(Dec. 17) SALINAS, Calif. — With congressional supporters of the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act of 2003 hoping to bring the number of sponsors into the triple digits, a Dec. 12 hearing brought produce representatives in force to spread the good word.

In the first congressional subcommittee hearing at the National Steinbeck Center, A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told U.S. Reps. Doug Ose, R-Calif., and Sam Farr, D-Calif., that the specialty crops bill was critically important and that he supported it wholeheartedly.

Ose, chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs, told Kawamura it was important to get his support for the bill on record.

Ose and Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., are co-authors of the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act. The bill, which now has more than 50 sponsors, including Farr, would provide money for research, nutrition education, promotion and other programs.

Ose acknowledged that program crops receive about $20 billion annually in federal price supports and assistance programs while specialty crops get very little.

“This is in spite of the fact that specialty crops contribute more annual revenue to the agricultural sector: $58.7 billion to $47.9 billion for program crops,” Ose said. “Additionally, specialty crops are often subjected to unfair international trade practices that limit market access and effectively hinder genuine free trade.”

Kawamura, as did all the other witnesses, reiterated that the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act is not about subsidies but about leveling the playing field. The former chairman of Western Growers, who succeeded Bill Lyons Jr. as California's agriculture secretary in November, said domestic producers want their foreign counterparts to be held to the same phytosanitary standards and open trade policies as they are.

“Our ability to compete in this complex world is being compromised,” Kawamura said.

If the U.S. doesn’t stop forging trade agreements with countries that can’t or won’t buy U.S. products or with countries that subsidize their own specialty crop growers, then U.S. growers will be forced to “pick up their tractors and move to another country,” he said. “We have gotten to that point.”

Kawamura acknowledged that many trade treaties are driven by national security, but added “that food security also is a matter of national security.”