Farmers who produce the nation’s healthy fresh produce want a seat at the table for the major federal food and farm legislation — the farm bill. That’s the message Western Growers Chairman Mike Jarrard took to Congress. As president & COO of Mann Packing in Salinas, Calif., — a producer of fresh cut vegetables—he knows firsthand the food his industry produces goes hand-in-hand with a healthier eating lifestyle. That’s an important message for Congress to hear.

“We are local, national and international contributing to health and well-being ... We grow the best medicine,” Jarrard said during a House Agriculture Committee hearing this morning in Washington, D.C. “Let’s consider that all produce is good produce — whether its organic, conventional or local.”

(For more, see: Specialty crop program gets farm bill attention)

While federal farm bill discussions over the years largely centered on program crops such as the major grain crops, the specialty crop industry now is reiterating the vital role it plays to grow healthy & nutritious food for Americans, according to Jarrard’s testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture.

That role is threatened by pests and diseases that could wipe out entire crops — crops people depend on for health and nutrition. Jarrard called on Congress to continue the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program that allows for tailored approaches to producing the safest and highest quality produce grown in different regions. He also called on the committee to support the Specialty Crop Research Initiative to help combat diseases and bugs that attack America’s supply of healthy fresh produce. He pointed to the importance of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program in its role to get healthy fruits and vegetables to children — a program he says is working to cut childhood obesity.

The farm bill also helps fund science-based approaches to important food safety reforms. The specialty crop block grants in the last farm bill supported 180 food safety programs for fresh produce across America, Jarrard said.

“There’s been a lot of benefit centered around food safety as a result of that money being tailored,” Jarrard said. “Food safety resonates very loudly with our customers.”

Jarrard was part of a panel of farmers who spoke to the importance specialty crops — healthy fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables and nuts — should play in the farm bill. Joining him on the panel were Jerry Lee of Monrovia Growers in Georgia; Lisa Schacht of Schacht Family Farm Market in Ohio; Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; and Dan Richey of Riverfront Packing Company in Florida.

The panelists also told Congress that fresh produce farmers are under constant pressure from crippling rules, regulations and the lack of immigration reform that’s made for a shaky and uncertain labor supply — the workers who harvest the healthy food the nation needs.

“We’re actually going to be here in D.C. next week to help create momentum for creating a guest worker program for our work force. The myth is that most Americans will do these jobs, and the reality is that they won’t,” Jarrard told legislators. In order to keep producing the nation’s healthy food, Congress must provide a guest worker program for farm workers to “provide them a legal means to working,” Jarrard said.