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WASHINGTON — Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are drafting the tenets of a farm bill they plan to submit by Nov. 1 to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, condensing into weeks a process that usually takes months to complete.

Every five years Congress reauthorizes the farm bill, which contains funding for commodity crops, livestock, conservation, nutrition, trade, research, energy and other related programs. The current bill expires in 2012, and staffers on the two agricultural committees are rushing to draft a bill before the deficit-reduction panel, also known as the super committee, is expected to vote Nov. 23 on a plan to find $1.5 trillion in debt savings over a 10-year period.

The produce industry, like other agricultural interests, may know as early as the week of Nov. 1 if key programs survive the latest cut. At stake is the new section of the 2008 farm bill that increased spending for horticulture and organic production, including an expanded Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

On Oct. 17, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Pat Roberts (R-KS), ranking member, joined Reps. Frank Lucas (R-OK), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Collin Peterson (D-MN), ranking member, in sending a letter to the super committee recommending a $23 billion cut to mandatory spending for agriculture programs.

“We are currently finalizing the policies that would achieve $23 billion in deficit reduction and will provide a complete legislative package by November 1, 2011,” the lawmakers said in the Oct. 17 letter to the 12-member super committee.

The agricultural committees are trying to come up with a bill that the super committee can approve with the goal of moving it through Congress this year, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, based in Washington, DC. But he warned that the super committee could just adopt the budget cuts, leaving the farm bill to be ironed out next year in a very fiscally conservative climate.

“We’ve been talking to them and answering questions,” but no one knows what they will recommend, Mr. Guenther said.

“We’re hopeful there aren’t too many surprises in the process. This is an investment [Congress] made four years ago, and it’s not time to turn your back on it,” he said, referring to the message that United Fresh is conveying to Congress.

 

Port inspection bill

Also in Congress this month, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced the Safeguarding American Agriculture Act of 2011 to step up agricultural import and entry inspections for foreign pests and diseases at ports of entry across the nation.

“Agriculture inspectors at our borders must have the tools, resources and access they need to defend our agricultural industry from the potentially catastrophic losses associated when these invasive pests and diseases enter our country,” Sen. Feinstein said as she introduced the bill Oct. 6.

Among the bill’s provisions, it would require U.S. Customs & Border Protection to establish an Office of Agriculture Inspection; create an agriculture specialist career track to make sure inspectors have the necessary equipment and resources; and require plans to improve recruitment and retention of agricultural specialists.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that foreign pests and disease cost the U.S. economy tens of billions of dollars annually in lower crop values, eradication programs, emergency payments to farmers, and increased costs for food and other natural resources, the senators said.