(Feb. 5) The fruit and vegetable industry has never been a bigger part of farm bill possibilities.

The White House proposal outlined by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns on Jan. 31 to reform farm policy and inject billions of dollars into specialty crop priorities over 10 years was greeted by fresh produce industry leaders with mainly satisfaction but some reservation.

Congress is expected to write the next farm bill later this year, and entrenched farm interests may want to change elements of the administration’s plan that limit subsidies and change payment formulas.

Produce industry leaders throughout the country delivered the grass-roots messages pleading for specialty crops’ priorities in many of the dozens of farm bill listening sessions the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted last year.

“(Johanns’) statement clearly acknowledges specialty crops are at the table,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

However, Guenther said United isn’t comfortable with the possibility of USDA ending restrictions placed on program crops that limit fruit and vegetable production on that acreage. The restriction is in place so subsidized growers don’t unfairly compete with fruit and vegetable growers.

While the planting restriction was nearly the only thing the industry wanted in previous farm bills, the administration’s vision of the 2007 farm bill leaves it out — but provides billions of dollars for nutrition and research over a 10-year period.

Eliminating the prohibition is an issue of contention, said Tom Nassif, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers and co-chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. Nassif also said the alliance believes any farm bill Congress approves should have significant funding for specialty crop block grants — something that Johanns’ proposal lacked.

Any funds that the USDA allocates to expand the market for fresh produce — particularly for children — would be well spent, said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

The administration’s proposal addresses specialty crop priorities without creating a direct subsidy system, Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, and co-chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, said in a news release.

At his Jan. 31 news conference, Johanns said the World Trade Organization forced the USDA’s hand regarding the planting flexibility provision on program crop acres.

On the contrary, Guenther said the WTO dispute with Brazil over cotton subsidies doesn’t require the provision to be lifted from the farm bill. While the WTO said the provision was a problem, he said the U.S. has options — including the way they classify farm payments — beyond simply removing it.

Representing about $5 billion in funding for specialty crop needs over 10 years, the administration’s proposal should be carefully considered by Congress, Guenther said.

Meanwhile, the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association said the USDA’s proposal to spend $61 million on organic agriculture over 10 years is insufficient. The OTA called for that much every year.