(May 22) Fresh produce is given explicit priority in a proposed rule governing disbursement of federal specialty crop block grant funding, raising objections from some lawmakers and processed specialty crop interests in May.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in expectation of additional funding for specialty crop block grants for fiscal 2007 to be added to what was approved for fiscal 2006, accepted comments on a proposed rule that would govern how those specialty crop block grants would be awarded.

PRIORITY

The comment period for the USDA rulemaking on specialty crop block grants was set to close May 22. Washington sources said there was controversy about an Agricultural Marketing Service provision in the proposed rule that reads:

“Priority will be given to fresh specialty crop projects.”

Some members of Congress signed a letter to the USDA asking that all specialty crops, whether marketed fresh, frozen or dried, be given equal weight.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said May 17 he co-signed a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. The letter, organized by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., asked the agency to have a broad interpretation of fruits and vegetables when it awards funds for block grant projects.

“We can find no foundation for this priority and believe it would go against congressional intent,” the letter said.

NO CONSPIRACY

Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., said United did not try to influence the USDA to include language that would give fresh a special priority in the proposed rule and has always wanted the block grants to be inclusive.

“There’s no conspiracy here,” he said May 17.

In comments published on the USDA’s Web site, several industry leaders representing processed fruit and vegetable interests objected to the proposed priority given to fresh.

Jean-Mari Peltier, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, wrote to the USDA on May 16 that he was concerned about the preference for “fresh” products.

“This type of restriction appears to disregard guidance provided to, and supported by, USDA in previous studies,” he said.

Dane Lance, vice president of global sales and marketing for Sunsweet Growers Inc, Yuba City, Calif., wrote in a May 3 comment that the USDA should not put one class of specialty crop above another.

“We believe it is clear that creating a priority for one type of special crop over another in a block grant program without a statutory directive to do so is bad policy and just plain wrong,” he said.

For the purpose of the block grants, the USDA said “specialty crops” means fruit and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and nursery crops, including floriculture.