By Tom Karst, The Packer

CHICAGO -- Never before has there been an administration farm bill proposal more receptive to the needs of organic agriculture and specialty crop producers than the one offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said.

Johanns spoke to audiences at both the All Things Organic and the United Fresh Marketplace shows May 7, and then toured the exhibit halls of both shows.

In his address to United Fresh members in the association?s hospitality lounge, Johanns outlined the frame of the administration's farm bill.

He said the highlights of the bill include the saving of nearly $10 billion, compared with the 2002 farm bill, while allocating $5 billion more than would have been provided had the 2002 farm bill been extended. What's more, he said the administration?s farm bill proposal upholds President Bush's plan to balance the federal budget in five years.

"We built this farm bill working with the Office of Management and Budget," he said.

Johanns said the farm bill's proposals are more predictable, more equitable, and more defensible before the World Trade Organization. Currently, there are WTO cases brought by other members against U.S. cotton, corn and rice subsidy programs.

Conservation funding would increase by $7.8 billion, and Johanns said the administration's farm bill would provide $1.6 billion in new money for renewable energy research, development and production.

Beyond the major funding categories, Johanns said specialty crops also were accounted for.

"I will guarantee that there has never been a farm bill with a stronger specialty crop piece than what we are proposing," he said.

The USDA's farm bill proposal provides the following:

  • $2.75 billion in additional fruit and vegetable purchases for distribution in food assistance programs;

  • A $500 million increase in funding to purchase fruits and vegetables for school meals;

  • $1 billion for specialty crops research;

  • A reorganization of USDA's research, education and economics mission;

  • A $68 million increase for specialty crops technical assistance grants;

  • A $250 million increase for the Market Access Program, targeting nonprogram-crop commodities; and

  • $20 million to address international sanitary and phytosanitary issues.

"When it is all said and done, this proposal is the best ever," he said. "We're very excited about it. All we have to do is get it to the finish line."