After a long delay, at this writing in mid-January, the Farm Bill finally appears headed for reauthorization for another five years. There is still some debating to be done, but both the Democrats and Republicans have it at the top of their legislative to-do list.
When I mention the Farm Bill to most fruit and vegetable growers, I often receive an odd look, with some producers saying, “I know I should be interested in the Farm Bill but what does it mean to me/why does it matter to me?”
It’s a good question because unlike other parts of agriculture, produce growers don’t receive government support payments like dairy or have a major safety net program built for them like producers of cotton, rice, corn, wheat and soy. Let me try to answer the question then that is asked of me sometimes: “Does the Farm Bill matter to fruit and vegetable producers?”
Every year the Farm Bill’s programs authorize the spending of billions of dollars that benefit our industry. The Farm Bill authorizes a series of research and development programs that serve our industry in the short, medium and long-term. For example, in California money has been used to fund several projects at the Center for Produce Safety at UC Davis for ongoing research to validate and improve on-farm practices for improved food safety. Additionally, long-term research is underway using Farm Bill funding to find and develop drought-resistant seeds.
The Farm Bill is also a source of capital to help prevent and control the spread of invasive pests and diseases. Fruit and vegetable producers face a host of new threats as markets become ever more global, and as state budgets tighten these federal funds are critical. Fortunately, Farm Bill program funding in the form of the Plant Pest and Disease program is used for early plant pest detection and surveillance, for threat identification and mitigation of plant pests and diseases, and for technical assistance in the development and implementation of audit-based certification systems and nursery plant pest risk management systems. Farm Bill program funding is also used through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative to, among other uses, help develop the next generation of crops and/or technologies that will be able to better deal with threats from pests and disease over the long run. This one-two punch of short and medium term efforts combined with long-term research is critical to our industry and must be maintained in the Farm Bill in order to combat these threats.
Through the legislation’s conservation programs, producers can access billions of dollars a year to help share the cost of installing natural or man-made systems that increase water use efficiency while also reducing the amount of nitration entering water tables. For producers facing state or local environmental regulations help like that can be critical.
In addition, the Farm Bill provides $200 million annually for the Market Access Program that helps all agricultural sectors in marketing products overseas. Likewise, the Farm Bill also provides $9 million annually for technical assistance to specialty crop producers as American producers face technical barriers to trade. This latter program is particularly significant to our industry given the numerous sanitary and phytosanitary trade barriers that we face in markets around the world. For example, during 2011 China maintained trade barriers against Californian pears, apples, and strawberries.
Also, the Farm Bill can help change dietary habits for Americans — both now and into the future — through billions of dollars of annual funding for government purchases of fruits and vegetables. These funds help the industry through efforts such as the SNACK program, which provides fruits and vegetables in schools; increased purchases of our products by the Department of Defense; and purchases that are provided to food banks and the needy. Both government procurement and education programs are a vital part of the trend toward healthier diets — especially for children — that we are seeing across our country which ultimately may benefit the industry.
Finally, this Farm Bill provides an opportunity for crop insurance programs to become even more useful for fruit and vegetable producers. Over the last few years crop insurance has begun to turn its attention to helping manage risk for our industry. This Farm Bill begins to examine new threats around food safety and quarantines that crop insurance could address as risk management tools are modernized. In addition, for the first time this Farm Bill is adopting special protections to ensure that crop insurance products for produce are designed in such a way to increase transparency as well as prevent unintended market impacts.
Taken in aggregate, it appears that a resounding “Yes!” is the answer to the aforementioned question: “Does the Farm Bill matter to fruit and vegetable producers?”
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