Produce growers are an independent lot and highly competitive, but their ability to compete as an industry in global and domestic markets they say is being taken away by their own government and they have decided to join together to fight back.

Edwin Camp, a third generation Kern County, Calif., grower and chairman of Western Growers, called it a “crisis in competitiveness…and a situation Congress and the White House can no longer ignore.”

Camp told fellow grower/shippers and others at Western Growers' 78th annual meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., that globalization coupled with stifling regulations on American specialty crop producers and trade deals made for political reasons are opening up America to foreign imports at the expense of American food producers. When trade pacts seemingly allow American products to be exported, trade barriers — often artificial — are tossed up by countries where growers are heavily subsidized and not subject to onerous regulations like U.S. farmers.

“Foreign competition is beating us at our own game,” said Camp, and specialty crop growers have watched long enough in relative silence as trade deals by the U.S. government eroded domestic and international markets for U.S. farmers.

Specialty crop production accounts for one-fourth of America's agricultural income, and it's time the federal government step up and recognize that with financial help, said Camp.

“We do not want isolationism, but we want a level playing field,” said the man from Bakersfield, Calif.

Crisis blamed

WG lobbyist Bob Schramm said American specialty crop producers' own government created the crisis in competitiveness starting with the Uruguay round of trade negotiations. Since then U.S. exports have been flat while food and fiber imports have skyrocketed.

Basic farm commodities have battled back via support in the federal Farm Bill, but specialty crops have received little government support.

Tom Nassif, Western Growers' new president, suggested if specialty crop producers cannot get help in the traditional Farm Bill, they should draft their own legislation. They have. It's called the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act of 2003, better known as “The Produce Bill.”

Legislation was introduced in October by U.S. Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) and U.S. Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Hanford). Since then, 37 more congressional representatives from 15 states have signed on as co-sponsors. Supporters of the bill hope to have co-sponsors from all 50 states.

The Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act calls for spending $3.2 billion over five years to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables and to revitalize the fresh produce industry both domestically and internationally. This is not a measure exclusively for California, Arizona, Florida and other Sun Belt states, but for specialty crop producers in all 50 states. Most of the money, about $470 million annually, would go to non-program, specialty crop producers as block grants to promote increased consumption of American-produced fruits, nuts, vegetables and other specialty crops as well as to be used for foreign market access and dealing with excluding exotic pests, many American growers contend are being brought in by increased foreign imports.

Found strong support

WG shopped the idea to United Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Association, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and others and gathered strong support. United is directing the lobbying effort in Congress to get the bill passed and funded.

Camp said none of the funds would go directly to producers as subsidies. “Subsidies are not what we want. Western Growers will not support grower subsidies. Our needs are different than program crops. I know. I used to be a cotton farmer,” said Camp, whose grandfather W.B. Camp was a leader in establishing the San Joaquin Valley cotton industry more than 50 years ago.

Camp said this bold move toward federal help in bolstering the nation's non-program, specialty crops is a challenge to the federal government. “Are you willing to invest in America's food supply?” said Camp. “Do you care about this industry? Do you care about the health and well-being of Americans?” Or are Congress and the administration willing to turn over America's food supply to foreign importers?

“The security of this country's domestic food supply is not something we want. We need a safe, secure food supply,” said Camp.

In the past seven years agricultural imports have increased by 60 percent at the expense of domestic producers. “We want free trade, but need equal access,” noted Camp. American exporters have been shut out of foreign markets because of tariffs and unrealistic phytosanitary import restrictions.

Add crop specialist

Part of this bill would be funding a special crop specialist in the U.S. Trade Representative's office and provide funds to scientifically challenge phytosanitary and technical trade barriers.

“It is time for the Bush administration to step up to the plate,” said Camp. WG and others sought that White House support by playing a key role in a fund raiser for Bush in Fresno that added $750,000 to the president's re-election campaign fund.

United Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Association lobbyist Robert Guenther said the bill contains six titles covering not only the block grants, but increased funding for USDA research on specialty crops; school gardening programs to increase the awareness of eating healthy vegetables and a $20 million fund to compensate growers who suffer financial losses from fraud like the Hunts Terminal Market scandal of a few years back when federal inspectors received kickbacks to downgrade produce truckloads so wholesalers could lower the price paid for the produce.

The bill would also create credit guarantee programs like those now used for the basic commodities. It would also create an office in intellectual property rights. It would increase funding for specialty crop conservation projects and create an emergency fund to combat exotic pest and diseases and it would research new crop protection tools.

Some of the issues now receive federal funding, but it is only a “small amount of money. Funding needs to reflect the status of specialty crops.” said Guenther.

Guenther said with the federal deficit, it will not be easy to sell the program to Congress, but he urged growers “not to take no for an answer.

“Everything costs too much right now, but this is a survivability issue,” he emphasized.

Subsidies issue

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association said many states had input into the bill and the issue of subsidies was a major one. Some producers, like Washington apple growers, want direct grower subsidies because of huge losses they have taken from imports.

“Since 1985 the produce and fruit industries have fought to prevent commodity growers from planting produce on flex acreage,” said Stuart. To go back on policy would be damaging to efforts to pass the produce bill, said Stuart.

Even with the differences of opinion, the bill has brought “unity of purpose” to America's specialty crop growers. Stuart said tough financial times have made specialty crop producers realize “they are not getting their fair share” of financial support from the federal government.

California's outgoing secretary of the state's department of food and agriculture Bill Lyons has been is leader in breaking federal funds lose for specialty crop producers with the formation of NFACT, a coalition of Sun Belt states of New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, California and Texas. It received almost $170 million in federal funds to be used for state block grants to promote fruit and vegetable consumption.

“In the last Farm Bill, we cracked the door. It was the first time specialty crops were recognized” in a federal farm bill, said Lyons, who is out of his post with the recall of his boss, Gray Davis.

Lyons believes specialty crop producers have a much higher profile thanks to the efforts of NFACT.

“You can bet the Midwest is looking at the next farm bill, and we need to do the same thing,” said Lyons.

Seek co-sponsors

Lyons implored supporters of the bill to get co-sponsors from every state. “The Northeast part of the U.S. has not been engaged in federal farm issue and they need to be.

“The 5-A-Day people need to be fully engaged in this effort,” he added.

He said there are politicians who do not like farmers and farming, “but they like to eat.” Nutrition should be a big part of the sales pitch for the “Produce Bill” and this would bring in non-traditional political allies.

When California received its block grant to promote California agriculture, Lyons held hearings on how to spend the $64 million in federal funding. “There were probably 300 farmers testifying and only two or three wanted checks from the federal government.” Most producers, he said, wanted to use the money for promotion like the Buy California program recently launched by CDFA. They wanted money for research and pest exclusion and eradication.

Western Growers' 3,000 members grow, pack and ship 90 percent of the fresh vegetables and nearly 70 percent of the fresh fruit and nuts grown in Arizona and California. WG's members grow approximately one-half of the nation's fresh produce.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com