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WASHINGTON -- Specialty crop groups have three months to develop their wish list for the next farm bill as the House Agriculture Committee is vowing to fast-track the bill next year instead of waiting until 2012, said U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), who kicked off the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference, held Sept. 14-16, here.

More than 500 people representing 35 states descended on the nation’s capital to hear the latest from key lawmakers, interact with officials from the Food & Drug Administration and press congressional staffers for action on legislative priorities.

"This is the most important public policy event of the year," Steffanie Smith, chief executive officer of River Point Farms and chairman of United Fresh, said at the Sept. 15 morning session.

The challenges facing the industry have never been so critical, with the Senate poised to pass food-safety legislation and the House of Representatives expected to act on child nutrition reauthorization, she said.

Rep. Cardoza challenged United Fresh members to forward their farm bill recommendations to the House Agriculture Committee by December, as the committee plans to begin writing the bill in January with the goal of passing it in December 2011.

The committee is in overdrive to pass the 2012 farm bill a year early to prevent the bill from being hijacked by presidential electioneering and to allow farmers to plan a year ahead for changes in the program, he said.

But holding on to specialty crop funding will be no easy task next year, he warned.

“We’ll have a target on our backs,” he said, suggesting that industry will need to protect the more than $1.6 billion in specialty crop programs added to the 2008 farm bill.

Rep. Cardoza reassured the group that the Democratic leadership had met Tuesday night and pledged to move food safety and school nutrition before the congressional session ends.

But produce business leaders in town to lobby Congress will face a “surly” Capitol Hill, warned Randy Russell, a partner with Russell & Barron Inc. and legislative counsel for United Fresh.

In a separate session, United Fresh policy experts discussed the issues and the tone on Capitol Hill. With a bad economy and high unemployment rate, many members of Congress are feeling that government has over-reached in stimulus programs and health care reform, he said.

With just nine to 10 legislative days remaining in the congressional session, House lawmakers must rubber-stamp the Senate-passed Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act if Congress is going to reauthorize the bill before it expires Sept. 30, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh, who added that she hopes the White House continues pressuring lawmakers to act on the issue.

Time is also running out for food-safety legislation as the Senate is expected to act on the bill before Congress goes on recess in two weeks, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for United Fresh.

An amendment likely to come up on the Senate floor would exempt small businesses from the food-safety requirements, a measure United Fresh opposes. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has added language to the bill that would help small businesses comply with food-safety requirements with grants to receive training and education, Mr. Guenther noted.

A bill that exempts small businesses may have unforeseen consequences for the produce industry. If Congress passes the bill with the small business exemption, “it will come back to haunt us” because it will result in a recall FDA can’t trace, said Mr. Russell, United Fresh’s legislative counsel.