Specialty crop producers are looking to the next farm bill to expand crop insurance options and provide increased funding to address a number of challenges facing the sector, including needs for faster automation and development of alternative pesticides.  

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance has agreed on a set of farm bill priorities that include significant funding increases for existing farm bill programs as well as creation of two new programs aimed at speeding the automation of growing and harvesting of fruits, vegetables, and other commodities.

The alliance, which represents commodities ranging from blueberries and broccoli to almonds and potatoes, also is seeking to expand the sector’s use of crop insurance by easing some restrictions in the program and addressing a lack of data that hinders the development of new policies for some crops.

The industry also has proposals for addressing other issues ranging from sustainable irrigation to farmworker housing.

“This is an ambitious set of asks,” Western Growers Association President and CEO Dave Puglia said Thursday, noting that the industry had been told on Capitol Hill not to expect funding increases in the next farm bill.

“But speaking just for myself, I don't accept that. I think that we've made the case that the investments made for the special crop industry are extremely valuable and have been probably insufficient dollar-wise over the years,” said Puglia.

Assistance with automation is an especially high priority for the sector, which is increasingly challenged by the cost and availability of labor. 

The alliance wants $20 million a year for a new automation research initiative aimed at developing technology that would benefit all scales of production and also be “cost appropriate.” To help growers afford new technology, the alliance also is proposing to set up a program at USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to reimburse producers for a portion of equipment costs. 

Mike Joyner, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said equipment companies are reluctant to invest significant amounts of money into the sector. Many of the commodities require highly specialized equipment and limits the potential market.

“It is a fairly small industry. A lot of companies aren't going to spend a lot of money to develop products,” said Joyner, who co-chairs the alliance's farm bill steering committee along with Puglia and Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council.

“One of the challenges for us … is most of what we do is hand-picked. The labor becomes a huge issue for us,” Joyner said. Seventeen of the 20 most widely consumed fruits and vegetables in the United States are still harvested by hand.

The alliance also is pursuing a broad effort to end or loosen means tests and other income and payment limits in various USDA programs.

For example, the alliance wants to eliminate the $900,000 adjusted gross income eligibility limit for conservation programs.

“Conservation programs incentivize production practices to the broader benefit of society and should, therefore, not be subject to any AGI limitations,” according to a 36-page summary of the alliance’s proposals.

Among other proposals, the alliance wants to move the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program from the Farm Service Agency to the Risk Management Agency, which handles crop insurance. Doing so would remove the income eligibility limit for NAP. 

Among other proposals by the alliance: 

Crop insurance – The alliance wants to ease restrictions on the Whole Farm Revenue Protection program to broaden its appeal. The alliance is proposing to increase coverage for farms that grow a single crop and remove the $8.5 million income limit for WFRP.

To address the lack of data on some commodities, the alliance is proposing to allow the use of T-yields to calculate a farmer’s 10-year average yield when more than three years of data are unavailable. T-yields are calculated by USDA based on regional yield averages.   

The alliance is proposing several rule changes that could lower premium costs for various crops and regions.

Crop protection and research: The alliance wants Congress to earmark $50 million a year for the IR-4 Project, a research initiative aimed at developing new pest management solutions. IR-4 is currently funded through annual appropriations bills; the program received $14.5 million in fiscal 2022 and $15 million for FY23. More than 100 funding requests are submitted each year, but only about 50 can be funded with existing funding, according to the summary.

“The private crop protection industry often focuses its product development efforts and resources on large acreage, major row crops where potential sales are significant,” the summary says. 

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The alliance also wants a $50 million increase in funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, with new priorities for research around plant breeding and farming technology. The program has been funded at $80 million a year.

Specialty Crop Block Grant Program – The program that provides grants to state departments of agriculture to improve the competitiveness of specialty crops would be funded at $100 million a year, up from $85 million annually under the 2018 farm bill. 

Trade assistance – The alliance is backing a proposal supported by a cross-section of ag sectors to double funding for the Market Access Program from $200 million to $400 million a year. MAP subsidizes overseas market promotion initiatives. 

The alliance also wants Congress to continue the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program at $9 million a year. The program assists efforts by farm groups to eliminate sanitary, phytosanitary and technical barriers to U.S. exports.

Climate and conservation – The alliance is asking for a $10 million-a-year pilot program to supplement existing conservation program funding for “sustainable irrigation.” 

The alliance also says USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service should recognize “climate change induced risk” as a resource concern to make it easier for farms to qualify for assistance. And irrigation assistance that addresses climate-change risk should be exempt from the $450,000-per-producer payment cap in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the alliance says. 

“Climate change is here and affects the economic sustainability of farming, just as the Dust Bowl in the thirties,” the alliance summary says. “It is the role of the NRCS to help U.S. agriculture adapt to climate change – to ensure the economic sustainability of farming in the U.S. in a changing climate.”

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