(Sept. 16) The U.S. Senate on Sept. 10 approved an amendment that would provide $5.9 billion in disaster assistance that could benefit fruit and vegetable growers suffering heavy crop losses last year and this year.

New York and Michigan fruit growers were among those heaviest hit by spring frost.

“U.S. Apple is very happy about the outcome of the vote, and we are grateful for our Senate allies on Capitol Hill,” said Jim Cranney, vice president of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va.

NOT HOME FREE

The Senate passed the amendment for disaster assistance in a fiscal 2003 appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior. The appropriations bill was still under consideration Sept. 12, as more amendments were being considered for the bill. One Capitol Hill source said the appropriations bill was being loaded with amendments because it may be the last appropriation bill passed before the expected October recess.

The House-passed version of the Interior Department appropriations bill did not contain provisions for disaster assistance, so a conference committee composed of House and Senate members will determine the compromise language. The strong vote for the amendment in the Senate, 79-16, probably ensures disaster assistance will be in the compromise bill.

While the Senate passed the amendment as an emergency designation — in effect creating deficit spending — the Bush administration wants Congress to find budget offsets within the farm bill.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman sent a letter to Senate leaders Sept. 9 in which she reiterated the president’s support for drought relief unless it adds to the deficit.

“The Congress has already provided the tools for drought relief for crop farmers through the heavily subsidized Federal Crop Insurance Program,” she said.

Veneman said the administration strongly opposes this amendment and any agriculture spending in excess of the $180 billion in spending provided earlier this year.

The amendment does not allocate funds for commodities but is open to all producers. The threshold of participation is 35% loss, Cranney said. Damage over the 35% threshold is compensated at about 60% of value, he said. Payments are limited to $80,000 per person, and no one with an annual gross income of $2.5 million or more in the previous tax year is eligible.

CROP DAMAGE

Drought conditions exist over much of the country, which is likely to generate billions in claims across a variety of commodities.

Apple producers in Michigan, New York, Washington and Idaho have suffered substantial crop damage this year, Cranney said. Growers in other states also may participate.

Cranney said the disaster assistance won’t cover the losses sustained, but they may help some growers stay in business.

During the chamber’s debate of the amendment Sept. 10, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said cherry growers in Michigan lost up to 90% of their crops. “Additionally, 80% of Michigan’s apple farmers have lost upwards of 40% of their crop,” he said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said Sept. 10 that 2002 has been the worst year in memory for many specialty crop farmers. In New York’s Hudson Valley region, she said losses on specialty fruit crops totaled $65 million.