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Specialty Crop and Organic Producers Testify

July 22, 2010

Specialty crop and organic producers are “classic entrepreneurs” said Subcommittee Chair, Dennis Cardoza (D-CA).  Rep.  Cardoza spoke on Wednesday, July 21st at the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture hearing to review specialty crop and organic programs in preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill.

Cardoza began the hearing with praise for specialty crop producers, noting their entrepreneurial ability to produce half the value of America’s crops.   Cardoza also spoke to the importance of this sector for providing the fruits and vegetables that nourish our families.

Block Grants

All seven producers on the panel testified to the crucial role that the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBG) plays for specialty crop production across the U.S.  They emphasized the need to extend and expand this program in the 2012 Farm Bill and applauded the flexibility the SCBG program offers to State Agriculture Departments for awarding grants.  It was clear from their testimony, however, that some states do a better job than others in including farmers in the state decision-making process.  In general, most witnesses also favored moving the application and decision-making process to earlier in the year, centered around the off-season.

Dr. Margaret Smith Testifies

NSAC hosted Margaret Smith, from Ash Grove Farm in Iowa and Extension Agent at Iowa State University (ISU), as the sole female and organic producer voice on the panel of witnesses.

Margaret and her husband Doug farm 950 acres of organic corn, soy, oats, wheat barley and and pasture and run a beef cow herd.   They market their crops to various food, feed and seed markets.  They began their transition to organic systems in 1994 and reached 100 percent organic production in 2007.

As an extension agent at ISU, Smith works with fruit and vegetable producers in the Value-Added Agriculture Extension Program in addition to co-facilitating the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Working Group.

Smith began her testimony to the Subcommittee with data pointing to the rapid growth in the organic industry, both in terms of number of farms and value of sales.  Organics offer a critical marketing niche for small and beginning farmers.  In light of the important role of the organic industry, Smith made sure the Subcommittee understood that the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) is under-funded, even with the 2008 Farm Bill funding increase, citing that only about 20% of the applicants receive OREI funding.

Smith also expressed strong support for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s Organic Initiative.

Smith urged the Subcommittee to improve  the crop and revenue insurance policies and rules for specialty crops and for organics.  As she explained, “In Iowa, there is no satisfactory crop insurance available for fruit and vegetables.  When compared with crop insurance options for corn and soybean growers, this seems a gross oversight and neglect of these important crops and crop producers.”

She went on to explain the risk management struggle confronting diversified, small to mid-sized producers: “Not only is there no safety net in the event of weather, crop disease, or insect yield reductions, but lenders are wary of working with growers of non-traditional commodities if they have no guarantee of some minimum income level.”

Chairman Cordoza applauded Smith’s work and testimony and brought the hearing to a personal level, disclosing his preference grass-fed beef.  He also noted the profit opportunities offered by grass-fed beef production, a strategy that raises fewer cattle in a more productive system.

The hearing also ended on a personal note, and a strong note for organics.  Ranking Member, Jean Schmidt (R-OH), confessed that her daughter and husband, despite the price differential, buy and eat exclusively organically produced foods.

“The organic voice is small,” she said “Lets raise that voice!”

Other Highlights

Robert Jones, a fruit and vegetable producer from Ohio’s The Chef’s Farm, spoke about the ineffectiveness and inappropriateness of what he described as a “one size fits all” National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement proposal.  In response to a question from Chairman Cardoza, Jones also applauded the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Program for improving consumer awareness and bolstering the local food movement.

Testifying on behalf of the nursery industry, Bernie Kohl, Jr. of Angelica Nurseries on Maryland’s Eastern Shore told the Subcommittee that the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) started by the last farm bill was doing great harm to the nursery crop industry.  He explained that trees and shrubs grown in containers are grown in a substance that is primarily bark.  He explained that 83 percent of softwood bark and 70 percent of hardwood bark is already used for energy generation and removing more of it through BCAP subsidies to energy uses could devastate the nursery industry.  Similar arguments have been made by the forest products industry.  Kohl called the BCAP collection, harvest and storage incentive payments “a solution in search of a problem.”

Paul Platz, a farmer from Lafayette, Minnesota, spoke about growing vegetables for processing.  He urged the Committee to ease and simplify the rules for the “farm flex” pilot program created in the last farm bill allowing certain counties in certain states to produce vegetables for the processing industry on farm program base acres.  Platz noted that he was able to start growing sweet corn and green peas in 1993 because the planting restrictions against growing fruits and vegetables on program acres that started with the 1996 Farm Bill were not in place yet.  He urged a movement back in that direction, at least for processed vegetables.

Several witnesses expressed disappointment with the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) for not addressing the most pressing concerns of specialty crop growers.  Chairman Cardoza sympathized with the concern and said he would follow-up with the Subcommittee with jurisdiction over USDA research.

Margaret Smith cautioned the Subcommittee to remember that the most important research to help fruit and vegetable producers will be long-term systems research that will take time to conduct.  Smith also suggested that the SCRI is too focused on big multi-state, multi-institution projects and needs to be more balanced between local, regional, and national concerns.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Organic

3 responses to “Specialty Crop and Organic Producers Testify”

  1. Carol Havens says:

    In case you're wondering, "specialty crops" are what we humans call FOOD!

  2. […] National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition » Archive » Specialty Crop and Organic Produc… […]

  3. OrganicDude says:

    Organic agriculture is the key to our survival. Chemical laden conventional agriculture is harmful to the land and to us.