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Fruit, vegetable industry to put heat on GOP to pass farm bill

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Fruit and vegetable industry growers and other officials are leaving Washington today with plans to put pressure on House Republican leaders and members to finish a farm bill during the lame duck session after the election.

Barry Bedwell

Barry Bedwell
“The only way to get this done is to put on significant political heat,” said Barry Bedwell, president and CEO of the California Grape & Fruit Tree League, at a panel discussion on the final day of the United Fresh Produce Association Washington Public Policy Conference.

Bedwell noted that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as House majority whip is a member of the leadership, and said that since many produce industry officials are from California, they should “put the heat on him.”

He added that despite the differences within the Republican Party over the level of food stamp and farm bill spending cuts, “we need leadership to step up” and pass a farm bill. But he added that members of Congress need to know they have constituents in their districts who care about the farm bill.

Bedwell said he was concerned that the Market Access Program known as MAP, which is used to promote fruits and vegetables overseas, lost its budget when the farm bill expired at midnight on Sunday, and said that research will be left out if there is an extension of the 2008 farm bill.

“These are real issues,” Bedwell said.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Alliance, said that members should raise the issue at fundraisers and “meet and greet” sessions. There was considerable grumbling at the conference that industry officials have made campaign contributions to members who have not delivered the farm bill for them, one attendee said.

Dennis Nuxoll

Dennis Nuxoll
Dennis Nuxoll, the Washington lobbyist for Western Growers, noted that industry officials had to meet with congressional aides because the members are home campaigning.

“You need to start agitating when you get home,” Nuxoll said. “Talk to your friends and neighbors, others in agriculture. If we wait [until next year for a farm bill] we may have less money — in all likelihood we’ll have less money.”

He added that some members campaign at church and at town hall sessions and debates. “Grab the microphone and ask a question,” Nuxoll said.

Nuxoll also said that industry officials from Ohio and Virginia should put pressure on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

John Keeling

John Keeling
Republican leaders have maintained that the differences over how big a cut to make in food stamps have stalled the bill, but National Potato Council Executive Vice President and CEO John Keeling said that the fruit and vegetable industry should not allow the members to use that as an excuse.

“It’s not rocket science to deal with that issue,” Keeling said, adding that it is just a matter of reaching a compromise on how much to cut. “Don’t let them make it more complex than it really is,” he said.

Robert Guenther

Robert Guenther
The panel members made their remarks after United Fresh Senior Vice President for Public Policy Robert Guenther reported that congressional aides had presented a “mixed bag” of statements about whether the farm bill would pass this year or whether there would be an extension. Guenther said the statements were made during Capitol Hill visits and at a Fresh Festival reception the group hosts every year.

Guenther said in an interview that members of the House and Senate agriculture committee staffs are still determined to produce a bill this year.

Guenther told the United Fresh members that an extension would not cover all programs in the way that a new five-year farm bill would. He also reminded the members that if the bill is not passed this year, Congress has to start over.

“They can do this in a few weeks,” Guenther said. “They did [the farm bill] in the supercommittee.”

Matthew Marsom

Matthew Marsom
Public Health Institute Vice President for Public Healthy Policy and Advocacy Matthew Marsom said that public health advocates would stand behind the fruit and vegetable industry in their attempt to convince Congress to pass the farm bill this year.

“We win when this industry wins,” said Marsom, whose group is a member of coalitions fighting hunger and advocating healthy eating.