A “deepening crisis” in agriculture — particularly the fruit and vegetable sector — is placing “increasing economic pressure on operations both large and small,” industry leaders told a House subcommittee seeking input for a new farm bill.

“The people in our industry are an endangered species,” Maureen Marshall, vice president of Torrey Farms, Inc. and chairman of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association's Research and Education Foundation, said at a hearing by the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Livestock and Horticulture.

“Very few young people are looking to enter production agriculture — not because of the long hours or the financial risks, but because of the lack of pro-active support by our government and the consumer.” Commodity prices for many produce crops are below the cost of production, she said.

Fruit and vegetable production in the U.S. is a $30 billion a year business that is projected to rise to $37 billion in the next 10 years.

Additionally, she said, producers are confronted with increasing federal regulations; the phase-out of valuable crop chemicals such as the fumigant methyl bromide, which is expected to result in losses of $500 million; and impediments to international trade, all of which “are stagnating our industry.”

Marshall told the subcommittee “it is critical that long and short term solutions be considered that will help U.S. agriculture remain world leaders in food production and competitiveness.”

Subcommittee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., said the fruit and vegetable industry “has all too often treated like an afterthought in the development and implementation of agricultural policy.” Much of this is due, he said, to the fact that the crops “are not the traditional ‘program crops’ that rely on various subsidy mechanisms.

“But in the movement toward an increasingly market-oriented agricultural policy, fruits and vegetables should serve as the example for others — not the exception.”

In the produce sector, Marshall told the subcommittee, issues related to pest exclusion, disaster assistance, food safety, nutrition policy, retail/trade practices, technology/research, international trade barriers and promotion, risk management tools, produce inspection activities, and the current prohibition on “flex” acres are important to continued viability of the industry.

Pointing out that the produce sector “has not relied on subsidy programs,” Marshall said “we're proud of our commitment to free markets,” and that such programs “would be a devastating blow to our industry.”

The produce industry's Farm Bill Working Group, she said, has identified several areas where federal farm policy “can do the most good.”

Policy options

The group's blueprint, she said, “offers policy options to drive consumer demand for fruits and vegetables, while providing a menu of options that growers can use to strengthen their current economic condition. Further, it presents the opportunity for Congress and the new administration to shift the farm policy perspective from ‘supply push’ to an informed ‘demand pull’ model.” Some of the issues targeted in the model, Marshall said:

  • Conservation: Mounting pressures from decreased availability of crop protection tools should encourage the industry to consider “any available assistance that encourages producers to invest in natural resource protection measures they might not be able to afford without such assistance.” Specifically, the industry supports doubling the current funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

  • Nutrition priorities: “The role of increasing the investment in federal nutrition funding cannot be overstated. In turn, this investment can be utilized to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and to help Americans reach national health goals.” The group recommends an additional $500 million annually for purchasing surplus produce commodities.

  • International market access: Fruit/vegetable growers “face significant obstacles” in developing export markets for their products and “unique challenges” due to the perishable nature of their products, the report notes. “Without further commitment to export market development by the federal government and commitment to reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, the U.S. produce industry will continue to lose market share to global competitors.”

MAP funding gain

The group recommends enactment of legislation to increase the funding authority for the Market Access Program (MAP) by $110 million annually.

  • Pest/disease exclusion policy: Losses to invasive pests and disease now cost the industry more than $120 billion annually. The industry recommends “expedited and aggressive actions” by the federal government, in cooperation with the industry and stakeholders at the state and local levels, to eradicate and protect the domestic market from the increasing threat of exotic pests and diseases entering the U.S. through international commercial shipment of products, as well as the importation of “agricultural contraband” by vacationing travelers and commercial smugglers.

It urges legislation authorizing funding and providing direct responsibility and related expansion of authority for the Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to develop an adequate emergency eradication/research fund that could be accessed to address economic and health threats poses by such diseases and pests, as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture.

It is suggested that the fund be set up as a revolving account, capped at $50 million. “We believe this approach will lead to stronger plant and pest disease eradication efforts, bringing a national commitment to what is now a fragmented, piecemeal approach.”

e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com