(Oct. 14) The combination of $500 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency hurricane assistance and a disaster bill passed by Congress Oct. 11 that provides $2.3 billion in crop disaster assistance should benefit fruit and vegetable growers in coming weeks.

Already passed by the House, the Senate on Oct. 11 included agricultural disaster assistance in the Military Construction Appropriations conference report.

Despite the attention of Congress and the USDA, representatives of grower associations said a serious flaw in disaster assistance will mean aid to larger vegetable growers will fall far short of their losses.

Under the terms of USDA’s disaster assistance — including funds for hurricane relief — the maximum amount that can be distributed to any one grower is $80,000.

Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the assistance will not even begin to cover the losses of larger vegetable growers.

Gilmer said some heavily hit vegetable producers who farm hundreds of acres will be able to account for losses on only 40 acres or so because of the payment limitation.

“Hopefully we can get some cleanup money, which would be outside of the $80,000 cap,” he said.

Charles Hall, executive director of the La Grange-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, said produce growers in that state suffered about $100 million in crop losses.

Like Gilmer, Hall called the $80,000 limit for losses inadequate.

The USDA’s hurricane assistance is being distributed from Section 32 funds, which are traditionally used for surplus commodity purchases.

Meanwhile, Congress used spending offsets in the Conservation Security Program to fund the Oct. 11 disaster assistance.

Casey Pace, director of public affairs for Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, said citrus growers also face an $80,000 cap on crop losses.

However, she said the USDA put no cap on tree damage for citrus producers.

Gilmer noted blueberries are counted as a long-term crop and may be able to receive some assistance to replant blueberry bushes.

Despite the $80,000 payment limitation — in place because of 2002 farm bill language — industry leaders gave high marks to state and federal officials.