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Column: Specialty Crop Competitive Act may signal farm support package changes

Ask 50 non-California farmers what SCCA stands for and the likely answer will be Sports Car Club of America. They would be half right. Ask 3,000 Western Growers what SCCA stands for and they’ll tell you it’s the initials for the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act, the other half of the right answer.

The Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act was a seemingly miniscule piece of agricultural legislation Congress passed this year.

It was diminutive in the world of federal agriculture spending. The price tag on ag SCCA was a mere $270 million over a five-year period. It was made even smaller since the bill’s passage did not guarantee funding. Western Growers now has to pry the cash out of a Congress and U.S. Treasury going deeper in debt every day.

A pair of lame duck, but politically savvy California Congressman, Doug Ose of Sacramento and Calvin Dooley of Hanford, sponsored the legislation drafted by Western Growers. When first introduced it carried a price tag of some $3 billion. It was pared down to gain congressional support. However, it is not the price of the program that is significant. What is important is that the legislation is on the books.

The bill is not a direct subsidy for so-called specialty crop growers. It calls for spending federal dollars on an array of programs. However, they all point to one thing, spending federal dollars to promote the increased consumption of vegetables, fruit and nuts fruit and make them more competitive in the world market. Sound familiar?

When Western Growers launched its campaign to draft and pass the legislation, it was supported primarily by Sun Belt states. However, in the end it had gained nationwide support with co-sponsorships from 122 members of Congress.

Not only that, it had the support of some of the most powerful commodity-state legislators, even though it was not a popular bill with major commodity groups who saw it as a threat to their federal farm bill funds. Wisely, SCCA supporters never publicly went after farm bill monies. Nevertheless, everyone is chasing the same federal dollars.

Passage of SCCA could have significant influence on the next farm bill because of the congressional support it garnered. The massive conservation title in the last farm bill also signals significant changes ahead. Many are predicting a dramatically different looking farm bill in the wake of federal debt and challenges of the U.S. federal farm program by the World Trade Organization. There is no question America needs its agriculture and agriculture will require significant financial support. Many in Congress realize that that support will require a dramatically different package than has been passed in recent farm bills.

When Western Growers announced SCCA, it was not given much of a chance. It is truly remarkable that it passed the House and even more amazing that it made it through the Senate in the final hours. Many in Western Growers were getting ready to go to battle anew in 2005 when the Senate surprisingly passed SCCA.

Passage of the nation’s first major federal funding for the fresh produce industry was not only a testament to the tenacity of Western Growers, but it may signal a change in the way the federal government supports American agriculture.

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