For the first time in history a federal farm program will contain a major specialty crop provision and the leaders of related agricultural organizations in California and Arizona are grinning from ear to ear.

The U.S. House passed the $300 billion, five-year farm bill by a 318–106 margin this Wednesday followed by the Senate’s 81-15 approval on Thursday. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill but yea votes by both houses are likely high enough to override a veto.

The Western Growers Association (WGA) based in Irvine, Calif. praised Congressional approval of the farm bill including the highly sought specialty crop language.

“The resources made available in this bill will go far to help develop better ways to grow, distribute, and safeguard nutritious food Americans need for good health,” said Tom Nassif, WGA president and chief executive officer.

“This is not just a farm bill; it is a public health policy that will go a long way toward changing the way Americans eat,” Nassif said. “Specialty crop farmers have never sought direct subsidies even though we represent half of the total crop farm gate value in this country.”

WGA members grow, pack, and ship 90 percent of the fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in California and 75 percent of those commodities in Arizona.

The Fresno, Calif.-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League is also pleased with Congress’ approval of the farm legislation. The non-profit league represents more than 85 percent of the volume of fresh market table grapes and deciduous tree fruit grown in California.

“The approximately $3 billion which will be invested in specialty crops is money that will be well spent to further the health and nutrition of Americans,” said Barry Bedwell, CGTFL president.

Agricultural groups nationwide formed the Specialty Crop Farm Alliance to pursue the specialty crop language. The emphasis includes specialty crop-related research, market access, nutrition policy, pest and disease exclusion and prevention, plus conservation research, funding, and incentives.

Kay Filice, board chairwoman, Grower-Shipper Association of Central California (GSACC), Salinas, said, “This bill is an excellent investment in agriculture in California, and particularly here on the Central Coast.”

“As a mother and a farmer, I am particularly pleased about the funding of the nutrition programs,” Filice said. “The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program will now expand to all 50 states. This will definitely help develop lifelong healthy eating habits for millions of children by providing fresh fruits and vegetables in our nation’s schools.”

The California Strawberry Commission (CSC) gave the just-passed legislation its stamp of approval. “For a long time specialty crops have been ignored and this bill makes a modest improvement for specialty crops,” said Rick Tomlinson, SCS government affairs director.

By purchasing health and nutritious fruits and vegetables, it’s a win-win for the schools, for kids, and purchasing more fruit, Tomlinson said. Having a program that will spend $10 million to help schools buy strawberries is a major victory. California strawberry growers produce 88 percent of the nation’s strawberry crop.

Turning to Arizona, Kevin Rogers, president, Arizona Farm Bureau, is pleased with the bill’s passage but said the legislation contains too many pork projects.

“Just like any legislation there’s give and take and some of the bill is kind of porkish,” Rogers said. “As a whole we think it’s important to get the bill done now to maintain the baseline for future farm bills. Overall it’s best for this country to pass this bill and put it into law.”

The legislation maintains the safety net for the baseline production of cotton, said Rogers, a cotton grower in Scottsdale, Ariz. He said target prices for cotton were reduced under the bill and that’s concerning given huge increases in fuel and fertilizer costs. Rogers praised the bill’s specialty crop provision.

On the political end, California’s U.S. Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer voted in favor of the farm bill while Arizona Sen. John Kyl opposed it. Arizona Sen. John McCain did not vote.

“This is by no means a perfect bill, but it is a great improvement over our current, outdated farm policy which for too long has hurt California’s farmers and growers,” Sen. Boxer said. “This farm bill contains provisions to help California’s specialty crops, critically needed funding for food stamps and nutrition programs, as well as important titles on conservation, renewable energy, and pollinator protection.”

Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-California-Dist. 18, also applauded the bill’s passage.

“California agriculture is finally getting the respect and treatment it deserves. This is a farm bill that I am proud to support,” said Cardoza during debate on the House floor. “I am especially proud of the new $2.3 billion federal investment in specialty crops and the $150 million subprogram within EQIP (environmental quality incentives program) for air quality improvement.”

email: cblake@farmpress.com