(Feb. 28, 3:17 p.m.) No subsidies, no price protection, and not necessarily even a safety net.

What fruit and vegetable growers need, Tom Stenzel told the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Outlook Forum, is federal investment to build a sustainable U.S. fruit and vegetable industry in a free market economy.

Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., provided what he called a new vision in agricultural policy for the fruit and vegetable industry at his Feb. 21 speech. Tied to that, he said, is the industry’s importance to public health.

After the speech, Stenzel said one of the themes that came out during a panel discussion at the forum was the linkage of energy policy to farm policy.

In the same way, Stenzel said he made the case to the panel that public health policy should become more integrated with farm policy.

For example, Stenzel said, if Congress and the administration set dietary goals in the same way targets are established for ethanol production, perhaps there would be greater progress in the battle against obesity and for public health through a better diet.

Stenzel told the audience that the specialty crops industry needs federal investment to adequately respond to the market forces of a heavy regulatory burden, a shortage of legal workers, land and water use pressures and phytosanitary barriers which prevent export gains.

“Increasingly, those signals add up to one message to produce growers in the U.S. — move your production outside of the country, or send your kids to law school,” Stenzel said.

The specialty crop industry responded to the pressure of their challenges by what he called “baby steps” in the 2002 farm bill.

“We finally shined a light on the fact that specialty crops represent almost 50% of farm crop value,” he said. But the agenda of investment in research, infrastructure and investment in promotion of consumption of fruits and vegetables didn’t find traction with members of Congress used to traditional farm programs.

“Couldn’t we just be happy with a direct payment program for our farmers? Wouldn’t a safety net be the way to help people stay in business?” Stenzel recalled remarks from members of Congress and others in 2002.

“We had a good case, we presented it pretty well, and we were generally ignored. Maybe that proved to be a good thing,” he said.

With the motivation of the 2002 farm bill, the industry came together in a big way, Stenzel said.

“We formed the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance two years ago with 22 separate organizations pledging unity and serving on the steering committee,” he said. Today, more than 120 specialty crop organizations are part of the coalition, he said.

“Even here, in the final days of the farm bill debate, we are still hanging together,” Stenzel said.

The resulting work of that group has been the inclusion of a variety of industry priorities in the farm bills passed by the House and Senate.

He highlighted specialty crop competitive block grants as one important feature of the new farm bill.

Stenzel also highlighted the inclusion of the fruit and vegetable program for schools in the farm bill. From its pilot status beginnings in four states in 2002, Stenzel said the program has had multiple success stories in many states.

“This program has built momentum and caught fire like no other public health nutrition initiative,” he said.

Stenzel noted the government’s interest in promoting the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, which call for the average American to double their consumption of fruits and vegetables. That calls for a big effort to teach young people good eating habits, he said.

“The real opportunity — and real need — is to focus on the next generation,” he said. “With the U.S., and even now the whole world, facing a health crisis leading to a future of chronic disease, diabetes and cancer, changing the dietary environment of schools is a must,” he said.

“Today, with our farm bill, leaders of U.S. agricultural policy have the opportunity to do our part. The Senate has taken the boldest step forward, proposing to expand the program to serve 4.5 million low-income elementary school kids in 5,000 schools across all 50 states.

“We strongly urge the conferees and the administration to support the Senate’s funding level as one of the most important steps you can take to make sure this farm bill doesn’t just help farmers, but helps schoolchildren have greater access to the bounty of our nation’s fruit and vegetable production. That is truly a win-win for both agriculture and the public,” Stenzel said.