(Dec. 14, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) The U.S. Senate passed the farm bill Dec. 14 with a 79-14 vote, moving the fruit and vegetable industry closer to significant mandatory funding for specialty crop block grants, the fresh fruit and vegetable program for schools and other priorities.

“There is a certain amount of relief, but also some anxiousness now to get the next stage of this process moving forward,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

Guenther said he hopes the House-Senate conference committee will finish its work by the end of February. The House approved about $1.6 billion over five years for specialty crop priorities while the Senate found $2 billion in its farm bill.

With major industry priorities accounted for in a significant way, Guenther said the farm bill represents an unprecedented step forward.

“This is the first time in the history of the farm bill we have been in this position,” he said.

Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner criticized the Senate-passed farm bill immediately after the vote.

“The farm bill just passed by the Senate fails to strengthen the safety net and increases taxes to generate $15 billion in revenue used to grow the size and scope of government,” Conner said.

Conner called for further reform in the conference committee.

“Unless the House and Senate can come together and craft a measure that contains real reform, we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before today’s passage,” he said in a statement.

Guenther said bridging differences may not be easy. “It will be a tough row to hoe in the next few months to finalize the deal, but we are in a much better position than we thought we would be,” he said.

To be successful, Guenther said the conference members need to hear input from the House, the Senate and the White House.

He noted the White House opposes what it sees as increased taxes, budget gimmicks and the lack of subsidy reform in the farm bill.

“Those are probably the three major issues (the White House) has,” Guenther said.

Specialty crop advocates want industry allies Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to be appointed to the conference committee, he said.

The manager's amendment was approved with the final farm bill vote, but the amendment within the bill was not disclosed on Dec. 14.

Fruit and Vegetable Industry Priorities Included in the Senate Farm Bill:

  • Expansion of the USDA Fruit & Vegetable Snack Program to more than 4.5 million U.S. school children. This program will be a cornerstone of public health efforts to help children develop a lifelong healthier lifestyle through consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables;

  • Expansion of Specialty Crop Competitiveness projects focused on regional and local priorities for specialty crop producers. These projects have been successful in improving food safety, investing in infrastructure, enhancing market opportunities and supporting research aimed at specific industry needs.;

  • Investment in prevention and mitigation protocols to combat invasive plant pests and diseases, which cost the economy millions of dollars per year and threaten the future of many fruit and vegetable commodities;

  • Enhanced critical trade assistance and market promotion tools that will grow international markets for specialty crops; and;

  • Significant new investment in research to improve the safety, quality, affordability and access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Source: United Fresh Produce Association