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Specialty crop priorities for farm bill debated at House hearing

WASHINGTON -- Fruit and vegetable producers urged a congressional panel April 25 to maintain funding for key specialty crop programs just weeks before the full House Agriculture Committee is expected to mark up the 2013 farm bill.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) is said to be planning a May 15 markup of the 2013 farm bill, using as a starting point the 2012 farm bill legislation that never reached the House floor.

One of his panels, the Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture, held a 90-minute hearing to explore specialty crop priorities in a new farm bill.

Lawmakers are going to have fewer dollars to spend on farm bill programs in 2008, said Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA).

"We know we're going to have to take hair cuts in all of these areas, but we got to be surgically smart how we do this," he said.

All too often, the conversation about the farm bill focuses on the commodity or nutrition elements of the bill, but specialty crops represent one-half of farm gate volume nationwide, said Ranking Member Kurt Schrader (D-OR), adding that his state needs a strong farm bill this year.

The first witness, Sarah Frey-Talley, president and chief executive officer of Keenes, IL-based Frey Farms, said that the current, extended farm bill has created confusion and uncertainties among producers who either rely on farm bill programs or who take the programs into consideration as they make future plans.

Ms. Frey-Talley called on Congress to fund the Specialty Crop Block Grants at $70 million annually, and the farm bill should spend $150 million a year for the successful Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program for low-income, school-aged children.

Also, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative should rely on a permanent funding base so multi-year projects are not interrupted when the farm bill lapses, she said.

William Brim, president and owner of Tifton, GA-based Lewis & Taylor Farms Inc., said that the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, a valuable program to producers, should be expanded to keep pace with the needs of the industry.

Lawmakers should allow crop producers to choose a Stacked Income Protection Plan or a target price program on top of participation in the crop insurance and marketing loans to help protect specialty crop farmers, said another witness, Barry Bushue, vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation.

The farm bill should establish a Stacked Income Protection Plan program that could start by covering growers of apples, grapes, potatoes, sweet corn tomatoes, then branch out to other commodities, said Mr. Bushue, an Oregon horticulture producer.

No hearing on specialty crop priorities is complete without mention of farm labor shortages.

Mr. Brim warned that producers are being damaged by the farm labor situation and called on Congress to act.

"If Congress doesn't solve our immigration and farm labor situation, you won't have to worry about a specialty crop title in the farm bill in the future," Mr. Brim said.

Another recurring theme was food safety, and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) asked industry representatives about a recent court decision that found the Food & Drug Administration unlawfully delayed issuing its federal food-safety regulations.

The FDA and advocacy groups are required to hammer out a schedule for the remaining regulations. He questioned whether the court should force the FDA to speed consideration of these complex rules.

"I don't think we should rush into any program," Mr. Bushue said.

Mr. Brim added, "Let's get it right when we do it."