Fruit and Vegetable Growers Hope to Harvest More From Farm Bill

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

After years of derision and obscurity, the nation's fruits and vegetables are finally getting the respect they deserve.

Long dismissed as mere "specialty crops" and all but ignored by the powerful lawmakers who fashion the federal government's massive farm bill every five years, fresh produce is now promoting itself in a major way and is positioned to be a big winner in this year's legislative sweepstakes.

"They definitely have more leverage," said Dana Brooks, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"They are much better organized," agreed Jon Doggett, a vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, a sometime inter-commodity rival.

In other words, the fruit and vegetable lobby is not small potatoes anymore. Nor should it be. Apples, grapes, oranges and, yes, potatoes are significant businesses. Fruits and vegetables overall represent nearly half the value of all commercial crops. But their lobbyists have lacked the killer-tomato instinct.

In the past two years, however, groups such as the United Fresh Produce Association, the Western Growers Association, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and the National Potato Council started to band together. Their goal: to make sure peaches, strawberries, limes and the like get a larger slice of the federal pie.

In official Washington, the big grains such as wheat and corn, along with cotton, sugar and rice, have dominated farming politics and, as a result, have received the bulk of price-support subsidies. This year's farm bill will lay out more than $700 billion over the next 10 years on programs including food stamps and commodity-based payments.

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, a sprawling 90-member coalition, has been asking lawmakers to add to the bill a few billion dollars a year in benefits. It is seeking not direct payments to its growers, but rather indirect goodies such as block grants to states to help its farmers locally, expanded funding for scientific research and enhanced promotion of U.S.-grown produce abroad.

The other contenders for federal farm largess are less than overjoyed at the coalition's aggressiveness. "We have less money to go around and more folks who want it," Brooks said. "That is going to make things difficult."

Still, fruits and veggies are likely to win a lot of what they seek. The reason is their geographic desirability. Farm bills are often battles between Midwestern lawmakers whose grain-growing constituents benefit the most from the legislation, and lawmakers from other parts of the country whose constituents tend not to see the value of farm subsidies.

Many specialty crops are concentrated in these skeptical states -- the apple-growing state of Washington and the grape-producing state of California, for example. If these products are favored in the farm bill for a change, their elected representatives would be more likely to vote for the bill's passage.

At least that is what the specialty-crop strategists are counting on. "We add some value to getting a farm bill passed," said Robert Guenther, top lobbyist for the United Fresh Produce Association.

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