Keep your head in the game as farm bill nears

07/22/2011 08:41:00 AM
Amelia Freidline

Bruce Blythe, Business EditorThe White House, Congress and NFL players and owners have tag-teamed to give us one long, sweaty summer of discontent, generating a seemingly endless barrage of collective-bargaining and debt-ceiling blather but little apparent agreement or concrete action.

I hope the fresh produce industry has been paying attention to all of this, without getting too caught up in it, because I think there are lessons to be applied.

Before too long, it will be time to take up debate on the 2012 farm bill, and the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to be gained, or lost, by the country’s food producers.

In this budget-tightening climate, it’s likely Congress will trim some agricultural spending. Fortunately for fresh produce growers, much of the talk of cuts revolves around so-called direct payments and other subsidies for producers of corn, soybeans and other major crops.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, eliminating such programs could save U.S. taxpayers more than $100 billion over the next decade.

Nonetheless, whether the produce industry will hold on to gains made in the 2008 farm bill remains far from certain.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, expects a “fight to survive and keep our levels” from the 2008 bill.

Formally titled the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the bill allocated about $3 billion for programs devoted to fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops.

It also slotted $1.02 billion over 10 years to expand the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Snack Program for school kids.

Guenther, in a late July interview with The Packer’s Tom Karst, said he expects the next farm bill will be “intertwined very closely” with ongoing negotiations over raising the federal debt ceiling.

While House lawmakers haven’t proposed any cuts to specialty crops funding, any reductions in agricultural research spending may still take a bite, he said.

Now seems like prime time for the produce industry to put its heads together and figure out a plan.
Which programs from the 2008 bill are working? What needs improvement? Why is it important to devote more money to this program or less to that? What’s our overall message?

So far, I’ve seen few specifics from the industry.

A few weeks ago, a recently formed advocacy group that calls itself AGree touted plans to “transform” U.S. agriculture and food policy by the end of the decade.


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