A federal program aimed at helping domestic asparagus growers hit hard by a 1991 South American trade pact could be nearing implementation.

Congress passed the Asparagus Market Loss Program as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. The program is seen as a long-overdue balm for an industry reeling from the effects of the Andean Trade Preference Act, which encourages growers in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador to plant crops other than coca, which is used to make cocaine.

Among the big beneficiaries of the act has been the Peruvian asparagus industry, which has enjoyed duty-free access to U.S. markets. The U.S. asparagus industry, by contrast, has shrunk considerably since the bill’s passage, with some production moved from the U.S. to Peru. Seneca Foods Corp., which at one time processed half of Washington state’s asparagus production, closed its Washington plant and opened one in Peru.

Relief could be in sight. Once the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, which is drafting regulations for farm bill programs, gets two other programs — disaster relief for crop and livestock producers — up and running, the Asparagus Market Loss Program will be at or near the top of the agency’s to-do list, said FSA spokesman Kent Politsch.

The program allocates $15 million in direct payments to growers.

“It will certainly be weeks, not months,” Politsch said Oct. 13. “We’re trying to get to all of the farm programs as soon as we can.”

Lending his support on behalf of domestic asparagus growers is Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who on Sept. 30 sent a letter to the USDA urging haste in implementing the program. The letter was co-signed by other representatives from Washington, Michigan and California, states with major asparagus production.

“The Andean Trade Preference Act continues to have a devastating impact on the Washington asparagus industry, and I am pleased that Congress acted last year to help compensate growers and processors for these losses,” Hastings wrote in the letter. “Unfortunately, more than a year after the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, USDA has yet to draft the regulations that allow these funds to be dispersed.”

After almost two decades of “severe losses,” growers should not have to wait any longer for relief, Hastings wrote.

Federal relief for asparagus growers could be soon