(April 1, 12:22 p.m.) While Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the Obama administration’s proposed 20% cut in export promotion funds, Sunkist Growers Inc. representative Mike Wootton was in Washington, D.C., making the case to lawmakers to preserve full funding for the Market Access Program.

At the time, Congress was working toward passage of a budget resolution on President Obama’s proposed $3.55 trillion budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The budget resolution, when passed, won’t be a law. Instead, it provides parameters for spending and revenue. Congress can make changes to specific budget proposals later.

In a teleconference March 31, Vilsack defended proposed cuts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MAP, a $200 million program. The cuts would take effect in fiscal year 2010.

“What we attempted to do was continue to invest for trade promotion for American products generally,” Vilscak said during the teleconference.

Asked if branded marketers such as Sunkist — which received more than $4 million for export promotion in fiscal year 2009 — should receive money from the program in the future, Vilsack did not respond specifically.

“The monies that were reduced from the budget were designed and focused to promote specific and identifiable products and we think there are other ways for those companies to provide marketing opportunities throughout the world,” he said.

Vilsack said the MAP funding — even after a 20% cut — would still be fairly robust compared with several years ago.

Wootton, senior vice president for corporate relations and administration for Sunkist, Sherman Oaks, Calif., and chairman of the Coalition to Support U.S. Agricultural Exports, said he hopes Congress can be convinced to provide full funding to the MAP.

“We have a good story to tell,” he said March 31.

Wootton said a forerunner to MAP was funded at more than $300 million in the early 1980s, falling to $90 million with the 1996 farm bill. The 2002 farm bill began to rebuild funding for the program and the current allocation of $200 million per year has been in place for three years, he said.

Congress would have to reopen the 2008 farm bill to accomplish some of the changes that are suggested by the Obama budget, Wootton said.

“They just finished it nine months ago. I don’t think they want to turn around and redo it again,” he said.

Wootton said the proposed budget plan idea to cut branded export promotion is wrong-headed and that branded products are critical to exports.

In studies of Sunkist product in foreign markets, he said consumers say they are often motivated to buy American products because of that brand identity.

“It assures that the produce they are buying meets their expectations and they don’t get that assurance with generically identified commodities,” he said. “If we are going to compete purely on the basis of price with our foreign competition, they are going to win that battle.”

Also, any hint of bias against larger organizations in MAP allocations should be dropped, Wootton said.

“Their view is that if a small cooperative benefits, it is OK, but if a large cooperative benefits, it’s not,” he said.

However, he said that a larger cooperative is composed of its members, many of whom are small growers.

“Assuming the purpose of USDA is to help more farmers, it would make sense that large cooperatives should not be excluded from that,” Wootton said.

In the case of Sunkist, he said 80% of their growers have 40 acres of citrus or less.

Unifying together in a cooperative such as Sunkist is the only way smaller growers can participate in export marketing, he said.