With much of the recent farm bill debate focusing on major commodity programs, Southeast vegetable growers are asking, “What's in it for me?” Plenty, according to officials with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA).

“The farm bill package contains important programs that will help our growers remain competitive,” says Mike Stuart, president of the FFVA.

For many Florida growers, he says, the farm bill provision mandating “country of origin” labeling of fresh fruits and vegetables is the most important. Starting in September of 2004, the labeling law would require food retailers to insure that fresh produce and other food products are labeled indicating their country of origin.

Surveys have shown that consumers overwhelmingly support country of origin labeling, and that many consumers are unaware that imported produce is sold in their supermarkets.

Florida has required in-store country of origin labeling since 1979. “Florida consumers have had origin information for years and have used it as a tool for choosing which foods to buy,” says Hugh English, FFVA chairman. “If consumers across the country wish to buy foods produced in the United States, this new law will let them make a more informed choice.”

The following provisions of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 address key priority issues important to U.S. vegetable growers:

  • International market access. The new Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops Fund will provide USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) funding — $2 million per year — to address non-tariff trade barriers for specialty crops in an effort to increase market access. The Market Access Program (MAP) funding includes a 10-year increase of $650 million over the current $90 million baseline. The MAP program will be increased to $200 million by 2006. Thirty percent of MAP funding is utilized by fruit and vegetable industry members to gain access to international markets.

  • Increased produce consumption. Funding under Section 32 will require the USDA secretary to purchase at least $200 million in fruits and vegetables and other specialty food crops. For the first time during a farm bill debate, Congress has directed the USDA to insure that at least $200 million is used for the purchase of fruits and vegetables for federal feeding programs such as the School Lunch Program. In the next six years, the federal government will purchase $1.2 billion in fruits and vegetables. Also, Congress has indicated they expect USDA to utilize this funding above and beyond current purchasing practices. In addition, a new $10-million per year cost-share pilot program will carry out demonstration projects to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and convey a health promotion message.

  • Conservation enhancement. The Water Conservation Program — funded at $60 million per year — will provide cost-share incentives and assistance for efforts to conserve ground and surface water. EQUIP — a popular program with fruit and vegetable growers — has been increased four-fold to achieve $1.3 billion in annual funding levels. Congress has included language highlighting priority practices for produce growers, including IPM practices, invasive species and preservation of endangered habitat.

  • Methyl bromide exemptions. State and local governments will be allowed to petition USDA for use of methyl bromide for the official control of pests, recognizing economic costs and availability of suitable alternatives. The agreement also provides that these governments may petition USDA for the use of transitional products. If transitional products are not feasible, USDA must issue a report, and regulatory reviews must occur within 180 days.

The bill also authorizes research and Extension grants for the improved harvesting of fruits and vegetables, including research on mechanical harvesting and the development of abscission chemicals.

“This farm bill breaks new ground in addressing the needs of U.S. fruit and vegetable producers, but much more must be done to insure that specialty crop growers are equitably represented in our nation's farm programs,” says FFVA President Stuart.

Progress made in the new farm bill for fruit and vegetable programs, says Stuart, is the result of a broad coalition that worked for more than two years to raise awareness in Congress about the critical needs of specialty crop producers. Agriculture officials from several states, producers and more than 100 industry organizations contributed testimony and resources to seek common objectives of the new legislation, he says.

“This has been an unprecedented cooperative effort to craft a workable farm bill for the fruit and vegetable industry. It shows what can be done if we work together.”