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USDA releases six-month progress report on 2014 farm bill

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released on Wednesday a six-month progress report on the 2014 farm bill that includes updates on scores of hard-fought specialty crop programs.

Since the bill was signed into law on Feb. 7, Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made “tremendous progress” in implementing the massive legislation, such as by distributing critical disaster assistance to farmers in record time and developing new risk-management programs for producers.

USDA issued updates on a slew of critical programs, many of which have expanded over the years as a result of the growing influence of the produce industry.

Under the Horticulture title of the farm bill, USDA said it announced, on April 17, the availability of $66 million in specialty crop block grants, and, on April 3, $48.1 million for plant pest and disease management projects. A day later, USDA published an interim rule that allowed bulk containers of apples to be shipped to Canada without U.S. inspection.

Under the Trade title, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service announced $9 million was available from the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program, and later expanded the range of projects funded by the program. In April, FAS announced 2014 funding for the Market Access Program, and 62 organizations received $171.8 million for projects.

The Nutrition title also houses programs advocated for by the produce industry during the last battle over the 2014 farm bill.

For example, USDA announced plans July 21 to launch a pilot project in up to eight states that tests ways to give states flexibility in using USDA food entitlement dollars in their competitive procurement of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, including fresh-cut products. The goal of the project is to develop additional ways schools can use entitlement dollars to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, while using existing commercial distribution centers, USDA said.

USDA is also moving ahead with a pilot project during 2014-2015 to test schools participating in the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program to offer canned, frozen or dried fruits and vegetables.

On the research front, USDA announced several projects under way this year, including a $6.9 million grant to Michigan State University on pollinator research aimed at helping specialty crops.

USDA is working on doling out the $125 million for citrus disease research tucked into the farm bill spanning the next five years, and has made appointments to the newly named Citrus Disease Subcommittee, housed under the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education & Economics Advisory Board.  

“Thanks to the hard work of thousands of USDA employees across the country, we are continuing to get new initiatives off the ground and make important reforms to existing programs that are helping to boost the country’s economy,” Vilsack said.