(UPDATED COVERAGE, 6:15 p.m.) Pumping $15 million more per year into the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and preserving other key industry wins from the 2008 farm bill, the Senate did their part to deliver a fruit and vegetable friendly 2012 farm bill.

By a vote of 64 to 35, the Senate passed the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 June 21.

“It is a very strong bill for fruits and vegetables,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. Research, pest and disease mitigation, market access, nutrition programs and specialty crop block grants were all accounted for in the Senate version, he said.

One key amendment offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and approved by the Senate will fund a study into the feasibility of crop insurance to cover farmers negatively affected by food safety recalls, according to Dennis Nuxoll, Washington, D.C.-based vice president of federal government affairs for Western Growers.

“Mission one is accomplished,” Guenther said. “Now we hope the House will pay attention to that bill and start their process and hopefully we can convince the House for similar action for our priorities.”

The House Agriculture Committee may pass a bill out of committee in July. If that happens, Guenther said he expects action by the full House by September.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate agriculture committee, deserves not only kudos for the farm bill’s passage but her agriculture industry leadership over the past 18 months, Nuxoll said.

The industry worked well together to achieve priorities in the Senate legislation, said John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council and co-chairman of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. Tom Nassif, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers and Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association are also co-chairmen.

“We brought everybody together for the 2008 farm bill, and that gave people a clear vision if they work together they can be successful,” Keeling said. “I think (success in 2008 and 2012) has given the specialty crop industry a real window of what they can do and what they can be if they work together.”

Still, finishing the work in the House won’t be easy.

“Hopefully the Senate bill will set the tone, but the money will be tighter (in the House) and the desire to cut the nutrition programs and the other programs to a greater degree will be more intense,” Keeling said.

Among the amendments that passed in the Senate, Keeling said the alliance is looking at the effect of an amendment that reduces the amount of crop insurance premiums paid by the government for growers with incomes over $750,000.

“Our gut reaction is that is going to disproportionately impact the producers of high value crops and would discourage participation in crop insurance programs,” Keeling said.

Another crop insurance provision in the bill mandates compliance with conservation and environmental requirements, which Nuxoll said will be a new reality for specialty crop growers.

Nuxoll said Western Growers is pleased with the passage of several amendments, including an air quality amendment that will help growers in California’s Central Valley upgrade to more efficient tractor engines.

The Senate also OK’d an amendment that will help organic growers access crop insurance, he said.

Highlights of the bill include:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $70 million per year
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $25 million in FY13; $30 million in FY14-15; $65 million in FY16; $50 million in FY17
  • Plant Pest and Disease Program funded at $60 million in FY13-16 and $65 million in FY17
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 farm bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 farm bill levels
  • Hunger-Free Communities Grant Program for fruit and vegetable SNAP incentives
  • Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases funded at 2008 farm bill levels
  • The Department of Defense Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 levels

Source: United Fresh Produce Association