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Specialty crop producers seek farm bill recognition, support

Farm policy said to focus too much on commodity crops

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says she wants to expand the Agriculture Department services and programs available to specialty crop producers.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says she wants to expand the Agriculture Department services and programs available to specialty crop producers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House and Senate members writing the 2023 farm bill face pressure to do more to accommodate specialty crops, an array of fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, nursery plants and flowers that account for less than 10 percent of acres in production. 

The cause also has a powerful advocate in Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who is quick to note Michigan’s production of specialty crops ranging from apples to squash and who wants to expand the Agriculture Department services and programs available to the sector.

Stabenow and ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., along with House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., and ranking member David Scott, D-Ga., are overseeing the effort to update the farm bill that expires Sept. 30.

Unlike the commodity crops such as corn and soybeans that dominate agriculture policy and have publicly available benchmark prices, specialty crops are often produced and sold in niche markets or by contract. Production can be labor-intensive. 

Kam Quarles, co-chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance and CEO of the National Potato Council, said the farm bill overall doesn’t reflect the farm gate value to the country from the basically 300 different crops that are under the specialty crop banner. He noted the importance of fruits and vegetables in dietary guidelines and events such as the 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health that raised the profile of the industry.

“Clearly, there is a beneficial message for specialty crops under that increasing focus over nutrition, healthy diet, all those kinds of things. That’s a tail wind broadly for the specialty crop industry, given what we produce,” Quarles said in an interview.

The industry wants lawmakers to authorize funds for research into automation and mechanization, raise an income threshold that currently limits eligibility for some USDA programs, promote exports, provide subsidized crop insurance tailored to specialty crops, and give greater access to conservation and disaster assistance.

“What Congress includes in the next farm bill is crucial to the produce industry in Texas and throughout the U.S.,” Bret Erickson, senior vice president of Little Bear Produce in Edinburgh, Texas, said at a House Agriculture Committee hearing in March. 

Erickson, who also spoke for the Texas International Produce Association, the Texas Vegetable Association and the International Fresh Produce Association, said Little Bear raises 40 commodity crops on 6,000 acres spread across Texas, New Mexico, Georgia, New Jersey, Peru and Mexico. 

He put the labor shortage high on his list, calling it a “national security food crisis.”

Growers have warned for years that they would lose market share to imported goods because they couldn’t meet demand without a steady source of labor. They want the farm bill to authorize funding for research and development that could automate and mechanize planting, harvesting and processing. 

In February, the USDA’s forecast for agricultural imports showed annual 2.8 percent growth from 2022 to 2032 in horticultural goods, the largest component of which is fresh fruits and vegetables. 

“We are now more dependent on foreign-grown produce than we have ever been in the history of this country,” Erickson said. “Both parties seem to agree that it’s OK that imported produce is surpassing American-grown in the grocery store and that U.S. specialty crop growers have been placed into an uneven playing field that favors foreign producers.”

The 2018 farm bill directed the Agriculture secretary to establish an export technical assistance program for specialty crops. 

Quarles praised the program for providing experts who helped the potato industry successfully challenge restrictions in Mexico that had limited market access for U.S. fresh potatoes for 25 years. Expanded potato exports to Mexico began last year.

Eligibility threshold

The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which comprises more than 200 groups, also says lawmakers should raise or eliminate the $900,000 average adjusted gross income limit set in the 2018 farm bill. Producers above that limit aren’t eligible for most Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service programs, including the Conservation Reserve and the Environmental Quality Incentives programs. 

The group sees that limit as a barrier for farmers who grow high-value crops such as strawberries.  

Dennis Nuxoll, government affairs vice president for Western Growers Association, said growers of crops that fetch premium prices can also be locked out of cost-share payments for conservation programs and two disaster assistance programs: the noninsured crop disaster assistance program and the tree assistance program.

“We skew higher than that. A disproportionate number of our growers don’t have access to conservation programs,” he said, referring to the $900,000 threshold.

Nuxoll said removing obstacles to participation in conservation programs would align farm bill policy with the push by the Biden administration and members of Congress to encourage farmers and ranchers to use their land to mitigate climate change. 

“At the moment, Congress is interested in how we can use conservation programs to foster a more resilient agriculture to help with climate change,” Nuxoll said, adding that many specialty growers can’t find insurance for loss of crops or revenue and the income limit makes them ineligible for programs that could be alternatives. 

Washington State Agriculture Director Derek Sandison acknowledged that asking for more funding in some areas may involve offsetting it elsewhere in farm policy. “We’re trying to get a sense of how much of this is zero sum,” he said during a meeting of state Agriculture secretaries in February.

“We want to see robust funding for specialty crops research initiatives and specialty crop block grants,” he said. “In the trade title, we’re in favor of doubling the amount of money for the market access program from $200 million to $400 million.”

The USDA awards block grants to states in a program designed to make specialty crops more competitive. The Agricultural Marketing Service awarded $73 million in fiscal 2022. The department says it has funded more than 11,000 projects since 2006. 

Sandison noted that climate change is posing a threat to specialty crops and said the federal government should adjust policies to help. 

Disaster fund

Dale Murden, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, used the March hearing in Texas to urge lawmakers to provide a permanent disaster fund for agriculture, especially for specialty crops.

“Just in my end of the world in South Texas, we’ve had some really bad luck the last few years,” he said. “We had a hurricane in ’20. We had a deep freeze in ’21, sandwiched between record droughts and limited irrigation supplies now in ’23.”

Many farmers wait several years for payments and don’t have crop insurance available for their crops, he said.

Murden also said the USDA should ease limits on payments to farmers as long as they get 75 percent or more of their incomes from agriculture. He cited the 2002 farm bill as a model for the proposal.

The USDA’s Risk Management Agency lists dozens of specialty crops, sometimes including both a fruit and the tree that bears it, as eligible for crop insurance. But such policies also depend on the department being able to calculate the risk, a task that requires yield history and available market price data. Many specialty crops are sold through contracts or don’t have enough volume for the USDA to track prices.

At about $78 billion over 10 years, crop insurance is the second most expensive title in the farm bill after nutrition. The Congressional Budget Office projects crop insurance costs at $101 billion for fiscal 2024 through fiscal 2033, the 10-year budget window for the upcoming farm bill. 

Of the 444 million acres insured in 2021, less than 10 percent, or 40.8 million acres, were specialty crops. But for some states and regions, specialty crops are to some extent a defining feature of the agriculture sector.

“We have in Washington over 300 crops and commodities,” Sandison said. “California has more than that. Michigan is very similar. I would say some of the Eastern Seaboard states are as well. The Midwest is a totally different creature, where most of the land is mostly corn and soybeans.”

Specialty crop producers say they are a small part of farm bills compared with the commodity crop business. But others nevertheless aspire to join their ranks — and are encountering resistance from the sector.

Jonathan Miller, general counsel to U.S. Hemp Roundtable, said hemp flowers grown for use in foods, supplements and cannabidiol should be treated as a specialty crop.

“It’s that part of the plant that has been lucrative for farmers for the past several years, and so we’d love to see more USDA support for that farming activity,” he said. Hemp fiber and grain is already treated as a commodity crop. 

The specialty crop sector is wary of not only hemp but also wild rice, aquaculture and other types of agriculture. 

“There have been some efforts by folks who would like to share in the programs we’ve stood up. They are covered in other programs in the farm bill but would like to be considered specialty crops,” said Quarles of the Specialty Crops Farm Bill Alliance.

The page for the yet to be released draft House farm bill is here and the one for the still unreleased draft Senate bill is here.

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