For years, fruits and vegetables have been treated as afterthoughts in agriculture policy, but with each farm bill comes a little more help.
Producers of specialty crops — generally defined as fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts — face the same issues as commodity growers in trying to match supply and demand, with a twist. New Deal-era laws allowed them to form marketing cooperatives and established grading standards to make sure that only the highest-quality and most beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables are sold in grocery stores while the rest of the crop goes to freezing and canning.
These programs, along with strict food-safety and pesticide-related rules on imports and the purchase of excess production for use in the schools, have helped stabilize prices.
But Congress did little else for the industry until the 2002 farm bill provided the first block grants for research on specialty crops and the 2008 rewrite added mandatory funding for the specialty-crop grants.
The increasing attention to fruits and vegetables in farm policy reflects their growing role in the national diet. And the Agriculture Department projects that consumption of fruits and vegetables will increase by 24 to 27 percent in the two decades between 2000 and 2020.
“Fruits and vegetables feature quite prominently in this societal shift in how we eat and diet-pattern changes,” said Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of government affairs for the Western Growers association. “As a consequence … we are seeing the House and Senate Ag committees much more focused, and interested and engaged on our issues.”
The politics of agriculture are no longer dominated by the producers of the big commodities — corn, wheat, and soybeans — say many congressional aides and lobbyists involved with farm legislation.
“When you look at the representation on the [House Agriculture] Committee today, I think we have a fair and adequate representation of members who represent fruits and vegetables, whether it’s California, Florida, Texas, Michigan,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association. “Back in my day, the committee was dominated by the Midwest members, and that’s changed over time.”
The same holds true on the Senate side, where Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — a state that leads the nation in production of blueberries, red tart cherries, and squash — chairs the Agriculture Committee.
On the House side, issues related to specialty crops are addressed in the Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee. “I see the specialty crop title is becoming increasingly respected,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., ranking member of the subcommittee.
During the committee’s work on this year’s farm bill, Schrader’s amendment allowing organic producers to organize a check-off program for research and promotion through USDA was approved 29-17, with a number of Republicans supporting the measure.
Schrader said the growing interest in organics and specialty crops “is reflected by the more bipartisan nature” of such measures. “Now you’ve got Republicans really engaged in specialty crops in a big way.”
One of the big issues for fruit and vegetable growers is crop insurance, the partially federally subsidized program that has been crucial for commodity producers.
“Coverage for [specialty crops] has expanded. It hasn’t been as near as dramatic as what you see in major field crops — there are a couple of issues going on there,” said Thomas Zacharias, head of the National Crop Insurance Services. “In the farm-bill debate per se, for these groups, crop insurance hasn’t been the priority for them as, say, it’s been for the program crops.” At the same time, coverage has increased for specialty crops: In 2011, 75 percent of planted or bearing acres were enrolled in crop insurance. But many crops, such as lettuce, remain uninsurable.
Unlike with big commodities that take large acreage and are more homogenous, insuring specialty crops can be more complex because they are usually grown on smaller acreage, involve more complex farming practices, and face other distinct challenges.
Fruit and vegetable growers note that they represent a wide diversity of crops, with a range of regional differences, and they are also subject to other problems, such as consumer scares that lead to a dramatic drop in demand. Just ask cantaloupe growers, who were hard-hit after an outbreak of Listeria bacteria in melons sold in 2011.
The federal government certifies organic products under a 1990 law, but the industry has continually asked Congress to authorize the Agriculture Department to provide the same level of service it provides to growers of conventional and biotech foods.
Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the Organic Trade Council, which represents various interests including fruits and vegetables, said the value of organic crops is higher than those grown conventionally, and it’s important to collect enough data to ensure adequate crop insurance for organic crops.
Organic fruits and vegetables are also gaining in popularity. Produce accounted for 37 percent of all organic food sales in 2010, totaling around $9.2 billion, according to Nutrition Business Journal.
“Particularly the younger members of the committee are interested in organic and understand it as an economic opportunity for rural districts,” Batcha said. “Part of it is the growth of the marketplace over the past 10 years, where it’s much more mainstream than it was.”
The 2008 farm bill “made great strides for organic,” such as providing $5 million for data collection, Batcha notes, but the farm-bill extension essentially has stripped funding for organic programs. So for these growers, passing a permanent farm bill is key.
Another pressing element of the policy debate is ensuring that low-income Americans have access to fruits and vegetables. Gus Schumacher, vice president of policy for Wholesome Wave, which helps low-income people buy healthy foods, notes his group has raised about $3 million for nutrition incentives for beneficiaries of SNAP, the program known as food stamps. The original House farm bill would have added $5 million for nutrition incentives in SNAP, although action on the food-stamp portion of the bill is still pending. The Senate farm bill would provide $20 million for nutrition incentives for organics. Presumably a House-Senate conference committee would agree on an amount somewhere in between.
Schumacher said that although fruits and vegetables are gaining ground on Capitol Hill, there is still a distance to go. “It’s not getting as much attention as cotton and rice, for example, but it’s basically — when you add up the value of fruits and vegetables, it’s huge,” he said.
Although many of the issues that fruit and vegetable producers care about are dealt with in the Agriculture Committee, the policy debate the sector cares about most is going on elsewhere: immigration reform.
“Fruits and vegetables are labor-intensive,” Nuxoll said. “For us, immigration reform is really a critical element in this Congress’s portfolio, in some cases, life-or-death…. Growers need to have labor pools that they can rely on. If they don’t have labor pools they can rely upon, you have food rotting in the field.”