Specialty Crop Industry Leaders Hail Stabenow Appointment

A wide range of fruit and vegetable association leaders hailed the appointment Friday of Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow as the new chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Stabenow will now take the lead in writing the 2012 Farm Bill as well as dealing with legislation that involves forestry and nutrition.

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Among those applauding the appointment was United Fresh Produce Association President and CEO Tom Stenzel. “During her time in Congress,” said Stenzel, “… Senator Stabenow has been a great friend of the produce industry and a leader on many agriculture issues. As chairman, she will also bring a strong sense of cooperation and bipartisanship to this position, a critical quality during the upcoming debate on the Farm Bill.”

Stabenow, who authored the Horticulture title of the 2008 Farm Bill, has spent a lifetime working for agriculture in the Michigan state legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and now as a U.S. Senator from Michigan since 2000. Stenzel said that not only has she worked for the fruit and vegetable growers in her own state, she has worked on many other important agriculture commodity issues including, dairy, conservation, rural development and sugar while focusing efforts around nutrition, food safety policy and renewable energy initiatives that impact agriculture stakeholders across the country. In fact, Michigan ranks as the second most diversified agricultural state in the country.

Stabenow, a Democrat, takes over as committee chair in the next Congress that begins in January, following Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s defeat. North Dakota’s Kent Conrad was actually next in line to chair the committee but decided last week to remain as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee – meaning Stabenow was next in line in seniority to take over the chair.

“Agriculture is critical to Michigan’s economy, employing a quarter of our workforce,” Stabenow said in a press release. “Not only does agriculture create jobs and feed our families across America, but it is also helping us develop new fuels and energy sources.”

While Michigan is not as big a player as some states in agriculture, it is a large player in growing certain fruits, especially cherries. Michigan ranks first among states in producing tart cherries, blueberries, cucumbers for pickles and dried cranberry beans.

Getting Produce Into Schools

Stenzel also noted Stabenow’s support for landmark legislation that would incorporate the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program into schools nationwide. This law has made vital changes in schoolchildren’s lives, introducing them to healthier foods and eating habits by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. Last summer, she spent time in California touring both the Central Valley and Salinas areas to better understand western agriculture and met with many farmers about the need to cooperate across commodity and regional lines.

“Senator Stabenow has the full support of fruit and vegetable producers across the country as the next chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee,” added Stenzel. “The Senate would be well-served under her leadership on the many challenges we face in the coming years.”

Western Growers’ President and CEO Tom Nassif said his association’s 2,500 members, who grow, pack and ship nearly half of the nation’s fresh produce, also welcomed the news that Stabenow will be the next chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “As a senator from one of the most important and diversified agricultural states, she understands the challenges facing all U.S. farmers, and the significant contribution of the specialty crop industry — representing approximately 50% of the total U.S. crop farm gate — to the economic underpinning and health of our nation,” he said. “Senator Stabenow’s practical, consensus-driven approach insures that under her leadership the Senate Agriculture Committee will continue the bipartisan, collegial process so critical to the development of sound agriculture policy. “

Nassif said that though Western Growers would not be considered a traditional constituency for Stabenow, they appreciate her willingness to work with them regardless of the issue. “She is respected for her thoughtful, balanced approach to some of the most controversial and complex issues impacting our industry today including energy policy, environmental regulation, and the imperative of ensuring a safe and abundant supply of healthy food to U.S. consumers,” he said.

Apple Growers ‘Thrilled’

The U.S. Apple Association (USApple) also applauded the announcement. “American apple growers are thrilled to have Senator Debbie Stabenow as the new chair of this very important Congressional committee,” said USApple Chairwoman Julia Rothwell, a Michigan apple leader. “She is an outstanding leader and has demonstrated absolute dedication to family farming and the complex nature of agriculture.”

USApple, which is a founding member of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, successfully lobbied with Stabenow to get important programs – such as the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Market Access Program – and other priority initiatives into the 2008 Farm Bill.

“Senator Stabenow’s ability to fight for farmers with genuine bipartisan support was critical to the passage of the historic 2008 Farm Bill, which was the first to recognize specialty crops, including apples,” said Rothwell. “Her expertise and devotion will be even more essential as work begins on the next Farm Bill and other important legislation in areas such as food safety and child nutrition.”

USApple also applauded the announcement that Conrad will continue as chair of the pivotal Senate Budget Committee. “Senator Conrad’s deep agricultural roots will be valuable in budget decisions affecting America’s farms,” said Rothwell. “The announcements (Friday) are a win-win for American apple growers and all of agriculture.”