(May 30) A provision in the farm bill that allows program crop growers in seven states to plant limited acreage of processing fruits and vegetables was opposed by produce industry lobbyists but is not expected to have an immediate negative effect on fresh market growers.

“It’s a raw political solution to a problem that the overall specialty crop industry agreed wasn’t much of a problem,” John Keeling, president of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C.

Keeling said high prices of program crops — wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton — seem to indicate that few program crop growers would be interested in switching to growing processed fruits and vegetables under contract.

He noted fruit and vegetable processors had argued that changes in the 2002 farm bill counting soybeans as part of the base acres for farm program payments limited their ability to source contracted production of processed vegetables.

“The facts we looked at don’t bear that out,” Keeling said.

Farm policy since 1996 has prohibited program crop growers from planting fruits and vegetables — for either processing or the fresh market — on so-called “flex acres.” If growers did plant fruits and vegetables, the penalty was not only a loss of subsidies for that acreage, but also removal of the land from the base acres figure.

Produce industry lobbyists had successfully argued that subsidized program crop growers would have an unfair advantage over commercial fruit and vegetable growers who receive no government subsidies.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, said the planting prohibition was under pressure from both domestic and international forces.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and other Midwest lawmakers wanted to eliminate the planting restrictions altogether, McClung said, while some trade analysts considered the measure trade-distorting and a problem with U.S. farm policy.

“We would have liked to have things not change in that regard,” McClung said.

Growers of tree fruit and other crops requiring significant infrastructure or labor don’t appear to be vulnerable to the pilot program, said.

“It is potatoes, onions and perhaps a few other crops that farmers could switch in and out of that might be affected,” he said.

The 2008 farm bill, awaiting final congressional approval in early June, changes that policy by creating a pilot program to allow limited planting of fruits and vegetables contracted for processing on program crop land.

The new farm bill, for 2009-12, would allow the planting on 9,000 acres in Illinois, 9,000 acres in Indiana, 1,000 acres in Iowa, 9,000 acres in Michigan, 34,000 acres in Minnesota, 4,000 acres in Ohio and 9,000 acres in Wisconsin.

Wally Sparby, agricultural staff assistant for Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said there are several large vegetable processors in southern Minnesota, including Green Giant, Seneca Foods and Libby’s.

The legislation also calls for the agriculture secretary to evaluate the effects of the pilot project on the supply and demand of fresh fruits and vegetables and fruits and vegetables for processing.

Keeling said the pilot program is a political solution to a market-based problem.

“The real issue for the processors is that the competition for acres between corn, soybeans and wheat as a result of (higher) prices has created much stiffer competition for processing vegetable acres than previously existed,” he said. “That’s really the problem, and that’s a marketplace problem, not one that is going to be solved by making more acres available.”