(May 15, 4:20 p.m.) Securing more than $3 billion for specialty crop priorities over 10 budget years, the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance celebrated historic landslide farm bill votes in the House and Senate that cleared the way for unprecedented mandatory funding for fruit and vegetable priorities.

The margin of the votes for the $300 billion Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 — 318 in favor to 106 opposed in the House on May 14, and 81 in support and 15 against in the Senate May 15 — assured that the legislation would easily overcome an oft-threatened veto by President Bush.

“We are delighted with not only the vote passing the conference report, but we are even more delighted with the margin of victory,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.

“It’s a great day for this industry and the specialty crop industry more broadly,” he said. “As they say, the fat lady hasn’t sung yet, but she is warming up.”

In addition to providing mandatory funding for specialty crop priorities, the farm bill also amends the 2002 mandatory country-of-origin labeling law to make it more flexible and less burdensome to implement.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said May 14 that the legislation should reach Bush by May 20. If the promised veto comes quickly, Peterson said both the House and Senate could override the veto by May 23.

“Based on the votes in the House and the Senate in the last two days, there seems to be very strong bipartisan support to get the farm bill done this year,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

Guenther said the votes take the drama out of the issue of whether a veto by Bush can be overcome.

The House needs 273 votes to overturn a veto and the Senate needs 67 votes. Both totals were easily exceeded by supporters of the legislation in the votes May 14 and May 15, and lobbyists said they expect similar support in the effort to overturn the veto.

“The question will be how long (Bush) holds the legislation before he vetoes it,” Guenther said, noting that a president can hold legislation up to 10 days before vetoing it. Guenther said the hope is that Bush will veto the bill quickly, which would allow Congress to override the veto by May 23, the start of the Memorial Day recess.


STRONG ALLIANCE

Industry leaders said the three-year cooperative effort of the alliance — a national coalition of more than 120 specialty crop organizations representing 350 individual specialty crops — was pivotal in policy gains.

“This is a huge win for the produce industry,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. “It took everyone’s commitment to make this happen.”

Guenther said the ability to work together on the farm bill reflects political power.

“What we are doing is building a very strong political coalition,” he said.

In fact, he said, the specialty crop coalition was able to deliver broader support for the entire farm bill than the votes on the legislation in 2002.

“When we set out on this three years ago, we set about trying to create something for the industry that would enhance our ability to be competitive,” Stuart said.

He called the resulting blueprint — including advancement in 2004 of the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act — a historic success that could be emulated by other industries.

The coalition brought a fresh policy perspective that could be embraced by lawmakers in future farm bills, agreed John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C.

“We feel very good about that contribution,” he said.

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance may come together again.

“I think there were a lot of naysayers … (saying) the industry was too diverse and fragmented to stay together under the political pressure of a farm bill, but we proved them wrong,” Stuart said. “That portends well for the future.”

Congress passes farm bill by veto-proof margin
SPECIALTY CROPS FUNDING HIGHLIGHTS

  • $1.02 billion to expand the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program to all 50 states.


  • $466 million to enhance specialty crop block grants that focus on local efforts to enhance a producers’ ability to compete in the marketplace and provide consumers with safe, abundant food.


  • $377 million to create a new Pest and Disease Program focused on combating invasive pests and disease.


  • $230 million to establish the Specialty Crop Research Initiative to develop and disseminate science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops and their regions.



Source: Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance