Congress Starting to Pay More Attention to Fruits and Vegetables

Strawberries, snap peas, and cherry tomatoes are for sale at a roadside market outside Gettysburg, Pa., Saturday, June 8, 2013.
National Journal
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Elahe Izad
Sept. 18, 2013, 4:30 p.m.

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.”