(March 21) Specialty crops are now officially a major player in the 2007 Farm Bill.

A coalition of six congressmen March 20 introduced the Equitable Agriculture Today for a Healthy America Act, which would fund research, marketing, conservation and federal crop purchases, and expand U.S. Department of Agriculture snack and child-nutrition programs.

The five-year price tag on the bill, if all provisions survive, is about $5 billion.

“We’ve got our foot in the door,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. “This bill helps our industry make sure they’re in a situation that they can remain competitive.”

Guenther also is a committee chairman of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, a coalition of specialty crop organizations that provided input for the legislation.

The informally named EAT Healthy America bill — introduced by Reps. Dennis Cardoza, (D-Calif.); Randy Kuhl, (R-N.Y.); John Salazar, (D-Colo.); Adam Putnam, (R-Fla.); Rick Larsen, (D-Wash.); and Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.) — is actually in its second incarnation. A similar bill introduced in September stalled.

“Nothing major was changed,” Guenther said.

The proposal also has strong support from the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

A similar bill in the Senate was expected to be introduced by Larry Craig, (R-Idaho); and Debbie Stabenow, (D-Mich.), Guenther said.

Advocates of the House bill said it would increase access to coveted export markets by increasing the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program, the Market Access Program and the Block Grant Program. It would also raise the profile for specialty crops within USDA, the U.S. Trade Representative and other federal agencies.

The House bill, like its predecessor, would expand the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program in schools across the nation and develops nutrition programs that benefit consumers and assist producers by enhancing their markets.