The Promise And Despair Of The Farm Bill
Every four years, national elections in the U.S. either bring in a new Administration or return one. It makes about half the country happy and half the country sad.
Every five years, for more than 50 years, we have usually had a new Farm Bill. A lot fewer citizens care about that, but we still have folks happy or sad about it.
In 2008, specialty crop industries greeted a new Administration and a new Farm Bill. Obama Administration policies had some ups and downs, but the 2008 Farm Bill made us as happy as we have ever been. That legislation, and we should credit a bipartisan(!) Congressional effort led by our hero from Michigan, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, provided federal investments in a broad array of programs directly relevant to specialty crops:
• Enhanced international Market Access Program (MAP)
• Expanded school lunch nutrition
• Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP)
• Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI)
• National Clean Plant Network (NCPN)
In the subsequent four years, each of those investments has paid off royally. In the midst of a painfully slow recovering national economy, ag exports stand out, and the critical export markets expedited by the MAP have been a key contributor. Expanded school lunch programs provide a profitable market opportunity for lots of fruit and vegetable products and enhanced food options for our schoolchildren.
The SCBGP guarantees every state an opportunity to invest in projects that bring near-term impact to their specialty crop industries. For a representative example of success stories in Western states, check out these web sites:
Unfortunately, while the success stories for the SCRI are just as impressive as the other programs, the fiasco that is the Farm Bill extension has failed to provide funding for the SCRI in the 2013 federal fiscal year. In effect, that shuts down both these programs until a full Farm Bill is passed. That passage is assumed, but not assured, in the coming months, with the new 113th Congress.
One Vital Program
I had the grand opportunity recently to participate in the final meeting of a project funded by the SCRI. RosBREED (www.rosbreed.org), which I have described before in this column, is a four-year project to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and creativity of breeding programs in rosaceous crops by enabling the implementation of modern genetic tools in 12 breeding programs located across the country. Its premise: without the regular development and commercialization of superior cultivars that meet grower expectations of profitability and consumer expectations of a consistent, superior eating experience (e.g. “Honeycrisp” apple), our rosaceous crop industries will slowly, or rapidly, lose their economic viability.
It was a bittersweet meeting. More than 50 researchers and industry stakeholders reviewed progress to date, celebrated the successes of the research team, and despaired that a program so widely acclaimed by industry stakeholders, the research community, federal agencies, and Congress itself, lies a victim of political intransigence.
This sad state is despite an energetic bipartisan Congressional effort to pass a new Farm Bill last year and avoid the necessity of an extension. All Congress could muster was an interim Farm Bill that avoided the price of milk per gallon fiscal cliff. Moooooo.
The House leadership would not even consider a vote on the Senate’s bipartisan plan and ignored the request of more than 60 of its own members, both Republican and Democrat, to at least bring the bill to the floor for debate.
Despite this ridiculous political situation, it was still a fabulous experience to be updated on the real, solid, amazing advances RosBREED has engendered — advances that mean something to industries across the country.
In just these four years, genomes have been sequenced for peach, apple, and pear, and cherry, strawberry, and rose are on the way. Precision genotyping in rosaceous crops is now a reality, and that was not true four years ago. The immediate impact? Tens of thousands of dollars saved in breeding programs that can really use the help! Long-term impact? DNA-informed crop improvement that will directly benefit both producers and the consuming public.
This sort of success story can be told across the dozens of SCRI projects USDA funded. The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance is working to convince Congress the story should be continued. I hope that anyone who reads this column is similarly motivated.
Public policy and politics can be a divisive issue. But I believe the SCRI provides a return on investment. I know that RosBREED has promoted the kind of internationally collaborative, multidisciplinary, stakeholder-oriented research that our specialty crop industries have so long desired.
Please let your policymakers know your feeling about this issue. Let’s hope they pay attention. And as long as we’re at it, let’s hope they finally pay real attention to issues like comprehensive immigration reform. It seems like every fours years we get this chance.