In their rush to cut the deficit, Congress should be slow to cut funding to promote agricultural exports, fresh produce industry advocates and others told a hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture on April 7.

“I think if we can get our message out effectively to all the members of Congress about the value and merits derived from these (programs), once again the programs will be sustained,” said Mike Wootton, senior vice president of Sunkist Growers and chairman of the Coalition to Promote U.S. Agricultural Exports.

The biggest challenge will be the dilemma to deal with very severe budget constraints in the next couple of years, he said. “We want to make sure we put forward as strong as case as possible that the budget cuts aren’t foolishly applied to programs that are so productive and generate revenue streams back to the United States, offset some of the trade deficit, increase jobs in the U.S. and generate taxable income,” he said.

Wootton, who also spoke at the hearing on behalf of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the Market Access Program is the sole source of export promotion assistance for the specialty crop industry.

“We’re confronted by foreign producers that are heavily subsidized by their host governments and by, in the case of Spain and Italy, the European Union,” he said.

That aid to foreign citrus growers goes far beyond what the Market Access Program does for California citrus growers, he said.

In a time of budget cutting in Washington, Wootton said it is the hope of many in the fresh produce industry that funding for the MAP program and other market development programs would remain in place, both in the next couple of years but also in the 2012 farm bill.

Congress has historically recognized the value of the programs, and when administrations have proposed cuts in the programs Congress has rejected those notions and supported full funding (of $200 million), he said.

While targeting the Market Access Program for cuts in the fiscal year 2011 budget, he noted the Obama administration recommend full funding for the Market Access Program in their fiscal year 2012 budget proposal.