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Senate Holds Specialty Crop and Organic Hearing

July 28, 2011

On Thursday, July 28, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a hearing to discuss farm bill specialty crop and organic programs.  The Committee, led by Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), heard testimony from USDA officials Ann Wright, Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, and Dr. Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics.  The committee also heard testimony from a second panel of witnesses comprised of specialty crop and organic producers:

  • Dennis Engelhard, row crop and dried bean producer farming 4,300 acres in Unionville, MI
  • Kim Tait, a diversified third-generation farmer from Central Hall, PA
  • Paul Bencal, a grape grower from Ransomville, NY
  • Robert Woolley, a nursery producer from Hickman, CA
  • Glenn Abbett, row crop and tomato producer from LaCrosse, IN
  • Charles Wingard, Director of Field Operations for a multi-state greens company, Pelion, SC

Ranking Member Roberts (R-KS), and Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Michael Bennet (D-CO), John Boozman (R-AR), and Charles Grassley (R-IA)  joined Stabenow in the hearing.

Ms. Wright highlighted the growth of organic crops as a part of the U.S. economy, and the progress made in the 2008 Farm Bill through Title X (Horticulture and Organic Agriculture) programs such as Specialty Crop Block Grants (SCBG), Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP), and the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP).

Dr. Woteki framed the role of agricultural research as a long-term investment in resources for producers, emphasizing that new technologies to help producers ultimately spring from sufficient research funding.  A new ERS report released this week models how future agricultural productivity could change given higher or lower levels of funding for critical agricultural research.

Committee members and witnesses alike both lauded the success and importance of the SCBG program.  Mr. Engelhard noted that the dry bean industry has “typically been a bystander” in the farm bill process, but has benefited from research initiatives in the SCBG program.  Mr. Engelhard also discussed with Senator Klobuchar the potential of dried beans as a healthy, affordable source of protein for school lunches, specifically through the Farm to School Program.

Ms. Tait specifically mentioned during her testimony the many programs that had helped her farm become a more successful business, including NOCCSP, soil conservation help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, extension services from land-grant universities, and Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding that allowed her to build a high tunnel to grow winter and early spring greens.

Ms. Tait’s third-generation family farm supplies a 200-member CSA and three local restaurants.  Because her farm is located on a main road, they have introduced an on-farm store featuring their products and those of other local producers, as well as a mail-order business.  Her farm has recently been approved to be able to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) for their CSA shares, which she says has opened a new market for their products and helped those in need have access to more nutritious foods.

Several witnesses argued in support of flexibility in planting provisions, outlining for committee members the problems that they had experienced in trying to plant fruits and vegetables on land previously used for commodity crops.  Because several types of commodity program payments are calculated from “base acreage” grown in a certain crop, farmers who try to use more sustainable practices such as rotating types of crops and including vegetables in their rotation risk losing their eligibility for the commodity programs unless the producer has a history of growing these crops.  Mr. Abbett described how, as his family farm in Indiana transitioned from his father’s care to his, all the historical acreage his father had cultivated in fruits and vegetables no longer qualified because it was in the hands of a “new owner.”

Senator Lugar took a special interest in this topic, reminding the hearing about the 2007 legislation that he introduced  to allow greater planting flexibility.  He lamented the fact that “there’s not whole-farm insurance…There’s lots of ways to make money on a farm, so we need to give more flexibility.  The current restrictions date from the 1930’s and are not relevant today, except for a few vested interests who would like to retain certain privileges.”

NSAC supports increased planting flexibility and also supports measures to greatly improve whole farm revenue insurance.

Senator Gillibrand brought up several initiatives to link producers and consumers, including the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), and a potential “food hub” around the Hunts Point Terminal Market in New York.  Ms. Wright informed her that the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) staff who work on food hub issues will soon meet with the Hunts Point managers.

Additionally, Senator Gillibrand expressed disappointment in the new Food Desert Locator Tool of USDA, which she says does not fully capture the food deserts in New York City, and which she worried would be used by other government entities to determine or deny eligibility for programs.  Ms. Wright assured her that this was not the intent of the tool, and that they would work together to improve it.

Senator Stabenow made a point to ask the second panel of witnesses which safety net programs they considered to be the most effective.  While row crop programs are very functional, the witnesses said, many risk management programs have not evolved to work with organic and specialty crops.  Mr. Bencal recounted the difficulties he had in working with Risk Management Agency (RMA) officials in his area to cover the many diversified varieties of grapes he cultivates to help manage his risk.  Senator Gillibrand also brought up the inconsistent expertise of USDA officials in working with organic, small and specialty crop producers.  Ms. Wright assured her that she would look into it and that the agency is already taking steps to educate its field staff on these issues.

Senator Roberts asked Ms. Wright and Dr. Woteki about the review process for biotechnology products, potential USDA assistance for areas suffering from floods, and the status of a bio-defense project for animal and plant health in Kansas.  Senator Bennet also discussed with witnesses their difficulty in finding adequate farm labor.

To learn more about Title X programs in the 2008 Farm Bill, visit NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill.  To learn more about NSAC’s recent work on organic and specialty crop issues, visit our Marketing, Food Systems and Rural Development Issue Committee page.

Categories: Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems, Organic

2 responses to “Senate Holds Specialty Crop and Organic Hearing”

  1. Climate Action says:

    Finally.. someone should also bring up GMOs into question!

  2. Haji Warf says:

    Wow, this GMO topic is getting around. Much awareness is growing — let's keep it going!