When I first joined The Packer about 10 years ago, the industry had yet to fully accept the idea of sitting alongside Big Ag interests in farm bill discussions.

The main focus was to investigate ways to boost consumption without adopting the program crops model of direct subsidies to growers, a core belief that remains even as industry movers and shakers successfully lobby for hundreds of millions of federal dollars.

That money is tackling barriers to increased consumption at many levels:

  • in schools, with the expanded snack pilot program;
  • with the low-income population through food stamps; in households with young children through Women, Infants and Children vouchers; and
  • in communities with small-scale growers through initiatives such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program.

Even so, the farm bill actively discourages fruit and vegetable production at a critical time when obesity rates are climbing, according to a recent report from the Farmers’ Legal Action Group.

The 212-page report, researched by the group’s lawyers and vetted by other lawyers, farm advocates and food policy analysts, outlines the need for specific changes to the next farm bill, primarily to give small-scale growers incentives — or abolish disincentives.

Among the requests:

  • Make it easier to sell to schools, through specialized insurance programs, funds to hire fruit and vegetable “procurers,” and an emphasis on local produce.
  • Elevate the role of farmers markets through a slew of initiatives.
  • Evaluate the role of marketing/promotion orders in encouraging — or discouraging — sustainable practices.
  • Offer comprehensive loan and insurance programs.

There are dozens of other proposals, but a key issue is one that the produce industry dealt with in the most recent farm bill: flex acres. Since 1996, the farm bill prohibits “program” crop acreage (corn, wheat, etc.) from being included in subsidy programs if the grower plants specialty crops. A small pilot program in the current farm bill allows some flex acres in the Midwest.

At no point does the report cite the Produce Marketing Association or the United Fresh Produce Association or other groups whose members grow the majority of fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

In referring to the industry’s debate over the effects of flex acres, the authors cite a 2008 New York Times opinion piece from Minnesota grower Jack Hedin on the government “deliberately and forcefully” stopping the growth of local foods. (This was before President Obama and Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.)

In many cases, PMA, United Fresh and grower-shippers spent countless hours working with legislators to see that fresh fruits and vegetables are included in the programs the report focuses on, from WIC to healthy foods in schools.

If the Farmers’ Legal Action Group truly wants to enhance federal specialty crop programs, a starting point would be to open communication with industry groups, and learn from their successes — and failures — in dealing with the Big Ag-minded bureaucracy that’s shaped the farm bill up until recently.

E-mail ckoger@thepacker.com

What's your take on the Farmers' Legal Action Group's report? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.

Does the farm bill obstruct the little guy?

Chris Koger
Food for Thought