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WASHINGTON -- U.S. Apple Association board member Mark Nicholson urged a House of Representatives subcommittee to continue its full support of specialty crop programs in the next farm bill.

Sharing specific examples of the positive impact of the 2008 farm bill, Mr. Nicholson -- co-owner of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, NY -- emphasized the importance of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Fruit & Vegetable Program, the Market Access Program and other priority initiatives.

Mr. Nicholson is the third apple leader to offer farm bill testimony this year. USApple members in Idaho and California appeared at local hearings recently held in their respective communities.

Testifying July 21 before the House Subcommittee on Horticulture & Organic Agriculture, Mr. Nicholson stressed that apple growers "strongly advocate programs that help grow demand for and consumption of our products, and build long-term competitiveness and sustainability for our industry," and added, "I believe these programs are a good investment in our industry, especially in these tough economic times."

He said that specialty crop producers are under pressure from increased input costs -- from electricity to labor to crop protection tools -- and competition from low-cost producers like China. At the same time, consumers are more aware than ever of the health benefits inherent in fresh fruit and vegetable products and the need to fight obesity and to make healthier choices.

Mr. Nicholson and the other apple witnesses addressed the importance of key components of the 2008 farm bill:

* Specialty Crop Block Grants to focus on regional and local priorities for specialty crop producers by improving food safety, investing in infrastructure, enhancing market opportunities and supporting research aimed at specific industry needs.

* The Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which provides science-based tools that address the needs of specific crops and regions and which continue advancements in productivity and technology.

* Enhancement of critical trade assistance and export promotion tools, such as the Market Access Program and the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program, which will grow international markets for specialty crops.

* Expansion of the USDA Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program to schools in all 50 states. The program provides a fresh fruit or vegetable snack to students from low-income families.

Although not under the House Committee on Agriculture, Nicholson expressed the serious need for comprehensive immigration labor reform.

"If in the process of securing our borders, which our industry favors, we do not develop a workable guest worker program for agriculture, the time spent here will be for naught because our industry will cease to be viable," he was quoted as saying in a July 21 USApple press release. "Without workers to pick, prune, pack and process our fruit, the best farm bill programs will do little good. This remains, as I see it, the greatest immediate threat to my family farm's economic viability."

A third-generation family farming operation, Red Jacket Orchards includes a 600-acre fruit farm, fruit packing facility, fresh juice processing plant and a metropolitan New York farm market and wholesale distribution operation. In addition to apples, the company produces specialty fruit crops such as apricots and plums that are sold in regional supermarkets. It also presses apple cider and other 100-percent fruit juices in a newly completed, sustainably built and powered, 22,000-square-foot juice processing facility, according to the release.

USApple, which is a founding member of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, successfully lobbied to get these programs in the 2008 farm bill. The House Agricultural Committee is now preparing work on the 2012 farm bill, and USApple and the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance will continue to press Congress to maintain a farm bill that continues to emphasize long-term competitiveness and sustainability of apple and specialty crop production rather than subsidy programs for farmers, according to the release.

The 2008 farm bill was historic since it was the first to fully recognize specialty crops, which account for nearly half of all cash crop receipts in the United States.