May 1, 2023

What the Farm Bill Means for Specialty Crop Growers

January 2023 started the year with a dramatic entrance for much of the U.S. West. This new year is just one part of the story of years of unprecedented challenges with climate, pandemic-response regulations and policy changes, to name a few, creating a broad horizon of issues the Agriculture Committee leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have to consider for the next U.S. Farm Bill renewal. Though much of the Farm Bill addresses challenges faced by row crop farmers in the Midwest, produce growers in the Western U.S. have much at stake when it comes to what is and isn’t included in the Farm Bill revisions.

The U.S. Farm Bill renewal process has been open for comments and suggestions since 2022. The reoccurring cycle of the Farm Bill is an opportunity to calibrate to circumstances that drastically shift from year to year while also anticipating the issues of the future. Every suggestion is a paver stone in the road that will hopefully be implemented into the bill to create an infrastructure that will be strong enough to support the heavily tread path an industry must use for many years to come.

Creating a system that ensures food security is a non-negotiable necessity to a successful society. It is in a nation’s best interest to integrate suggestions from those who produce food to safeguard productivity and survivability. It’s impossible to know the future, especially in an environment where the prominent predictable feature is its unpredictability. Drought, floods, hurricanes, fires and other natural disasters loom over crops and production every year. This gauntlet of environmental challenges in conjunction with disruptions to the supply chain, rising competition from low-cost imports, labor shortages, food safety precaution costs and variable tariff regulations make navigating the terrain difficult for growers and far more precarious than those perusing the produce aisle at their local grocery store could ever imagine.

To help guide the considerations of the U.S. Farm Bill renewal, the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA), a national coalition of more than 125 specialty crop organizations representing growers of fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, tree nuts, nursery plants and other products, released its recommendations in February 2023. According to the co-chairs—Dave Puglia, President & CEO, Western Growers; Kam Quarles, CEO, National Potato Council; Mike Joyner, President, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association; and Robert L. Guenther, Chief Public Policy Officer, International Fresh Produce Association—in a joint statement, these recommendations “are the most comprehensive and ambitious in the two-decade history of the Alliance. Their implementation will enhance the competitiveness of the U.S. industry for years to come.”

Complexities in the specialty crop industry have ramped up considerably over recent years, and the 109 specific recommendations covering eight Farm Bill titles within the SCFBA recommendation document reflect those growing areas where support and policy adjustments are required. A few of the key points of focus for WG are automation, food safety, pesticides, climate change and safety net reforms.

A growing global population and a declining agricultural workforce means that building out automation to optimize the expertise and effort of the workers managing operations is necessary. According to the SCFBA recommendation document, “Advancing research and development activities to overcome existing and upcoming research challenges in specialty crop agriculture will require acceleration of novel, early-stage innovative agricultural research with promising technology applications and products.” A drag on the adoption process has occurred because of high investment cost of emerging technologies. Utilizing new automation options is a risky financial proposition, and many organizations already navigating a complex business are hesitant to shove their chips to the center of the table. Western Growers is very familiar with these challenges given our years of work within the Innovation Center in trying to identify and help promote start-up companies, including many in this space. The SCFBA suggests that utilization of mechanized options will accelerate if the up-front financial cost is mitigated through private-public partnership: “Mechanized and/or automated solutions are arriving in the marketplace but are often not adopted quickly as industry best practices because they are expensive and unproven and require significant grower investment. Congress should establish a reimbursement-based cost share program within the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) exclusively for specialty crop producers who are seeking to increase efficiency by investing in mechanized and automated agri-tools.”

Food safety is a priority for growers, regulators and consumers. To strengthen food safety processes, those within the agricultural industry encourage government support and education over penalties to ensure compliance. While food safety is within the primary jurisdiction of the FDA not USDA, the Alliance believes technical assistance and research relating to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is vital and something the Farm Bill can help with. “Technical assistance for producers as well as additional research into helping producers comply with FSMA are still needed,” the document states. “Changing environmental conditions, stemming from less predictable and more severe weather, coupled with an increase in ‘mixed use’ agriculture (where animals and crops are grown in close proximity to one another) impact how and where human pathogens survive in the environment which subsequently impacts fresh produce safety.” The assistance provided to ensure food safety in the event of unpredictable circumstances—like the flooding that resulted from multiple storms throughout California—should be based on sound science. This initiative of reliable scientific support can be enhanced by providing additional funding to the National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to conduct produce safety research focused on helping producers comply with FSMA obligations. Once best management practices for the wide variety of crops in our sector are identified, we then need to make sure that information is shared widely through vehicles like USDA cooperative extension service.

The shift toward alternatives to conventional pesticides varies in intensity from mandatory regulatory changes to consumer calls to action. Much like the up-front demand of automation, a shift to alternatives is risky and costly. Utility and response of these products doesn’t have the robust track record of traditional products, and the process of switching is going to be a careful process. To navigate the forthcoming changes, the SCFBA proposes that additional resources we provide the IR-4 program run by USDA. This program is dedicated to providing new crop protection tools to specialty crop growers and is chronically underfunded. With growing pressure on existing crop protection tools, we need more research into next generation products for our sector.

A changing climate is creating more volatility to an industry that relies on conducting business based on shifts in the environment. While many specialty produce operations work to remain flexible and adaptive to these changes, the Farm Bill should work with the industry to acclimate to changes. For a cohesive and mutually beneficial system, “Conservation programs should remain voluntary, and climate change should not be used to mandate conservation production practices…Conservation programs should be multi-resource focused even if climate is the issue of concern.” In particular, given the huge long-term drought problems we face in the West, conservation programs run by USDA must help make farms more water resilient.

Over the last few years, growers have experienced a huge amount of shock to their farms as a result of things like trade conflicts with China or significant drought or market collapse due to COVID or flooding. One of the strongest urgings for addition in the upcoming Farm Bill revision is to establish a better safety net for producers because many of these issues have been dealt with via unpredictable disaster bills. Rather than having unbudgeted and potentially inconsistent disaster bills, Congress wants to improve the safety net for producers. For our industry, that means we need to focus on creating better crop insurance programs. For about half of our industry that already have crop insurance, the Alliance wants to look for ways to improve programs. For the half that doesn’t have crop insurance but would like to get assistance, the Alliance is focused on opening up new opportunities for insurance coverage. Providing safety nets to protect the specialty crop industry is an added level of security and support that can help establish a firmer ground under the feet of specialty crop producers during a time when things appear to be getting more treacherous.

Deciding what will make its way into the Farm Bill changes is no small task with so many needs and requests being heard by representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Western Growers has a team on the ground in Washington, and working with other produce industry allies, we are pushing to make changes like the ones noted above real. The Farm Bill is always in flux as new challenges arise and need to be addressed every few years. For our part of the agricultural industry, many of the issues we face are new and unprecedented and demand changes and new ways of operating. For the future of providing fresh and healthy food to people, it’s worth investing in the road to success now.