(Oct. 18) For the East Coast growing community, this has been one of the most trying of seasons.

A complete citrus loss for some growers. Unpicked tomatoes and peppers in soggy fields for others. Replanting after replanting for still others.

All of it can be pinned on the succession of hurricanes that battered the coast and drenched the interior.

Before breaking for recess, Congress wisely addressed these maladies with a $2.9 billion disaster package for farmers stricken by the storms.

Florida, of course, has been thrashed and is in line for the bulk of such funds. Volumes from the fall vegetable deal, the forthcoming strawberry crop and citrus of all kinds will be reduced or delayed. In New York, commodities that have been dealt a blow include apples, cherries, pears, sweet corn and onions. Growers in that state hope to get at least $20 million of the aid package.

Something growers can tap into is the $35 million infusion into the Tree Assistance Program, which reimburses 75% of the cost of replanting trees lost to natural disaster. For growers who want to continue to make a go of it, this is a great program, and it even offers the opportunity for apple growers to plant newer, more-in-demand varieties.

There is some concern that the aid package opens up a portion of the 2002 farm bill to change. Some funds would come out of the Conservation Security Program, in the form of offsets. Individual states will have to ensure disbursements are made fairly.

Congress returns in mid-November, when it will have to take up nine remaining spending bills for the year that began Oct. 1.

Then, a key goal for the industry is passage of the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act. The House passed its version, but the Senate failed to take up the issue in its session.

The House bill would bring $48 million annually to programs to benefit the produce industry. Most would come in the form of block grants to states. Additionally, it would provide $1.5 million a year to maintaining the inspection training center run by the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Another industry concern is that of voluntary country-of-origin labeling.

When Congress returns, with the nasty partisan battles of the upcoming elections (hopefully) in the past, its members can get down to business unencumbered by such annoyances as having to please the general electorate. Then the industry may begin to see some action on these final details.