(March 13) In the long run-up to what could be the most important farm bill ever for the produce industry, the House Agriculture Committee opened the microphone to producers in Stockton, Calif., making them among the first to be asked for input.

On March 3, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and ranking minority member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., convened the field hearing, which was hosted by Reps. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., and Jim Costa, D-Calif.

Demands for a farm bill that is more equitable to fruit and vegetable producers came through from panelists at the event.

Tonya Antle, vice president of organic sales for Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif., said U.S. organic sales have grown 20% or more annually over the past decade.

Organic food sales are estimated to have topped $15 billion in 2004 and are projected to double by 2009, she said.

In view of the need for expanded domestic supply, Antle called for greater federal funding for research into organic production methods.

She also said the produce industry strongly supports maintaining current farm bill restrictions that prevent planting of fruits and vegetables on acres receiving program payments.

Antle also said the industry supports expansion of the block grant program for specialty crops authorized in the 2004 Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act.

She called for expansion of the fruit and vegetable snack program and the creation of a fruit and vegetable nutrition promotion program, which she said would help producers while fighting obesity.

TRADE BARRIERS

Robert Ferguson, asparagus grower and spokesman for the Stockton-based California Asparagus Commission, told committee members that California asparagus growers face phytosanitary barriers to international market access at the same time they face a flood of imports.

He said import volume of fresh asparagus in the U.S. increased 300% from 1994 to 2004, while U.S. exports of fresh asparagus declined by roughly 50%.

“This imbalance between imports and exports must be addressed in the next farm bill,” he told the committee.

Ferguson also asked for full funding of the Market Access Program, new federal money to explore mechanized harvest technology, research on alternative crop production tools and greater funding for specialty crop block grants.

A LOOK AHEAD

Congress is expected to write a new farm bill in 2007, though some program crop interests want Congress to extend the 2002 farm bill for one or two more years.

While Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., are expected to introduce specialty crop legislation in March, reports from Washington indicate that the lawmakers are now working with members of the industry’s farm bill steering committee to possibly add new elements. The Craig-Stabenow bill could be a preview of a specialty crop title in the farm bill.