Ray Gilmer United Fresh

Right now, farm policy in the US takes the spotlight in Washington DC, as it does every five years or so when lawmakers debate the reauthorisation of what’s commonly called the Farm Bill. This legislation is a comprehensive federal agriculture policy measure containing 15 sections or ‘titles’ designed to ensure a safety net for producers, along with programmes for fostering research, pest and disease control, nutrition programmes, conservation, market promotion and more. It had a price tag of almost US$300bn.

United Fresh helps to coordinate a broad food industry coalition called the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA) to drive pro-industry farm policy. Having such a cohesive coalition to represent specialty crops is a relatively new force on Capitol Hill. We consider the gains won in the 2008 Farm Bill, including more funding for nutrition and research, and block grants to states, to be a turning point for our industry’s public policy efforts.

Specialty crops can’t retreat from achievements gained in the 2008 Farm Bill. At least, that was the message delivered by staff from the Senate and House Agriculture Committees during March meetings with members of the SCFBA. During the Capitol Hill gatherings, the scfba Steering Committee reviewed progress on several Farm Bill priorities, with special attention to risk management programmes, such as crop insurance, and block grants.

“Defending the block grants is essential for this next farm bill,” said Jacqlyn Schneider of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Democratic staff. “We are looking at ways to enhance how the block grants are structured, including cooperative multi-state projects.”

Allowing the US Department of Agriculture to coordinate block grants on a multi-state basis, something not afforded in the 2008 bill, would allow more efficient design of research projects and better use of the funding, according to United’s government relations team.

As you might have guessed, money is tight this year in Washington DC, and this Farm Bill will see very significant reductions in many programmes. The United Fresh Government Relations Council held a day-long meeting immediately after the Farm Bill alliance sessions. Krysta Harden, chief of staff for USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, met with the group to remind them of the importance of communicating the value of specialty crop programmes.

“We’re going to spend money in this town, the question is on what,” said Harden. “Some people in Congress think research is a big black hole where the money disappears. We need to be specific about what the research is for, why it’s important to address that need, and what consequences we face if we don’t get it. Be very specific about the programmes the industry needs. Tell stories about farms, communities, people and jobs that depend on the Farm Bill.”

Will Congress even pass a new Farm Bill before it expires in September? That’s a huge priority for United Fresh. While in DC, the council members visited key Senate staff to urge support for passing a Farm Bill this year, rather than just approving a one-year extension of the current bill. In most of our meetings on Capitol Hill we heard solid support for advancing a new Farm Bill that supports produce industry priorities.