Showdown over specialty crops looming in farm bill debate
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WASHINGTON, July 11, 2012 -Specialty crop interests say changes proposed in the House farm bill for a program that enhances access to fruits and vegetables in school meal programs will likely result in conflict between the program's Senate author and House leaders who want to expand it.
A version of a 2012 Farm Bill to be marked up by the House Agriculture Committee today changes the language under the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) to expand it to include dried, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables eligible for purchase under the program.
The Senate version of the farm bill, adopted last month, makes no changes to the program, first launched in 2002. Dried fruits had previously been eligible until lawmakers removed them during the 2008 farm bill conference committee deliberations.
Dan Haley, a lobbyist representing a variety of specialty crop groups, said expanding eligible fruits and vegetables is likely to pit Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the architect of the program in 2002, against the chairmen and ranking members of both the House agriculture and education committees, contending that Harkin is likely to “vehemently oppose the changes.” Still, Haley said, Harkin would face “four strong voices from the House” if the bill gets to conference.
Haley said that while “specialty crop interests have gotten 95% of what they have asked for,” there remains some difference of opinion within the industry as well. “There are some who understand the politics of it,” and accept the program as designed, he said, “and some who want 100% or nothing.”
Haley noted that under House rules, the program's connection to school meals put it under the jurisdiction of the Education and Labor Committee. But the education panel ceded control to the agriculture committee so the program could be amended to include the additional dried, canned and frozen items.
Still, under the rules, the expanded program provision can only be amended on the House floor ‑ a move that Haley thinks is unlikely.
“Unless absolutely necessary, you do not ask a politician to pick winners and losers,” Haley said. “Not many politicians want to say ‘I pick fresh as a winner and dried as a loser.' They want to support all agriculture and this is what this change reflects.
“Politically it may bring more votes to a bill that would be in trouble,” Haley said. “More people supporting the bill, the better.”
Elsewhere on the specialty crop front, indications in both the House and Senate indicate that with the elimination in the next five-year farm bill of direct payments, a pilot program introduced in the 2008 Farm Bill to expand payments on base acres as a means of promoting fruit and vegetable production, also is headed for termination.
The program allows farmers in Midwestern states to grow certain fruits and vegetables for processing to be planted on up to 75,000 acres of cropland enrolled in the farm commodity support programs without forfeiting government payments on their remaining base acres.
“This expansion of ‘planting flexibility,' which would allow growers who receive federal payments to also plant fruits and vegetables on acres on which they receive benefits (base acres), is generally opposed by groups representing specialty crop growers, but supported by many food processors,” stated a CRS report. Prior to the establishment of this pilot program, specialty crops and organically produced commodities were not eligible for support under USDA's farm commodity price and income support programs.
“The end of direct payments and the planting prohibition is going to allow farmers to have the flexibility to plant what they want to plant without having to jump through all of the regulatory hoops,” said Red Gold Director of Agriculture Steve Smith, speaking on behalf of processors.
Calling the planting prohibition on specialty crops a hassle for the Farm Service Agency and producers alike, Smith said “the elimination of the prohibitions is going to allow our producers to make market-based decisions without limitations or artificial barriers.”
Although it represents a policy change for specialty crops, the elimination of the pilot program may not have a significant effect on produce acreage, according to some industry representatives.
“The pilot program really served no purpose as we thought, it didn't incentivize anyone to plant fruits and vegetables, it really was just not useful,” according to a United Fresh spokesperson.
According to Farm Service Agency (FSA) analysis, in the first year of the pilot program only 10,215 acres were planted under the pilot program, about 14% of the total allowable acres by statute and a small share of total processing vegetable acreage.
According to Western Growers, the elimination of direct payments and the base acre 2008 Farm Bill pilot does not particularly indicate an increase in specialty crop acreage.
“But if recent history is any indicator, the pilot in the last farm bill on limited flexibility was underutilized, so we wonder just how much demand is really there for planting these fruits and vegetables as has been argued in the past,” Western Growers stated. “We are pleased that market signals will dictate utilization going forward.”
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