(March 3, 2:48 p.m.) A plan to cut 20% from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program, a $200 million initiative to promote agricultural products in foreign markets, has drawn fire from the industry.

According to the White House 2010 budget released Feb. 25, the Obama administration will reform MAP by reducing funding for overseas brand promotion and cut the benefits that large for-profit entities indirectly gain as members of trade associations in the program.

The budget proposal calls for a 20% drop from the $200 million allocated annually for the 2008 farm bill program — $37 million of which went to commodity groups and other organizations that market fresh produce. Dried fruit and tree nut interests received $6 million and $7.8 million, respectively.

A list of the MAP funding recipients can be found here.

The document said the reduction will “reduce federal spending and place a greater emphasis on promoting generic American products overseas.”

“The Market Access Program historically has been a real driver of U.S. agriculture exports, and given the state of the economy, any effort to scale back a program that helps build markets for our products overseas is a mistake,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland. “I would hope the Congress, in looking at this, would hold on to the current allocation.”

Mike Wootton, senior vice president for corporate relations and administration for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., — which received $4.2 million in the current fiscal year — said Sunkist will work to see that USDA and the Obama administration reconsider the cuts.

Wootton said he thinks the idea to cut 20% from the program likely came out of the Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t think it came out of USDA and I don’t believe it came out of the office of the president,” he said.

Wootton, who is chairman of the Coalition to Support U.S. Agricultural Exports, said the plan to cut the program is contrary to sound public policy and previous support from Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He said Obama, when he was a senator from Illinois, co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to increase Market Access Program funding from $200 million to $325 million per year. That legislation didn’t pass, but it reflects Obama’s support for the concept, Wootton said. Vilsack praised the program’s effectiveness to trade groups prior to the budget announcement, he said.

“To turn 180 degrees and propose a cut of 20% flies in the face of that,” he said.

Wootton said he has already expressed his views to the White House staff, who told Wootton during a Feb. 26 conference call that they would take the objection under advisement. The final White House budget must be completed by about mid-April, he said.

Wootton said the program is proven and a reduction of the funds available for export promotion won’t help improve the economy.

“This program produces much more revenue than it costs in terms of exports, and it has proven effective in increasing U.S. agricultural exports into foreign markets,’ he said.

Wootton said the language in the document which refers to branded produce and for-profit entities needs clarification as well.

Generic promotions alone require U.S. exports to compete on the basis of price, he said.

“If we get into that game, we lose,” he said, noting that there are higher labor and environmental standards in the U.S. compared with other citrus-producing countries.

“I don’t think OMB understands marketing and brand identity is critical for a lot of U.S. products being purchased abroad,” he said.

Likewise, he said it doesn’t make sense to limit larger entities from participating in the program.

“Given the objective of the program is to increase volume of U.S. agriculture exports, it is very tough for small entities to do that,” he said.

Sunkist is a large cooperative composed of many small growers.

Wootton said the program has strong support in Congress and the USDA.

“We’re confident we have a very strong case to make, and we will make it again and again to OMB, the administration and to USDA,” he said.