A seat at the table for specialty-crop growers

Until very recently, the debate over federal agriculture policy had focused almost exclusively on traditional commodities or “program crops” such as wheat, soybeans, rice and corn. Beginning with the last Farm Bill in 2002, and highlighted by the Bush administration’s recent proposals for the 2007 Farm Bill, however, the “status quo” for federal farm programs is about to change in a big way. Specialty crops — which include fruits, vegetables and nuts — promise to have a seat at the table for the first time as Congress begins writing this year’s Farm Bill.

This effort is long overdue. Specialty crops constitute 50 percent of total agricultural receipts nationally, yet have historically not received their fair share of federal investment. The 2007 Farm Bill offers an unprecedented opportunity to change that.

Let me be clear: This is not about pitting one sector of agriculture against another. In fact, specialty crop growers are currently working alongside program crop growers to secure a budget allocation that will meet the needs of all sectors of American agriculture. Furthermore, the specialty crop industry is not seeking traditional subsidies or price supports. Instead, our goal is to find resourceful and innovative ways to increase the consumption of these highly nutritious products by investing in research and technology, market promotion programs and federal feeding programs, such as the school lunch and snack programs.

Next week, I will join a bipartisan group of my colleagues in re-introducing a bill that sets out priorities for specialty crop growers. The Equitable Agriculture Today for a Healthy America (EAT Healthy America) Act — cosponsored by Reps. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), John Salazar (D-Colo.), Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.) — would direct significant support to programs essential to the success of the specialty crops industry.
 
The EAT Healthy America ACT:

• Increases opportunities for producers to access conservation programs by recognizing the unique characteristics of certain farming operations in formula allocations and funding priorities.

•  Increases access to valuable export markets by increasing the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program and the Market Access Program and by raising the profile of specialty crops within USDA, USTR, and other key federal agencies. Expands the Specialty Crop Block Grant program to assist local growers with the specific investments they need to increase competitiveness.

•  Requires federal feeding programs, including the school lunch and school breakfast programs, to adhere to the 2005 USDA dietary guidelines. Expands the fruit and vegetable snack program in schools across the nation and develops new nutrition promotion programs to assist producers in enhancing their markets.

• Calls for significant new investment in research priorities for specialty crops, through the National Research Initiative, Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) and Agriculture Research Service (ARS). Increases research into the prevention of invasive plant pests and diseases.

In addition to strengthening the competitiveness of the specialty crop industry, the priorities laid out in this bill offer much more. Improving participation in popular conservation programs will help protect our environment by promoting land stewardship and preservation. At a time when our nation is faced with a childhood obesity crisis, increasing the availability of fruits and vegetables to young people is a wise investment.

 As we begin the hard work of writing the 2007 Farm Bill, it is clear that specialty crop growers will play a more prominent role than ever before. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Agriculture Committee to craft a bill that will strengthen American agriculture, create a solid foundation for the future of the specialty crop industry and renew our commitment to conserving America’s farmland.

Cardoza is a member of House Agriculture Committee.


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A seat at the table for specialty-crop growers