Long-awaited farm bill delivers key Florida benefits

The new farm bill passed by Congress cuts total agricultural spending by 15 percent. But in terms of practical benefits, Florida fared particularly well, according to key industry leaders.

"Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association worked with other agriculture organizations through the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance for passage of a five-year bill that continues a strong federal investment in specialty crops," said FFVA president Mike Stuart. "This legislation does precisely that. With its critical programs for producers and shippers of fruits and vegetables, the bipartisan bill is a win for the Florida produce industry."

Despite deep cuts in total spending, Stuart said, the long-awaited new bill increased funding for programs that are particularly important to Florida's fruit and vegetables producers.

The single most important provision is a commitment of $125 million over the next five years, as part of the specialty crop research initiative (SRIC) that is specifically dedicated to citrus greening research.

Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator at Florida Farm Bureau Federation, also hailed the citrus greening research as the most important allocation in the bill. "And ultimately, there could be the addition another $125 million on top of that baseline amount in discretionary funding," she said. "That means that in the future, we could see $50 million a year being spent on greening research. And that is unprecedented."

She credited Florida Rep. Tom Rooney, a member of the House agricultural appropriations committee, and Sen. Bill Nelson for their aggressive support of the spending. "That was an issue that got quite contentious," Hendren said. "But Senator Nelson, Representative Rooney and Florida Citrus Mutual did a great job in leading that effort."

Another key benefit to Florida, Stuart said, is the specialty crop block grant program administered by USDA via state departments of agriculture. Grant awards are direct funding to state-specific initiatives that tackle issues critical to local agriculture.

Last year, Florida received $4.1 million for a total of 27 projects undertaken by the University of Florida, Florida A&M, Florida International University, University of South Florida, Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, Florida Tomato Committee, Florida Sweet Corn Exchange, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Florida Agriculture in the Classroom, Inc., and Urban Growers Community Economic Development Corporation.

Stuart also cited the allocation of $200 million per year to the federally-funded market access program as an important benefit to Florida. "That program is vital in helping growers expand to new markets and be competitive on an international level," Stuart said.

Under Florida Agriculture Commission Adam H. Putnam, exports of "Fresh from Florida" products to new international market has been a major goal.

Stuart also said the fresh fruit and vegetable program, another effort supported by the new bill and a personal priority for Commission Putnam, "has had demonstrable success in getting schoolchildren to eat more nutritious produce, starting them on a path to healthy eating habits."

Hendren said that yet another major victory for Florida in the bill is the elimination of a dairy supply management provision in former versions that would have had a big negative impact on Florida dairies.

"Those provisions would have harmed our dairies by making Florida, which is a 'milk deficit' state for most of the year, reduce its milk output when it was already reduced because of weather conditions," she said. "That issue was really the big fight in the House that held the final bill up for two weeks." In the end, she said, House Speaker John Boehner stood firmly against the provision, effectively killing it.

Despite all the good news for Florida, however, there is one provision that Hendren and other agricultural organizations dislike.

That is a new requirement that farmers who seek federally-supported crop insurance for production on highly erodible land and wetlands be fully compliant with conservation regulations.

The linkage of conservation compliance to crop insurance was a key provision sought by conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever.

"This is the first time that in order to get your crop insurance with government support, you will have to take steps to demonstrate compliance with all relevant soil and water conservation regulations," Hendren said, adding that her objection is based on the fact that, "it places a higher burden on Florida producers than it does on most row croppers because we have conservation regulations and other issues that hit us a little bit harder than everyone else out there. And that means those things could be more costly to implement for our growers."

In the end, however, Hendren said she agrees with Stuart that the overall provisions of the new bill represent significant benefits to Florida farmers.