UPDATED: Senate considers farm bill

05/21/2013 01:16:00 PM
Tom Karst

(UPDATED COVERAGE, May 23) The full Senate took up debate of the farm bill on May 20, with hopes for Senate approval of the bill in early June.

The House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill in mid-May and agriculture leaders there anticipated debate on the legislation in the full House by June.

Organic proponents were pleased with the addition of an amendment in both the House and Senate versions that would make it easier for organic producers of any agricultural commodity to create organic promotion orders.

If enacted into law, the amendment would exempt organic producers and handlers from conventional research and promotion orders, and allow producers and handlers of organic agricultural products to have the option to petition USDA to form a check-off organization, said Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the Organic Trade Association.

“Currently, producers and handlers of organic agricultural products are not afforded the same opportunity as folks involved in conventional agriculture to take advantage of the research and consumer education benefits available under industry-financed check-off programs,” she said.

Simcha Weinstein, marketing director for Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics, said the organic industry is excited about the amendment that would allow for the USDA to approve an organic promotion campaign.

“Particularly with organically raised foods, information is so necessary and so powerful, and the more avenues and opportunities for education, the better consumers can understand their dietary choices,” he said in an e-mail.

During the debate on the amendment, some House Agriculture Committee lawmakers expressed concern that an organic promotion order would lead to negative messages about conventional commodities, even though USDA provisions stipulate that promotion orders should not disparage other agricultural products. Some lawmakers also were concerned about the provision that allowed organic producers to be exempt from existing promotion orders.

While he acknowledged some lawmakers are concerned that organic promotions would emphasize the negative aspects of conventional farming, Weinstein believes the messaging would focus on what’s good about organics rather than what’s not working about conventional farming.

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, said while the Organic Trade Association favors a promotion order, he said many organic growers are against it.

"This is not instituted by any farmers or any farmer groups,"  he said.

Only growers who produce 100% organic fruit can now opt out of paying the assessment for promotions through the Northwest federal pear promotion order, said Kevin Moffitt, president of Pear Bureau Northwest, Milwaukie, Ore. Only one of Northwest pear packinghouse opts out of the promotion order assessment.

“The majority of organic production in Oregon and Washington is not eligible to opt out or does not choose to,” he said. 
The Senate’s new farm bill provision allows split operations, or those that produce both conventional and organic fruit, to opt out the organic portion of their production from promotion order assessments.
Moffitt said he expect any organic promotion order effort would be broad-based and include many commodities such as dairy, fresh produce, bread, meat and other items. 
“I think they have a large uphill road,” he said.
What products are included, how assessments are collected and how the promotion order’s board is selected will be thorny issues to resolve, Moffitt said.
“It would be organics under a bigger umbrella than even fresh produce,” he said.

Only growers who produce 100% organic fruit can opt out of paying the assessment for promotions through the Northwest federal pear promotion order, said Kevin Moffitt, president of Pear Bureau Northwest, Milwaukie, Ore.

Only one of Northwest pear packinghouse opts out of the promotion order assessment.“The majority of organic production in Oregon and Washington is not eligible to opt out or does not choose to,” he said. 

The Senate’s new farm bill provision allows split operations, or those that produce both conventional and organic fruit, to opt out the organic portion of their production from promotion order assessments.

Moffitt said he expect any organic promotion order effort would be broad-based and include many commodities such as dairy, fresh produce, bread, meat and other items. “I think they have a large uphill road,” he said.What products are included, how assessments are collected and how the promotion order’s board is selected will be thorny issues to resolve, Moffitt said.“It would be organics under a bigger umbrella than even fresh produce,” he said.

Farm bill progress

In the Senate, negotiations on how many amendments would be considered with the legislation make it unclear when the farm bill vote of the full Senate will occur, said Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C.-based representative for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United  Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said Senate leaders may try to finish work on the farm bill by June 5, since they are anxious to bring the immigration reform legislation to the Senate floor as early as June 6. 

In the House of Representatives, the hope among agriculture advocates is that the bill will be brought before the full House soon to allow plenty of time for the House and Senate to harmonize the two versions of the bill in conference committee before the current farm bill expires Sept. 30.

“They’ve got some time, but they can’t take too long,” O’Brien said.

Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based McDermott Will & Emery law firm, said most expect the farm bill debate in the House to begin in mid-June.

In general, both the House and the Senate versions of the farm bill are similar to each other and fairly well aligned with the priorities of the specialty crop industry, O’Brien said.

“It’s not a situation where you need to throw that Hail Mary pass because you didn’t get what you wanted,” he said. “I’m sure there will be tweaks here and there but for the most part both chambers have done well by specialty crops,” O’Brien said.

“If you take it in context of the overall budget environment we are in, then specialty crops have done very well,” Quarles said. “Both (House and Senate) agriculture committees gave us pretty strong validation of specialty crop programs.”

The House version of the farm bill eliminates the “fresh” designation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and would allow both processed fruits and vegetables to be purchased for the program, while the Senate retains the stipulation for fresh produce. In a news release, members of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance expressed disappointment in the policy change and vowed to work with members of Congress to restores its focus on fresh That issue will like be resolved in conference committee, Quarles said.

DiSogra said May 23 that one amendment to the Senate farm bill seeks to open up the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.

Quarles said both bills would have an undersecretary of trade established at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Members of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance and other agriculture groups support that change, Quarles said.

“Given the amount of focus that specialty crops have on trade-related matters, people think that should be a pretty positive step,” he said.

There are some funding differences between the two bills.

In the House version of the farm bill, Specialty Crop Block Grants were funded at $72.5 million in fiscal 2014 to 2017, bumping up to $85 million in fiscal year 2018. In the Senate version, Specialty Crop Block Grants were funded at $70 million per year.

The House farm bill funds the Specialty Crop Research Initiative at $50 million per year for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, then increases levels to $55 million in 2016-17 and $65 million in fiscal year 2018. In the Senate’s farm bill, the program is funded at $25 million per year in fiscal year 2014, increasing to $50 million in fiscal year 2017.



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