In testimony before a House Subcommittee, representatives of the fruit and vegetable industry provided Congress with a laundry list of things they would like to see in the next farm bill.

“While we believe that the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 did take a step in the right direction for the produce industry, we believe that there are additional areas where the federal government can assist in maintaining the competitiveness of the produce industry,” says Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association in Washington, D.C.

Testimony at the hearing before the House Livestock and Horticulture Agriculture Subcommittee covered the gamut of domestic policies that affect the U.S. produce industry. Subcommittee Chairman Robin Hayes, R-N.C., says the testimony will be used as a template for the next farm bill discussions.

“The Livestock and Horticulture Subcommittee held this hearing in order to hear from witnesses on a variety of critical issues including implementation of programs in the 2002 farm bill, the Homeland Security Act of 2002, and the 2001 economic assistance package which included specialty crop state block grants,” says Hayes.

Testifying before the Subcommittee, Stenzel says, “The produce industry strongly supports the development of farm policies that sustain financial stability and viability of our nation's agriculture industry, while maintaining appropriate flexibility for our producers.

“While the perishable nature of our products present unique challenges and highly volatile markets, the industry has not relied on traditional farm programs to sustain itself. Rather, we have relied on the economics of supply and demand,” he says. “However, many of the economic stresses inherent to other commodity sectors are impacting the fruit and vegetable sector, as well as other issues unique to our industry.”

In the produce industry, Stenzel says, the balance of trade has shifted, and import numbers now exceed exports. “It is vital that the U.S. government provide the tools necessary for domestic producers to remain viable in a global marketplace.”

John McClung, President of the Texas Produce Association in Mission, Texas, takes it a step further saying, “It is impossible to talk about domestic agricultural policy in Texas without understanding the impact of imported fruits and vegetables.”

“The United States is increasingly dependent on imported food. In the Texas Produce Association that isn't necessarily a bad thing, and for many producers it's a very good thing,” McClung says. “We have very few sizable growers and/or shippers of vegetables in the association who are not increasingly involved in growing in and importing from Mexico. For many in the industry, imports absolutely represent an opportunity, and the future of the younger generation. Some have given up growing in the United States, and produce or source only from Mexico.”

What that also means, however, is that while larger, better funded entities are able to take advantage of new opportunities, smaller growers are unable to participate and ultimately suffer the consequences.

McClung says, “These family farmers, many of whom have been on the same land for generations, just do not have the resources to compete in the global arena. If Congress believes it is in the social, cultural and national security interests of this country to have an abundant domestic food supply and to keep these producers on the land, then domestic policy must reflect those convictions.”

According to Stenzel, any future agricultural policy must maintain the planting restrictions for fruits and vegetables on program crop acreage so these producers will not be forced to compete with acreage enrolled in direct commodity assistance programs, and federal funds going to production on those acres. In addition, special arrangements should not be made for producers that wish to produce both fruits and vegetables and program crops.

Direct government payments that may impact planting decisions or the viability of a market, and displace commodities in other areas of the country are not acceptable to the produce industry, he says.

“The produce industry decided during farm policy discussions in 2000 and 2001 that fruit and vegetable producers were not interested in direct commodity payments that have resulted in over-production and distorted land values for traditional row crops.” Instead, Stenzel says, broad based federal programs that allow for targeted efforts that support the competitiveness of the local specialty crop production base are needed.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com