A House bill introduced Thursday would address one of the top farm bill goals for specialty crop growers by setting up a grant program to ease the cost of adopting automation in their operations.

California Republican David Valadao’s bill would set up a grant program run by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service that would fund purchases and training for “mechanized or automated systems and tools.” Grant recipients would have to match at least 50% of the funding they receive.

The bill addresses one of the principal farm bill priorities of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which is pushing for “a reimbursement-based cost share program within [USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service] exclusively for specialty crop producers who are seeking to increase efficiency by investing in mechanized and automated agri-tools.”

“Our specialty crop producers in California have faced many challenges over the last few years," Valadao said. "Specialty crop producers face unique challenges, and we need to ensure they are better equipped to handle them."

The SCFBA is also pursuing another program to offer funding for research into developing more automation for the sector, which was addressed in legislation introduced in June

Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, said CFFA and the SCFBA worked with Valadao’s office to come up with a bill “that can help create efficiencies in our industry” and also help make the workplace safer.

Mentioning the emphasis on worker training, he also said the legislation “is not an employee replacement bill but an employee enhancement bill.”

LeMay said specialty crop advocates are working to get a companion bill introduced in the Senate, but that likely will not happen until after the August recess.

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The cost-share portion of the bill is important, he said, to show that specialty crop growers have an “equal stake” in the program.

The bill would cover investments such as equipment addressing dust levels during harvesting; grinding and chipping; sorting; phytosanitary, infrared, and pasteurization; traceability, and storage and warehousing.

Grants also could be used for drones, sensors and other types of equipment.

In addition to the Specialty Crop Mechanization Assistance Act, Valadao also introduced the Specialty Crop Domestic Market Promotion Program Act, which would set up a program to help specialty crop producers "break into niche domestic markets," according to a news release.

Valadao was joined in introduction of that bill by Reps. Darren Soto, R-Fla., Jim Costa, D-Calif., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.

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