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Specialty crops competitiveness bill all about partnerships

A primary co-sponsor of landmark legislation to funnel federal funds to bolster specialty crops marketing efforts much like the government currently does for commodity producers gives the bill at least a 50-50 chance of winning approval in the Senate.

"Maybe 60-40," said U.S. Rep. Doug Ose of Sacramento, a Republican, who told Western Growers, architects of the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act, at the association’s annual convention in Hawaii that the bill has garnered 122 co-sponsors in the House. The bill’s co-author was San Joaquin Valley U.S. Rep. Calvin Dooley, a Democrat, who also is retiring from Congress.

Last year at its annual meeting, Western Growers pointed out that specialty crop production accounted for one-fourth of America’s agricultural income, and it was time for the federal government to step up and recognize that with financial help in the wake of unprecedented world competition, said then WG chairman Edwin Camp of Bakersfield, Calif.

Western Growers expected and received opposition from traditional commodity groups like cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans. However, Ose said that negative was turned into a positive by telling commodity state congressmen that "agriculture cannot prosper unless all of agriculture prospers.

"We stayed on that message and it opened doors" to the point the House passed the bill earlier this fall. Ose said the bill will likely pass through the Senate in an omnibus bill.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers called House passage of the bill "a remarkable win for us not only in the specifics of the bill, but it was also a tremendous symbolic leap forward for the fresh produce farmers of this nation, who are finally being recognized for their contribution."

Nassif said the House passage of the bill will be "first of what we hope will be many victories in the future in Washington."

Study in achievement

"The Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act is a study in achieving an objective when everything is against it," said Ose. "Program crop guys thought it was going to infringe on their money territory. The speaker of the House is from Illinois and his reaction was ‘we don’t grow a lot of fruits and vegetables in Illinois and I am not sure I want to go there,’" said Ose.

Ose said Senate Ag Committee Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi and House Ag Committee Minority Leader Charlie Stenholm were initially opposed.

"Charlie Stenholm became supportive of our efforts and frankly very helpful in allowing us to speak to specific questions other members of the House Ag Committee might have," said Ose.

Ose said this support came from a continual, positive atmosphere surrounding the bill.

However, Ose said the bill really "came together" with the support of the House Ag Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte from Virginia.

"They grow a lot of specialty crops in Virginia like grapes, but they also grow a lot of tobacco.

"As the tobacco buyout program was going through the House, we were able to quietly make the argument that our bill is going to benefit tobacco growers who need some avenue to support themselves when the buyout program is over. They have to grow something" other than tobacco and those could well be specialty crops. Ose said this picked up 30 to 35 co-sponsors from tobacco district legislators from both sides of the political aisle.

"Nobody want to go home and tell supporters they are not looking out for their best interests," Ose said. The specialty crop competitive act was by congressmen to do that.

Ose said passage also was hastened by a willingness to compromise and accommodate.

"Never say you have to have ultimatum. As soon as you say you have to have something, they got you. You are held hostage," said Ose.

The retiring Northern California congressman said he also used a mutual benefit approach in gaining support. Most states grow crops that would benefit from the act, which includes state block grants.

"Find your political partners — fertilizer dealers, implement guys, trucking, processors — there is a whole gambit of potential partners," he said.

"Not all will be able to help. Some will be agnostic, some are going to get between you and what you want to do. However, others will help," he said.

Ag lenders should be the No. 1 partners, said Ose. "Why? Because they do not want your property," he added. That drew a big laugh.

Other support came from state secretaries of agriculture. "I could tell when there had been a group of state secretaries of ag in the Capitol because every time they came through we would pick up more co-sponsors," said Ose.

Ways to go

The program announced a year ago called for more than $3 billion in federal spending over the five-year life of the law. That was pared back to about $120 million in the final bill, and that is discretionary money. Even if the bill passes the Senate and is signed by the president, it still must be funded by Congress.

"What we have done with this bill is mainly open doors to future congresses. Now Western Growers needs to expand its partnerships and try to expand program from $54 million a year to $100 million and then $200 million, moving incrementally from discretionary to mandatory spending."

Ose said Western Growers must "absolutely stay positive — this is not a zero sum game. You are not trying to take, you are trying to build something."

Ose’s family are soybean and corn growers in Iowa and rice farmers in his Sacramento Valley home district.

"I never let my rice-grower friends paint me into a corner, and I never let cotton-growing friends paint me into a corner," he said. When confronted by commodity groups fearful that this bill would take money away from them, Ose said he often pointed out commodity producers also likely are fruit, nut and vegetables growers. When objections were raised by these groups, Ose said he always countered with a "what can we do to resolve the issue" response.

The Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act calls for spending federal dollars to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables and to revitalize the fresh produce industry both domestically and internationally.

Benefit all growers

It will not benefit exclusively California, Arizona, Florida and other Sun Belt states. It’s written to provide support for specialty crop producers in all 50 states. Most of the money would go to non-program, specialty crop producers as block grants to promote increased consumption of American-produced fruits, nuts, vegetables and other specialty crops as well as to be used for foreign market access and dealing with excluding exotic pests, many American growers contend are being brought in by increased foreign imports. It would also fund research.

WG shopped the idea to United Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Association, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and others and gathered strong support.

No funds would go directly to producers as subsidies.

In the past 7 years agricultural imports have increased by 60 percent at the expense of domestic producers. Ose cited a recent Wall Street Journal article that pointed out that that there is now a trade deficit in the U.S. for agricultural trade and a program like that outlines in the specialty crops bill will help to slow down or reverse that trend.

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