(Nov. 10) SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Although beleaguered by cheap imports and saddled with ever-higher costs of doing business, the fresh produce industry has reason for hope, said Edwin Camp, chairman of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., during a workshop Nov. 3 at the Western Growers’ annual convention.

The Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act, if it becomes law, can help combat stagnant export growth, the loss of crop protection tools, heavy foreign subsidies and an onslaught of plant pest and disease problems, said Camp, partner in DM Camp & Sons, Bakersfield, Calif., at the session, called “Produce Bill: A Vision for the Future.”

“Everybody realizes we’re in a crisis ... a crisis of competitiveness,” Camp said.

“It can no longer be ignored by Congress.”

LABOR, ENERGY, REGULATION

While net farm income is on the rise, that’s not enough to outweigh the industry’s susceptibility to ballooning labor and energy costs, as well as regulatory issues, Camp said.

The package’s mix of grants and loans — $470 million a year over five years is proposed — would help on the production end, said Robert Guenther, vice president of government relations for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

And increasing the $2.5 million adjusted gross income cap for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program would encourage more companies to participate in conservation efforts, thus reducing domestic supplies.

But in the long term, a boost in consumption is needed to keep the produce industry out of the doldrums, Guenther said.

Expanding a program like Western Growers’ school garden project onto the national scene would help instill good eating habits and an appreciation for agriculture, he said.

SPECIALTY CROP POSITION

The legislation has many facets, but a small provision — creating a specialty crop position at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office — would help make sure fresh produce interests are considered during trade negotiations, he said.

While there are no direct, or trade-distorting subsidies included in the legislation, at some point the industry is going to face the difficult decision of whether to push for such aid, said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando.

If specialty crops become too subsidized, the industry could no longer stand by its position that growers of program crops like soybeans be disallowed from growing fruits or vegetables on so-called flex-acres, Stuart said.

In reality though, only a few farmers want direct subsidies, so learned Bill Lyons, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, during numerous listening sessions with the industry.

“They want research, pest prevention, agricultural education and nutrition education,” Lyons said.

Noting that specialty crops comprise 20% of U.S. agriculture, Stuart added, “We’re not getting the 20% of federal research dollars we deserve.”