Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

At the recent United Fresh convention in Dallas, I was asked whether one individual could really make a difference in advancing public policy issues important to the produce industry, when Washington seems to be in such gridlock.

Too often, industry members leave it to their associations to fight through the labyrinth of Capitol Hill.

But in this election year, you’ll never find politicians more willing to listen to your views right now as they seek your financial support and vote in November.

Our team in D.C. is great at outlining the broad policy goals of our industry.

But it is you in the farms and packing sheds, the distribution centers and processing plants, the restaurants and supermarkets, who drive home what these policies mean to you in your own community.

Despite the gridlock, this week the U.S. Senate is actually due to begin consideration of the 2012 farm bill, a monumental step forward for the fruit and vegetable industry.

In these challenging political times, the Senate bill put together by Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., garnered a strong bipartisan vote in the agriculture committee, and now needs 60 senators on board to move forward.

United Fresh and our partners in the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance strongly support the Senate Agriculture Committee bill and have urged its passage by the full Senate.

For fruits and vegetables and other specialty crops, the bill takes important steps in continuing funding of critical priorities such as Specialty Crop Block Grants, pest and disease exclusion programs, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable School Snack Program.

While a modest part of overall spending, these programs would invest some $4 billion in enhancing the competitiveness of specialty crops in the next farm bill.

The contest between President Obama and presidential candidate Mitt Romney is certainly important, but neither one of them will be voting on the farm bill over the next several months.

I ask each of you to get involved in your individual Congressional election. Reach out to support the incumbent if they’ve done a good job, or jump on board with a challenger who promises to listen to your needs as a produce business person.

The relationships you build today just may help shape your business future tomorrow.

I also ask you to team up with colleagues throughout the produce industry to magnify our voices.

Now more than ever, being “united” truly makes the difference. Through your support, United FreshPAC works to help elect members of Congress who will listen to our industry, whether from traditional agricultural production areas where we drive the economy, or from inner cities where fresh produce is equally valued for our contribution to public health.

By pooling our financial resources, the produce industry can make a difference in key campaigns across the country.

You can also make a difference by bringing your own voice to Washington, D.C., just one month before the November elections.

Governmental face time

This year’s Washington Public Policy Conference will be the largest ever, with more face-to-face congressional meetings and insider events with leading policymakers.

With congressional meetings always a highlight of the event, we’ve doubled our time on Capitol Hill, allowing members to focus on House visits one afternoon, followed by Senate visits the next morning.

We’ll have more time for serious conversation with each congressional office. And, you won’t want to miss the annual FreshPAC dinner honoring all of our contributors who’ve helped us support good pro-business candidates throughout the year.

So as senators begin debate on the farm bill this week, take a minute to make a call or send an e-mail to your own senators encouraging them to support the farm bill.

You’ll be making a difference for your business. And together, we’ll all be making a difference for our industry.

With your efforts and a good amount of perseverance by Senate champions, the produce industry may see a strong bill pass the Senate, which would then set the stage for action in the House of Representatives later this summer or fall.

I can’t think of a more important scenario for members of the industry to come to Washington this fall, ready to advocate for a final farm bill that can be signed by the president this year.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.