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WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate passed the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act, which now goes to President Bush for signature into law.
“This legislation represents an important step in advancing the focus and commitment to fruit and vegetable agriculture in the U.S. Congress,” said Tom Stenzel, president and c.e.o. of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. “This also represents completion of a multi-year process by a broad coalition in drafting the initial legislative concepts, testifying before several Congressional committees, and advocating for this bill before members of Congress during our annual Washington Public Policy Conference,” Stenzel said.
During a mark up in September, the bill was amended by the House Agriculture Committee, and finally passed by voice vote once the controversial provisions had been addressed.
“While the bill was scaled back from our original version, we nevertheless made strong progress that will have both near-term benefits and long-term impact for our industry, said Robert Guenther, v.p. of public policy for United. “It also demonstrates how effective our industry efforts can be in Washington when we work together, both with allied produce associations and member companies."
Among the bill’s objectives:
-- Establishing of the principle of federal grants to state departments of agriculture as an acceptable method for channeling investment for the benefit of specialty crop competitiveness. While United had developed this concept and worked with Congress to pass a one-time state block grant program as part of a disaster assistance bill in 2001, this program is now authorized on a continuing basis.
-- Authorizing of $44.5 million for fiscal years 2005-2009 for state block grants. Congress must now actually vote each year to appropriate money if these programs are to be funded.
-- Defining “specialty crops” as fruits and vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, and nursery crops, establishing an important definitional focus in agricultural policy.
States the case for using federal agricultural policy to increase the competitiveness of U.S. fruit, vegetable, and nut producers, and grow consumption of these products for health benefits to consumers and economic benefits to producers.
-- Establishing the principle that the grants be based on the percentage of national production of these crops in each state, thus delivering investment in direct proportion to production of all products, rather than on a commodity by commodity basis.
The bill also includes technical assistance for specialty crops, sanitary and phytosanitary protocols, research initiatives, and infrastructure improvements.