Produce industry advocates monitor farm bill leadership talks

11/02/2011 11:37:00 AM
Tom Karst

Hard fought and fluid negotiations between Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees to shape the next farm bill were being closely monitored by produce industry advocates in early November.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said the agriculture committee leaders appear to be in the last days and perhaps last hours of deliberations about potential recommendations to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

“We’re up there fighting for all the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance recommendations,” Guenther said Nov. 1.

Industry advocates are hoping to preserve gains won in the 2008 farm bill, which allocated $3 billion for programs devoted to fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops. The 2008 farm bill also budgeted $1 billion over 10 years to expand the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Snack Program.

The House and Senate agriculture leadership — Senate chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and House chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. — had written a letter to the so-called super committee on deficit reduction in mid-October promising their detailed input on the process. The letter said the group recommended a $23 billion cut in farm bill spending over the next decade and said they would provide detailed recommendations by Nov. 1. That deadline came and went, and observers said there was apparent disagreements within the leadership team about how to write the farm bill in a way to achieve the cuts.

Instead of direct payments, Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said agriculture committee leaders appear to be favoring a revenue insurance approach for program crops, where 100% of the cost of the programs will be borne by taxpayers.

Given that payments will be tied to production of crops, Hoefner said the new farm bill appears to be moving further away from compliance with the World Trade Organization rules.

Hoefner said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has backed the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act introduced Nov. 1 by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, which will authorize USDA’s Risk Management Agency to develop a Whole Farm Adjusted Revenue Risk Management insurance product that is available in all states and all counties and is relevant to all diversified operations including specialty crops.

Ken Barbic, director for federal government affairs for the Washington, D.C., office for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said the leadership of the agriculture committees was spending much of their time discussing Title I programs for corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton.

“From what I’ve heard they are still far apart on Title I commodity programs and that is the sticking point right now,” he said Nov. 1.

Still, Barbic said many expect the agriculture committee leadership to unveil their recommendations by Nov. 4.

Barbic said some nutrition programs and perhaps other programs of importance to the specialty crop industry may be looked at for cuts. The three farm bill titles that the agriculture committee leadership is looking to slice include the commodity title, conservation programs and nutrition assistance.

If and when the agriculture committee leadership comes forward with recommendations, Barbic said that it is unknown if the super committee will embrace them all as recommended.

“There are so many steps to this process; no one has been through it before,” he said.

The super committee may be more likely to accept the recommendations, however. since Barbic said the agriculture committee leaders are the only group that has pledged to produce bicameral, bipartisan recommendations for budget cuts to the super committee.

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is charged with issuing a formal recommendation on how to reduce the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Composed of three members of each party from the Senate and three members of each party from the House, the committee’s bipartisan recommendations will receive an up-or-down vote in Congress before Dec. 23 this year.

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