WASHINGTON, D.C. — Although members of Congress were hard to find because of the election recess, there was plenty of passion for issues at the United Fresh Produce Association Washington Public Policy Conference.

More 500 attendees from 36 states and the countries of Canada, Mexico, Italy and Greece attended the Oct. 1-3 event, said David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus, Delano, Calif., and chairman of United Fresh.

The event focused on the need for a new farm bill this year.

“We think there is a good chance the farm bill could be passed in the lame duck session; that’s what we have been focused a lot of time and effort on, delivering the message to Congress and their staffs,” said Robert Guenther, United Fresh senior vice president of public policy.

WPPC finds plenty of passion, few lawmakersThe event also included a brief review of failed merger talks between United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association.

On Oct. 2, David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus, Delano, Calif., and chairman of United Fresh, said there are areas of possible synergy with PMA, including education programs, conferences, leadership development and campaigns such as the Let’s Move salad Bars to Schools. Differences, however, arose because PMA’s board was more focused on global expansion, while the United Fresh board saw a more important role to strengthen government affairs.

“These were not necessarily in conflict, but some felt it would be hard to pursue both areas equally,” Krause said.

Finally, he said the choice of a leader led to an impasse, with the United Fresh board willing to let a combined board decide leadership but the PMA board wanted to settle the issue beforehand.

Krause stressed the two groups will continue to work together.

“Let us make this clear; we are not enemies,” Krause said. “We will work together with PMA and other associations in the industry’s best interests.”

United Fresh President and CEO Tom Stenzel said the association will collaborate with PMA.

“We serve one great industry,” he said.

Keynote speaker Kathleen Merrigan, U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary, said the lack of Congressional action on the farm bill is an “unnecessary speed bump for American agriculture.”

Merrigan also said the USDA shares concerns about approaching possible funding cuts from the Budget Control Act of 2011. If Congress doesn’t act to deal with the debt crisis, the USDA budget could be cut by $3 billion in 2013.

“It is a quite severe situation if we do come up against that,” she said.

She told the WPPC attendees that agriculture has fared well in the Obama administration.

Net farm income in 2012 is projected to be a record $122 billion, up from $63 billion in 2009. Merrigan said farm debt is at historic lows and farm income is up, and the last four years have been the best years for agricultural exports on record.

Merrigan said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced $55 million in specialty crop block grants for 748 initiatives across the U.S., including proposals to boost local food production.

She also trumpeted the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, which was funded by the USDA at $163 million this year to provide free fruits and vegetable snacks to kids in 7,100 schools.

“This is an investment in the health of our nation’s children, and it is making a positive difference,” she said.

Merrigan said updated school lunch standards significantly increase fruits and vegetable offered at lunch. Despite some controversy and push back, Merrigan said the USDA feels very strongly that the new standards are backed by science and that many schools are embracing them with enthusiasm.