Bruce Blythe, Business Editor
Bruce Blythe, Business Editor

The White House, Congress and NFL players and owners have tag-teamed to give us one long, sweaty summer of discontent, generating a seemingly endless barrage of collective-bargaining and debt-ceiling blather but little apparent agreement or concrete action.

I hope the fresh produce industry has been paying attention to all of this, without getting too caught up in it, because I think there are lessons to be applied.

Before too long, it will be time to take up debate on the 2012 farm bill, and the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to be gained, or lost, by the country’s food producers.

In this budget-tightening climate, it’s likely Congress will trim some agricultural spending. Fortunately for fresh produce growers, much of the talk of cuts revolves around so-called direct payments and other subsidies for producers of corn, soybeans and other major crops.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, eliminating such programs could save U.S. taxpayers more than $100 billion over the next decade.

Nonetheless, whether the produce industry will hold on to gains made in the 2008 farm bill remains far from certain.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, expects a “fight to survive and keep our levels” from the 2008 bill.

Formally titled the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the bill allocated about $3 billion for programs devoted to fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops.

It also slotted $1.02 billion over 10 years to expand the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Snack Program for school kids.

Guenther, in a late July interview with The Packer’s Tom Karst, said he expects the next farm bill will be “intertwined very closely” with ongoing negotiations over raising the federal debt ceiling.

While House lawmakers haven’t proposed any cuts to specialty crops funding, any reductions in agricultural research spending may still take a bite, he said.

Now seems like prime time for the produce industry to put its heads together and figure out a plan.
Which programs from the 2008 bill are working? What needs improvement? Why is it important to devote more money to this program or less to that? What’s our overall message?

So far, I’ve seen few specifics from the industry.

A few weeks ago, a recently formed advocacy group that calls itself AGree touted plans to “transform” U.S. agriculture and food policy by the end of the decade.

But when I asked the group, which includes some people aligned with the produce industry, for details of their plans, I was basically told, we got nothin’.

In an e-mail, AGree’s executive director, Deborah Atwood, said the group “wants to remove the soapboxes and create a safe discussion space for stakeholders,” whatever that means.

I know, it’s still early in this game.

But it’s only early until it gets late, and the produce industry will need more than platitudes and marketing buzzwords when the time comes for serious debate on who gets what at Uncle Sam’s trough. Staying on top and ahead of the discussions is crucial.

In some respects, this seems like it should be a slam-dunk for produce, as far as keeping or increasing funds.

On one side you have the grower with a truckload of carrots, tomatoes and other nutritious foods to underprivileged inner-city grade-schoolers, and on another, the Iowa farmer with bushels of corn, which may be destined for the local ethanol plant.

Who’s the more sympathetic figure?

Also, specialty crop programs comprise just a fraction of overall agriculture spending.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2011 budget, less than $125 million was devoted to specialty crop programs.

That’s less than a tenth of a cent of each dollar in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $149 billion spending authority (nutrition assistance programs, including the benefits formerly known as food stamps, account for about 70 cents of every USDA dollar; direct payments and other commodity programs, about 6 cents).

“Big Ag,” as represented by vast corn fields feeding ethanol mills, looks to be ripe for downsizing.

Are there opportunities for the produce industry to exploit, even as government budgets shrink?

Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh, earlier this month said his group is working with other industry associations on objectives for the 2012 bill, and as negotiations over the bill approach, it’s important growers, distributors and others “present a unified voice.”

I’m all ears.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.