IRVINE, Calif. — The United States Senate has passed the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act authorizing the nation’s first major federal funding program for the fresh produce industry and setting a potentially historic precedent.

"This legislative victory is a great day for our industry and the equivalent of a declaration that this sector of agriculture has now arrived as a major player in Washington," said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers. "This bill has won congressional approval against all odds and will be seen in the future as a turning point for the fresh produce sector of agriculture. The Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act paves the way for future legislation and will give pause to those who assumed that agriculture is incapable of changing the way it does business in Washington."

The act will authorize $54 million annually for five years to enhance the competitiveness of each state’s fresh produce crops. The majority of the funding will come in the form of block grants through the state departments of agriculture. None of the millions of dollars earmarked for the produce industry will come in the form of direct subsidies. Instead, the funding will assist the produce industry through technical assistance, specialized research programs, regulation review, education, improved food inspection facilities and similar initiatives. The bill was cosponsored by 122 members of Congress representing farmers across the nation who grow more than 250 fresh produce crops ranging from lettuce in California to melons in Arizona to blueberries in Maine.

"The Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act is a victory for consumers as well as our farmers," commented Nassif. "It ensures a reliable and safe food supply and is an important boost for the nation’s health and nutrition. It will go a long way towards promoting the increased consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts and will help raise awareness of the critical role fresh produce plays in our lives. This legislation is a model of funding for agriculture. We look forward to the implementation of this historic and very positive legislation."

Act’s features

Some of the features of the act include: the quantification of the clean air benefits of specialty crops; the enhancement of fresh produce quality; new crop protection tools and pest management systems; and research on the impact of foreign pest and disease invasions and effective solutions. Funding is also to be directed to educate the public regarding nutrition as well as food safety.

Technical assistance for specialty crops will be increased and plant inspection programs will also be bolstered.

Western Growers and its 3,000 members played a significant role in the passage of the legislation, as did a broad alliance of organizations representing specialty crops throughout the nation.

"We could not have achieved this historic victory without the cooperation of a powerful alliance of organizations representing fresh produce," said Nassif. "This is a tribute to the strength of that alliance as much as it is a landmark piece of legislation. We thank our members, our partners, our co-sponsors in Congress and all those who contributed to this effort."