(Oct. 3) CELEBRATION, Fla. — Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns wanted opinions on the creation of the 2007 farm bill — and he received an earful.

Florida growers and producers in a region that hasn’t received much federal assistance said they want the agency to put more emphasis on specialty or nonprogram crops.

Johann’s public listening session, No. 16 of 22 that have taken place throughout the U.S., was Sept. 27 as part of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s 62nd annual convention at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate.

Though growers such as Chip Hinton, executive director of the Plant City-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association, say they don’t want to cannibalize the formula funding system, they told the secretary they would like to see increases in federal competitive grants funding.

“While the goal of eating healthy foods and fighting the obesity epidemic is clearly worthy and needed, when you look at these guidelines and how farm policy is formulated, there’s clearly a disconnect between what we’re recommending for consumer consumption and funding for agriculture in this country,” said Charles Hall, executive director of the La Grange-based Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.

Hall noted the discrepancy is also seen in crop insurance.

While it’s not unreasonable for a Georgia or Florida tomato grower to invest up to $5,000 in per acre production costs before his first fruits are harvested, after a disaster, he faces the same payment limitations as a program crop grower who has invested $500 an acre.

With its $80,000 limit, crop insurance will cover only 16 acres of tomatoes but 160 acres of corn, Hall said.

Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., urged for increased funding of fruit and vegetable marketing through programs such as 5 a Day.

“Though thanks to the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) we now have the strongest dietary guidelines we’ve ever had, I’m frustrated that so little funding is actually spent on promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Pivonka encouraged the USDA to expand its eight-state school Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program nationally.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, applauded the secretary for going out to the country to meet with the industry, something Stuart said previous administrations didn’t do.

“The specialty fruit and vegetable crop industry producers really haven’t been users of farm programs,” Stuart said.

Ron Hamel, executive vice president and general manager of Gulf Citrus Growers Association Inc., LaBelle, related to the secretary the devastation caused by citrus canker.

“We’ve had to destroy 1.5 million trees in our region,” he said. “That’s a big economic impact on growers, as well as southwest Florida. It’s tough to see all the acres that are being taken out.”

Hamel recommended increased funding and personnel at seaports to stop pests from entering the country.

Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Ruskin Inc., Ruskin, and chairman of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, urged increased funding for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Charles Bronson, commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, said he thinks the secretary learned something about produce production.

“If we continue to use yesterday’s rules for tomorrow’s technology, we’ll never get there,” he said. “We hope the farm bill consideration will give us that opportunity to compete in tomorrow’s agriculture all around the world.”