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Senate committee passes 2013 farm bill with specialty crop funding, apple amendment

WASHINGTON — Apple growers that ship bulk products to Canada for reprocessing or repacking would save up to $500,000 a year by not paying an additional U.S. inspection fee if an amendment that passed the Senate Agriculture Committee May 14 along with the 2013 farm bill becomes law.

The Senate Agriculture Committee took a little over three hours to pass the 2013 farm bill (S. 954) by a 15-5 vote, and the legislation may be on the Senate floor for a vote as early as the week of May 20.

At press time, on May 15, the House Agriculture Committee had begun a daylong markup of its version of the farm bill. Amendments touching on changes to specialty crop programs are likely, including one that would limit the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a popular snack program to low-income children, to fresh fruits and vegetables and dried fruit.

Specialty crops fared well in the Senate committee-passed bill as the legislation maintains funding for key programs, such as the Specialty Crop Block Grants, the Market Access Program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, fruit and vegetable snack program and others.

“We’re happy with the funding levels,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association. Specialty crops appeared to receive a bigger boost in the draft bill being debated in the House Agriculture Committee.

One of the amendments that passed in the Senate pleased Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, who has been working for years to lift duplicative apple inspection fees.

Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) offered the amendment that would remove the Agricultural Marketing Service inspection authority over apples weighing more than 100 pound in bulk bins destined for the Canadian market.

Mr. Allen said producers now pay $150 to $300 per shipment for an inspection that is not required by Canadian buyers before shipping north for repacking or processing apples into juice or apple slices.

Apple growers may ship as many as 1.5 million bushels to Canada a year, which means waiving these inspections could save apple producers $400,000 to $500,000, he said.

But the produce industry is raising concerns about a new deal brokered in the Senate bill that requires conservation compliance for crop insurance to protect farmers and ranchers.

“This is an example of something that’s all too rare in Washington these days. People on both sides of this very difficult issue sat down together, put it all on the table, and figured out a way to make this policy work to protect our soil and water resources for generations to come,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, after the bill passed. “This agreement represents a significant step toward creating a stronger agricultural sector, creating jobs and allowing farmers to be the best stewards of their land.”

But Mr. Guenther is not so sure this new provision will benefit the produce industry. The environmental measure, which was included in a package of amendments endorsed by Sen. Stabenow, may cost fresh fruit and vegetable growers.

“We want to see how it’s going to impact us,” said Diane Kurrle, vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Apple Association.  The conservation measure may require added paperwork. “We don’t know what this means yet.”

Another measure concerns the fresh produce industry. The Senate bill does not bar or limit the planting of fruits and vegetables on base acres, so starting in the 2014 crop year, producers would have unlimited ability to grow produce on their farms without any reduction in farm program benefits.

“We didn’t want to be in that fight again,” Mr. Guenther said.

Many of the differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill will be resolved during the conference process, he said.