Federal Benefits for Specialty Crop Producers
Mar 10, 2017
Largely due to their own policy choices over time, specialty producers do not benefit from farm safety net programs like producers of field crops, which are provided under the Commodity Title of farm bills. Although they do participate to some degree, these producers do not rely on the federal crop insurance program either. Instead, the major forms of current support for these producers provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are discussed in this article, including efforts to expand both domestic and international demand, funding to ensure the wholesomeness of their products, and disaster assistance.
Until the last few farm bills, rather than pursue direct benefits through the farm bill process, commodity associations representing horticultural crop producers primarily focused on maintaining or increasing resources for programs which helped to expand the demand for their products, either domestically through nutrition assistance programs such as the school lunch and breakfast programs or internationally through USDA trade promotion programs. For example, during the mid-1990's, the U.S. Department of Defense ordered its domestic procurement officials to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables for distribution to school systems located near U.S. military installations in addition to the purchases it would make for food preparation facilities serving the military personnel and dependents living on those bases. This effort was institutionalized as a specific provision in the Food Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. The so-called DOD Fresh program now provides assistance to school districts beyond those located near military installations. Periodically, the Secretary of Agriculture also uses a longstanding authority, under Section 32 of the Act of August 24, 1935 to procure commodities for distribution within the school lunch program if those commodities are deemed to be in surplus or their producers are seen as facing economic distress. This 'emergency removal' procedure was used to purchase turkey, fruits and vegetables, and chicken products valued at $200 million in fiscal year 2013. The flexibility of Section 32 was reduced somewhat by language included in the 2008 farm bill, but it still serves as a tool of last resort to help U.S. producers not covered under traditional safety net programs.
On the trade promotion side, specialty crop stakeholder groups were also able to obtain farm bill funds for a separate program focused entirely on their trade issues, called Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops, or TASC. This program first received modest funding of $2 million annually under the 2002 farm bill, with funding ratcheted up from $4 million to $9 million annually under the 2008 farm bill, and maintained at $9 million annually under the 2014 farm bill. The program provides funding to U.S. organizations for projects that address foreign sanitary, phyto-sanitary and technical barriers that prohibit or threaten the export of U.S. specialty crops, with approved projects receiving up to $500,000. Trade associations or other organizations participating in the MAP and FMDP are required to provide their own funds to match what they receive under the program, while such matches are encouraged though not required for TASC applicants. Fruit, vegetable, and tree nut groups also received $58 million—33% of the total funding available--under the Market Access Program in fiscal year 2016.
The 2008 farm bill established a set of five stand-alone disaster assistance programs, including funds to continue the Tree Assistance Program (TAP), which gives owners of orchards or nursery trees a payment if their trees, bushes, or vines are lost as a result of a natural disaster. This program is distinct from the crop insurance indemnity a farmer would receive as a result of a lost tree crop, such as apples or oranges in a given season, because the latter assumes that the trees would still be there to bear fruit in subsequent years. An ad hoc program to help tree producers had first been created in the fiscal year 2005 omnibus appropriations bill.
Specialty crop groups were able to secure $160 million in assistance for their members in an August 2001 emergency piece of legislation intended to support U.S. agriculture in response to financial losses suffered as a result of weak global markets. This provision was included in an assistance package that totaled $5.5 billion. The legislation required USDA to distribute the money to the 50 state departments of agriculture, allocated based on states’ share of U.S. specialty crop production.
The push to provide mandatory funding for specialty crop producers in the 2008 farm bill was led in the Senate by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D, MI), and in the House by Representative Jim Costa (D, CA), from California’s Central Valley, both members counting a fairly large number of specialty crop producers among their constituents. This effort resulted in the establishment of the first horticulture and organic agriculture title in a farm bill, with programs for which $1 billion in funding would be provided over a ten year period, from 2008-2017.
In addition to the Specialty Crop Block Grant program, which received $466 million in the 2008 farm bill, the specialty crop sector obtained $377 million to fund state efforts to monitor specialty crop pests and disease outbreaks and another $20 million to set up “clean plant centers” that would provide pathogen-free propagative plant material to state agencies or private nurseries.
The last piece of the specialty crop pie was $230 million in funding (over ten years) for specialty crop research, which was included in the agricultural research title, not the horticulture and organic agriculture title. Unlike most recent efforts by the Agriculture Committees to provide mandatory funds for agricultural research through the farm bill process, these funds actually went for their intended purposes, rather than being diverted by the Agricultural Appropriation Subcommittees to pay for other items in the annual appropriations bill. All of these programs received additional funding in the 2014 farm bill, as Senator Stabenow moved up to become Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
(This blog is drawn from an article I wrote for Choices magazine that was published in the 4th Quarter of 2016).