(Sept. 14) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The push is on to create a new farm bill that pays attention to the burgeoning fresh produce industry.

Over the next 18 months, agriculture and Congress will be piecing together a new farm bill, the sweeping legislation that sets policy and spending goals for everything from trade to promotions to nutrition.

“We deserve to be at the table,” said John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council and co-chair of a produce-industry farm bill coalition with dozens of member organizations.

Keeling, who was speaking Sept. 13 at the annual Washington Public Policy Conference of the newly named United Fresh Produce Association, said that once again it would be crucial to block any move to allow crop producers who get direct farm subsidies to plant land in fruit and vegetable crops.

He said a preliminary study indicates that if planting restrictions are lifted on so-called “flex” acres it would cost the produce industry $3 billion.

Keeling said he thinks Congress will write a new five-year farm bill and not just reuse the old 2002 bill.

Keeling said the produce industry needs a whole “package of tools” to help it remain competitive.

The stage for the farm bill fight will be set when the Specialty Crops Farm Bill Act is introduced in Congress in late September. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and John Salazar (D-Colo.). The specialty crops legislation contains dozens of provisions aimed at boosting the produce industry in areas of trade, promotion, nutrition, pest and disease control, research, renewable energy and the environment.

Among the goals will be to extend fresh produce use in schools and increase block grants to states to allow them to promote and support fresh produce sales and marketing. Legislative experts told the conference that getting strong recognition of fresh produce in a farm bill will not be easy. Many other groups are competing for the money.

“You need a working relationship with your member of Congress,” said Karen Williams, legislative aide to Rep. Putnam. She said feedback from the industry shows interest in better marketing, pest and disease control, overcoming trade restrictions, the need for cutting-edge research and a push to get out the health message.

She said a major aim is to continue the block grants to states and to allow flexibility as to how states use the money. Some may want to promote consumption, while others may opt to deal with distributions or other problems, she said.

“It’s going to be a hard fight,” she said.

Autumn Veazey, legislative director at the United, said current appropriations bills in the Congress disagree on how much money to spend in fiscal 2007 on produce-related programs such as block grants to states and the produce snack program now in a number of schools in 14 states.