Except for Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., few members of Congress made their presence felt at the Oct. 1-3 United Fresh Produce Association Washington Public Policy Conference.

That might not have been a bad thing.

Various speakers, including Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture, pointed out to more than 500 attendees that staffers often wield surprising power in the day-to-day deliberations of their bosses.

The event, featuring the ambitious March on Capitol Hill, was focused on delivering the message that the produce industry needs a new farm bill this year.

The lame duck session, beginning Nov. 13, represents the last chance. Some members of Congress are talking about a one-year extension of the farm bill, but that would cause funding for some programs to expire and likely result in reduced spending for specialty crop research.

There has been bipartisan support for the farm bill produced by the Senate and the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee. There is no need to reset the debate and start the process all over again in the next Congress.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson reminded the WPPC crowd that lobbying members of Congress is a First Amendment right and should be embraced, even though some members of Congress act like they don’t want to be bothered.

“Continue to lobby the hell out of them,” he said.

If a lawmaker’s staff sometimes know as much or more about an issue than the legislator, Thompson said 99 out of 100 of those attending the WPPC know more than both about fruit and vegetable issues.

Whether they win or lose their races in November, it is time for legislators to listen to those who earn their living growing America’s food and move ahead with passage of the farm bill.

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