SPARTA, Mich. — Michigan apple grower-shippers, after winning crucial funds in the 2008 farm bill, aim to maintain or build that position with help from a friend in high places.

As Congress moves closer to debate on the 2012 farm bill, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate’s agriculture committee, is expected to be a key ally for apple growers and other producers in her home state.

Stabenow, elected to the Senate in 2000, has long touted Michigan’s diverse agriculture, and in 2008 helped lead efforts to add specialty crop provisions to the farm bill for the first time. The bill allocated about $3 billion for research and other programs devoted to fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops. Also, $1.02 billion was slotted over 10 years to expand the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program for school kids.

It’s too early to tell how the 2012 farm bill will shape up, said Ryan Findlay, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau. But he’s optimistic specialty crops will at least keep 2008 funding levels.

“We want to build off where we were in the 2008 farm bill,” Findlay said.

“Stabenow is clearly behind fruit and vegetable growers. We’ve been engaged with her very heavily over the past several months.”

Agriculture spending has been increasingly targeted for potential cuts amid a broader push in Congress to rein in the federal deficit. Some seek to reduce so-called direct payments and other subsidies for producers of corn, soybeans and other major crops, funding for which dwarfs that of specialty crops.

Specialty crops account for less than a tenth of a percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual budget.

Still, the battle over the federal debt ceiling and deficit reduction “has thrown a cloud over the whole process,” Findlay said, referring to the 2012 farm bill.

“The question is, will agriculture be where those cuts are made. Could agriculture get hurt?”

“The apple industry has a very strong case” for keeping specialty crop funding, Findlay said.