(Oct. 11) House passage of the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act Oct. 7 is a steppingstone in a turbulent stream toward a more balanced approach to agricultural policy priorities.

The compromise bill authorizes funding for about $50 million in discretionary funding per year for block grants to states, technical assistance, research and marketing for the specialty crop industry.

Industry lobbyists are working for Senate consideration of a companion bill before the 108th Congress ends.

The bill is admittedly much smaller than the $500 million in mandatory funding originally proposed by Reps. Doug Ose, R-Calif., and Cal Dooley, D-Calif.

However, beyond the particulars of the bill, it is necessary to note that the process perhaps is more important than the outcome.

During congressional consideration of the bill, lawmakers have seen that the produce industry does not want a handout but does need a more equitable allocation of taxpayer dollars devoted to agriculture.

Fruit and vegetable producers have been sorely neglected.

Funding block grants to states is a way to improve competitiveness of producers through research rather than market-distorting subsidies.

With about 50% of gross agricultural receipts, the specialty crop industry — fruit and vegetable growers — deserves more than lawmakers have done for it.

That is not to say it will be easy to change the farm policy landscape, even by the time the 2007 farm bill is written.

Producers of six program crops are determined to keep their billions in annual subsidies.

The produce industry — thanks to the combined efforts of United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Western Growers, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and others — has given notice to Congress that the stream must be crossed.