At a time when an ax is raised over all federal spending, produce industry marketers stressed the need to preserve farm bill programs for specialty crops at a farm bill hearing of the House Agriculture Committee Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture.

The fresh produce industry needs federal farm policy to account for its needs much more so than decades ago, said Mike Jarrard, president and chief executive officer of Mann Packing Company, Salinas, Calif., and chairman of the board for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

“The world is smaller now for all of us,” he said. “There is much more competition from an international perspective than there was before.”

Jarrard testified with Dan Richey, president and chief executive officer of Riverfront Packing Co., Vero Beach, Fla., at the May 8 hearing.

Richey, speaking on behalf of the Maitland, Fla.-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, encouraged the committee to continue investments in nutrition programs and pest and invasive disease control.

Pest and disease issues have multiplied as a result of imports of fruits and vegetables have increased, both industry panelists said. Richey said grapefruit sales to Europe have sagged by 10% in the past year because of canker-related trade barriers imposed by Europe.

Jarrard said May 9 that the cost-benefit ratio for funding speciality crop programs needs to be recognized and not fall victim to the larger discussion of budget cuts in program crop areas.

“There is a little lack of understanding on how those funds translate into benefits,” Jarrard said.

Committee members are supportive of specialty crops but need to be educated on the value of specialty crop programs on nutrition, local food, food safety and trade.

“We are very anti-subsidy but we are only looking at support to help grow our business,” he said.

The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative all are important for the industry’s long term success, he said.

Jarrard said specialty crop producers don’t want insurance programs based on subsidies, like program crop insurance. Payouts based on weather or quarantine issues are acceptable, but he said any anything that distorts market prices is opposed by the industry.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said industry leaders hope the House Agriculture Committee will mark up their version of the farm bill in the next few weeks.

“I’m still hopeful that something can get done this year,” he said.

Democrats and Republicans didn’t seem close to agreement on how to proceed.

Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture, said in a statement that soaring food program expenditures are a concern.

“Investing wisely in specialty crops and ensuring that nutrition programs are being administered effectively is critical at this time,” she said.

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., Subcommittee ranking member, said proposed House Republican budget cuts of $33 billion to nutrition programs are troubling.

“As the Committee begins to work in earnest on the 2012 Farm Bill, it is critical that we work to protect our nutrition safety net, promote consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables in schools across all 50 states, and ensure that no one in America goes hungry,” he said in a statement after the hearing.