according to Tom Nassif, president and chief executive of the Western Growers Assn., is the USDA's proposal to lift a produce-growing ban on farmers who received subsidies for program crops.

The department says it must lift the ban to make U.S. crops comply with World Trade Organization agreements.

But Nassif said no existing WTO export agreement governed fruits and vegetables. The USDA proposal, he said, would give some program-crop farmers an unfair advantage over those already growing specialty crops.

"We're paying for the previous sins of the cotton industry when we've done absolutely nothing," said Nassif, a former Reagan administration official and U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

"Why should we grow fruits and vegetables on land that's not subsidized?"

It doesn't appear that the emphasis on specialty crops will harm the funding that program crops now receive. The specialty-crop farmers are not asking for price supports or assistance similar to the aid given to program-crop farmers. In fact, they make a point of saying they don't want government involvement in their pricing and planting decisions.

"This is a highly entrepreneurial-based, competitive industry," said Mike Stuart, president and chief executive of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assn. Growers "see direct payments as not productive. But they do see investment in research and nutrition programs as ways to keep the industry free from basic pests and disease."

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