Jun 8, 2023
Specialty crop groups outline Farm Bill requests

A group of speakers representing the specialty crop industry told a U.S. Senate subcommittee their Farm Bill 2023 requests, including a workable crop insurance program, research funding, and focus on organics and trade.

The June 7 hearing, “How the Farm Bill Works for Specialty Crop Producers,” was scheduled by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research.

Speakers at the hearing included:

  • Charles Wingard, vice president of field operations at Pelion, South Carolina-based greens grower Walter P. Rawl & Co., who provided testimony on behalf of the International Fresh Produce Association and the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance.
  • Margaret Leigh Worthington, associate professor of horticulture and director of the fruit breeding program at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, who spoke on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).
  • Nick Carter, owner of Mud Creek Farm, an Indianapolis operation with a greenhouse and two acres of vegetables that sells directly to consumers. Carter is co-founder of online produce seller Market Wagon, and he testified as a member of the Indiana Farm Bureau.
  • Chris Alonzo, a third-generation mushroom grower at Pietro Farms, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, who also represented the industry’s trade association, American Mushroom.
  • Diana Kobus, executive director of PCO, a Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, organic certifier and educator.

Crop insurance limitations

Wingard said using adjusted gross income (AGI) to determine eligibility for crop insurance is an “ill-suited” method.

“The current implementation of AGI limitations disproportionately prohibits specialty crop producers from participating in certain USDA programs in a meaningful way and potentially inhibits specialty crop producers from participating in disaster programs,” Wingard said. “USDA programs that require a means test for participation should be based on income derived from farming and be flexible enough to account for the variety of structures, accounting methods and other special considerations for specialty crop producers, not just their AGI.”

Speakers representing the specialty crop industry (in the foreground) face Sen. John Fetterman, chairman of the Subcommittee on Food, Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics and Research. Photo courtesy International Fresh Produce Association.

Wingard encouraged legislators to consider “sustained and expanded” funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), the Office of Pest Management Policy, Food Safety Modernization Act compliance research and for Interregional Research Project No. 4, commonly known as IR-4, a federal program to conduct research necessary for obtaining registrations of pest control agents needed to grow minor crops.

He asked for an additional $50 million a year for the SCRI, with a priority on new technologies and research into plant breeding, genetics and crop management.

“SCRI addresses the critical needs of our industry by awarding grants that support research and Extension that address key challenges of national, regional, and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of food and agriculture, including conventional, contained environment and organic production systems,” Wingard said.

Breeding innovation roadblocks

Worthington stressed the need for precision breeding tools such as gene editing, which can produce more resilient plants that need less water and chemical inputs.

“Appropriate policies can incentivize investments in plant breeding innovation, such as gene editing, creating new jobs and market opportunities, and boosting resiliency and sustainability along the entire food value chain,” she said.

While the Farm Bill plays an important role in funding programs, she said without effective policy and regulatory systems to foster innovations, utility of those new innovations will be limited. She pointed to a recent EPA ruling on plant-incorporated protectants, which is causing “a great deal of concern in the plant breeding community.”

She said the rule is contrary to EPA’s approach to similar products created using conventional breeding, and adds bureaucratic layers of red tape for products developed using gene editing.

Small farm access

Carter spoke about challenges that small farms like Mud Creek Farms face, from meeting demand, finding labor and management of capital. In particular, crop insurance and market access are critical for smaller growers, he said.

“I support a robust crop insurance program, which should entail expansion of insured commodities to include specialty crops as well as enhancements to Whole Farm Revenue Protection insurance that provide a more appropriate level of affordable coverage and safety net, along with reducing the amount of paperwork required,” Carter said. “As implemented, the current crop insurance programs are not feasible for diversified farms like Mud Creek Farm.”

Nutrition and sustainability

Alonzo spoke about the nutrition and sustainability of mushrooms, with the equivalent of an acre producing a million pounds each year. Compost, the material needed to grow mushrooms, is a reusable, value-added soil amendment that sequesters carbon and regenerates soil.

“All of these nutrition and mushroom compost discoveries have come from investment in research,” Alonzo said. “Yet, the mushroom industry lacks critical resources required to stay competitive when it comes to operations.”

He called for research on integrated pest management to mitigate fungi-specific pests and pathogens, research on the beneficial uses of mushroom compost, research on harvesting mechanization for increased yield, quality, and employee augmentation and retention, and research on the potential value to the industry of crop insurance.

Organic industry priorities

Kobus said organic industry priorities for the Farm Bill also include crop insurance (adapting USDA risk management tools for organic specialty crop growers) and research, as well as funding for growers transitioning from conventional to organic crops. She requested the Organic Research and Extension Initiative funding be increased.

“Research is a critical tool to help farmers tackle the production challenges they are facing in a way that adheres to the organic requirements,” Kobus said. “We can provide even more tools to help farmers further combat these challenges by increasing OREI funding to $100 million annually in the 2023 Farm Bill.”

The organic sector would benefit from an expansion of the USDA’s Organic Transition Initiative (OTI), which includes the Organic Market Development Grant Program.

“In order to see domestic growth and market expansion, the next farm bill should codify this program, which is fundamentally an organic infrastructure initiative,” she said. “This investment addresses supply chain gaps in moving organic farm gate commodities up the value chain. Organic infrastructure grant resources target new and existing organic-focused businesses that are committed to the processing, storage, and distribution of organic food and goods.”

Rebeckah Adcock, vice president of U.S. government relations for IFPA, said farm bills are the single-greatest investment in the produce and floral industries.

“Fresh produce comes together with our like-minded allies to advocate for policies that keep specialty crops competitive and provide the most nutritious, safe and delicious products to American families,” she said in a news release. “Our members, with their first-hand experience of both policies that work and those that do not, make the best advocates before members of Congress as they head into Farm Bill negotiations.”

Photo: Nick Carter (from left), owner of Mud Creek Farm; Charles Wingard, vice president of field operations for Walter P. Rawl & Co.; and Margaret Leigh Worthington, director of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s fruit breeding program, testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on specialty crop needs in the 2023 Farm Bill. Photos courtesy International Fresh Produce Association.

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