Specialty crops may get boost in farm bill

May 09, 2002|By MATT YOUNG

Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — A bill historically loaded with subsidies for major commodities such as corn and soybeans, the legislation setting farm policy passed Wednesday by the Senate also may benefit farmers of specialty crops like asparagus common to California and the Imperial Valley.

‘‘From the vegetables in the Imperial Valley to the dairy farms in the Central Valley and the wineries of Napa Valley, the state of California produces more of what goes on America's dinner table than anywhere else,'' said California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in a news release. ‘‘This farm bill will help provide economic stability for producers, make farmers and ranchers more competitive in world markets and give needed assistance to rural areas.''

According to Jack King, manager of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau, farmers of specialty crops have typically not been given federal subsidies because they have been able to survive the ups and downs of the free market better than major crop producers.


That's because specialty crops usually are harvested in much smaller amounts than major commodities and cannot be stored like grain, King said. As a result, there's less supply and more demand: the age-old way to say ‘‘profit.''

But the specialty crop business, which includes any crops but wheat, feed grain, oil seeds, cotton, rice, peanuts and tobacco, has changed, King said.

Because of strong foreign competition due to loosened trade barriers and a healthy U.S. dollar making it harder for foreign consumers to buy, he said, selling specialty crops isn't so secure anymore.

Steve Pastor, manager of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, said the North American Free Trade Agreement has made it difficult for Valley growers to compete with vegetables from Mexico, where cheaper labor and looser regulations deflate prices.

To offset foreign competition and help U.S. farmers gain access to foreign markets, the bill authorizes Congress to spend $200 million annually by 2006 on the Department of Agriculture's market access program. The program, which promotes domestic agricultural products in foreign markets through activities like trade shows, is authorized to spend $90 million per year. Many California specialty crop associations receive money from the program, such as the California Asparagus Commission and the California Strawberry Commission, and could receive more funding.

The program requires consortiums of growers that receive the money to match it with their own money.

‘‘Specialty crops and livestock are some of the prime beneficiaries of this program, and that's very good for Imperial County,'' said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista.

Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers Association, which participates in the program, said, ‘‘Once you know about California, you're going to buy more.''

McInerney said California is known for its good agricultural practices and tends to be a ‘‘one-stop shopping opportunity'' because of its variety of produce. For the state's industry to grow, farmers have to invest in opportunities like the market access program, he said.

Jack Vessey, a fourth-generation farmer in Imperial County, disagreed. Vessey grows garlic, which he says is hard to sell in the United States because garlic imported from China is much cheaper, but competition is even fiercer in foreign markets.

The farm bill authorizes the government to purchase a minimum of $200 million annually in specialty crops. At least $50 million of that amount would be used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for the national school lunch program. The lunch program provides nutritious, low-cost lunches to millions of schoolchildren.

Still, this authorization may prove to be a mixed blessing, said Vern F. Highley, president of Highley Associates, an agriculture consulting business based in Alexandria, Va. With the lunch program buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commodities, the ability to sell to the program in the event of a surplus might not be a bad option for farmers, Highley said.

‘‘But once you start depending on the government, you will be disappointed nine times out of 10,'' he said, because it's hard to convince the Agriculture Department that a surplus exists.

The bill allows California to enter the sugar cane market and gives federal food stamp benefits to legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years. Legal immigrant children and the disabled don't have to meet any residency requirements for the benefits.

The House passed the farm bill last week, and President Bush is expected to sign the legislation into law.

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