Farm Bill Focus:

Specialty crops priorities gaining momentum

Published in the June 2012 Issue Published online: Jun 10, 2012 John Keeling, Executive VP and CEO, National Potat
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Federal funding to enhance the competiveness of specialty crops leads to more jobs, expands trade, new technology and provides more access to healthy foods. Earlier this spring, this important message was delivered to the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee by a bipartisan group of 32 U.S. Senators representing states across the country.

For specialty crops producers, that message could not have come at a better time as the Senate and House Agriculture Committees are currently engrossed in debate over the future of the 2012 Farm Bill. While some analysts predict that the bill will be obstructed by election-year politics, the members of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA), which the National Potato Council co-chairs, are working to convince Congress that the Farm Bill must be passed before the current law expires in September.

Just like in farming, the timing of the legislation is everything. Should Congress wait until after the elections to act on the Farm Bill, several important specialty crop programs would lose baseline funding, placing their future in jeopardy.

Specialty crops are a critical component of the agriculture economy and represent nearly half of all farm gate crop value in America. However, as the 32 Senators indicated, the Farm Bill impacts more than those in the specialty crop supply chain.

As Congress sets the nation's agriculture policy for the next four years through the Farm Bill, the health of our citizens and the health of our economy are also at stake. The entire country needs sustained programs in the Farm Bill that put more fruits and vegetables on Americans' plates, enhance our industry's efforts to fight invasive pests and diseases, and help us market our crops domestically and globally.

The SCFBA and our allies in Congress are encouraging the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to build off the 2008 Farm Bill, which, for the first time, wrote a new chapter of American farm policy, making it truly comprehensive and more inclusive.

In 2008, Congress recognized the tremendous contributions specialty crops make to U.S. agriculture and the health of all Americans. The bill dedicated about $3 billion in funding for critical specialty crop pest and disease, nutrition, research and conservation priorities. None of this federal government funding went toward direct payments or subsidies for individual growers, but was used to provide the necessary tools for building a stronger, more competitive U.S. specialty crop industry.

For this year's Farm Bill, the SCFBA submitted a comprehensive package of policy and program proposals to the U.S. Senate and House agriculture committees. Given the budget constraints facing Congress, no new programs were suggested; however, the alliance recommended refining and enhancing some existing programs that were established in the 2008 Farm Bill.

In particular, the SCFBA is working with our congressional allies to refine and enhance existing programs including funding for early detection and monitoring of pests, funding for state specialty crop block grants, and funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI).

For the potato industry, both the SCRI and the block grants have been extremely valuable.

Through the SCRI, more than $14 million in grants are funding critical research projects on Potato Virus Y, zebra chip and acrylamide. As a result of these research projects, the potato industry has taken positive steps toward solving disease issues, improving product quality and meeting consumer expectations.

State block grants represent another Farm Bill success for specialty crop growers as they provide financial resources to target state and locally identified projects that will improve the overall competitiveness and efficiency of the industry. Specialty crop production is uniquely local, and the needs of potato growers vary from state to state and from region to region. State block grants allow projects to be driven by local grower input and focused on local grower need.

The 2012 Farm Bill represents an important opportunity to continue down a path that drives demand for our products and creates a more balance in U.S. agriculture policy. Now that specialty crops are no longer the new kids on the block, we will continue to fight for agriculture policies that will maintain market-based decision making and increase the competitiveness of our industry.