Though the 115th Congress doesn’t have much of a record of accomplishment yet, hope springs eternal. And while September’s Congressional calendar was destined to be dominated by debates over how to fund the federal government, raise the federal debt ceiling, sustain or suspend the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, engage in meaningful tax reform, and whether or not to fund a “wall” (real or virtual) on our southern border, sooner or later Congress will have to move on to more routine matters. Like the Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill is America’s primary legislative expression of agricultural policy. It is rewritten roughly every five years. Historically it dealt mostly with “cows, sows and plows” – programs and policies intended to ensure a healthy farm sector. Eventually it came to include certain food programs like “supplemental nutrition assistance program” or SNAP, more commonly referred to as food stamps. In fact, the feeding programs are now the single largest slice of the Farm Bill pie.
And then there’s horticulture. Prior to a decade ago, the Farm Bill had marginal relevance to our industry. That began to change when various specialty crop interests decided to combine efforts and pursue a policy platform that advances all the specialty crop industries, including tree fruits and nuts, vegetables, greenhouse and nursery crops. After all, taken together our industries represent half of the total value of crop agriculture in America, and our high-value crops tend to return the most dollars back to the communities where they are produced.
None of the various industries that came together to form the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance wanted to seek the kinds of federal subsidies and price supports that long-defined row crop treatment in prior farm bills. Rather, they sought to encourage programs that support things like research, innovation and market development. Here are just a few of the most important programs that are now flourishing as a result of these efforts by AmericanHort and coalition partners:
Specialty Crop Research Initiative – This critically important research program dedicated to specialty crops currently funds $55 million in projects per year. The projects typically involve multiple scientists and institutions, are interdisciplinary and are multi-year. In recent years, AmericanHort and our research foundation, the Horticultural Research Institute, have participated in industry relevance and scientific merit reviews. Key projects directly affecting our industry have targeted contemporary challenges like pollinator health protection, “intelligent” spray technology, and tackling emerging pest challenges, such as rose rosette disease and downy mildews.
Plant Pest Management and Disaster Prevention Program (Section 10007) – This vital program is part of the Farm Bill’s Horticulture title. In 2017, over $50 million was allocated to a variety of projects designed to prevent and detect invasive foreign pests before they establish and spread beyond where control or eradication are possible. For horticulture, this program has brought several million in early R&D funding to address Phytophthora ramorum and boxwood blight, and to modernize plant certification programs.
National Clean Plant Network – This unique and beneficial program supports the work of more than 20 regional centers that are able to do diagnostics, therapy and release to the industry of “clean plants.” The current focus relevant to our industry includes pome and stone fruit (both fruit-producing and ornamental), grapevines, berries, hops, citrus and roses.
Specialty Crop Block Grant Program – This program provides roughly $80 million in block grants to the states on a formula basis that reflects the value of specialty crop production in each state. State departments of agriculture administer awards on a competitive basis. Many AmericanHort state partner associations have received grants to support research, statistics and marketing, including the “Plant Something” program.
The Farm Bill is back in legislative cycle. Congress needs to pass a new Farm Bill during 2018. So to prepare, we’re hard at work educating Senators and Representatives on the importance and accomplishments of these programs. In fact, the next Farm Bill was a major focus of our recent Impact Washington advocacy summit that convened 100 industry thought leaders in mid-September to spend a few days as citizen lobbyists.
Given all the givens, the path forward on this next Farm Bill may be full of hills and blind curves. But in the end, we are confident that the record of performance of these programs speaks for itself, so long as our industry remains engaged. That means having a dedicated team of professionals in our nation’s capital representing horticulture every single day. It also means having committed members who recognize the need and the value of raising their own voices in the policy process. If you are not yet a part of AmericanHort, we welcome you to join us on this important journey.