(Jan. 31) Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said produce won’t be ignored in the 2007 farm bill as he unveiled significant new proposals for the specialty crop industry Jan. 31.

“I have to believe the proposals on specialty crops will be very well received,” Johanns said near the end of his news conference.

Johanns will speak in detail about his proposals in Modesto, Calif., on Feb. 1.

“For the first time the Administration . . . is giving appropriate recognition to the specialty crop industry in America,” said Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

Noting an unprecedented series of listening sessions last year, Johanns said he believes Congress appreciates the work the Administration has done on the 2007 farm bill. But he acknowledged the process is far from over.

He said the Administration will favor adding billions to fruit and vegetable purchases for school nutrition but said the USDA’s plan also advocates dropping the fruit and vegetable planting prohibition on farm program acreage from the farm bill. The planting restriction – designed to protect fresh produce growers against subsidized competition - must go because of WTO challenges to U.S. farm programs have found it to be market distorting.

In a Web document, the USDA provided a summary of the proposed changes in the farm bill.

The document pointed out that five program crops receive 93% of direct farm bill cash subsidies. While specialty crop growers who gave input at USDA listening sessions did not ask for direct subsidies, they did ask for more support.

Major points of the Administration’s package:

  • Conservation: Enhance several conservation programs that assist specialty crop producers in managing natural resources. These include: significant increases to the Wetlands Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Private Lands Protection Program;

  • Trade: Phase-in $68 million in enhanced mandatory funding for the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC) program including $4 million in FY 2008; $6 million in FY 2009; $8 million in FY 2010; and $10 million thereafter through FY 2013. Increase the maximum allowable annual project award from $250,000 to $500,000 and allow more flexibility to grant TASC project timeline extensions. The program is designed to assist U.S. organizations by providing money to address sanitary, phytosanitary and technical barriers that prohibit or threaten specialty crops. According to the USDA Web site, the funds can be used for seminars, workshops, study tours, field surveys, pest and disease research, and pre-clearance programs;

  • Expand mandatory funding for the Market Access Program (MAP) by $250 million over 10 years and focus the additional funds on non-program commodities. MAP funding has been shown to be an effective use of funds to expand markets for U.S. agricultural products. While specialty crops are already a significant user of this program, USDA will apportion this new, additional funding to help address the inequity between crops that are directly subsidized and those commodities that are not directly subsidized;

  • Increase support for a number of initiatives that help to address sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues and other trade restrictions that affect specialty crop and other producers, including:

  • 1. Establishing a new grant program investing $20 million over ten years to further focus resources on addressing international sanitary and phytosanitary issues.

    2. Authorizing and providing long-term mandatory funding of $15 million over ten years to increase U.S. presence at international standard-setting bodies, such as the Codex Alimentarius, the International Plant Protection Convention, and the World Animal Health Organization.

    3. Providing enhanced monitoring, analytical support, and other technical assistance to support U.S. agriculture in bringing forward or responding to significant trade disputes and challenges. For example, U.S. specialty crop exports are sometimes threatened by rampant trademark piracy in international markets like China and Hong Kong. USDA technical assistance could help the specialty crop industry address these challenges.

  • Nutrition: Provide new mandatory funding for the purchase of additional fresh fruits and vegetables for use in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. This $500 million of funding over 10 years represents a net increase in the total purchase of fruits and vegetables for school meals over levels available under any other authorities;

  • Encourage food stamp nutrition education and establish a new “USDA Initiative to Address Obesity among Low Income Americans,” a five-year $20 million competitive grant demonstration program to develop and test solutions to the rising problem of obesity;

  • Support school efforts to offer meals based on the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including the encouragement of the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables;

  • Rural Development: Prioritize consideration of project applications that involve specialty crops in the Rural Development Value-added Grants awards-process;

  • Energy title: Initiate a new, temporary program to provide $100 million in direct support to producers of cellulosic ethanol. Eligibility for this program would be restricted to specialty crop wastes and other cellulosic biomass feedstocks;

  • Research title: Invest $1 billion over 10 years to establish a Specialty Crop Research Initiative to provide science-based tools for the specialty crop industry; and

  • Miscellaneous: Utilize an additional $2.75 billion of Section 32 funds over 10 years to specifically purchase fruits and vegetables for the National School Lunch Program and other nutrition programs.