U.S. agriculture secretary addresses a crowd of mostly specialty-crop producers in Modesto, Calif. (Photo by Vicky Boyd)


By Vicky Boyd

Editor

For the first time in nearly 80 years, growers of specialty crops could reap substantial benefit from U.S. farm programs.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns unveiled the proposed 2007 Farm Bill at a meeting in Tunica, Miss., Jan. 31. He made a similar presentation the following day in Modesto, Calilf., before a standing-room-audience of mostly specialty crop growers.

“Never before have the [specialty crop] farmers had this kind of place in the farm bill, and the history of farm bills dates back to the first one on the edge of the Depression,” Johnanns says. “This farm bill, we believe, is truly America’s farm bill. Every item came from a farmer. We literally built it from listening to people.”

During the 2006 summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted listening sessions throughout the country to seek input on the 2007 Farm Bill. Johanns says his agency received more than 4,000 comments from the 52 hearings.

Congress has until Dec. 31 to pass a farm bill. If it doesn’t, farm policy reverts back to the 1949 Farm Bill, Johanns says.

With all of the proposed programs combined, specialty crop growers could stand to gain $5 billion in benefits under the proposal.

The proposals would cost $87.3 billion during the next five years, not counting food stamps and other nutrition programs. The cost also meets President George Bush’s goal of balancing the budget within the next five years, Johanns says.

That compares with $105 billion spent on farm programs in the 2002 Farm Bill.

But as Johanns points out, Congress actually writes the farm bill, and the proposals could change as they move through the House and Senate.

Positive changes for fruits and vegetables

Doug Mosebar, who farms a wide range of fruits and vegetables near Santa Inez, Calif., says he is encouraged by the proposal.

“I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the commodity programs, but with the enhancements in the proposal that address most of the needs of the specialty crops producer, I am really glad,” says Mosebar, who also is California Farm Bureau Federation president.

One provision both he and Kenny Watkins, a San Joaquin County, Calif., almond grower, say they were dismayed to see was allowing growers of program crops to plant fruits and vegetables on base acres. In the past, they were prohibited from planting specialty crops on their base acres if they wanted to continue to receive program payments.

Program crops include cotton, soybeans, corn, rice, wheat and peanuts.

“It’s certainly a concern, but when you’re dealing with a world market and you are in World Trade Organization negotiations, you have to pay attention to the requirements that come out of that,” Mosebar says.

He was referring to a recent ruling that involved Brazil’s challenge of certain U.S. cotton programs. The WTO ruled that because the U.S. tied direct payments to production, it was violating trade rules.

Watkins says he believes specialty crop growers probably won’t see any effects from the ruling in the near term. With the demand for ethanol production spurring corn prices, corn growers will probably stick with growing that crop rather than switch to fruits and vegetables, he says.

“The one bright spot is corn prices, so it’s not going to be an immediate threat,” Watkins says.

The 2007 Farm Bill in a nutshell

Among the provisions that would affect specialty crop growers are:

Increase spending for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program by $4.2 billion.

Increase trade program funding by $68 million.

Increase Market Access Program funding by $250 million.

Provide $2.75 billion for additional fruit and vegetable purchases as part of food-assistance programs.

Increase funding by $500 million to purchase fruits and vegetables for school lunch programs.

Provide $1 billion for specialty crop research.

Allocate $21 billion in loan guarantees to build cellulosic ethanol plants.

Create a category of crop insurance that would address the coverage gap in current programs.

Allow growers of program crops to plant fruits and vegetables on the base acres on which they receive commodity program payments.

To view the complete proposal, visit the USDA’s Web site, www.USDA.gov.