(UPDATED COVERAGE, April 26) Industry advocates said the farm bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee shows continued bipartisan support for specialty crop block grants, export promotion and research funds. The bill could reach the Senate floor in May, observers said.

UPDATED: Specialty crop interests encouraged in Senate farm bill“I think it is a big win for the fresh produce industry,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. Guenther called the committee’s April 26 approval the first step in a process that will also include debate on the Senate floor and development of the farm bill in the House of Representatives.

The committee’s farm bill increased funding for the specialty crops block grant program from $55 million to $70 million per year, Guenther said. Increased funding for research including for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and stable funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program were also important features of the draft, Guenther said.

The committee’s farm bill strengthens the position of produce in federal farm policy by adding to the gains of the 2008 farm bill, said Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C., representative for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

“We feel that Sen. Stabenow (agriculture committee chairwoman Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow) understands specialty crop needs and addressed them,” he said.

Ken Barbic, senior director for federal government affairs for the Washington, D.C. office of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said quick action on the farm bill by the Senate will put pressure on the House to move on the legislation. Farm bill programs expire at the end of September.

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 will eliminate direct payments for program crops, consolidate U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, close loopholes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and put in place other measures that will save $23 billion over 10 years, according to a news release from the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said in a news release that the committee approved farm bill is a “suitable policy vehicle with a solid framework” to seek other improvements. Stallman said Farm Bureau would like to see more equity among commodities and ways to better address deep, catastrophic losses.