The 2008 Farm Bill marked the first time in the history of U.S. Federal farm policy that specialty crops were directly included in policy and funding discussions. With Congress expected to consider new farm policy in 2012, activities to gather input and evaluate policy options have already begun. The House Agriculture Committee held several field hearings to learn about agriculture interests on the successes and shortcomings of the current bill and the opportunities for innovative new policy.
As the Farm Bill debate begins in earnest, most old hands at the process believe that policy options will be dominated by budget limitations. In the best case scenario available, funding for programs either directly or indirectly aiding actual farmers will be frozen at 2008 levels or subject to across the board reductions. At the same time, pressure to increase food and nutrition spending within the Farm Bill will be significant. Past experience indicates that shrinking budgets generally increase the pressure for changes in policy.
Prior to the 2008 Farm Bill, individuals representing fruit and vegetable growers formed the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (SCFBA) to develop and support the inclusion of policies in the bill that benefited specialty crop growers. SCFBA developed a series of policy priorities designed to improve the competitiveness of specialty crop producers without relying on income supports for individual growers. The group believed then and continues to believe today that Federal support for research, trade assistance, pest management, state block grants, and nutrition programs improves the competitive ability of the specialty crop industry without distorting markets, as can be the case with direct payments to farmers.
As in 2008, the 2012 SCFBA effort will be led by myself, Tom Nassif with Western Growers, Mike Stuart with the Florida Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, and Robert Guenther with United Fresh Produce Association.
During the Farm Bill debate in 2008, the SCFBA focused on a positive agenda of developing market neutral programs for fruit and vegetable producers rather than taking a position for or against direct subsidies for program crops. That is unlikely to change during the upcoming debate in spite of the fact that many farm policy experts believe farm programs that are based on indirect support and infrastructure development have brighter prospects for the future than direct income supports.
The specialty crop programs to promote research, trade, and market efficiency included in the 2008 Farm Bill have been successful and should be continued or expanded. Specialty crop producers believe that these programs to increase industry competitiveness represent the
future of Federal farm policy.