It took a Senate committee about three hours to discuss and amend a $955 billion farm bill before approving it with a 15-5 vote on May 14.
Unofficially the goal is to send the bill to the full Senate immediately so that the chamber can have a final vote on the legislation before the Memorial Day recess, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.
“I think there is better than an even chance they will get it to the floor (of the Senate) next week,” Guenther said after the May 14 vote by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
“It is almost identical to the 2012 (Senate) version of the bill. No surprises in terms of fresh produce programs. Overall we are supportive of the bill.”
The U.S. House committee on Agriculture is scheduled to begin discussions of its version of the 2013 farm bill May 15. The lower chamber is expected to take longer with the bill at the committee level than the Senate did, but Guenther said the unspoken goal in both chambers is to finish work on the farm bill as quickly as possible so Congress can focus on immigration reform.
“The House anticipates going to the floor (with its version of the farm bill) in June,” Guenther said. “That sets a timeline up for it to go to a conference committee in late July or August with final approval possible in September.”
If Congress does not approve a new farm bill by Sept. 30, a continuing resolution to maintain funding would be necessary because the current extension expires that day.
Guenther said the funding levels for fresh produce in the 2013 versions from the House and Senate are virtually the same as they have been.
There are a couple of concerns, though, about the Senate’s version that Guenther said the fresh produce industry is watching closely.
One concern relates to a section in the Senate bill that would require growers who buy crop insurance to have a conservation plan for the land they are insuring.
Guenther said other commodities have had this requirement previously, but not specialty crops, which include fruits and vegetables. He said United Fresh and other produce industry groups have asked for a cost analysis, but none has been provided yet.
“Until we know more about this provision we can’t support it,” Guenther said. “We need to know what the financial impact might be and how many growers and acres this would impact.”
The other sticking point in the Senate’s farm bill as far as fresh produce growers are concerned is a section that could open the door for growers of subsidized commodities such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton, to grow fruits and vegetables on their subsidized acres.
Guenther said the fresh produce industry has been successful since 1985 at preventing subsidized growers from planting specialty crops on land subsidized for other commodities.
“It’s a question of fairness,” Guenther said.
The biggest roadblocks to the farm bill’s ultimate passage, Guenther said, are provisions in both the Senate and House versions related to food stamp cuts, reforms of commodity programs and conservation issues.
The Senate version would trim $4 billion from the food stamp program while the House version seeks to cut $20.5 billion from the program during the next 10 years. Increases to subsidies for rice and peanut growers are another sticking point for some lawmakers.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said during the May 14 committee hearing that the commodity provisions in the Senate farm bill amount to “income transfers, not risk management tools.”
“This is not a reform bill,” Roberts said. “This is a rearview mirror bill.”
Guenther said the concerns of the fresh produce industry are not as difficult to negotiate as the food stamp cuts and the commodity provisions.
“Our issues for fresh produce are important, but not unsolvable,” Guenther said, stopping short of predicting whether legislators will be able to resolve their differences on non-produce issues.