The on again, off again work toward a new farm bill is on again.
The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled a May 14 hearing to consider provisions of the 2013 farm bill, and industry reaction on to the working version of the bill is positive. A spokesman for the House Agriculture Committee said the target date for the farm bill markup is May 15.
“In terms of the funding levels for the major programs, we are very pleased,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.
Guenther said funding in the Senate draft is similar to the 2012 version of the farm bill.
One area of improvement is with the Specialty Crop Research Initiative. That program was eliminated from the budget when the farm bill was extended in January, but in the Senate’s draft farm bill, the program has $25 million for fiscal 2014. Funding eventually ramps up to $65 million in 2017 and then will be set at $50 million starting in 2018.
“That was the most important part about this, that the funding (for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative) is reestablished, and to have the baseline put in that program that wasn’t there in the last farm bill,” he said.
Dale Moore, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Farm Bureau Federation, said he is confident a new farm bill can be passed this year, and hopefully before Sept. 30, when the current extension expires.
The USDA crop insurance program may be under pressure, Moore said, because the federal government paid out $17 billion in the past year.
The elimination of direct payments to program crop producers under the new farm bill could change the debate about restrictions on fruit and vegetable plantings. Under the direct payment system, producers of wheat, corn, soybeans and other program crops could receive direct payments from the USDA whether or not they planted or produced the crop.
Produce industry lobbyists have argued that subsidized program crop growers would have an unfair advantage over fruit and vegetable growers if they received government subsidies. Because of that, farm policy since 1996 has prohibited program crop growers from planting fruits and vegetables — for either processing or the fresh market — on so-called “flex acres.” If growers did plant fruits and vegetables, the penalty was not only a loss of subsidies for that acreage, but also removal of the land from the base acreage figure.
Under the new farm bill, farmers will have to plant program crops to receive benefits, so restrictions on fruit and vegetable planting may be unneeded, Moore said.
Guenther said United Fresh is still considering the Senate farm bill, including the definitions of “planted acres” and “base” acres of program crops and how those meanings relate to planting restrictions.