(April 17) Serving as a marker in the 2007 farm bill debate, legislation introduced in the Senate in late March would provide $200 million annually in specialty block grants to states.

Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., introduced Senate Bill 2487, the Specialty Crop CompetitivenessAct of 2006 on March 31.

Besides providing for block grants to states, the legislation also would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set up an export–oriented division in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to help growers overcome phytosanitary barriers. The bill also clarified a 2002 farm bill provision that requires the USDA to spend at least $200 million on fruit and vegetable purchases above normal baseline expenditures for nutrition programs.

“This bill is a launching point for the next farm bill to restore the competitiveness in the global market place,” Craig said in a March 31 news release.

In comments on the Senate floor, Craig said March 31 that the specialty crop industry accounts for more than $53 billion, or 54% of total cash receipts for all crops.

EXPORT OPPORTUNITIES

Craig said the bill would provide growers more opportunities to export their production.

“This legislation promotes initiatives that will combat diseases both native and foreign that continue to be used as nontariff barriers to U.S. exports by foreign governments,” he said.

On the Senate floor, Stabenow added that her intent was not to take money from program crop producers to give to specialty crop growers.

“I want to clarify that the Craig-Stabenow bill is in no way designed to take funding away from program crops, but rather to bring specialty crops up to the status of program crops,” she said.

The bill requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corp. to provide $200 million in block grants annually to states to support production-related research, commodity promotion, nutrition, food safety and inspections and other programs to enhance the competitiveness of specialty corps.

LESS FOR SPECIALTY CROPS

Not everything about the bill is exactly what the industry would prescribe for the 2007 farm bill, however.

The $200 million for block grants in the Craig-Stabenow bill is below the $470 million annual funding asked for in the 2004 Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act and also far below what is expected to be advanced by the industry’s farm bill steering committee in coming weeks.

A pared down specialty crop act eventually passed in 2004 that provided funding authorization for up to $44.5 million in block grants to states for fiscal year 2006. Eventually, funding for fiscal 2006 was set at $7 million.

“We are describing it as a good first start,” said Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

The Craig-Stabenow legislation has a $3 million minimum and a $15 million cap on the amount each state can receive.

Previous block grant programs have provided a minimum for each state, but with the remainder of block grant funds based on a formula on specialty crop production. Because California accounts for upwards of 40% of specialty crop production, its funding would exceed the Craig-Stabenow $15 million cap. Florida, with perhaps close to 20% of specialty crop production, may also bump the cap.

Sid Smith, spokesman for Craig’s office, said April 12 that the $15 million cap could be flexible and was meant to signal to lawmakers that the benefits of the program would not be directed to just one or two states.