Keeping the “fresh” in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the Senate passed its version of the farm bill by a vote of 66 to 27 on June 10.

Cutting subsidies to farmers making over $750,000 but preserving important specialty crop priorities, the legislation eliminates direct payments to farmers of corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton and is expected to save $24 billion over ten years.

The bill also creates a trust fund for agricultural research to combat the citrus greening disease that threatens the Florida’s $9 billion annual industry.

An amendment from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., seeking to expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to “all forms” of fruits and vegetables was not taken up by the full Senate. A version of the farm bill that will soon be considered by the House of Representatives does allow for all forms of fruits and vegetables in the program.

“We congratulate the Senate Agriculture Committee and Senate Leadership for moving forward with this legislation that is so important to the nation’s produce providers,” Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in a news release. “The bill supports fruits and vegetables in ways that will boost consumption and help provide healthful options to Americans – through block grants, nutrition programs and pest and disease research. We’re looking forward to working with the House to preserve funding for these critical fruit and vegetable programs.”

“It’s gratifying to see the Senate Agriculture Committee and the full Senate restore confidence and support to the industry that has been waiting since the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill,” Robert Guenther, United Fresh senior vice president of public policy said in the release.. “We commend the Senate for maintaining their support for programs important to the produce industry.”

The House of Representatives is expected to take up their version of the farm bill the week of June 17, industry leaders in Washington said. A new farm bill must be passed before Sept. 30, when the current farm bill expires.

The farm bill came through the Senate debate in good shape for the specialty crop industry, said Diane Kurrle, vice president of public affairs with the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., said She noted the Senate kept the “fresh only” provision in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. In addition, Kurrle said an amendment that would have cut funding to the Market Access Program was not taken up.

The apple industry is concerned, she said, about the Senate farm bill’s provisions for conservation compliance requirements for crop insurance and a reduction in crop insurance subsidies for producers with an adjusted gross income of over $750,000.

Debate in the House on their version of the farm bill is expected to begin June 17, Kurrle said.

“We’re optimistic this time that we will actually get it across the finish line before it expires again (on Sept. 30),” Kurrle said June 10.

The fast-track status the Senate bill received on June 10 did not allow an amendment to be considered that would have expanded the Women and Children food program to include white potatoes, according to a spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Collins and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.,filed an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have required all fresh fruits and vegetables, including fresh white potatoes, to be included in the USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children food package. Since 2009, participants in the WIC program receive a produce voucher for monthly produce purchases, but the program has excluded white potatoes.

One potato industry advocate said that lawmakers in the House will be asked to support potatoes for the WIC program.

“We were gratified that ten senators recognized the need to address this issue but unfortunately given the time deadline, (there was not) a vote opportunity,” said John Keeling, chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C. “We’re going to keep looking for ways to keep raising the issue,” he said.

 Highlights of Senate farm bill

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $70 million per year; 
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $25 million (FY2014);$30 million (FY2015-2016); $65 million (FY2017); $50 million (FY2018);
  • Coordinated Plant Management Program funded at $60 million (FY2014-2017) and $65 million (FY2018);
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels;
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels;
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases funded at 2008 farm bill levels;
  • Department of Defense Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year.

Source: United Fresh Produce Association