By Ray Gilmer

The 2007 farm bill offers the best chance yet for improving federal agricultural policy on fruits and vegetables. Bolstered federal programs — and maybe a few new ones — can help bring the fruit and vegetable producers more parity with wheat, soy beans and cotton growers.

Some of the funding for fruit and vegetable program improvements might be carved from existing spending — a prospect that’s sure to rally resistance from supporters of the status quo.

The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Maitland, is part of the Farm Bill Steering Committee, an industry coalition that has crafted a comprehensive document for the next farm bill. Industry organizations have worked for more than a year to make farm bill programs more applicable to produce growers. Unity at this early stage sends a strong message to Capitol Hill.

One of the priorities in the next farm bill is preservation of the law that prevents planting of fruits and vegetables on acres devoted to subsidized program crops. For example, if a cotton grower receives government payments, the grower is not allowed to plant tomatoes or squash on those cotton acres. If they did, they would be receiving a subsidy for the farm operation and unfairly competing with other fruit and vegetable producers.

Administration officials and some lawmakers warned FFVA that preservation of this “flex-acres” provision may be difficult in the next farm bill. But FFVA remains committed to keeping this important foundation of fruit and vegetable policy.

FFVA will urge Congress to review the $80,000 payment limit on disaster assistance. Higher input and labor costs, along with the potential per-acre costs associated with a hurricane or other disaster, make the current limit unfair.

Additionally, the current rule has an adjusted gross income limit of $2.5 million on disaster assistance if 75 percent of that income is not from farming or ranching. The rule hurts first handlers, who receive produce and may repackage or otherwise market it. First handlers aren’t defined as farmers and are subject to the adjusted gross income limitation, but they’re hurt by disasters just like farmers who qualify for the assistance.

The farm bill committee wants Congress to make environmental programs more workable for fruit and vegetable growers. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program probably is the most utilized of all conservation programs, yet it is underfunded — despite an increase of funding in the 2002 farm bill. The industry wants Congress to mandate that a significant portion of program spending go toward fruit and vegetable projects.

The industry recommends lifting the adjusted gross income limits on conservation programs. Ironically, owners of large farms — those landowners who have the largest number of potential environmental improvements — often are locked out of conservation program funding because of adjusted gross income limitations.

The industry recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Riverdale, Md., conduct a study to determine foreign threats to domestic fruit and vegetable production.

Additionally, the USDA needs immediate access to emergency eradication funds, without delays caused by the appropriations process in Congress.

Expanded research programs that would help protect domestic fruits and vegetables must be included in the next farm bill.

In addition, the industry is seeking improvements in nutrition programs, including more government purchases of fruits and vegetables. And expansion of block grants to states for produce promotion is on the list of industry recommendations.

We ask all Florida producers to stay informed and involved during the next year of farm bill discussions. Later this year, it won’t hurt to write a note to lawmakers in Washington to make sure your voice is heard.

Ray Gilmer is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, (321) 214-5200. E-mail is