A coalition of more than 80 specialty crop producer organizations nationwide is continuing its united effort in Congress to garner a significant chunk of the new 2007 farm bill.

U.S. producers, handlers, processors, and retailers of fruit, vegetable, tree nut, and nursery crops represent 50 percent of American farm gate receipts worth $50 billion. They say they deserve the same type of federal support producers of commodity crops like cotton, rice, corn, soybeans and feed grains receive.

That’s needed, they say, to improve the competitiveness of specialty crops.

American specialty producers plan to be at the table when the new federal farm program is debated and finalized. They have spent at least three years lobbying Congress for that seat.

While commodity groups may agree specialty crops deserve federal support, they are fearful any dollars earmarked for specialty crops will be cut from direct payment farm support. No major commodity group has endorsed the specialty crop effort.

The specialty crop group has formed the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance to further their cause in Congress this year.

California stands to gain the most since about one-half of the nation’s special crop production is from California.

The new EAT Healthy America Act also recommends an overseas specialty crop marketing program jump by 75 percent to $350 million and that the government buy at least $400 million worth of fruits and vegetables annually for school lunch programs.

It includes expanding a block grant program tenfold to $500 million.

It proposes doubling the size of the existing wetlands reserve program and increasing fivefold the size of existing grassland reserve programs.

It provides $10 million annually for specialty crop producers who want to investigate whether foreign countries are dumping products in the U.S.

It would create a $100 million per year matching grant program to promote consumption of fruits and vegetables. It would also establish a $3.7 million specialty crop economic and policy institute.

There are no provisions in the bill for direct payments to growers.

This new bill was introduced as a marker bill last year to shape debate this year on a special crop provision in the 2007 farm bill. A complete cost estimate will likely be tallied as this debate heats up in Congress. The bill introduced last fall garnered the support of 74 co-sponsors from 20 states, according to a spokesman for the alliance.

It has also gained the support of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and American Farmland Trust. Support of EDF for this bill will not endear the specialty crop effort to commodity producers who have been publicly castigated by EDF for the amount of crop subsidies they receive.

“This bill is a comprehensive farm bill package providing the necessary framework to enhance the competitiveness of the specialty crop industry,” states Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers.

Western Growers is an agricultural trade association whose 3,000 members grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh vegetables and nearly 70 percent of the fresh fruit and nuts grown in Arizona and California, about one-half of the nation's fresh produce. Western Growers has been a major driving force of the specialty crop alliance and legislation.

Other major specialty crop groups have joined Western Growers.

“As the debate on the 2007 farm bill takes shape, we will work with the agriculture committees and the other members of Congress to ensure that the components of this legislation become a part of U.S. farm policy,” said Mike Stuart, president of Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, another major supporter of this effort.

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns has added his support to the concept by saying, “The value of specialty crops is now equal to the value of program crops. And they've continued to grow over the last couple of decades."

He added federal agricultural policies should take into account the high value that specialty crops have in U.S. agriculture. Moreover, Congress can provide leadership to develop a farm bill that affords a greater sense of balance between specialty crops and traditional program crops.

“Ninety-two percent of commodity program payments go to five crops. When combined they represent a quarter of U.S. production

Here are a few Sunbelt organizations in the specialty crop alliance: Alabama Watermelon Association, Arizona Winegrowers Association, Blue Diamond Growers, California Association of Wine Grape Growers, California Citrus Mutual, California Grape and Tree Fruit League, California Strawberry Commission, California Table Grape Commission, California-Arizona Watermelon Association, Cherry Marketing Institute, Florida Citrus Mutual, Florida Citrus Packers, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Florida Tomato Exchange, Florida Watermelon Association, Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Georgia Watermelon Association, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, Missouri Wine and Grape Board, Missouri-Arkansas Watermelon Association, National Berry Crop Initiative, National Watermelon Association, New Mexico Wine Growers Association, North American Blueberry Council, North American Bramble Growers Association, North American Strawberry Growers Association, North Carolina Grape & Wine Council, North Carolina Potato Association, North Carolina Strawberry Association, North Carolina Watermelon Association, Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association, Peerbolt Crop Management, South Carolina Watermelon Association, Sunkist Growers, Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Association, Texas Citrus Mutual, Texas Produce Association, Texas-Oklahoma Watermelon Association, U.S. Apple Association, United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Virginia Wineries Association, Wine America and Winegrowers Association of Georgia.

email: hcline@farmpress.com