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Fruit, vegetable farmers work to keep what they’ve sown

Eat your broccoli. After all, you might be helping to pay for it.

Challenging a broccoli market dominated by California, researchers boosted by federal funds are on a multi-year mission to encourage new East Coast production. They’ve had some success. They’ve also helped show how farm bills are changing.

“The project would absolutely not have happened” without the federal help, noted Cornell University associate professor Thomas Bjorkman, citing new academic and industry cooperation as well as the funding. “The audacious expectations of the (research) program also inspired us to think this big.”

Farm bill dollars -- and disagreements – traditionally focus on subsidies for crops such as wheat, cotton, corn and rice. That’s still the case this year, as Congress approaches a Sept. 30 deadline for rewriting the 2008 farm bill. Tens of billions of dollars are on the line.

But for fruit and vegetable growers, and others lumped under the specialty-crop category, federal farm bills offer new significance and new seductions. The 2008 bill broke fresh ground; including, depending on how the money is counted, upward of $3 billion aiding specialty crops. Now the unsubsidized industry that once touted its independence is lobbying hard to hold on to what it has.

“We went into the 2007-2008 farm bill trying to get equity for specialty crops,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif. “We got out of that bill what we needed to; now we’re fighting from a different place than we were before.”

The 2008 farm bill, passed over President George W. Bush’s veto, recalibrated assumptions for specialty-crop growers and lawmakers alike. The lawmakers are starting from a different baseline this year: The question isn’t whether to include specialty crop programs, but at what funding level. Or, as Cardoza put it sardonically, “The Midwest folks would love to steal our money back.”

The growers, in turn, must entangle themselves in a political world that some once shunned. This week, for instance, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Western Growers Association sent delegations to Capitol Hill. A Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance has rallied more than 140 like-minded organizations to press the case over many months.

“We want to make sure that the money that’s really important (for us) is still part of the farm bill,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, an almond and walnut grower from Modesto, said Thursday. “Everything is going to be trimmed a little . . . (but) we won’t give up what we got.”

Thirty-two House of Representatives Democrats from California echoed the argument this week, with a group letter to House Agriculture Committee leaders that urged continued support for specialty crops.

This support can take many forms. It can be money for pest detection and assorted nutrition programs that buy fruits and vegetables. It can include environmental and conservation programs that some California lawmakers fear might get consolidated to the state’s detriment, and it includes several programs with the term “specialty crop” right in the title.

The 2008 bill, for instance, devoted $230 million to a Specialty Crop Research Initiative. University of California at Davis researchers have tapped the money, an Agriculture Department summary explains, “to show how fresh fruits and vegetables with enhanced flavor can be successfully handled, without compromising food safety, so as to improve consumer satisfaction.” University of Florida researchers are using several million dollars to develop a rot-resistant Southern grape. Pennsylvania State University researchers are examining honeybees, and Bjorkman’s broccoli team at Cornell is testing hybrids suitable for East Coast conditions.

Some have their work cut out for them, competitively speaking. California farmers grow broccoli on about 106,000 acres, according to a 2007 Agriculture Department study. East Coast farmers, by contrast, harvest broccoli from fewer than 1,500 acres.

“We are doing first- and second-generation trials up and down the East Coast,” said Bjorkman, a graduate of the University of California-Davis. “We are also developing grower networks who have the expertise, infrastructure and markets needed to expand production.”

Specialty crop growers also are hoping to hold on to a block grant program, which provides $55 million a year.

In a classic gesture of spreading political good will, every state is guaranteed some funding, but big-time specialty-crop states dominate. Florida received $4.3 million, Washington state received $3.1 million and California took $18 million last year, with projects that ranged from public relations campaigns for leafy greens to improved wine grape-growing practices in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee has approved its bill, largely satisfactory to the specialty crop industry, and lawmakers hope to bring it up on the Senate floor within a few weeks. The House Agriculture Committee hasn’t yet written its version. Lawmakers then will have to work out their differences, which are likely to be most pronounced over how to handle traditionally subsidized crops.

“This is the Senate, so we can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen,” cautioned Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the agriculture committee’s chair.

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