Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson has announced his strong support of legislation in Congress that would provide Florida farmers with the same level of federal assistance other states have long been provided. The bill would ensure specialty crop farmers, such as those that grow fresh fruits, vegetables and nursery plants, have access to a wide array of federal agricultural programs.

The measure — known as the Equitable Agriculture Today for a Healthy America Act (EAT Healthy Act) — is being sponsored by Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, and co-sponsored by Florida congressional delegation members Reps. Tim Mahoney, Allen Boyd, Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Alcee Hastings. The legislation has 67 co-sponsors.

“I applaud the efforts of our congressional members for putting together legislation that elevates the status of Florida’s agriculture industry,” Bronson said. “This bill contains a number of provisions that, if included in the 2007 farm bill, will provide the resources specialty crops need to ensure their sustainability and competitiveness.”

Major issues addressed by the bill include:

Nutrition: It requires federal feeding programs, including school lunch and school breakfast programs, to adhere to the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines, which call for the consumption of greater amounts of fruits and vegetables to combat obesity and other childhood health issues.

Pest and Disease: It provides a number of tools to combat pests and diseases currently threatening fruit, vegetable and nursery production.

Competitiveness: It increases specialty crops access to valuable export markets by enhancing a number of existing federal programs.

Research: The bill increases funding for research involving specialty crops, as well as increased funding for research into the prevention of invasive plant pests and diseases that afflict fruit, vegetable and nursery crops.

Conservation: It increases opportunities for specialty crop producers to access conservation programs.

Until now, the majority of federal programs have been geared toward “program” crops which include wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and rice. This legislation puts Florida’s specialty crops on a more even playing field when vying for federal program dollars. The assistance is not provided through direct payments, but instead focuses on pest and disease eradication, research, expanding market access for exports and requiring that imported fruits and vegetables have undergone the same steps as U.S. producers to prevent pest infestations, pesticide residue and address other safety issues.

“Florida ranks second in the nation in the production of fruit, vegetable and nursery crops,” Bronson said. “Specialty crops are a major contributor to the economy and now account for 54 percent of farm gate receipts nationwide. A globally competitive specialty crop industry is imperative to production of an abundant, affordable food supply.”

In addition to Bronson’s strong support, the legislation is being supported by Florida Citrus Mutual, the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, the Florida Tomato Exchange, the Florida Watermelon Association and other organizations representing Florida agriculture.

Agriculture is the second largest industry in Florida — trailing only tourism — and has an economic impact of $87 billion a year.